Proper 13 / 10 Pentecost — 5 August 2007
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 am
Hosea 11:1-11 Psalm 107:1-9,43 Colossians 3:1-11 Luke 12:13-21
(c) 2007 William S. J. Moorhead
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
In the Scripture readings today we hear about greed. In some places the Bible calls it “covetousness.” You remember coveting. The Tenth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not do it.” A little boy in Sunday School was learning the Commandments and he asked his teacher, “What does this word ‘covet’ mean”? And the teacher answered, “Well, you know all the nice toys your friends have? You’re not supposed to wish that they were yours instead.” The little boy shook his head: “Boy, they don’t let you have any fun around here!” St. Paul says, “I should not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” I didn’t realize it was wrong to do that! Most people understand that murder is wrong: a few of them do it, but they usually understand that it’s wrong. Most people understand that committing adultery is wrong: some people do say, “Well, yes, usually, for most people, but we’re different, we’re special, my spouse doesn’t understand my needs yada yada yada, but they still really understand that it’s wrong. Most people understand that stealing is wrong: some of them do it anyway, but they still understand that it’s wrong. Most people understand that bearing false witness against their neighbor is wrong: a lot of people do it and thoroughly enjoy it, but they still understand that it’s wrong. But coveting in our society is a major growth industry. Not only do people not understand that it’s wrong, they think it’s their patriotic duty. Covetousness is a leading economic indicator. Teaching covetousness it what children’s television does best; just watch the Saturday morning commercials. (Ads for laundry detergent are at least pitching something useful; but why does a child need a model robot that folds up and transforms itself into a toaster?)
In the Gospel today we hear Jesus say, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And Jesus goes on to tell a story about a farmer whose land produces abundantly. And some aspects of this story may begin to sound very familiar. We are surrounded, in the Midwest, by people who if they don’t get some bigger bins this year may have to let some of their corn sit in the field and rot. Now, I’ve known a lot of farmers, and on the whole and as a class, farmers are not any more greedy or covetous than anyone else; as a matter of fact, if anything, rather less so. But look at what we have done in American agriculture (and I do mean we — we’re all part of this system): plant plant plant, produce produce produce, expand expand expand, grow grow grow, more ethanol more ethanol more ethanol, borrow borrow borrow. Oh, now you’re overextended? So trapped in debt service that you can’t afford to diversify, or conserve soil, or back off on chemicals or any of the other things you’d really like to do? Join the rat race…
Well, most of us, as far as I’ve noticed, are not flagrantly covetous or acquisitive or greedy sorts of people. Most of us look at the farmer in this parable and we agree, he’s a fool, and we say, “I’m not like that.” At least not too obviously. And we’re not. Not exactly. Most of us are, I think, reasonably content with fairly modest means. We may daydream about winning the lottery, but we don’t really take that kind of thing too seriously. We’re not greedy. We’re not miserly. Certainly not by the standards of the world around us.
But what kind of standards are those? Let’s not deceive ourselves. We are thoroughly programmed into a moderate covetousness, a politely restrained variety of greed, that drives us constantly to want a little bit more, a little bit bigger, a little bit better. Our society spends (and needs to spend) less of its resources on the necessities of life, and those more on “elective,” nonessential “luxuries” than any other society on earth. We brag about it, as if it were the badge of moral superiority. Our standard operating assumption is that one’s life consists precisely in the abundance of possessions! That’s why we call it “standard of living”! It is a wonderful gift and privilege that we are able to produce so far beyond our necessities. But we haven’t understood why that is, or what it entails, or what it’s meant for. We have made our luxuries into our necessities of life. And like two-year-olds, “we don’t share” very well.
It’s not my purpose to get us all off on a fruitless guilt-trip, and I do mean us all, because God knows I want all the same grownup toys and gadgets that you want, and I chafe at what I cannot afford. I, like you, have to face up to the whole question of the place and value of things in my life, and questions of what we can “afford” and “not afford,” and what that really means, and just what it is that all that stuff and clutter of our lives is really about. “”One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Do we really believe that? What’s the evidence that we do? St. Paul today bids us to put to death whatever in us is earthly, including greed (which is idolatry). As Jesus elsewhere puts it, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” We can’t have it both ways. We are entrusted with worldly resources by the God who made this world. We can use these resources in the service of God’s kingdom, for the common good of all humankind — examples might include the Millennium Development Goals, or the production and use of energy around the world, or how we care for animals and fish and birds and forests and prairies. Or we can keep our resources for ourselves, “us first.” But if we keep them for ourselves they will turn on us and master us and ultimately destroy us. And if we think that won’t happen, if we think that isn’t happening right now, then perhaps we are not paying very close attention.