Greed (a short sermon)
Paul says two things that stood out for me as I read the Epistle for today.
Firstly he says in vs 5 that Greed is idolatry… He begins, ‘set your mind on things above, the things of Christ’ And in opposition to that he lists things like Greed. Greed is idolatry.
Secondly he says, of the Christians “your life is hid with Christ in God”
To say that greed is idolatry is a serious claim. It amounts to saying that greed is anti-faith. In other words greed is another religion, a way of life which screens out the things of Christ (things above) and focuses instead on other things – on possessions. Jesus says ‘your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions’. In other words the religion of greed can make our possessions into a way of life – we become possessed by our possessions – in all sorts of ways.
So Jesus says “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” In the 21st century late capitalist world I think it’s a bit like saying to a group of fish. Beware of all kinds of water! I imagine if fish could speak they would have no word for water, but a thousand words for different kinds of waters. Like Inuit have for snow. Interesting phrase… ‘all kinds of greed’. How many kinds of greed are there?
Two strands that immediately spring to mind are ‘wanting’ and ‘clinging’. We might describe them as ‘shopping’ and ‘saving’. Shopping has to do with always wanting more and new things. Saving has to do with the way we hold tightly to what we do have. The older generation who went through the depression knew all about ‘saving’. Most of us, I suspect, know more about ‘shopping’.
Shopping is compulsory. And by that I don’t mean we have to buy stuff we need. I mean we have to choose between often an almost endless array of nearly identical stuff. The result of which is we discover we need a whole lot more stuff than we thought we needed before we went shopping. Shopping doesn’t mean wanting more than enough of one thing it means wanting new things all the time. If we didn’t, of course, capitalism would collapse, the religion of greed depends on it. Not only do we need more, or the next thing, we need things to distinguish our identity from others. The last thing we want it to be a uniform member of the crowd of ordinary people. I want significance! The other day I went to buy ‘grouting sealer’ for the tiles in our new bathroom. I was confronted with five different brands of grouting sealer. So I did what I usually do I asked the assistant what was best. He said there was probably not much in it. So I was left to pick something that stood out. And marketers know that the key thing is to give their produce some point of difference. Now I probably won’t gain a lot of status from the brand of grouting sealer I use. But look at how they advertise cars or beer or even electricity. It’s got nothing to do with the practical value of the product… everything to do with much more emotional matters connected with the identity of the purchaser. These things give us status, a sense of identity and importance, attractiveness, significance. Marketers know that shopping is part of a religion, not just a means to an end.
Saving is all about security… We look to these things for our security. We are not inclined to loan our lawnmower to the neighbour because they might damage it. Possessions create in us possessiveness. Property, the gifts of God, become “private property” which we cling to for security. Never mind that God will provide all we need. That’s airy fairy stuff for theologians. To be practical often ends up meaning a reticence to trust others with our stuff, let alone give it away.
When property is about security, I would suggest we have to do with greed – that multi-dimensional religion that substitutes for life in Christ.
The land of a rich man produced abundantly, says Jesus. And he thought to himself, ‘what should I do for I have no place to store my crops?’ Rather than thinking ‘God has provided enough for today, daily bread, and then some, so I now have enough to share with others’, instead he thinks, ‘this is great I want more’. Notice he doesn’t see these possessions as a gift to be shared. He sees them as private property.
Notice God provides abundantly, but the rich man sees scarcity. If I store it then I will be able to sell it or use it later. “I will pull down my old barns and build bigger barns”. Just as the shopper never has enough, neither does the saver – there are always future risks to be secured against. But more importantly both of them possess themselves. They don’t just have possessions (savers) or seek them (shoppers), they possess themselves. Nowadays we use the language of rights. I have rights to my own body. I have rights to my ideas. I have rights to my assets. Possessiveness becomes a way of life – like fish with water. The rich man is in a world of his own so he, in a quaint way speaks to himself. Jesus emphasises this in v19.
And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry’
Jesus says the man is a fool. He can no more secure his life than hold water in a sieve. And more importantly in the attempt to do so he is destroying his life … Those who secure their own life will lose it.
Jesus concludes: “so it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich before God”
Big barns are very visible. There is something invisible in being rich toward God. And no one wants to be invisible. We want significance. In our economy we need not only to possess ourselves, we need to sell ourselves, to promote ourselves. But Paul reminds us that in this economy of greed ‘our life is hid with Christ in God’. There is something frighteningly dis-possessive about being a Christian. Paul says that because Jesus was in the very nature of God he emptied himself, he humbled himself, he became obedient to the point of death (Phil 2). In this economy, in the meantime… while the kingdom is still a seed hidden in the ground, we too will remain hidden. It’s frightening… frightening for those who, like the rich man can’t see the abundance of God’s grace and see only, instead, scarcity.