Sunday 4 August 2019
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 18C
Today we have to tackle the single most difficult topic in the Bible. It’s more difficult than politics, more difficult than all of the details of religious doctrine, more difficult than sex. And surprisingly, though this topic is very difficult to talk about, it is not very controversial, because for the most part we have chosen to overlook it. The difficult topic that I am referring to is greed.
We Americans live in a culture that is in many ways founded on greed. It is built on the idea of acquiring more, of moving up the social ladder, of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. The American dream is to come from nothing and acquire more wealth and property, enough to live a comfortable life. And maybe, if you’re lucky, to have a life that is more than comfortable. Perhaps even affluent.
And we have tried very hard over the last few centuries to fold that American dream into our Christian theology. We have tried very hard to convince ourselves that God wants us to be prosperous, that Jesus came in order that we might have not life, but possessions, and have them abundantly. We reason that a good Protestant work ethic is essential to being a good Christian, and that a good worker should be rewarded for their efforts with increasing material payment. We convince ourselves that Jesus the Christ preached Capitalism, and told us to take our talents and gain interest off of them. We take the words of Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, and force them into the mouth of the Lord of Life, squinting our eyes until the words look red on the page: “It is not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest that an individual can best benefit society.”
And for the most part, we have convinced ourselves. We work hard and try to gain as much as we can. We invest our money in stocks and bonds, and we collect the interest that they make for us, sometimes thanking God for our gains. We see no conflict at all between the one who says, “Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.” and the one who says, “Buy this amazing, time-saving device and your life will be complete; limited time offer, while supplies last.”
We are so immersed in this culture of acquisition, that we can scarcely see it. It is the water we swim in. Of course, the first people who heard Jesus’s message so long ago understood things very differently. And thinking about their worldview might give us a useful perspective.
Because Jesus’s first audience, those first-century, Palestinian peasants, had a very different understanding of wealth and poverty and greed than we have today. “In modern economics, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply. If there is a shortage, we can produce more. If one person gets more of something, it does not necessarily mean that someone else gets less; it may just mean the factory worked overtime and more became available.
“But in ancient Palestine the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed… Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else… Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is… ‘either a thief or the heir of a thief.’ Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion. The notion of an honest rich man was a first century oxymoron.”
Greed, then, wasn’t some kind of out-of-control avarice; greed wasn’t some sort of extraordinarily vicious longing. Greed was simply wanting more than one needs to survive. Anything more than subsistence was considered greed, and was considered thievery. In fact, the Greek word for greed simply means “wanting more.” What we consider a virtue—wanting more for oneself and for one’s family—the peasants of Jesus’s time considered a sin.
And Jesus seems to have preached the same message, telling the faithful to guard against all kinds of greed, and warning that life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.
It is a hard pill to swallow, so wedded are we to our ideas of hard work, reward, advancement, investment, and security. The topic of greed goes virtually untouched by scholars, pastors, and lay people alike. It is simply too contrary to our way of living to be taken seriously.
The writer of Colossians refers to greed as idolatry. The quest for more becomes an idol, a rival with God for our attention. And before long, we stop putting our trust in God, and we place it instead in our possessions. It is our nice house, our fancy car, our bank account that keeps us secure. We rely on our things to keep us safe, to save us from the uncertainty of the world. We seek financial security. And we move God off of the altar of our hearts in order to make room for our new savior: money.
But is there really such a thing as financial security? Do our houses, and our clothes, and our toys, and our savings accounts really make us safe? Do they really protect us from anything? Do they really make us happy? Do they really ease our minds? Do they really comfort us, or make our families more secure?
Jesus says no. Wealth, and money, and possessions—they don’t protect you from anything. They don’t make you more secure. They don’t even put your mind at ease.
And to prove his point, he tells the parable of the rich fool. This man had it made. He thought he had everything taken care of. He had so much grain that he needed to tear down his barns and build bigger ones just to contain it. He had enough stored up to keep him safe and secure for years to come. He had no worries.
We would say that he had worked hard and made wise business decisions. The ancients would say that he was a thief. But regardless of what we call him, his fate was the same. All of his possessions, his food stored up for years, his retirement account as it were—they didn’t keep him safe. His wealth didn’t protect him at all; it didn’t give him the least security. Death came for him in an instant; all of his hard work, and saving, and accumulation were for naught. He died, and his possessions did him no good at all.
Now I’m not saying that this is an easy message. It most certainly is not. And I am just as guilty as anyone of making an idol out of possessions, of believing that things will bring me happiness or security or peace of mind. I am just as guilty as anyone of letting greed take the place of God in my life, of trusting to money instead of to the Lord of Life.
The 4th-century theologian, St. Augustine of Hippo, wrote on this parable. He said that the rich fool “was planning to fill his soul with excessive and unnecessary feasting and was proudly disregarding all those empty bellies of the poor. He did not realize that the bellies of the poor were much safer storerooms than his barns.” He’s right. When we are enslaved to our possessions, we forget to share. When we forget that all of the earth’s bounty comes from God, we forget that it is not ours to horde, but ours to share.
As we gather here for worship today, we know that in another part of our country people are gathering together to mourn the death of twenty and the injury of many more. In El Paso, Texas, a 21-year-old white man opened fire in a busy store. Initial reports suggest that this terrorist act was motivated by racism and hatred of immigrants. For this person, God’s bounty is meant only for some people, only for those he thinks are like him, but not for anyone he considers other. That too, is a symptom of greed, a greed that so wants to hoard things for those one considers one’s own people that it fails even to acknowledge the humanity of others. By contrast, one woman in line to give blood for the victims said, “It’s easy to make a dollar, but it’s harder to make a difference. So I get out there and do whatever I can to help.”
Greed or gratitude; jealousy or generosity: these are the choices we face. It is hard to admit that too often we are ruled by greed and too infrequently by generosity. And yet God’s grace is offered to us still. God’s Spirit continues to warm our hearts, to grow generosity in us, even sometimes to our own surprise. May God continue to move us, to take the rightful place at the center of our lives, to free us from greed, and guide us by God’s own graciousness to give wherever we find need.