The Social Question Brought to Christ

A sermon delivered on Sunday, January 29th, 1893, in the Amstelkerk, Amsterdam, by Dr. P. J. Hoedemaker

Translated by Ruben Alvarado

And one of the company said unto him, Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me. And he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you? And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth (Luke 12: 13-15).

The opening words of our text are not very encouraging. We, human beings, not only bear an immortal soul in us, but we also have a mortal body. Consequently, we have many and varied needs, of a physical and temporal as well as of a spiritual nature, and we can be despondent and hurt not only in our persons but also in our families; not only in our inward, but also in our outward lives.

Can we bring these needs to our Savior? He said, “him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” Is this only for our spiritual, or is it also for our domestic, religious, social, and political interests?

Here someone comes to Jesus for help, and his petition is rejected. The Lord declares Himself incompetent to act on his behalf in this particular case.

This is discouraging, as it seems to appear from this, that misery and redemption do not correspond with one another; that the need is greater than the redemption, that the medicine does not fully answer to the ailment. 

We cannot speak like this: it infringes on the Savior’s honor.

His name Jesus, to wit, Savior, originally Joshua, “the Lord helps,” announces the helper to whom we may come with all of our burdens, no matter their nature.

And yet, Jesus refused categorically to interfere in the dispute between the two brothers who could not agree on the inheritance.

Some commentators have inferred that the man whom our text introduces, illegally wished to usurp what is not lawfully his due; for one thing, that he as the younger brother laid claim to his share of the property, while the case is, as it was with the youngest son who is known to us from the parable [i.e., the prodigal son], that he had already been paid while his father was still living.

There is undeniably something that argues for this sentiment. The Lord replies curtly, and His answer betrays disgust, as if the request had the thrust of tempting Him to an unauthorized act. “Man,” it says, “who made me a judge or a divider over you?” What prompted him to seek the intervention of the Teacher is indeed inexplicable, if he could just as well have reached his goal by going to law.

But it is even more inexplicable that he should have had the courage to approach Jesus openly with this issue, while “there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people” (Luke 12:1), if he was not of the opinion of being entirely in his right, and that the Master would decide the dispute in his favor, after the details were made known. All in all, it is not unlikely that the “brother” of which he speaks, stood near to the Savior, and perhaps might even have been one of His followers.

So we will assume that we are dealing here with a case in which power over-topped the law, one of those cases of which the Preacher was speaking when he said, “And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them” (Ecclesiastes 4:1); a case, therefore, in which right is on the side of the accuser.

But does not the question return with urgency, as to whether we can turn to the Savior with burdens of a temporal nature?

It certainly can be inferred from Jesus’ answer that that He respects this “human ordering,” that He does not wish to supervene in the rights of the competent authority, and does not wish to interfere in a quarrel that could and should be settled by other means; but by no means that, on these grounds, He could not and did not wish to help this man, that He rules Himself out of this legal matter, and out of the field in which this issue would have brought him.

Without acting in a certain official capacity as Judge, He, if this had been necessary, could have acted in an advisory capacity, issued His judgement, and by doing so, applied His influence in favor of the wronged party.

But precisely this is what He did not do. And the reason He did not do this, teaches us to know Him in His actual, His redemptive activity, even in the field in which He apparently ruled Himself out.

In the questioner who goes unnamed, we see a thoroughly earthly-minded person.

The Savior had spoken of gravely serious things – about the judgment of God that unmasks hypocrisy, Luke. 12: 1-3; about the security of those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, since the power of persecutors does not reach beyond the grave, and even on this side of the grave they cannot escape God’s fatherly care, verses 4-7; on the interest that they have in confessing Christ here on earth, who would not soon wish to be denied by Christ, vs. 8-9; on the sin against and the help of the Holy Spirit, vs. 10-11. But the man to whom we now turn our attention seems to have heard nothing of all this, or at least to have registered nothing of it. His train of thought and the Savior’s do not make contact, as little as do two trains that continue steaming on separate rails. He only awaited a break in the speech, to bring up the important issue which he believes he has with the Savior; his request allows us to see the question that fills his entire soul: it is an issue of mine and thine, for which he is looking for a solution redounding to his advantage.

