“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” Luke 12:15 (8/4)

August 5, 2013

Looking over the readings for this morning, especially the gospel, it seems pretty clear that today we are being asked to take a look at the problem of greed which is, I’m sure, exactly what you all want to think about on this fine summer morning. But that where we are. Intuitively, we all have pretty good idea about what is going on with greed, and I think most of us can usually agree that greed is a bad thing. But it’s also something that I suspect most us think of as someone else’s problem. I think you probably know where I’m going with this. The scriptures are not addressed to other people; they’re for you and me. So there’s something here that’s important for us all to hear.

Across the three readings, we actually have a deep and sophisticated description of what greed really is. But we need to go backwards in order to see it. So let’s start with the gospel which is actually quite straightforward. Jesus has been teaching the crowds when someone shouts out to him asking him to settle a disagreement with his brother about their inheritance. Jesus refuses but he uses the opportunity to open up a new avenue of teaching. He says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” In this context, Jesus seems to be warning about being overly preoccupied with material things. Material things should not become the source of conflict among us.

In the epistle, St. Paul approaches the question by thinking about the difference between heavenly things and earthly things. And he tells us to put the earthly things aside, with the list that ends with greed, which is idolatry. Now this caused me a bit of a problem when I read it. I think I know what greed is, and I think I know what idolatry is, and they are not the same thing. But idolatry is not quite what we usually think it is.
When we hear the restrictions about idols in the ten commandments or in some other passage of scripture, I think many people think to themselves – I know I often do – well, I don’t really keep false idols around the house, so I’m probably ok with that one. And then we move on to something else.
But if we look again at the passage from Hosea, a slightly different image of idolatry emerges. In this passage, God is longing for Israel, and Israel has turned away to worship the Baals. God remembers all the things that he did for Israel, even when they didn’t know it was God. But they turned away from God’s love and looked to other powers to help them control the world. And this is how it connects with greed.

At its most basic level, the desire for things and to control things is bad enough. We allow it to become something that governs our life. We give it respect and power. We let the expectations of the world take a place alongside God or even in place of God. These are incredibly powerful forces – expectations around our image in the world, expectations of consumption and consumerism. Whether we like it or not, these forces are given respect and power in our society. The only question is whether or not we, as Christians, will given them respect and power in our lives.
How is this good news for us? First of all, Jesus and Paul and Hosea put a finger right on one of the most challenging aspects of who we are as individuals. They point out one of our weakest points. Of course it is good to be thankful for all of the things we have in our lives, and it is good to be thankful for all of our relationships. And striving for a better life for ourselves and our children is part of being human. This is not what Jesus is talking about. But it can be so easy to tip over into that idolatry – giving power and respect to things which will eventually destroy us. So this warning is good news.

But even more important is the understanding that life is more than the things that we have. The idols and temptations that are all around us can never replace the love that God has for us. If we keep this in mind, then we realize that the only power that these temptations and idols have is the power that we choose to give them. Life is a gift from God, and whether we have much or little, we all stand as equals in the eyes of God.

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