Think. Serve. Worship. Belong.

Greed v. God

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Jesus tells us the story of a practical person who does everything right.  As we are all advised, even when we go to retirement seminars sponsored by our church, this fellow not only accumulates enough to get by day by day in a pleasant manner, but then sets aside a whole barnful of retirement savings. As we all want to do, he has set so much aside that he can enjoy life for many years. “Eat, drink and be merry,” he tells his soul, and while that today has come down as a kind of negative phrase, it is actually wise advice given by the Bible itself in the Book of Ecclesiastes which says, “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God has given them under the sun” (Eccl. 8:15). The Bible, contrary to popular belief, is a very life-affirming document; and we see from Jesus’ own life, in which his enemies accused him of partying too much with sinners, and in which he put the Love Feast, or holy meal, as the very central metaphor of his ministry, that our Lord was himself not averse to having a good time. In short, in this story of Jesus, we see a man who is living life in a way that most of us would envy and consider healthy and wise.

And then Jesus throws the guy under the bus.

One of the hard things to take about Jesus’ teaching is that he isn’t very kind to rich people. He tells us it is harder for a rich person to get into heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. He tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give his money to the poor. Earlier in the Gospel of Luke he teaches, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God…. But woe to you rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6: 20, 24). He tells us “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6: 24). Jesus tells a story about a rich man who pays no attention to a poor man named Lazarus, and who therefore ends up on the fiery side of the afterlife. And now we read of this man, who seems simply to have accumulated enough to live comfortably and then built himself a good retirement fund, who apparently has come to a bad end. John Dominic Crossan raises the uncomfortable question “What if, in the next life, this life’s non-suffering haves will become the suffering have-nots and this life’s have-nots will become non-suffering haves? A simple reversal of fortune?” [1]

Our reading from Colossians says, Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.”I don’t think that’s Jesus’ point. I don’t think Jesus has anything against rich people. What he has something against is greed.

Colossians calls greed idolatry, and that is consistent with Jesus’ teaching, too. What Jesus says is “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6: 24). As far as I can tell in Jesus’ teaching, money, or material wealth, is the only thing he raises up as a competitor to God. He doesn’t say, “You cannot serve God and Satan.” He doesn’t say, “You cannot serve God and lust.” He doesn’t even say, “You cannot serve God and Caesar,” even though many of the first Christians will ultimately sacrifice their lives because they will not call Caesar “Lord.” He only says, “You cannot serve God and money.” It seems that to Jesus, money, material wealth, is the only true competitor to faithfulness to God, and therefore it is appropriate to label material wealth an idol.

Let me assure you this recognition is as discomfiting to me as it probably is to the rest of you. It’s almost un-American not to make money, invest it wisely, and give yourself enough that you and your loved ones can live well for many years. For most of us material wealth isn’t so much an idol as it is a security blanket, something that assures us we won’t be put out on the street when a crisis hits or when we retire and guarantees we can give ourselves and our families the things they need. Jesus’ perspective on money challenges that. He sees it as a challenge to God’s authority in our lives. So, as the recently deceased and extremely wealthy former presidential candidate Ross Perot used to say, let’s take a look under the hood here.

Jesus follows our gospel lesson in Luke with a teaching. He says that the birds of the air and the flowers in the field don’t struggle for food or get themselves worked up about the clothes they wear. “They neither labor nor spin yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed such as these.” If God takes care of the lowliest creatures, he says, why are we so fearful that God will not take care of us—“O ye of little faith!” he says. Apparently he sees the accumulation of wealth as a challenge to our faith.

But he then takes a pastoral turn. He says our pursuit of the almighty dollar is actually a manifestation of our deep anxiety about the world. “And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink,” he says, “and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus is challenging us to have more faith that we can trust God to meet our needs.