We know this man very well, because we encounter him in our churches, in our homes, in our own hearts.

God’s truth comes into contact with an earthly-minded soul like a funeral procession that comes into contact with the turbulent life of a big city. It passes through our busiest streets; people drive at walking pace, people step to one side, people even perhaps respectfully stand still to allow it to pass through. But once the last following coach has passed, the taxis, the trucks, the vegetable carts close ranks behind it, pedestrians move between them and behind them, and the noise and chatter, the barking and the shouting begin again.

So it is in the house of prayer, so it goes in our conversations, so is it also in our inner life.

One comes home from church and strikes a serious tone, or brings the conversation to a high spiritual level. One seems to hold a soliloquy, or at best to have a conversation with a few of the company. Soon this is noticed. The silence is solemn and painful. Nothing remains but to provide a desirable distraction to a more amenable area. Speaking of the occupancy of the pews, or the lack thereof, or the drafts, or the organ, or whatever does not concern the main thing – then the chorus of voices chimes in, and the religious thought is soon carried off by the current of everyday life and temporal interests.

As we said, it is no different with the inner life.

And would that it only went this far!

But this man, no longer unknown to us, not only is focused on himself, but seeks to distract Jesus Himself to that everyday life, and to make Him serviceable to that lower, which to him is so high.

Nor is this unknown to us. In our despondent moments, it likewise seems to us that this is the only thing that the crowd desires of the church, of the preacher, of the Christ – bread! and more bread! The same thing which the crowd longed after, which caused it to follow the Savior from the mountain on the other side of the lake to the synagogue in Capernaum, which led Judas initially, perhaps unknowingly, to join with the Savior, which leads so many people, in our time of oppressive concern and acute lack, to speculate about whether he can convert this not-to-be-underestimated spiritual, ecclesiastical influence into dollars and cents, into a spot on the list for convalescent homes, or into a position and a job.

If this sentiment turns, then comes the falling away that we now see approaching in the distance; comes, like at Capernaum, where Jesus had to direct the question to the twelve men, the only ones remaining of all the thousands: “Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67); comes, like shortly before the Passion, when Judas sought to coin from his interaction with the Savior the last thirty pieces of silver that he could.

Earthly-minded people are therefore available in abundance, and attempts to make the Savior serviceable to an interest of a purely temporal nature are, alas! not rare. But in the case of the man with whom our text puts us in contact, it comes out very clearly to what degree Christ as Savior is misunderstood and denied by that frame of mind, by that life orientation, and in connection with this, by the aforementioned question.

He does not come to Jesus with his question, but with his answer. He desires from the Lord this one thing, that He enrich him; he does not come to Him for help but rather tells Him what to do. It is as if a sick man should say to his doctor: “Give me so many drops of tincture of Myrrh, or such and such an amount of quinine!”

Nor, sadly, is this existence foreign to us. Naaman suffered from this lack, when he not only expected to find healing from a prophet in Israel, but also formed an idea about the means and the manner by which this healing should take place. And many an awakened soul cannot come to the joy of faith because he does not simply seek consolation in Jesus, but also prescribes to Him how and when He should provide succor.

But while a certain degree of faith is present, and a true spiritual need is awakened in the cases we here indicate, there is not the slightest trace of these in the request with which, in our text, the questioner burdens the Lord. The Savior would not be the Redeemer if He had not decided against such a request.

For we stand here before a far-reaching difference.

A difference of method! Between our method, which is to cut off, to avoid or to eliminate the consequences of sin, and the method of the Savior to deal with and eliminate the consequences of sin in sin itself. The former seeks a cure for the symptoms, the latter for the disease.

