Greed is Not Good (Luke 12:13-21; Col. 3:1-11)
In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko says to the stock holders of Teldar Paper, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” Is greed a good thing? If you eliminated greed from our economy we would have to restructure our economic system. There is a reason the Christian tradition has made greed one of the seven deadly sins. In our text today Jesus says, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”
It’s important to set this teaching by Jesus on greed in the context of Luke’s Gospel. In the previous stories leading up to this passage about the rich fool, story after story, passage after passage highlights the blindness of Jesus’ contemporaries, particularly the religious leadership. In the passage right after Jesus’ teaching on prayer that I talked about last week, the Jewish religious leaders accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. In other words, to put this in the language of today, they are accusing him of doing works of liberation for diabolical and evil purposes. Jesus refutes such foolishness and contends he is doing the healing, liberating work of the kingdom of God, setting people free and making them whole.
Jesus goes on to mention the sign of Jonah. The Ninevites repented when Jonah told them the truth, but Jesus’ contemporaries refuse to hear the truth. So Jesus says, “The people of Nineveh will rise up in judgement of this generation.”
Jesus tells them that the eye is to the body what the heart is to the soul, and their heart is dark and blind to the light of God. Now, the Jewish leaders claimed to know God and speak for God, but they were in reality morally and spiritually blind to the love of God and the ways of God. They didn’t really know God at all, even though they thought they did and claimed they did. They didn’t know good from evil, or truth from deception, or justice from injustice. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Such is the state of the leadership of many countries in our world today, including our own. Jesus tells them that the light they profess is actually darkness.
Next, Jesus thunders and rails against their hypocrisy. When the Jewish leaders chastise Jesus for eating without observing their laws of ritual cleansing he says, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” They were full of greed, not just for possessions and wealth, but for power and position. They were greedy for control. The fact that Jesus did not acknowledge their legalistic interpretations of the scriptures or submit to their authority and control, infuriated them.
This is the setting that leads up to Jesus’ warning about greed and the parable of the rich fool. Jesus had been very direct, but clearly that was not working. So he tells them a parable. Someone in the crowd beckons Jesus to settle a dispute between him and his brother over the family inheritance. Jesus refuses to get entangled in a family dispute, but he uses the occasion to warn them about greed. Now, Jesus has already warned them that greed merits judgment, that greed is not good. Now, he takes a different approach. Jesus insists that to live a life of greed is just a foolish way to live.
In those days one’s wealth was measured in terms of lands and harvests. A rich man’s land produced abundantly. Now, under the old theology of blessing and cursing this would have been understood to mean that he was blessed. Not from the perspective of Jesus. The rich man said to himself, “I have no place to store all that I have. What should I do? I know what I will do. I will build larger barns to store all my grain and my goods. Then I will sit back and relax. I will eat, drink, and be merry.” If Jesus were telling this story to me and my kind of crowd he might say, “A bass fisherman said to himself, I have no place to store all my rods and reels and lures. What shall I do? I know what I will do. I will build a storage building so I can store all my fishing stuff. Then I will say to myself. Self, relax for a while. Then, go fish till you drop.”
Now, little does the rich man know, says Jesus, that tonight he will meet God. And God will say. “Where’s all the stuff that you lived for? Where is it? To whom does it now belong?” God says, “What a fool. How foolish it is to store up all this stuff for yourself, and not be rich toward God.” Sort of reminds me of an inscription to be found in a museum in Deadwood, South Dakota, where they had the gold rush 100 years ago. The inscription, scratched out by a beleaguered prospector, says, "I lost my gun. I lost my horse. I am out of food. The Indians are after me, but I've got all the gold I can carry.” And God says, “What a fool.” It just might be that every time a place another order to Tackle Warehouse God is probably saying, “What a fool.” I know my wife I saying that, but God is probably saying it too. I joke about it, because there is no use in pretending that we don’t all struggle with this. We all do. I’m sure I struggle with this is as much as you do.
And while we all struggle with this, there are some people who are just bigger fools than the rest of us. I will tell you about one. His name is Mike Long. He was known as America’s big bass guru. He has been featured on the cover of over 40 fishing magazines. He’s fished alongside Hank Parker and Shaw Grigsby on their popular TV shows. He has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournament winnings and big bass prizes, including the 50 or 60 thousand dollar boat that he owns. Fishing companies lined up to get him to endorse their products. He dominated the local tournament trail in San Diego County, California, known as the big bass capital of the world. The fishing industry, particularly the craze surrounding swimbaits, wouldn’t be the same today if it weren’t for Mike Long.
