Driving to Bend this weekend, I encountered lots of warning signs. Big orange signs, neon cones, flaggers, flashing signs; “Extreme Fire Danger” gauges and posters of a state-wide burning ban in effect. Then there was watching my friends deal with car seats, and Deschutes River floaters gearing up with life jackets, tying their tubes to each other, not to mention all the bright colors on water craft and bicycle riders – all meant to say, “See me! See me! Watch out! Be careful!”
We are a culture quite obsessed with safety. Don’t you love those child safety caps that adults can’t open, but just ask as child and they can do it first try. Everywhere I look I see warning signs from the sublime to the ridiculous, like a shirt tag that says it can be ironed with a hot iron, but do not iron it while wearing it! Or, on a wheelbarrow, “Not intended for highway use.” Or, on a baby stroller, “Remove child before folding.”
We post warnings on nearly everything!
So perhaps we yawn and “ho-hum” when Jesus says: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (12:15). What was so important to Jesus that he put a warning label on it?
Greed. All kinds of greed. Greed gets the same kind of warning as a sudden cliff, or a waterfall or a fire hazard! Be careful!
What kind of greed was Jesus talking about with this questioner? They wanted Jesus to urge their brother to share the inheritance with them. We don’t know if this person was a man or woman, or how many siblings there may have been, or what the brother was doing with the inheritance, or how much it was. We don’t know very much. But it seems that the questioner wanted justice. The laws of the day seemed unfair. ALL the property was handed down to the oldest son. An infant son would inherit everything leaving mother and 10 older sisters destitute. Younger brothers had to make do, find a job, work for their brother – something.
Jesus was about justice, it would seem. If he was the Messiah, as was rumored, he ought to be for justice for the oppressed. This is a point of law, as currently practiced, which might seem due for a change.
But to this request Jesus flashed back a warning. Watch out for greed! And then he told this parable: A wealthy man had a bumper crop – so much that his barns were inadequate. So he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones so that he could store enough produce to last him the rest of his life. Then he could relax and live the easy life. But little did he know that his life would end that very night. Now who gets all you have prepared for yourself?
Was the parable against the brother who inherited? Was the brother the greedy one? I wonder if the inquirer heard it that way. But Jesus usually told stories which applied to the people who asked the question. So, Jesus was essentially saying that this request for part of the inheritance was evidence of greed. Watch out! Be on your guard. Life is not about having a lot of stuff.
The brother’s greed would have been obvious. But the warning is against ALL KINDS of greed, and especially the kinds of greed we don’t think we have.
Sometimes greed can dress up and parade like a desire for justice, as in this questioner. Sometimes greed can show up like following family traditions. Sometimes greed is manipulated upon us by clever, pushy advertising, telling us we must have this new thing. Sometimes greed is even seen as doing the right thing, like after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center – which sought to attack our economic system – we were told by our leaders to go shopping to show the enemy that they could not win. Even all that death did not cause us to re-think our greed. Buying stuff is how the American economy runs. If we decided we had enough and started sharing, our economy would collapse.
Uncontrolled greed widens the gap between the haves and the have nots. Today in the U.S., the 400 richest people own more wealth than the entire bottom 64 percent of the population (204 million people). 400 people own more than the entire 2/3 of our population! [The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism and Our National Morality, https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/audit/, 9].
What is greed? Geoffrey Chaucer waxes eloquent on this topic in this 14th Century work, The Canterbury Tales. The word for greed here is “avarice.” This from the Parson: “…Avarice consists not only of greed for land and chattels, but sometimes for learning and for glory, and for every kind of immoderate thing…. Avarice is to keep and withhold such things as one has when there is no need to do so.” Greed holds with a tight fist and cries, “Mine!” It is an ungenerous spirit.
The rich man in the parable quotes something close to the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, perhaps seeking to justify himself. So I had to look them up. And they don’t say what this rich man said at all! “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun” (Eccl. 8:15). The rich man didn’t understand Ecclesiastes. He did not know how to enjoy the life he had. He wanted out. He wanted to quit working and party. “Relax, eat, drink, be merry!”
Ecclesiastes wisdom is deeper. The Teacher knew that the core of life is to enjoy every moment – your food, your drink, your family, your laughter – all this goodness, will carry you through your days of labor, however many you have. In other words, get your focus small and simple – enjoy the good things of the life you have. That is enough. And it will be counted as a good life.
So the parable is told to warn us about greed. It comes in many guises – from the expectations of our government, to the expectations of our families, to the deep desire to possess.
I just finished reading Neither Wolf nor Dog, by Kent Nerburn. Indian Elder, Dan, spends a road trip teaching white man, Kent, about the Indian experience of white people in the United States. One day, after watching a very drunk man come into the restaurant where they were eating lunch, Dan reflects on the use of alcohol among his people. “Alcohol has been bad for us…. I think it was the worst thing the white man brought. It made our people crazy…. We are weak…, We are weak for alcohol. Just like white people are weak for owning things” (Neither Wolf nor Dog, Kent Nerburn, p.179).
Our culture is weak for owning things. If we like it, we want to own it. Somehow, we feel like we have the right to own it. Greed. It is not just a weakness of a few. It is epidemic.
I wonder if owning stuff makes us feel safe. We can draw our own boundaries around our own stuff with our own strength. Then we are not dependent on the good open hearts and open hands of others. We are ourselves the only ones we an trust. Fear drives greed.
And this is exactly what makes the Kingdom Jesus announced so different, radical, unbelievable. We forgive, so we don’t hold grudges (last week). Now, we don’t build bigger barns because we know our God will care for us, and so will the brothers and sisters who walk this life with us. This is how we live without fear. The Kingdom of Jesus is a place, a time, a reality, when fear no longer drives us.
What spiritual discipline, what life perspective, what faith will counter greed? First, a sense of the abundance of provision from God our creator. This is one of the things I remember when I sing, “This Is My Father’s World.” Related to this is remembering that God is present everywhere. I am never alone. Pay attention to the divine presence and we will see that God has so many more ways of protecting, holding, caring for us than we can possibly imagine!
Then I would like to suggest an action: open-handedness. Sometimes a ritual act is a good way to remind ourselves of how we intend to live. Like first nations people who leave pinches of tobacco where significant things happen, where gratitude is felt. When you want to buy something, see it in your open hand. Can you hold it there, or must your fist hold it tight? It may tell you where some kind of greed is hiding. I heard about a congregation who covenanted together not to buy anything outside the normal groceries and daily supplies for six months. That is counter-cultural. I wonder what sort of greed they found hiding in that practice? But let’s start simple. Try this ritual act of opening the hand. It might be a step in the same direction.
Luke concludes this incident with a beautiful, poetic paragraph about God’s Kingdom. After this scary, comforting, and soul-searching parable, may these words assuage our fears.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, 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 God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” said Jesus. (Luke 12:22-24)
Do not be afraid, little flock.
Grace & Peace,