Three Volcanoes and a Flower
This summer I reread Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It’s a story about a little prince from a tiny planet in outer space. The little prince recounts all the adventures he has on his way to earth. He stops at other planets and talks to adults, each of whom is a caricature of different vices into which adults sometimes fall. It’s one of those children’s books which is a keenly grownup read.
In chapter xiii of his journey, the little prince meets a businessman who is very, very busy because he is such a “serious person.” He has “no time for daydreaming” or “to take strolls.” What’s keeping the businessman so occupied is his constant counting all the millions of stars he owns. He’s so preoccupied with counting them that he’s forgotten that they’re stars! He calls them, “those little golden things that make lazy people daydream.”
“What do you do with them?” asks the little prince. “Nothing. I own them,” he replies. “And what good does owning the stars do you?” The businessman answers, “It does me the good of being rich.” The little prince persists: “And what good does it do you to be rich?” The businessman says that being rich allows him to buy more stars. The little prince is not satisfied with this answer.
This coming Sunday, Jesus will tell us a parable in which “the land of a rich man produced abundantly” (Luke 12:16). The rich man already has barns in which to store the excess, but he decides to tear them down so as to build bigger barns to store the excess excess. One can imagine the little prince posing his questions to the rich man: “What do you do with them?”
“I manage them. I count them and then count them again.”
Jesus’ parable warns against greed. St. Paul makes the point more sternly in our passage from Colossians: “greed…is idolatry.” (See 3:5.) We rarely talk about greed, or call it by its proper name—sin—and when we do, we usually go straight to moral imperatives about sharing: greed is bad because our overabundance could help somebody else. This is true in a utilitarian sort of way, but it is neither complete nor compelling as a diagnosis. Moreover, it risks robbing us of the pleasures which are proper to generosity. (Charity means grace, not duty.) Finally, it says nothing of how greed is bad for the greedy. But if sin results in a loss of our proper liberty (BCP 848-849), then if something is sinful we must be able to articulate some measure of how it is bad for the sinner.
I suggest that this rich man’s greed robs him of satisfaction in the present by projecting it into a permanently removed future: “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years….” (v. 19). Note the future tense. He believes he can only have satisfaction after he has torn down his barns and built larger ones—yet he is already rich! He has “serious work” to do, but that work is of a never-ending kind. Either he will be unable to fill his new barns, or he will realize they are not yet big enough. The anxious counting continues.
Greed is chronic dissatisfaction before it is stinginess. Greed hoards our joy away from us. It stores up satisfaction into larger and larger barns to which we have less and less access. We become unable to enjoy what we have because we’re so busy keeping track of it all. Stars become mere data points in a ledger, “those little golden things that make lazy people daydream.” As our joy and gratitude diminish, so too does our desire to share. By not sharing, we rob ourselves of the greatest pleasure abundance brings. We become agents of our own poverty.
Thus, it’s worth questioning whether this rich man can be said to own all of this in the first place. By hoarding his abundance into barns, he prevents anyone from receiving satisfaction from the fruits of the land. By preventing the fruits of the land from giving sustenance to God’s creatures, he robs the earth itself of the dignity proper to it, thereby disrupting the primal gift God makes of earth to man and man to earth (Gen. 1:29-30; 2:15, etc.). The scope of his ownership outstrips and denies God’s purposes because the rich man claims for himself more than can be enjoyed. Like Adam, he has forsaken true husbandry. It seems, then, that greed also damages that which is hoarded.
In his farewell to the businessman, the little prince describes his own tiny planet: “I own a flower…which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I rake out every week….So it’s of some use to my volcanoes, and it’s useful to my flower, that I own them. But you’re not useful to the stars.”
When we clean out our closets or shop for new clothes, when we ponder a new cellphone plan or ask ourselves whether to continue our membership at the country club, when we consider adopting another pet—part of our discernment in these decisions must be to ask whether the scope of our ownership is outstripping enjoyment. God’s purposes for us are not that we should be merely entertained, but that we should find real satisfaction. Three volcanoes and a flower does not sound like much, but if it is true that the purpose of material goods is enjoyment and not simply to create more material goods, then three volcanoes and a flower are a world’s worth of pleasure. Perhaps we can only enjoy what we nurture.