A while ago I traveled to England with my two brothers. We were almost at our destination when we went through an intersection. Seconds later a car came through the other way. A few seconds later, it would have t-boned us. We shook our heads. Clearly there should have been a stop sign at that intersection. The next day we drove past the same intersection and realized that there was a sign there all along.
The problem wasn’t with the intersection; the problem was with us. And yet, if you had caught us the first time we went through, we would have been pretty self-righteous about it. It was a problem that could have caused an accident. We could have been seriously hurt; we could have hurt someone else.
We’re in the middle of this series on relationships, and today we’re going to see that the very same thing we just talked about can happen in relationships. The Bible gives us a warning, and if we ignore this warning in our relationships we could cause damage to both ourselves and to others. And yet many of us miss the signs and end up in relational accidents as a result.
So this morning I want to look at the passage that we just read. And as we examine it we’re going to see that it’s going to help us understand the danger that we face. We’re going to see four things:
- when we’re in danger
- why we probably won’t realize it
- what we’ll miss
- and what to do about it
First: let’s look at when we’re in danger.
Verse 13 says: Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
Let’s try to fill in some of the background. It seems that the father had died. Under Jewish law, the eldest son received a double portion of the inheritance and was responsible for dividing up the rest after his father’s death. It looks like the eldest son had possession of the entire estate, and so far had refused to give the younger brother his fair share. You would have to conclude the younger actually has valid complaint. He has not received what is rightfully his.
But why would he come to Jesus with this problem? Why not take it to court? In those days, there were no courts. Disputes like this were normally settled by rabbis on the basis of existing law. So it makes sense for this man to come to Jesus with this case.
It wasn’t even a very complicated case. Sometimes cases are very complicated. I have a friend who’s involved in a dispute right now that’s before a tribunal. I’ve heard both sides, and frankly I can’t decide who has the better case. I can’t wait to see the ruling. The judge is going to have to be a lot smarter than I am, or else he’s going to have to flip a coin.
This wasn’t at true here. The man already knows the ruling; there’s no question about which way this case is going to go. All he needs is for Jesus to say, “You’re right. Tell your brother to pay up.”
So what’s the problem? This man is exactly right, and he’s come to the right place. But he’s just as blinded as my brothers and I were when we went through the intersection.
Here’s the issue: when you are in conflict, you’re in great danger. Jesus is about to address the problem, but first we need to see when we’re most vulnerable. If you are in conflict with someone, you are vulnerable to this right here and right now.
This leads us, of course, to the second thing we need to see in this passage:
Second, let’s look at why we probably won’t realize we’re in danger.
Read verse 13 again. Notice what he says: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Ask yourself: where is this man’s focus? It’s on his brother.
Our sinful nature gives us an inclination to judge others critically rather than charitably. As a result, whenever we experience conflict, our natural reaction is to blame others and focus on their wrongs.
This tendency is as old as the world. When God confronts Adam in Genesis 3, Adam is quick to shift the focus to Eve’s conduct. Eve is equally swift to blame Satan for the sin that has brought cascading conflict into the world.
This pervasive tendency to blame others for conflict is so natural that we do not need to teach it to our children. As soon as they can mouth the simplest words, they begin to use their tongues to shift the focus from their own wrongs to the actions of others: “He took my toy!” “She hit me first!” “He does it, too!”
As we get older, we try not to be quite so obvious when we blame others for our problems, but the natural tendency is still there. If we are in a conflict, we ignore or pass quickly over our own deficiencies while developing detailed lists of what others have done wrong.
A concerned husband goes to see the family doctor: “I think my wife is deaf. She never hears me the first time I say something. In fact, I often have to repeat things over and over again.”
“Well,” the doctor replies, “go home tonight, stand about 15 feet from her, and say something. If she doesn’t reply, move about five feet closer and say it again. Keep doing this so we can get an idea of the severity of her deafness.”
The husband goes home, and he does exactly as instructed. He stands about 15 feet from his wife, who is standing in the kitchen, chopping some vegetables. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” He gets no response, so he moves about five feet closer and asks again. “Honey, what’s for dinner?” No reply. He moves five feet closer, and still no reply. He gets fed up and moves right behind her–about an inch away–and asks one final time, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” She replies, “For the fourth time, vegetable stew!”
You see, sometimes we are so focused on the other person being the problem that we fail to see that the problem is with ourselves.
So we’ve seen that we’re in danger in conflict. We’ve also seen that the danger is that we’ll focus on the faults of others rather than on ourselves. But that’s not all this passage shows us.
Third, let’s look at what we’ll miss.
It’s important to see what we’ll miss if we focus on others and don’t see the fault in ourselves.
You can tell that things aren’t going well for this man when you read Jesus’ response in verse 14. “Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?'”
Why would Jesus say this? Jesus seems to be rejecting the role of rabbi to decide cases like this. It’s strange since Jesus elsewhere has no problem interpreting and applying the law.
It seems, though, that Jesus is moving below the surface and spotting that something is off with this man’s request. If he really believed that Jesus has authority over this case, then Jesus’ authority would extend over all of his life. But his request indicates that he isn’t ready to accept Jesus’ authority over his life. In other words, he likes Jesus’ authority when it comes to thumping his brother, but not when it comes to caring about the things that Jesus cares about. But Jesus challenges this. He challenges this man even before he gets to the problem.
But then he gets to the real problem – the problem underneath the problem, if you will. Verse 15 says, “Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.'”
