Summary: Greed is every bit as much -- maybe more -- a poor man’s vice as it is a rich man’s folly.
Fifthteenth Sunday in Trinity:
Scripture: Luke 12:13-21, Ecclesiasticus 5:1-10
"Is Greed a Poor Man’s Vice?"
The lessons appointed for today have three things in common. First of all, both contain teaching from men who were named Jesus. Jesus ben Sirach composed the passage from the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus in the first lesson, and Jesus ben Joseph delivered the teaching contained in Luke’s gospel. The second thing these lessons have in common is the idea of greed or covetousness. The third thing these passage have in common relates to those of gathered here today: the subject of greed does not seem particularly applicable to me, or to any of the rest of us here today, especially the words of Jesus from Luke’s gospel.
Jesus specifically warns against covetousness, against greed, against the idea that our life consists in the abundance of things which we possess. So also, Jesus ben Sirach warns us in the opening words of this reading, “Set not your heart upon your possessions.”
The problem in contemplating teaching like this — especially the passage from Luke’s gospel -- is easy to spot – what does it have to do with me? I don’t even HAVE any barns, and if I DID have any, I wouldn’t have anything to PUT in them.
Because we are a small group here today, because we all know one another well, we all know that all of us here today are NOT the kind of people with bulging barns and piles of goods lying around until we build more barns to put them in. If there were some wealthy, prosperous, barn-owning folks in our parish, the message I would bring you would be somewhat different than what you’re about to hear; and if I were the priest of a parish of people like Bill Gates and Michael Forbes and Warren Buffet or the heads of Fortune 500 companies – well, the message from these readings would probably reflect that audience.
But, here we are – just us ORDINARY folks, at the time of our lives when the financial pressures are very real, the financial needs are more or less constant, the financial future is at best blank, and at worst it’s pretty gloomy. It’s a simple thing, and an understandable mistake, to suppose that Jesus’ teaching here is only for those people with big barns and the need to build more of them. Certainly his words apply to those kind of people; but they also apply to YOU AND ME, we who have no barns, and nothing to put in them at the end of a pay period.
To see Jesus’ point more clearly, it is important to notice first of all what Jesus does not say.
First of all, Jesus does not say that it was evil for the rich man to be rich. He does not say that the rich man was wrong to acquire the abundance of goods. Indeed, Jesus puts into God’s mouth the admission that the man’s own industry had a hand in producing the goods. He’s a farmer, and farmers do not just sit around doing nothing while the land produces an abundance of fruit. It must be cultivated. Work goes into the production of agricultural produce. And so God candidly acknowledges “those things which thou has provided,” at the end of the parable.
In the Old Testament, the acquisition of goods was always an expectation that one had from following wisdom.
Whatever else God may bestow as a blessing, one of his blessings was to prosper those he is pleased with. In Proverbs 3:16ff, for example, we read this: 16 Long life is in [wisdom’s] right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.
In Chapter 24 of Proverbs we read this: 3Through wisdom a house is built, And by understanding it is established; 4By knowledge the rooms are filled With all precious and pleasant riches.”
So, it is NOT the mere acquisition of goods that Jesus points to. Instead, he is warning us about our attitude toward the goods themselves.
The acquisition of goods always poses a temptation, a kind of trap. No one has to fall into the trap, but many do. And, the ones who most obviously fall into the trap are those with an abundance of goods. It’s really easy to see the trap and how they have stepped into it. This is the very example which Jesus sets before the crowd. What is the trap? And how do people step into it?
The trap is named by Jesus ben Sirach when he warns us “Set not your heart upon your possessions.” Our Lord points to the same trap when he tells the crowd, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” If we think that our lives – its quality, its security, its comforts and all the rest, are a function of whether or not we possess various things in sufficient quantities – well, in that case, we have stepped into the trap. We have believed a lie about the universe and about ourselves.