“All kinds of greed”
July 31: Proper 13:
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
Schadenfreude is an awful lot of fun, isn’t it?
You know what that is, right? The delight you feel at someone else’s misfortune.
Mel Brooks was once asked to define the difference between comedy and tragedy and he said something like, “If I get a paper cut, that’s tragedy, but if someone else walks into an open sewer and dies, that’s comedy.”
It’s that feeling you might have at the end of this parable of the rich fool. There he is, gathering all of this stuff into bigger and bigger barns, and guess what…you can’t take it with you so ha ha.
Well, I guess it’s only funny if you’re not actively “storing up treasures” for yourself.
And that’s part of the problem…we all are.
Not that we are all amassing huge amounts of wealth (although some in the world are). And it’s not that we are not all incredibly generous with our time and our talent and our material wealth. We are. Most of us are doing what we can to be “rich toward God.”
We are, for the most part, humble, and hard-working, and desirous of a better life for ourselves, and our children and many others. We’re generous, and kind, and thoughtful…and yet…
Many of us also suspect that we are living in ways that are desperately unsustainable. We’re becoming more and more aware that we are participants in a system that is radically unjust. And there are plenty of days when our fear of what the future holds shatters whatever feeble hope we have.
And then building a bigger barn, behind a sturdier wall, stocked with more provisions and armaments seems like not the worst idea.
It’s hard to feel any schadenfreude about this rich fool, because, most of us, at some point have had similar thoughts.
And as Jesus points out, we need to be on guard, not just against material greed, but “all kinds of greed.”
Isn’t that an interesting phrase?
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide his inheritance with me.” The frame here is clearly about money—about material wealth—inheritance—which is how we usually think about greed. But Jesus breaks that frame; draws the crowd in and warns them: “Take care! Be on guard against all kinds of greed.”
How many different kinds of greed are there?
Greed is an intense and selfish desire for something, so truly there are “all kinds of greed.”
Here is where I was going to make a joke about the recent phenomenon of Pokemon Go—“gotta catch ‘em all!”—as being representative of a kind of greed, but then I started thinking about my own use of smart phones and social media, and the intense and selfish desire I often have to check my phone even when I’m with someone, the intense and selfish desire I have when I’m on social media to keep scrolling…because I want to see all the posts…to be in on all the conversations…I’m afraid I’ll miss something. That’s a kind of greed.
What about the greed to be “right”? The intense and selfish desire to win any argument, to know all the answers, to be the expert on any topic? Or the related phenomenon that we see all over now, of needing to be not only correct, but ideologically pure? Staking out a position—on whichever side you’re on—right or left, it doesn’t matter—and digging in, dismissing compromise, refusing to even give the other side a hearing because of ideological purity. That’s a kind of greed, I think.
How about the need to feel safe. Nothing wrong with that. Safety is crucial, and one of the primary things we can’t live without, but fear can cause a legitimate need to morph into greed when it becomes an intense and selfish desire to protect me and mine at any cost.
And then there are more subtle forms of greed. What about an intense desire to be needed; To throw yourself into helping others—whether they ask for it or not—and whether you really have the energy and wherewithal to help—simply in order to feel necessary and important—that’s something those of us in the “helping professions” know nothing about.
Or an insatiable craving to be “perfect,” presenting a flawless image to the world regardless of what’s going on inside? “Nothing bothering me. I’m fine.”
What about that feeling that everyone else has it better than you…They’ve all got it figured out…if I could only be like them, that yearning to be something other than who you are.
Some of this sounds very similar to what used to be known as the “seven deadly sins”: not only greed, but pride, vanity, wrath, envy.
Not entirely dissimilar to the list the author of the letter to the Colossians enumerates. There’s something in that reading caught me up short, too.
“Put to death,” this author says, “whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” And greed, which is idolatry.
Now, that’s a word we don’t use much anymore. It’s something that we’d just as soon keep firmly enclosed within the realm of antiquity, in the pages of the Old Testament, a developmental stage that we have (we think) evolved out of.
Remember prohibition against idolatry is the first commandment. “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2).
Idolatry is what all of the prophets charged Israel with, and what they rail against.
“The more I called them, the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,and offering incense to idols.”
What if we haven’t moved past this?
If there are all kinds of greed, and if greed is idolatry…
I think we’re missing something important if we think idolatry is only about carved images, and pagan deities. Maybe we need to reclaim this language. To be clear what we’re really dealing with.
One contemporary scholar defines idolatry as any “false authority that requires uncompromising allegiance and that makes promises of well-being that it cannot keep.” [ Atwood, James E. (2012-06-01). America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.]
A false—illegitimate—authority that requires uncompromising allegiance, and makes promises of well-being that it cannot keep.
I actually find this incredibly helpful. Because it helps me see how all of our various forms of greed create all kinds of idols…idols of strength and security, idols of purity and privilege, idols of conviction and certainty.
Whenever greed for a favorable bottom line is used to conceal and justify unethical business practices…we’ve turned profit into an idol.
Whenever tribal factions are grasping for power and murdering each other and untold innocents in order to claim and hold “their turf,” then “our group” “our tribe,” “our nation” has become an idol.
Whenever we are unable, or refuse to see others as full and flawed human beings in their own right, but instead view them as objects of our desire, or obstacles to what we desire, or simply a means of getting what we desire, we have created an idol out of those desires, and have turned away from the image of God enfleshed in each being.
It is uncomfortable, I know, but using terms like “idolatry”—and it’s not one to be thrown around lightly or unadvisedly—but it helps me remember the stakes that are involved in all of my day to day decisions—in choosing how to live my life, and raise my children, and pastor this community. We do want to be “rich toward God,” and being faithful to that means wrestling with our own never-super-pure motivations. It means being on guard against all the kinds of greed that we can easily fall into. It means remaining conscious of how tenacious and prevalent idols and idolatry remain.
Reclaiming and using these potent terms helps me be mindful of something William Sloan Coffin once famously said that, “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” They serve as a check on my motivations: are they more selfish or more selfless? It’s a sharp reminder that all of my choices have real world consequences; that how I choose to spend my money, how I engage (or not) with my community, how I participate (or not) in the political process matters profoundly. It clarifies for me the impact of words and actions that tear down community and spread fear, vs. the words and actions that proclaim hope and build up communities; it helps me delineate I might be fearfully submitting to a false authority, and where I am seeking God’s dream of a shalom for all.
Maybe words like “idolatry” are too strident or too “churchy” for you. That’s fine, but Jesus with this parable is inviting us into some truthful reflection on our own motivations and actions. Where we are “storing up treasures for ourselves,” and where we are sharing and shaping the Good News of God’s reign of justice and peace.
Where we are operating out of fear and where we are proclaiming hope. Where we are tearing down, and where we are building up. It’s vital to do this kind of reflection because that William Sloan Coffin quote continues to echo…“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”