I think many of us have become so wealthy in terms of worldly possessions that it’s difficult for us to hear the teachings of Jesus properly. I say this as someone who makes less than the average American and has 5 kids, and yet as one who considers himself to be among the rich of this world – even in terms of material possessions. I prefer to measure myself not just by those who have more than me but by the billions who have less and have few opportunities to obtain more.
Jesus’ answer this morning is provocative, as usual. He warns us to beware of covetousness, because our lives do not consist in our material possessions. I find it interesting that one of the 10 Commandments, which we all say we wish the government would keep up on the walls of their buildings, is the commandment not to covet. Most of the other 10 commandments seem to be about something we say or actually do, but the commandment against coveting strikes at the very heart of things because it strikes, well, at our hearts.
Actually, another word for “covetousness” in this passage is the word “greed.” This raises the bar even higher, for while covetousness might be construed to mean “I want what that other person has” (and maybe we’re not guilty of that), we understand exactly what “greed” means. And greed hits close to home.
As provocative as Jesus’ answer is, I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated it. Jesus wasn’t simply teaching in general about greed and coveting: He was answering a particular question that some guy from the audience shouted out. “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!”
To which we might all say, “Amen!” After all, this is a matter of justice, and the brother should certainly rightly divide the inheritance with his brother. True enough, but Jesus’ answer to Him, seen in its context, shocks us. Instead of talking about justice and fairness, Jesus’ talks about greed.
Jesus is hardcore about greed, but He’s not the only one. St. Paul considers it a form of idolatry, since we are putting Mammon (material wealth) in the place of God (Ephesians 5:5; Colossian 3:5). Tucked in among the list of people we expect not to inherit the kingdom of God – fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, and thieves – Paul also says that the covetous will not inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:10).
The Church Fathers were just as radical on this. Cyril of Alexandria wrote, “He showed us that covetousness is a pitfall of the devil and hateful to God. The wise Paul even calls it idolatry, perhaps as being suitable for only those who do not know God or as being equal in the balance with the defilement of those people who choose to serve sticks and stones. It is a snare of evil spirits, by which they drag down a person’s soul to the nets of hell.”
St. Augustine said, “Greed wants to divide, just as love desires to gather. What is the significance of “guard against all greed,” unless it is “fill yourselves with love”? We, possessing love for our portion, inconvenience the Lord because of our brother just as that man did against his brother, but we do not use the same plea. He said, “Master, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” We say, “Master, tell my brother that he may have my inheritance.”
Do we believe these things? While God certainly allows us to use and delight in the kindly fruits of the earth and of our labor, how much is enough? At what point does that extra item in our collection constitute greed?
I don’t know. But I do think we should all ask ourselves the question. This is dangerous business, though. Last time I meditated on this, I signed the family up to support a 10-year old Ugandan boy named Mbatidde for $35 per month!
At what point do I really need the new car, when compared to how else I might use the money for God’s kingdom? At what point do I really need (and not just want) the new computer, cell phone, house, speakers, entertainment center, camera, TV, etc?
American consumer culture is advertising and enticing you with things 24/7. Unless you set your heart to be content with less and to put your trust and take your delight in God, you don’t stand a chance against the seductions of the world. So much have we all been sucked up into this world that we can’t necessarily even measure ourselves against ourselves because we can always find someone wealthier or greedier (which, by the way, are not necessarily connected).
So how can we escape this grave temptation? One measure of whether or not we have fallen into greed is to meditate on what we spend our time thinking about. Do you dream and labor so that you can build your bigger barns and accumulate more wealth and possessions? Do you feel secure because of your possessions, rather than because God cares for you? Do you find yourself comparing what you have with what others have? Does it ever bother you that others have more than you do? Do you complain that you don’t have enough? Do possessions and money become a source of contention in your life?
God did not make me the judge or arbiter over you (thank God!) But you are accountable before God for your use as a steward of His good gifts to you.
“Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.”
Prayer: Lord, I ask that You would teach me to acknowledge You to be the Giver of every good gift. Preserve me from the sin of greed or covetousness by giving me a thankful and contented heart. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- Meditate on how much it is “necessary” to have to “get by” in the U.S. today. Offer up thanks if you have this much, and if you have more, then offer up special thanks for God’s abundant gifts.
- In what ways might you be tempted to seek to gain more things than you ought to or trust in things more than you ought to?
Resolution: I resolve to consider my relationship with material possessions and examine whether or not I am guilty of being greedy or covetous.
© 2015 Fr. Charles Erlandson