Notice, by the way, that Jesus is speaking now to the entire audience. At this point Jesus thinks it’s worthwhile for everyone to learn about this topic. I heard someone speak this summer and say that when Jesus warns about something, we should never think, “That doesn’t apply to me.” We should automatically accept that when Jesus turns to a crowd and warns about something, then that warning applies to us as well.
So what does Jesus say? What Jesus says is this: Our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries if we pay attention. This man was so focused on his brother’s faults that he missed that his heart had fallen into huge danger. This man was in danger of being possessed by greed. Yet he was so focused on the problem in his brother that it never occurred to him that he had a problem himself. But the problem in this man’s own heart was potentially fatal to his own spiritual life, and damaging in his relationships with others.
What do I mean when I say that our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries? An idol is anything we that is “more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give” (Tim Keller). Conflict reveals our idols, because in conflict we’re often acting to preserve something that is important to us. And yet we’re so focused on the faults of others that we don’t even see the idol that’s taken hold of our hearts.
At one point years ago I used to pick Charlene up from work. She’d phone and say she was ready to come home. I’d get in the car and drive the 10 or 15 minutes to pick her up. And I’d wait. I’d driven 10 or 15 minutes. She just head to get in an elevator and come down. I’d sit in my car steaming, and then when she got in the car I’d let her have it.
Do you know what was happening? I was in danger because I was in a conflict. And in the conflict Charlene’s fault – being late – was so clear to me that I missed a greater fault in my own heart. My heart was full of selfishness and self-righteousness, which was a far greater threat to our marriage than Charlene keeping me waiting for a few minutes after work. The conflict revealed my hidden idolatries – if only I had paid attention.
In Matthew 7:3-5 Jesus said:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.
In his great love for us, Jesus is showing us the way we can turn conflicts around. Instead of indulging our habit of putting the emphasis on others’ wrongs, and sticking them in the eye with our sharp accusations, he teaches us that the shortest route to peace and reconciliation is to take a careful look in the mirror so we can identify and confess the planks in our own eyes. We’ll be able to see our own idols. Only then will we be in a position to graciously and effectively help others to see how they too have contributed to the conflict, and can help to restore it.
And this will make all the difference in the world. As Gandhi, of all people, said:
I can truthfully say that I am slow to see the blemishes of fellow beings, being myself full of them. And, therefore, being in need of their charity, I have learnt not to judge anyone harshly and to make allowances for defects that I may detect.
When we see the idols in our own heart, we won’t be as quick to judge the faults we see in others.
We’ve seen we’re in danger in conflict. We’re in danger of focusing on the faults of others, and not recognizing the idols in our own hearts. There’s only one thing left to consider.
We need to look at what we’re going to do about this.
At one level, this is easy. Jesus said in verse 15, “Watch out! Be on your guard…” At the surface level this is a good place to start. Look at the conflicts that you’re experiencing in your life, and examine your own heart for idols. Our conflicts reveal our hidden idolatries if we pay attention.
It could be that this will lead to a breakthrough in some of your relationships. You’ve been so focused on the faults of others. When you look at your own heart, you will see that, like the man in this passage, you’ve been right on the issue but wrong in your motives, wrong because of idols. Confessing this and dealing with the idols may lead to you seeing the entire situation differently.
So this is a good place to start, but it doesn’t go far enough. The issue is really our hearts. The issue here in this passage wasn’t this man’s brother. The issue was this man’s heart. As Jesus said elsewhere:
But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these defile you. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:18-19)
Or, as James said:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
Through these passages, God is teaching us that the key to experiencing genuine peace and reconciliation is to recognize, confess, and get rid of the sinful desires that rule our hearts. We cannot do this on our own. No matter how much we hate our pride, self-righteousness, envy, jealousy, and unforgiveness, we cannot sweep these things from our hearts through our own efforts.
But God can. He sent his own precious Son to the cross to pay the full penalty for the many sins that we have committed against him and one another. Through faith in Christ, we can experience complete forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
When God forgives and redeems us, he also gives us a new heart. In Ezekiel 36:25-27, he makes this promise:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
The transformation of our hearts is both an event and a process. When God saves us, he gives us a new heart that enables us to repent from our sins and trust in Jesus as our Savior. That event triggers a life-long process in which the Holy Spirit slowly and steadily transforms our hearts and minds so that we progressively put off our old desires and behaviors, and replace them with desires and behaviors that are pleasing to God.
God often uses conflict to move us along in this transformation process. Every time we are in a conflict, we have the opportunity to identify worldly desires that have taken control of our hearts, turned our eyes away from God, and caused us to do and say things that offend other people. As these sinful desires are exposed, we can confess them to God, seek his forgiveness, and ask him to help us find contentment and security in him alone.
As God purifies and liberates our hearts, we can also confess our sinful desires to one another. Instead of staying on the surface and talking only about our behavior, we can demonstrate the reality of God’s transforming work in our hearts by admitting to the desires that have been ruling our hearts, such as greed, control, envy, and selfishness.
These humble and transparent confessions are far more likely to touch the heart of someone we’ve offended and move them to forgive us and also take a deeper look at themselves. When both sides in a conflict dig deep into their own hearts and confess both the attitudes and the actions that have offended others, peace and reconciliation are just around the corner.
So what conflicts are you facing? Can you see that you’re in danger of focusing on the other person, that you’re in danger of missing the hidden idols that the conflict reveals? By his grace, we can make a humble u-turn by facing up to the sinful desires in our hearts and confessing the logs in our eyes. This radically different approach to conflict will bring honor to our Lord, set us free from the blame game, and place our feet on the path to peace, reconciliation, and lasting change.