LUKE 12: 13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ 18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ 20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Did you notice how Jesus did not give someone what he asked for? A man said to Jesus, “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me?” Sounds fair to me, at first. But Jesus doesn’t only refuse the man his request, he questions the question with a question of his own: “Who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”
There was another Jewish rabbi, who would always respond to any question you put to him with another question of his own. One of his disciples finally got so fed up with that, that he nearly screamed, in frustration, “Why can’t you ever just give us a straight, simple answer? Why do you always answer our questions with more questions?”
To which the rabbi replied, “So what have you got against questions?”
One could write a book about all the times that Jesus questions the question with another question, or his answer seems to go off on a totally unexpected tangent that leaves the original question in the dust. But with a little reflection, we see that the more his responses seem off-the-wall, the more they are on target. Today’s story is case in point. Where a man just wanted a quick and easy resolution to an immediate money problem, and a family spat, Jesus saw a teaching opportunity for all people, all times and gave all of us a story, a story about greed.
“Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko, the villain in the movie, Wall Street. That was just before he got busted for fraud and insider trading. Still, some say that greed is the basis of our prosperity, that as long as everyone acts for their own immediate good, then the greatest number of people will experience the maximum common good.
But that is to confuse a proper, healthy self-love and self-care with greed. The ancient Greek story-teller, Aesop, illuminated the self-defeating excess of greed in his story about a dog trotting home to his den with a piece of meat in his mouth that he intended to eat in the safety of his den. But while crossing a low footbridge over a little stream, he looked down into the water to see what he thought was another dog looking up at him, also with a big piece of meat in his mouth. Not realizing that he was looking at his own reflection in the water, the dog grew incensed at this other dog for having a piece of meat as big as his own, maybe bigger. Then he began to lust after that other dog’s piece of meat and snapped at it, only to see his piece of meat fall out of his mouth, splash in the water and sink to the bottom, lost to everyone but the fish. That is the wisdom of the ancients telling us that, by trying to have it all, we lose it all. How many times has that happened? And how many innocent people got hurt along the way?
We need food, shelter, clothing and safety, of course. These things require resources, services, and private property over which we freely exercise responsible stewardship, for the care of ourselves and others. But since we live in an inter-connected world, the excesses and losses of greed affect way more people than the greedy. Greed is an assault on the common good, not an avenue to it.
So now we come to the first question in the sermon outline: What is Greed? A responsible, healthy self-care, is a good thing. But greed is when our “desire” button is stuck on “On,” and we can’t find the “enough” switch, that we push when our God-given needs are met. As long as we’re talking about reconciliation this year, greed is the inability to be reconciled to our limits, the refusal to be reconciled to “enough.”
Greed is easy to recognize when it comes to things, like the 1,000-plus pairs of shoes found in the closet of Imelda Marcos, when she and her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, were driven from power over the Philippines 30 years ago. And that in one of the world’s poorest countries, where most people are happy to have just one pair of shoes. Their greed had much to do with their people’s poverty.
But we can also be greedy for intangible things, like prestige, pleasure or power. When someone can’t seem to ever get enough attention, a Texas proverb applies: “He has to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” As for greed for pleasure: gluttony is, in part, the inability to say, No, to the desire to sustain the pleasure of a full stomach, even when there’s no credible risk of hunger any time soon. Pornography and promiscuity can be a predatory greed for sexual pleasure. As for greed for power, that’s the classic definition of tyranny and totalitarianism. In contrast to that is the example of the county commissioner I knew in Kansas who resisted calls to run for office higher up in state government. He always said, No, Getting greater recognition higher up meant nothing to him, compared to his desire to improve the lives of his neighbors.
All these different kinds of greed share this in common: they are vain efforts to fill the God-shaped hole in our heart with the gifts of God, rather than with God himself. Greed is the vicious, compulsive cycle of trying even harder to stuff that God-shaped hole with ever more stuff, only to fail even worse, and then try all the harder.
To keep all that getting and consuming from consuming us, it helps to know just Why is there greed (the second question in the outline)? Three likely culprits come to mind, The usual suspects, are: a) fear; b) doubt; and c) idolatry.
As for the first reason, fear: greed stems from the fear of scarcity, that there will ever and only be so much of what we need to sustain life, health and love, that there is only so much security, power and dignity to go around, and therefore I had better stockpile as much as I can for myself, even if at your expense. And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; our fighting, grabbing, grasping over and stockpiling what we think is only a limited supply of life, love, security, power and dignity ensures that there is indeed a growing scarcity of life, love, security, power and dignity.
That fear of scarcity is based on the second reason for greed: doubt. We disbelieve God, and fail to trust his Word, that there will always be enough of whatever it is we need to survive and to thrive. Yet one of the biblical names for God is YHWH Yirech, “God provides.” God proved true to his name providing the Israelites in the wilderness their daily bread in the form of manna every morning, always enough for each day, and then some for the Sabbath. Those who tried to gather any more than that would find it rotting.
It’s not like the fear of scarcity is totally unfounded. Farmers know what droughts, diseases, pests, and flood can do. But ours is an interdependent world, in which, if we lack, someone else has a surplus, meant to be shared. God gives, but he also gives us the opportunity to partner with him in giving, and in receiving. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
Reason C why we fall for greed is idolatry, when we look to things to do and to be for us what God alone can be or do. That’s why the apostle Paul calls greed another form of idolatry. I had to come to terms with my own tendency to turn things into idols eight years ago when Becky and I were moving from a house in the suburbs of St. Paul, MN., to a smaller co-op apartment in Minneapolis. I thought I was really getting into this downsizing thing. I was feeling a real freedom in loading stuff into the car to take to Goodwill, until, that is, I came to that pup tent I had bought in 1979, used, and those extra ice fishing tip-ups I had bought at garage sales, when the state allows me to use only one at a time, and the little backpacking stove from Boy Scout days.
