by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Having heard Jesus’ parable, I want you to hear the following loud and clear: Money and even wealth are not the problem. Hard work, responsibility, and business acumen used for the sake of building up one’s work are not the problem. Eating, drinking, and being merry are not the problem since Jesus often did so himself. Taking care of ourselves, caring for our families, and loving ourselves is not the problem for, indeed, Jesus commands us to love ourselves. Greed is the problem—and even when we possess little wealth and few material possessions, greed can infect our lives. Or as Jesus clearly states: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
In true radical form this morning, Jesus tells a parable warning the gathered crowd about greed, greed defined as “intense or selfish desire for something.” He warns those gathered not just because greed appears as the root of all evil throughout scripture. He warns them not just because greed has the potential to steal abundant life from others. He warns them of greed because greed can and often does lead to emptiness, isolation, yearning for greater meaning and purpose, and sometimes, greed gone unchecked cannot be satiated, no matter how much one accumulates.
In the parable, the man who accumulates wealth so efficiently that he sees only the option of building bigger barns to hold his crops, his wealth speaks only to himself, about himself, thinks only of himself, considers only what is good for him. The reading from Colossians this morning mentions in passing that greed is idolatry, and that confused me until I thought about this man. In thinking, speaking, considering only himself, he essentially puts himself at the center of the universe, believing himself to be more important than any other being, including God. I feel compassion for the man of the parable, actually, because he appears isolated, alone, without family or friends, without even neighbors. His hyper-focus on himself, on satiating his own needs and desires seems to be have left him without anyone to care for him—and without anyone for whom he may care.
The first-century Mediterranean culture of Jesus prized honor and despised shame. In the public sphere, all people of this culture sought to increase their and their family’s honor and staunch any sort of behavior that proved shameful. Increasing honor often entailed shaming someone else for the people of this culture saw honor as a finite resource. Vestiges of this culture remain in US culture circa 2019, but today, our currency is less honor and shame and more literally dollars and cents as well as material possessions that indicate wealth. We seek to look good compared to others. Then and now, society-wide, we seem to think of life as a competitive sport, with winners and losers, with opponents to beat. Beating our opponents, we store up wealth and possessions or maybe accumulate power and prestige.
What if life is not a competitive sport? What might that life look like? I suspect the answer to these questions is what Jesus meant when he spoke of being rich toward God.
If life is not a competitive sport, our mistakes and failures do not shame us but can serve as opportunities for learning, growth, and building resilience. Indeed, learning, growth, and building resilience do not happen without challenge.
If life is not a competitive sport, instead of complaining about the travesties of other people’s harmful or inappropriate behavior, we can sit down and ask the people how they’re doing and listen to whatever they say. In my experience, harmful or inappropriate behavior often stems from unhealed wounds.
If life is not a competitive sport, we can listen to people who have different views on any number of subjects. We don’t have to prove people wrong. Instead, by each person sharing and listening, we can together seek a world where all people know life and life abundant, including the person across from us.
If life is not a competitive sport, we can use our gifts and skills and monetary resources to support ourselves and our families, yes, but also to build up our community. We can see our God-given gifts as a call from God through which we might bless the world.
If life is not a competitive sport, we don’t have to keep stats on our failures or our successes so much as enjoy the life God has given us. We can see life through the lens of gratitude. We can open wide our hearts and senses to the tiny and large gifts of every day.
If life is not a competitive sport, everyone, everyone is on our team. And greed fades away because we are working for the good, the common good of the whole team, God’s whole people. In so doing, we gather around us the team—beautiful, complicated, inconsistent, ornery, lovely people. We are not alone.
Being rich toward God means, I think, investing in relationships: relationships with God and others, our neighbors. These are the two greatest commandments, Jesus says, and the sum of all the rest. The opposite of greed is not poverty, but relationships. Jesus warns the crowd out greed, but he does so from a place of love. What a shame, what a loss it would be to gather around us all the wealth of the world but be alone, for no one else to know us or be known by us.
Take care! Jesus says. One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions but in the strength of relationships: with God and our neighbors. Thanks be to God! Amen.
P.S. I have no problems with competitive sports, but they have clear boundaries where they begin and end. They aren’t a model for the rest of our lives but instead a way to gain skill, have fun, and be challenged physically. Just to be clear! Go Twins!