It is an ancient and, in the end, the sole and conclusive difference between the redemption that man procures for himself and the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

One wishes to be freed from the yoke of the Romans, but not from the yoke of error, sin; one wants to go to heaven, to the Father’s house, but not to the Father; one seeks unity, but without truth; national prosperity, but without national repentance; reformation, but without renewal; restoration of injustice, but not by law.

And now we naturally lose sight of the man “from the crowd” whose request echoes to us from our text, because behind him, and surrounding us, stand all the victims of greed and violence, the victims of our national sins and ills, poverty, lack, sorrow, business decline, competition, unemployment, the social question of our time, and we perceive in different wording but in the same spirit, the request, the demand: “give us a hand, oh Christ! That Thy spiritual force majeure support our resistance, and that Thy influence provide us the portion of the estate that our brother possesses and that we claim!”

Does Jesus, does His congregation, not have any counsel to give here, any help to offer?

Through the service of mercy?

No, something else is going on here: improvement of conditions, removal of grievances, austerity and wage increases, jurisdiction and legislation.

Descend, O Christ! from your spiritual elevation and settled this battle, solve these problems, take away these abuses, these disproportions!

And this call does not seem to be entirely in vain. Many people at least, who call themselves disciples of Christ, and are such in varying degrees, actually also descend amid the scrambling crowd, which seeks to gain control of a part, or a larger part, of earthly goods, and take a lively share in this struggle for existence. If it is difficult to arouse interest in all kinds of issues of principle which dominate the present and future, the same cannot be said of the question that imposes itself on us in the practice of social life, the question of labor, the wages for labor, and social and political position of the worker. Pity, fear, self-interest work together to bring this issue to the fore, but in and behind it all is the realization that what is at stake here is not this one church or circle, or a special feeling, or a peculiar position, but rather, that what holds here is much rather a worldwide affair, which is about to become the axis about which the future of churches, schools, families, and states move.

In this activity of the Christian world, however, a phenomenon strikes us that causes us concern and more than anything else served as the impetus for us to bring up this subject.

Those who have prepared themselves in the name of the Lord, or, if that is too strongly stated, in the name of the Christian principle, to offer help in the general and coming need, are not unlike the frantic friends who burst into a burning home to extend a helping hand, each grabbing what comes first, all in good will, and all cooperating to increase the general confusion. We lack, to put it in a word, faith, joint cooperation, inspiration overcoming all objections, the spirit that brings together and binds, which gives to understand that all that work is the actual work of God, carried out in and through people.

We lack faith.

There is faith with those who demand improvement in their earthly existence, in men whose raw cry is heard from country to country, from nation to nation, and penetrates to the hamlets and chambers, as well as the meeting rooms of the owners and those in power, “bread and circuses!” “pleasure and revenge!” and who no longer ask “give me justice” but demand: “tell our brothers, that they are to share the inheritance with us!”

Faith?

Faith from the abyss.

In the vignette of a German socialists’ almanac, one sees the men in smocks armed with the hammer, spade, pickax and sword, storming ahead at the rising sun, over the toppled thrones that lie in a heap, with bishop’s mitres and bayonets, with Bibles and church ornaments: an image of general destruction.

You know the songs that prepare for that work, and soon, if God does not prevent it, will guide it: the poll song, “open the polls, the people are for it,” the “freedom song,” and… “the hate song.”

What do you think; is it not crucial to inquire after the deepest, at least, the deeper-lying cause of these phenomena?

Whether you wish to believe it or not, Christ indicates the cause in His word: “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” In His admonition: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

Many and varied resources are applied to mitigate social need and to improve existing conditions, many of which in the name of Christ; but they all have one and the same characteristic, and thus betray one and the same origin.

That characteristic is that they all fight the effects of sin, and therefore fit with the method that “the man from the crowd” from our text sought to impose on the Savior, whom He rejected in and with his request.

Isn’t everyone so busy!

There are those who provide a desired distraction that will attract these workers and their families from their socialist meetings to listen to the lectures which men and women provide for their advantage, and whatever else might pertain to a pleasant pastime.

