Proper 13: Eccl 1:2,12-14;2:18-23; Ps 49:1-11; Col 3:1-11; Lk 12: 13-21
Preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church Sunday, August 14, 2013
Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Lk 12:15
Greed is one of the seven deadly sins, a mortal sin. It is a sin of excess like gluttony and lust. It is a sin because, in greed, man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things. The collect last week may have been better suited to our readings today as it prays that we might pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal. That prayer speaks to the heart of anyone convicted of the sin of greed.
A friend of mine posted the challenge on Facebook to name a greedy character from any kind of fiction. Within minutes he had fifty responses–The Grinch, Lucy Van Pelt, Scrooge McDuck, Voldemort, Wickham from Pride and Prejudice, Cruella Deville, Simon of Legree, Uriah Heep from David Copperfield, Lex Luther, Tywinn Lannister–the list could go on and on. I have no doubt you are thinking of a few yourself. It’s easy to name and judge fictional greedy characters. They are easily set up by their creators to perform just such a function. They are typically despised and condemned and we are to learn a lesson about the moral life from their immoral actions.
It’s a little more difficult when we begin to examine ourselves and try to identify our own excesses. That exercise usually ends with feelings of justification and allowance”but I need this, it is necessary for my existence or at least my happiness.
And this is the great rub about greed–we associate our own acquisition of things with some trumped up definition of need that is typically self-serving at best.
Greed is an inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs. The desire for acquisition may stem from vanity, the kind of vanity the author of Ecclesiastes talks about, the kind of vanity that believes it can make itself immortal or at least a vanity of selfish ambition, a vanity that promotes one’s self, that gives one status; like people who live beyond their means because, in their minds, it is only by status or, at least, perception of status that they are accepted.
Then there is the type of greed that stems from security needs”like our rich man in the parable today.
Who can fault him? He simply wanted to build up his nest egg, make sure his retirement was well funded. He didn’t want to become a burden to others; he just wanted to ensure that all the things he owned would be protected. This is good sense, not a reason to be judged. And yet, here is Jesus teaching this parable as an example of making a poor choice; the choice of being more concerned with self and relying on self instead of concerned with God and relying on God.
The rich man is only self-interested”he uses the words I and my eleven times in four sentences. There is no concern, not even a thought about others. This is not a rich man storing up food to share with a starving society. This is a man concerned only with himself.
The greed of the rich man is insidious. It is insidious because the desire that greed tempts with proceeds slowly, gradually, and subtly with harmful effects; over time it builds up, we frame bigger and better reasons to justify ourselves and all that we acquire.
The rich man was already rich at the start of this parable. He had plenty, he was not in need; yet he convinced himself that the only way to remain in his comfortable and cushy state was to get more and give nothing. He already had barns to store crops; he pulled them down and built bigger ones. His aims were pleasure disguised as security. His goal was to relax, eat, drink, and be merry in his future years. We can understand this desire, even relate to it. Most of us have retirement monies set aside in 401k plans or pensions so that we can enjoy the future.
We plan for the future”retirement, our children’s education, buying a new home–and that is anything but foolish. I don’t think it is the planning that God finds foolish or that Jesus warns about. I think it is the excess, especially excess with no other aim than the satisfaction of one’s own pleasure, no thoughts of another’s needs, no recognition of God’s call to us to care for one another”that is what is foolish.
The rich man’s greed is not only insidious and foolish, but as Paul claims in his letter to the Colossians, it is idolatrous. Greed as idolatry means that we believe the acquisition of things can satisfy our deepest longings. We may desire and acquire the whole world, but it will have no meaning, no value to us if we do not have God. God is our deepest longing.
As C. S. Lewis writes in his poem, Deadly Sin:
Through our lives thy meshes run
Deft as spider’s catenation,
Crossed and crossed again and spun
Finer than the fiend’s temptation.
Greed into herself would turn
All that’s sweet: but let her follow
Still that path, and greed would learn
How the whole world is hers to swallow.
As the poem continues, you pick up on the underlying redemption of each deadly sin and the twist that Lewis believes can draw us into deeper growth with the Holy Spirit. By looking through the desire of greed, the desire of getting more and more, we discover that our desires actually line up with God’s.
God has it in mind to give us everything, to give us the whole world. We say as we transition to the table, All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee. (1 Chronicles 29:14) All things are God’s and God’s desire is to give all things to us that we might offer them back to God not use them for our own gain. There is a deeper truth than acquisition and selfish ambition”it is the truth we are searching for when we are tempted by greed and it is the truth that can never be fulfilled in following our own greedy desires”it is charity.
Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian says, Greed destroys the life full of grace because it attacks the vital principle within us, charity. Charity is not simply benevolent giving, though that is how we most closely understand it. Charity is caritas, it is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake and we love our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.
Charity is the ultimate perfection of human spirit because it glorifies and reflects the nature of God. It is distinguished by its origin”charity is divinely infused into the soul, it resides in the will rather than the emotions, but that does not mean that charity is devoid of emotion.
I once witnessed pure charity, caritas, though I did not realize it at the time. I had made the mistake of going to Wal-Mart on the third of the month. The store was slammed, but I had to get whatever it was I needed to get and so I braved the aisles and the even longer checkout line.
There was an elderly woman with two little boys checking out in my line. She was too old to be their mother and so I assumed she was their grandmother. Her basket was loaded with staples, items bought in bulk to last for a month”rice, dried beans, Great Value brand canned goods, and two Totino’s Pizzas obviously meant as a treat for the little boys. She was digging in her purse, no doubt to find her check which came in the mail that day and which she would pay a small fee to Wal-Mart to cash for her and pay for her groceries. She was getting more and more frazzled, digging deeper and deeper into her purse, as she did not seem to be able to find it.
The line, which was five or six customers deep, was getting restless and beginning to complain, not directly to the elderly woman but in general”what’s the hold up, sheesh, c’mon lady, etc.
And then, I witnessed the young woman in line behind the elderly woman, reach into her purse and pull out her checkbook and write a check for the woman and her grandsons’ groceries. It was one of those pay it forward moments. The guy behind me pointed it out to everyone else and the young woman dropped her head as her cheeks flushed.
The two women could not have been less alike”the one elderly and overweight, the other young and slim, the one wearing clothes that had seen better days, the other dressed in the latest fashion, the one tired and drooping, the other bright and standing tall, that is until she was busted in the act of charity.
Her whole demeanor changed when she handed over that check and the man announced her actions to all standing in earshot”she went from bright and confidant to a posture of deepest empathy, a posture of vulnerability, a posture of humility.
It was as if she realized the plight of the world and her own inability to do much for that world, but she could do this much, she could give out of that place in which our own humanity is inspired by God. She could give because charity is necessary for salvation and to stand and do nothing, to be more concerned with her own needs rather than the needs of those around her, would have been not only selfish, but sinful.
The rich man is not a sinner because he plans for the future. The rich man is a sinner because he is not concerned with kingdom living, which is always concerned with the needs of others. We do not eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die. We share, give, and live for others and in so doing, for God, for tomorrow we may die.