Well, guess what? Mike Long is a fraud. Now, I know some of you think that I have been posting the same fish over and over again on facebook. Even my son said the other day, “How did you get all those pictures of the same fish?” Now even if that were true, I would not be the fraud that Mike Long is. Mike Long was exposed by a man named Kellen Ellis who was once his friend. Kellen engaged in an extensive investigation of Mike Long over several years and just recently published the results in a 12,000 word plus investigative report (which is an amazing piece of investigative journalism) and a 20 minute video that supplies indisputable proof of Mike Long snagging, which is illegal, not catching big largemouth bass while they were on the nest. Mike Long made numerous false unverified claims with false photographs to claim several lake records in the San Diego area. The fish he snagged illegally he would hide on his boat in oxygen filled livewell bags which he turned in during the tournament weigh in as fish he legitimately caught that day. These were fish previously snagged and then hidden on his boat. That’s how he won so many tournaments. Mike Long snagged, cheated, lied, bribed and bullied his way to become the big bass king of the world. All of that has been exposed and Mike Long’s name is now held in contempt by bass fishermen all across the country. His greed, not just for the money, but for the acclaim and prestige of being the big bass master of the world, the best of the best, led him to a very dark place, where there was nothing he would not do for a taste of the praise and glory of being the King of the big bass world. Sounds like some of our elected officials doesn’t it?
In C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe one of the children, Edmund, who magically enters the land of Narnia finds himself face to face with the White Witch. She has turned Narnia into a perpetual winter—though never Christmas. Her plan is to get Edmund to talk, to get information about the other children. In order to do that she gives him some Turkish Delight. Lewis writes: “At last the Turkish Delight was all finished and Edmund was looking very hard at the empty box and wishing that she would ask him whether he would like some more. Probably the Queen knew quite well what he was thinking; for she knew, though Edmund did not, that this was enchanted Turkish Delight and that anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” That’s what greed will do – it is self-destructive.
It’s hard for us to see how destructive it is, because our economy and culture and lifestyle is saturated with it. Greed is easy to rationalize and justify, because we don’t call it greed. We might call it the American dream. We are doing this with racism today. There are a number of people who are saying racist things and supporting racist practices, but they don’t think it is racism. They are blind to their racism just the way many of us are blind to our greed, myself included. Greed is one of the reasons some people don’t want immigrants coming into our country. They will take what is ours, they say. And that really gets to the heart of what greed is. The man Jesus calls a fool, our society would call prudent and industrious.
Dr. Alan Culpepper makes the observation in his comments on this text that the rich man’s vision of the future, “eat, drink, and be merry” - leisure, recreation, freedom from the demands of work – sounds uncomfortably like the vision most of us have for our retirement years. Our entire economic system (as is true for most of the world) is driven by the desire for more. You may remember a few years back the AT&T commercial where the little girl says, “You just want more, you just want more.” The commentator says, “It’s not that complicated: Bigger is better.”
The reason Jesus calls him a fool is because he is preoccupied with himself and his goods. In the parable the fool talks to himself. He says to himself, “Self, what should I do for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he says, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” It’s “I” and “my.” He congratulates himself. He builds for himself. He lives for himself. We get no indication of any sense of responsibility toward others.
By contrast, consider Jesus’ teaching in the model prayer. It’s not about “my” or “mine”; it’s about “us” and “ours.” It’s about God and others. “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Deliver us from the time of trial.” It’s about God and community, not God and country. God’s community transcends country. God’s kin-dom transcends nationality, ethnicity, gender, class and everything else. In God’s kin-dom God is all in all. Everyone belongs.
In Colossians 3:5-11, Paul gives us his vision of where God’s living creation is headed. We are destined, according to Paul, to a place of ultimate renewal. In the time of fulfillment Paul envisions a world reconciled, at peace, where love of neighbor prevails. Paul says, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all.” In that renewal, says Paul, there will be no religious, racial, and social inequity or inequality. We will all be one. We will all belong. We will all be united. Christ will be all in all. What a glorious vision.
Will we ever reach a time of fulfillment? When we look at how divided we are now as families, as religious and social communities, as a country and as a world, it seems like a fairy tale wish doesn’t it? But, sisters and brothers, if we are truly followers of Jesus, and not just church goers or Christians in name only, then the dream of Christ being all in all will guide our steps and order our lives. Love of neighbor will be our first priority. And that, sisters and brothers, is what it means to be rich toward God. (The quote by Richard Rohr in your worship bulletin describes beautifully what it means to be rich toward God.)
Paul tells us to put away everything that would destroy that unity. Anything that would demean or degrade another one of God’s children must be stripped from our lives like we would strip off old, dirty clothes. Paul tells us to set our minds on things above, not on things of the earth. The way we do that is by loving others as we love ourselves. Jesus and Paul make it crystal clear to anyone not blinded by their greed and ego, that we love God by loving others. We are rich toward God when we live unselfishly and generously, sharing with others, caring for others, helping others. God’s love is eternal. When we love, it is the Christ loving in us and through us. To be rich toward God is to be rich in love and the relationships born out of love.
Paul says get rid of greed and self-indulgence, put to death all attitudes and actions that hurt others – anger, malice, slander, abusive language. Stop lying and deceiving. Strip off all the things associated with your old self, your egotistical self, your little, false self, and clothe yourself with the Christ self, the true, larger self. Paul goes on to say in that passage, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Above all, says Paul, love your neighbor as yourself. This is how we become rich toward God, and that is the only kind of wealth that will last.
O God, we all struggle with greed, with wanting more for ourselves, sometimes at the expense of others having less. Forgive us, Lord. Teach us how to be generous and how to share with others. Teach us how to love our neighbors as ourselves. Because many of us don’t know how to do that. Help us to discover a better way so we won’t die as fools. So that we will be rich toward God. Amen.