There are those who absolve parents of care for their children, at least partly; they feed and clothe them, teach them to spend the holidays in a pleasant manner, in a word, temporarily take on the task which the voice from the crowd would like to assign to the socialist state.

There are those – but let me say first of all that I do not here pretend to judge this or that form of Christian or philanthropic activity, in favor of or to the detriment of another form. In that case I think I would be overstepping the bounds of my vocation. I naturally have an established opinion with regard to what it is that the sympathy or the gifts of the public is after, based on the general and not always selfless interest in the fate of the homeless and the unemployed, the workers and the poor; but I know full well that all the sincere efforts of the favorably disposed, including those in which we all participate to a greater or lesser degree, sometimes forcibly, because nothing else can be done, amounts to this, that one stands between sin and its consequences.

One cannot allow these children to suffer for their parents’ fault! We cannot allow them to come to no good! and regardless of whether one is optimistic or pessimistic, one helps to break down domestic life, the sense of individual responsibility, and seeks, by doing whatever comes to hand, to forget that what one is actually offering is a premium for carelessness, setting up an insurance policy for wantonness, drunkenness, and lechery.

Sometimes the thought even comes up as to whether or not it would be better to do nothing, to sidestep the need, to weep and complain to God, but then the need of the moment comes up again, and the pressure of practice, to bring us among the many who lend an ear to the cries of the man from the crowd.

Or there are those who take things more broadly, and thus make the attempt more in the literal sense, to meet the demand to act as legislator and judge, as government and solicitor. Of all their efforts, it can generally be said that the more they correspond to the demands of the time, the more they appear to satisfy the desire of the man in the crowd, the greater the chance of success they will have. If one does not wish to fall behind the times and outside the powerful current of popular life, one must join up with this, make himself serviceable to it, and in turn seek to take advantage of it, like the steamer which, independent of wind and current, makes its way through the waves, unfurls the sails which enable it to use the gathering storm as a productive force. To wit, one must intone the same slogans, intend the same purpose, to a certain extent make use of the same means, to which one attributes the misery.

However, even regarding these attempts to grasp the social issues from their political side, that can and should be said which was already said about our philanthropy: everything, even what is done with the best intentions, everything, even that which is unavoidable, everything, even what is demanded of us and coerced from us, in the end cooperates to attain what one seeks to escape by this means, and to hasten what one seeks to stop and to thwart.

He who seeks to halt another’s rapid momentum and grabs hold of him to do so, will still be dragged along.

Did His disciples understand so little of Christ, one might say, that they so willingly comply with a request that their Master rejected?

But, the question with which I began just comes back: whether Christ is not affected by those needs, or not acquainted with this misery, and has no counsel to give in that misery, has no help to offer? And, this question has already been answered: He would not be a Savior, if our poor and homeless, our workers and unemployed, our people and our society could not find help from Him, if He stood above but also outside the need of the moment.

It is true, He does not intervene directly in order to solve social or political or scientific questions; He does not act as legislator or judge; His answer is: “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you” (v. 14). But this does not mean what the world makes of it – which drives Christ, and with Him religion, from the public square to monastic solitude, nor even what some Christian churches have made of it, which use this word to justify the strict separation of the spheres, circles, offices, powers, and institutions, as if the spiritual and the temporal power, the kingdom of God and that of the world, lay side by side.

No, He who is the Savior of the soul is also the preserver of the body; He who is the head of the church is also the King of the kings of the earth.

And if the Savior refuses here to act as judge of the man in the crowd, it is because He wishes to be his Redeemer.

Jesus here adapts His method; as we said, His activity does not serve to extinguish the sparks of the fires that continue to be stoked, nor to temper the temperature of someone suffering from fever, who does not keep his diet. It penetrates to the causes of the disease.

If the admonition in verse 15: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth,” only had as goal to teach “the man from the crowd” just as well as his brother “moderation” and “contentment,” then the Savior would be giving a wise lesson in life that many philosophers before and after Him have known and practiced.