This is in itself worth thinking about. Our society is as anxious as I can imagine without actually being in a situation of material crisis. We are anxious about politics. We are anxious about global warming. We are anxious about the increasing debt that many are under, especially young people. This anxiety is in part the result of the failure of many of our trusted institutions to make us feel secure. Many of us still remember and feel the after-effects of the 2009 stock market crash. Our leaders failed to protect us from 9/11 and are failing to protect us from gun violence and global warming. College and retirement are more expensive now than they’ve ever been. It’s easy to be worried and feel insecure.

And that’s Jesus’ point. Money, material wealth, is only as secure as the institutions that back it up. Our trust is misplaced. We should instead trust God. Rather than put our trust in human institutions, put our trust in the Kingdom of God, and very importantly, invest in the Kingdom’s values.

Well how do we do that? One might ask.

Jesus has used a classic preacher’s tool—he’s set up a straw man in the rich fool who accumulates all his wealth in barns and decides to eat, drink, and be merry. Now he sets up an alternative story. He says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” In contrast to storing all your treasure in earthly barns, store them in heavenly purses. Store up for yourself treasure in heaven. Again, how do we do that? By selling our possessions and giving alms, he says.

I’m not about to sell all my possessions, I’m sorry to say. But Jesus is challenging us to examine what we value and why we value it. Are our nice home, our fine furniture, our late model car, our stylish clothes, getting in the way of us focusing on what’s important? For Jesus, what’s important is showing care and compassion to the needy and the destitute, using our material wealth to the advantage of those who are most in need.

Think about it: Anxiety and worry are often why we do not give. We look upon those who have needs with suspicion, largely because we feel like giving something to them is taking it from myself. If I give to them how will I know if I have enough? It’s undermining my sense of security and my confidence that I am in control of my future. And that in itself is an indicator that we aren’t trusting that God is in control. It’s a lack of faith.

Whereas giving to others is an indicator that we do have faith—we are willing to take the risk of giving of our material wealth because we know that we don’t need to trust our money—we can trust God.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This last line is Jesus’ main point. We Christians are supposed to be focused not on this world and its distorted values, but upon the Kingdom of God, where the key value is love—love thy neighbor, love the stranger, love your enemy—love God—love. Over-focus on material wealth and security challenge our confidence that there is a better place, with better values, in the hands of a God who is trustworthy to satisfy our needs. We become focused on what is passing and ephemeral, whereas God wants us laser-focused on what’s truly important—putting God’s love into action in our dealings especially with those under material stress.

I told someone the other day that often I find myself, in writing a sermon, struggling as much with the challenge of the scripture we’re interpreting as you all might be. And often because of that I’m not sure I always leave you with “the answer,” often because I don’t know what it is myself; but I try to leave you with an honest interpretation of scripture so that you all, as faithful Christians yourselves, can wrestle with it and find the answer that works for you.

That’s kind of where I am now. My takeaway from this is that my material wealth—not saying I’m wealthy, but you know what I mean—and anyway most of us in the United States are in the top three per cent of the wealthiest people in the world—as I say, that it’s okay if my material wealth gives me a certain sense of security if it doesn’t do two things—number one, that it isn’t so much a concern that it distracts me from putting the Kingdom of God first in my life; and number two, if I am not so wrapped in anxiety or greed that I cannot use my wealth for the good of those who are need and the furtherance of God’s kingdom in the world. I don’t need to be rich to be secure, but I do need to build up as much treasure as possible in the world to come. That treasure is built up through love, compassion, generosity, living by the values of God’s kingdom, and challenging the world to live by those values. And that wealth is built up as I learn more and more to trust God to provide for my needs.

Our life’s journey as Christians is to grow more and more in discovering and storing up the true treasure of heaven—the love God has shown us in Jesus Christ, and the ability to love neighbor and stranger and enemy better and to give generously and freely, trusting God to provide for our needs. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. May God help us to seek first God’s Kingdom. Amen.

[1] Paraphrased from Levine, A.J. Short Stories by Jesus.