Becky asked me, “When did you last use that thing?”
How were they all going to fit into the little storage space that came with our 2 bedroom apartment? That grief and greed I felt about giving these things up was less about the things themselves, and more about my passing youth that they represented. I was looking to that stuff to do, again, something that God alone does: to “renew my youth like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103) and to allay my fears of aging and mortality. In that instance, the three wellsprings of greed– fear, doubt and idolatry– were all wrapped up together. Eight years later, I don’t miss those items and more that went to Goodwill. I don’t even remember what half of them were.
As for the third question, Why would God call the man in Jesus’ story, “a fool,” just for building a bigger barn to hold his bumper crop? Normally, we’d call that prudence, good stewardship, or even a good business practice. We can even call it official government policy, ever since the 1970’s when America’s farm policy became, “Get big, or get out.” Today, he might even get some government subsidies and tax breaks for expanding his barn and stockpiling all that grain.
So why would Jesus call this man “fool?” It can’t be just about his imminent mortality. Did he not still do the right thing by his estate, his family and his heirs, by building a bigger barn for his bumper harvest? Nor is it just because he’s rich. The Bible holds up for example some righteous saints who were very rich, like Abraham and Sarah, or Job.
As I was thinking on this question, Why would God call this man “fool?” I remembered that someone else already answered that question better than I ever could. That was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon he delivered in 1967, entitled, “Why Jesus Called a Man A Fool.” Dr. King gave two reasons why Jesus called the man a fool. One reason, Dr. King said, was that “he failed to realize his dependence on God. He talked as though he unfolded the seasons and provided the fertility of the soil, controlled the rising and the setting of the sun, and regulated the natural processes that produce the rain and the dew. He had an unconscious feeling that he was the Creator, not a creature. This man-centered foolishness has had a long and oftentimes disastrous reign in the history of mankind. Sometimes it is theoretically expressed in the doctrine of materialism… …To believe that human personality is [only] the result of the fortuitous interplay of atoms and electrons is as absurd as to believe that a monkey by hitting typewriter keys at random will eventually produce a Shakespearean play. Sheer magic!”
In such a simply materialistic view of the world, there is nothing to restrain any kind of greed, or reward any restraint.
A second reason Dr. King gave, why the rich man was a fool, was “because he failed to realize his dependence on others. His soliloquy contains approximately sixty words, yet [the words] ‘I’ and ‘my’ occur twelve times. He has said ‘I’ and ‘my’ so often that he had lost the capacity to say ‘we’ and ‘our.’ A victim of the cancerous disease of egotism, he failed to realize that wealth always comes as a result of the commonwealth. He talked as though he could plough the fields and build the barns alone. He failed to realize that he was an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead had contributed. When an individual or a nation overlooks this interdependence, we find a tragic foolishness. … Year after year we ask, ‘What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?’ I have seen an answer in the faces of millions of poverty-stricken men and women in Asia, Africa, and South America. I have seen an answer in the appalling poverty on the Mississippi Delta and the tragic insecurity of the unemployed in large industrial cities of the North. What can we do? The answer is simple: feed the poor, clothe the naked, and heal the sick. Where can we store our goods? Again the answer is simple: we can store our surplus food free of charge in the shriveled stomachs of the millions of God’s children who go to bed hungry at night. We can use our vast resources of wealth to wipe poverty from the earth. All of this tells us something basic about the interdependence of men and nations. Whether we realize it or not, each of us is eternally ‘in the red.’ We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women….In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality. The rich man tragically failed to realize this. He thought that he could live and grow in his little self-centered world. He was an individualist gone wild. Indeed, he was an eternal fool!”
What, by contrast, would have made this man wise? (The last question in the outline) The man did not have to look far for wisdom about what to do with his bumper crop. The Law of Moses told him to let the poor glean from his fields what he could not get on the first harvest. And if he still harvested more grain than what he needed for next year’s dinners and planting, then yes, he could sell the surplus at the market for a fair price, given the abundant supply. Then it would be stockpiled in the homes and kitchens and stomachs of his grateful neighbors.
Wise actions like those would not be acts of charity, but of solidarity. They would be expressions of community, interdependence and generosity, too. Then the poor and the imperiled would bless his name and pray for him. Whenever the poor pray for us and bless God for us, we’re covered. Such generosity, community, solidarity and interdependence are not just about money, either. I saw those values and virtues on display this week in all the partnerships and relationships of our Vacation Bible School. I saw them in the time, the effort, the energy, the talents and the love that Zion people offered, and in the same things that we received from others. And should ever we join the friends who gather on alternate Tuesdays at the Jubilee Food Shelf (which I recommend), that, again, is not charity, but solidarity, community, partnership, friendship, fellowship and even worship. Proverbs 19: 7 says, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” For God will be no one’s debtor.
Gratitude would also have been the way of the wise. Had the man been grateful and content with what he had, such attitudes are already, in themselves, indestructible forms of wealth. For we are rich not because of what we own but because of what we value.
But how much poorer that man was for all the fear and covetousness that moved him to stockpile all the surplus and try to corner the market, probably with the intent of controlling the price. How much poorer he would be, having to hire guards protect his stockpile from the poor, the hungry and the desperate, if next year’s crop should fail. How much poorer he was for living in a future, and worrying about it, that would never come to pass, instead of enjoying the moment of abundance, accomplishment and security. Like that fool, we too face an accounting that no Harvard-trained CPA, and no IRS auditor will ever see. And so I close with words from the journal of Jim Elliot, a missionary to South America, who died at the hands of the people he was trying to reach: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”