Socrates strolled through the market of Athens to see how many things were offered for sale there that he did not need. Diogenes with his eccentric abode went much farther. But he who knows God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, as a God who is rich and mild, who gives not only necessities but also plenty, who “overwhelms us with marks of favor” and gives us richly all things enjoy, has a completely different attitude towards the goods of this world than the ancient philosophers with their unnatural and unscriptural life-view. He has not so learned Christ.

In our text, for example, He combats the greed which reverses the order of God and allows the means of life to become the goal of life.

By doing so, He actually shifts the center of gravity of man’s existence from the visible, the material, the creature, to the invisible, the spiritual, the Creator.

What is it all about with man?

It is about life, to wit, not of a plant, or an animal, but of a man who is created in God’s image; the life that is in God’s hands, and which does not last any longer because the barns and the chests are filled; the life that is given, maintained, and claimed by God, and only can truly be called “life,” “eternal life,” when it remains in communion with Him who “lives forever.”

From what does man live?

From his things. God has so willed it; but not out of the abundance of things. The word “abundance” indicates this. What is abundant, cannot be called indispensable. It is a surplus, excess.

What we leave on the table after dinner, does not feed us; what we have stored away in the closet, does not clothe us.

The prince who asked the stable boy, what salary do you receive? responded incisively to his sullen response – “nothing but housing, laundry, and clothing” – with “I think that’s enough; I get nothing more.”

All of this applies also to the enjoyment of life and happiness. It does not depend on abundance, nor even on possessions. He who has little, for many reasons sometimes has more enjoyment from less. Who will then say that the sum of the pleasure is unequal? I think of the embarrassed remark made by the master who visited his servant behind his humble abode, to issue a command to him. “I see, Robert,” he had said, when he found him outside with his family at his meager meal, “that you are having dinner.” “At your service, sir,” was the reply, “and do you not consider my dining room beautiful?” Certainly it was beautifully frescoed, decorated, and lighted!

He who cannot be content with this arrangement of the household of God, but sets as his goal the acquisition and accumulation of in-itself superfluous means of life, has, as an old divine noted, difficulty in obtaining them, care in holding on to them, temptation in using them, guilt in misusing them, pain in losing them, and the heavy responsibility of possessing them.

We arrive therefore, even with the most superficial understanding of our text, at this conclusion:

To a certain extent, what the Scriptures say about manna still applies to all earthly goods: “he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack!”

But that with which all of this has to do, lies outside the big question of the day: “How does the worker get bread?” Is not food and enjoyment what it’s all about?

If you are concerned about life, O man, it is in God’s hands and in God’s power, God can support it with much or with little, with the means and, as experienced by the Savior Himself, if the Lord wills it, even without the means ordained for that purpose.

“A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.”

But there lies in the depth of this beautiful idea, like some glittering object visible at the bottom of one of the Italian lakes, the great truth that man does not necessarily live by his things.

He lives from God.

The Savior Himself said and showed this, when in the desert He pronounced the word, also, and not least, for our time: “Man shall not live on bread alone.”

Let no one say that the Savior stands outside the great question of the day because He only pronounces the great principle that shifts the focus of existence, and furthermore, leaves the application of that principle to the people to come under consideration for it, namely, “the man from the crowd,” his brother, and the judge into whose work Christ refuses to enter.

What abolished slavery?

The truth: “God has made of one blood every nation of men,” and that truth professed, preached, and applied by the church.

What made woman equal to man?

In the same manner, the truth: “In Christ there is neither male nor female.”

What made Jew and Gentile one?

Preaching “By grace are ye saved.”

What can save our society from anarchy and bankruptcy?

The truth.

The truth uttered by Christ when He directed the man who blindly stared at the ground, upward. The truth that His church has to profess and to live, to make perceptible and tangible.

Do you suppose that the relationship between church, state, and society can be reversed or modified at will without experiencing the consequences in all sorts of societal abuses and imbalances? You might just as well think the sun out of the firmament, or the heart out of the human body.

