By the Rev. Darren Miner
Years ago, when my cousin Leah was three or four years old, my mother was babysitting her. And Leah noticed a Snickers bar on the counter. She asked if she could have it. My mother explained that it was the last candy bar and that she would split the bar 50/50 with her, each getting exactly half. Now, my mother wasn’t about to hand a paring knife to a child. Instead, she took the knife and asked Leah to point to the exact middle of the candy bar. She said she would cut where Leah pointed. Now, the bar was about five inches long, but Leah pointed about half an inch from one end. My mother asked her, “Leah, are you sure that is the middle, that both halves are exactly the same size?” Leah nodded. Then my mother cut the bar at that point and quickly snatched the larger piece. Leah cried, but she learned a lesson about greed. Now, this story of my cousin is charming, but it is also instructive: we learn that greed infects us early on!
Last week, in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, a tragedy took place. A Dalit man and his wife went to the village store and bought three packets of cookies for their three children. They were 22 cents short, but the grocer let them take the cookies on the condition that they pay him the next day. Well, the next day the grocer saw the couple in the street. He rushed out and demanded his 22 cents. They explained that they didn’t get paid till evening and would return later to pay him. He was so incensed by the thought of being cheated out of his money that he ran back into the store and emerged with an ax. He beheaded the husband and then hacked the man’s wife to death. This story is not so charming, but it too is instructive: we learn that greed is indeed a deadly sin! But greed is classified as a deadly sin, not just because it can cause the death of others, but because it can cause the spiritual death of the greedy person himself.
Now, the Old Testament gives wealth rather mixed reviews. The book of Proverbs teaches that wealth can be gained through hard work and is a blessing from God. “The blessing of the Lord makes rich.” In the Psalms, on the other hand, the rich are both envied and despised. Take, for example, this excerpt from Psalm 73: “I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pain: their bodies are sound and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment. Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.” Well, you get the idea!
In contrast, the New Testament offers a consistently negative view of wealth. Wealth is no longer considered a blessing, poverty is! “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God!” Neither should one envy the rich. Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation!”
Here again, in today’s Gospel reading, we encounter a difficult teaching about wealth. We find Jesus teaching his disciples in the presence of a large crowd, when all of a sudden someone interrupts him. A man asks Jesus to intercede on his behalf in an inheritance dispute with his brother. The man seemingly mistakes Jesus for a scribe, an expert interpreter of Jewish law. But Jesus refuses to serve in that role; instead, he takes this opportunity to offer a teaching about wealth and greed. He tells his audience to beware of greed “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” He proceeds to tell the Parable of the Rich Fool about a wealthy landowner whose wealth is so abundant that he needs to build larger barns in which to store it. Having made his fortune, he then makes plans for early retirement to a life of rest and relaxation.
To our eyes, the so-called rich fool seems like a model citizen. He works. He saves. He hopes to retire in ease. Even in Jesus’ day, people were told to save for the future. Six hundred years before Christ, Aesop was telling his famous fable about the ant and the grasshopper. But does Jesus’ parable commend the rich landowner? Quite the contrary! In the end of the parable, God himself comes to the man and tells him that his life is forfeit and that all he has saved will belong to someone else. The moral of the story is this: “So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Why is Jesus so down on the accumulation of wealth? Today’s reading from the epistle to the Colossians offers one reason: greed is a form of idolatry. As we are told elsewhere in the Gospels, we cannot serve two masters, both God and mammon. For some, the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, motivated by the sheer love of money and by the status that it brings. For these people, the pursuit of personal wealth is no longer just a spiritual distraction; it is a spiritual disease that supersedes love of God and love of neighbor. In our society, we tend to elevate the very rich—even worship them! Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, and Donald Trump are familiar names. And if we are honest with ourselves, we sometimes envy them. Well, don’t! Jesus tells us again and again that great wealth is a symptom of spiritual disease, of a sickness of the soul. Later on in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But with God all things are possible. And some of the aforementioned billionaires seem to have gotten the message. Gates, Buffett, and Bloomberg have all signed a pledge to give the majority of their wealth to charity, either during their lifetime or upon their death. Donald Trump was asked to sign, but he refused.
Now, there’s another possible reason for Jesus to condemn wealth: economic justice. When there’s only one Snicker bar and one person takes more that his or her fair share, then someone else gets cheated. Just ask my cousin Leah! The unspoken assumption of Jesus’ day was that there is only so much good to go around, that life is a zero-sum game, if you will. I suspect that many an American on the bottom rung of the economic ladder shares that same assumption. And they have some cause. According to a conservative estimate, one percent of American families own over 35 percent of all the wealth in this country and capture 52 percent of the total real income growth. We often disparagingly refer to this class of people as the “filthy rich.” A more theologically correct term might be the “idolatrous rich.”
Now, I don’t know of any idolatrous rich in this parish. And few of us have any chance of becoming such, unless we happen to the win the lottery. So what is the take-away message of today’s Gospel for us? First, be a good steward of the wealth that you do have; and store up treasures for yourself in heaven by helping the poor and the vulnerable; then, you will truly be rich toward God. Second, know that money only goes so far in providing security; instead, place your ultimate trust in God, who alone can give you eternal life. Lastly, neither envy nor idolize the idolatrous rich; rather, pity them and pray for their healing, for they are, in fact, spiritually diseased.
In the first reading today from Ecclesiastes, the Teacher laments that all is meaningless and ephemeral. Later, the Teacher advises his students to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But in the final words of his book, the Teacher has a change of heart. And he writes: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment….” And on the Last Day, we will all be judged by what we did, or did not, do with the gifts that God bestowed upon us. We will all be judged by the love that we did, or did not, show toward God and our neighbor.
To that end, let us pray: Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor you with our substance, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.