With the same word by which the Savior offers us the remedy for our social needs, He gives, in principle, an answer to the question of the true relationship between church and state. But I need not now go further than the truth, that she is called to carry to the state and the people.

Our society has shifted the center of gravity of existence from God to the world; is it any surprise that it is top-heavy, that it is like the pendulum swinging from side to side, without finding a resting point?

Who can restore to us the simplicity, the soundness, the sense of religion of our forefathers?

We speak of public need; but the question is, what does the people in fact need?

We speak of popular enjoyment and popular ennoblement, but the question is precisely, in what consist enjoyment and true ennoblement?

Christ warns against greed, because at bottom greed is idolatry. It is the sigh of the fatherless, to get through life without a father; to find a basis of trust and a source of happiness apart from God, because he has forgotten how to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread!”

Greed is a state of mind, found just as well with the poor as with the rich; it is the orientation of the heart that turns from prayer, sobriety, sacred carefree-ness; it is the absence of the realization that our happiness does not depend on the things of this world; it brings about a revolution in man, which gradually prepares the way for the great world revolution, by which the state is about to become God on earth, which does everything, gives everything, controls everything, and is the maintainer and ordainer of our destiny.

In a previous century there lived in Italy a bishop who always lived cheerfully in precarious conditions.

Asked how he could keep up his spirits in everything, he replied: “That depends on the use of my eyes. I look up and find my home; I look down and think about how little space my grave will occupy; I look around me, and find much misery which has been spared me, and acknowledge, that the favor of my God is undeserved, every gift is forfeit.”

Our people has forgotten to use its eyes in this manner.

Do you know who, among the children of our century, show that they are the most sensitive to this? The trailblazers of the social revolution.

They indeed sense that Christ, the church, religion, Scripture, are an absolute hindrance to the realization of their plans and ideals. This explains the hatred of everything that confesses Christ.

The Revolution of ’97 abolished Sunday and crowned the goddess of Reason; the Commune of 1870 aimed its blows at family life and its bullets at the bishop and the priests. The revolution, which among us was proclaimed by parades, red flags, and seditious speeches, has as its slogan “bread and circuses!” “Ni Dieu, ni maître” – no God, no master! It cannot reach its goal as long as the church stands in its way; and you can be sure that, when anarchy should have its say, the first to fall as victims of violence will be those who proclaim to the people the loudest that “man does not live on bread alone!”

And yet, that is what we have to proclaim.

The church, which represents Christ here on earth, which acts in His name, does not have the vocation to descend from her spiritual height in order to act as king, judge, and legislator, but she does have the vocation to place herself in the right relation to state and to society. The church question is also included in the social question.

The fall of Israel becomes the fall of the Gentiles, the sins of the church, yours and mine, pave the way for the Revolution.

But Christ is still among us with His grave admonition, the Redeemer of sinners, your only Savior.

Have you learned to seek and find your life in Him?

Among all the possible questions and issues of the present time, this is the question that dominates your future.

Covetousness drove man out of Paradise and robbed him of his inheritance, the “portion of the inheritance” that was meant for him by his Creator, and, like the prodigal son, he squandered what his Creator had given him propitiously, and exchanged it for that which does not satisfy the heart, which does not ensure welfare, but robs him of his God and his salvation.

He who learns to see this, feels something of the humiliation that lies in it for man created in the image of God: to turn that which God made to be a means of life into the goal of life. He exclaims with the prodigal son, in Lange’s famous song:[1]

Full of heavenly gifts
Of royal blood
And, slave of slaves
Who has to beg!

And soon adds, by God’s grace:

I don’t wish to drift
In fearful need
And living, die
A drawn-out death!

Your superabundance, your means of living kill the soul when you do not possess in and with, from and unto God.

No peace, no happiness, no life apart from Him.

The life you lost is returned in Christ.

He points to, brings, feeds, is that life.

Happy is he who can say “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me!” Amen.


[1] “Terugkeer,” in Nieuwe Christen Harptonen van J.P. Lange (Arnhem: J.W. Swaan, 1854).