Monday, August 1, 2016

Losing the need for greed

The Occupy Wall Street movement began in 2011 to protest growing economic inequality, spread around the world, and remains active today, although with a lower public profile. In the United States, for example the wealthiest 1% own 40% of the wealth, which equals the wealth owned by the poorest 90% of the US population.[1] Incomes, like wealth, are also increasingly unequal. Illustratively, the Economic Policy Institute calculates that the Chief Executive Officers of major US corporations in 1957 received 20 times the average compensation of employees at the CEO's corporation; by 2014, that ratio had skyrocketed to CEOs receiving 303 times as much in compensation as did their typical employee.[2] News stories about luxury lifestyles, such as the President of France spending $10,000 per month on haircuts,[3] memorably indict a grossly unequal world in which more than 2.8 billion people struggle to survive on less than a $2 per day.[4]
In today's gospel reading,[5] Jesus declares that real life does not consist of an abundance of possessions. Psychological research supports Jesus' teaching. Incomes above some level, perhaps $100,000-$200,000 per year in Honolulu,[6] do not automatically increase a person's happiness. Satisfying physical needs including food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare is important, but, once those needs are met, having more wealth or earning more money is no assurance of greater happiness.[7] Revealing, how one's wealth or income compares to that of one's peers influences our happiness more than does actual wealth or income.[8]
In the gospel reading, Jesus refuses to settle a dispute between an unnamed man and his brother over their inheritance. Following precedents rooted in the Mosaic Law, Jews, then and now, ask rabbis, to answer difficult questions and resolve conflicts among them.[9] Jesus, however, recognized that the man’s real problem was neither moral nor legal but spiritual: he covets the inheritance.[10]
As a priest who has studied economics, I can assure you that the Bible is not an economics textbook. Politicians who claim that the Bible supports tax cuts or tax increases, trade agreements or trade barriers, inheritance taxes or any other economic policy need to study both the Old Testament prophets and the gospels more carefully. The prophets, including Hosea, consistently denounce unjust policies and practices that allow accumulation of vast wealth by exploiting the poor or abusing the earth. The Biblical demand is for justice; specific policies and programs to achieve justice are situationally determined.
Today's gospel reading extends the demand for justice to show that greed harms the greedy. A farmer ensnared in a cycle of coveting and accumulating wealth has lost his soul and thus his ability to enjoy his wealth. Similarly, overachievers, and that describes many of us, often ignore the reality that their life parallels that of the farmer in Jesus’ parable. Afraid of failure or mediocrity, we grasp for more and more, never satisfied with what we have achieved or what we have.[11]
This morning I wish to leave you with two thoughts. First, if trapped in an endless cycle of achieving or accumulating, stop. Get off the treadmill. God loves you for who you are, not for what you do or what you have. Being a child of God in Christ Jesus, and not a person's job or net worth, defines the Christian. The greatest gift that you can give to God and to others (this includes children, spouse, parent, and others) is yourself. Admittedly, living in our culture, which mistakenly values wealth and position more than our identity as a child of God, is challenging. Thus, Jesus’ words of warning, “Be on guard,” should have a special poignancy for us. In Paul's words, set your mind on the things of God, not the things of this world.[12]
Author Robert Fulghum wrote a series of best-selling books, beginning with All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. More than 14 million copies of his books have been published in 27 languages and 93 countries. He obviously has done very well financially. In an interview with a Christian periodical called The Door, Fulghum reported that since his success, people are always saying, "Well, you must have a big house and a big car." And he responds, "No, I have the same house, same car, same friends, same wife...." Can you say the same?
Bible teacher Howard Hendricks tells about dining with a rich man from a blueblood Boston family. Hendricks asked him, "How in the world did you grow up in the midst of such wealth and not be consumed by materialism?"
The rich man replied, "My parents taught us that everything in our home was either an idol or a tool."
That is my second point: possessions are either idols or tools. Being rich toward God and others requires love, not possessions. “’Greed’ is the lust to have more, more than is needed, the boundless grasping after more.”[13] To quote Scripture, the love of money is the root of evil.[14] Let me repeat that. The love of money, not money per se, is the root of evil. Put greed to death and put on Christ.
Again, Fulghum is instructive. He admits that fame, of course, is a challenge, "and the challenge is to be a good steward with this kind of authority and power -- especially with the economics." So one year he did a book tour, raising $670,000 for a number of good causes. "I don't think I should be given extra credit for doing that," he says. "I think you should think ill of me if I didn't do that."[15]
The principal reason our worship services include receiving an offering is that giving helps to ensure that our possessions are tools for loving God rather than being idols. In other words, you benefit more from supporting Holy Nativity's ministry and mission through your giving than does God or the Church. Holy Nativity can, I believe, put the money we receive on Sundays to very good use, especially since giving in 2016 is down about 50% from 2015. More importantly, by treating money as a tool for loving God, you enter more deeply into the life abundant that God desires for each of us.
With God's help, may we avoid greed and live as good stewards, faithful stewards, of our money and possessions, using them as tools to love God and others more fully. Amen.



[1] Dave Boyer, "Obama to use State of the Union as opening salvo in 2014 midterms," Washington Times (January 24, 2014), retrieved July 25, 2016; Nicholas Kristof, "An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality," New York Times (July 22, 2014), retrieved July 25, 2016.
[2] Lawrence Mishel and Alyssa Davis, "Top CEOs Make 300 Times More than Typical Workers," Economic Policy Institute, June 21, 2015 retrieved July 25, 2016.
[3] Laura M. Holson, "Would You Spend $800 for a Haircut? Some Men in New York Do," New York Times, July 20, 2016, retrieved July 25, 2016.
[4] United Nations, "Hunger: Vital Statistics," Resources for Speakers on Global Issues, retrieved July 25, 2016.
[5] Luke 12:13-21/
[6] Estimate based upon Robert Frank, "The Perfect Income for Happiness? It's $161,000," CNBC, November 30, 2012, retrieved July 25, 2016, and Belinda Luscombe, "Do We Need $75,000 a Year to Be Happy?" Time, September 6, 2010, retrieved July 25, 2016.
[7] Andrew Blackman, "Can Money Buy You Happiness?" Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2014 retrieved July 25, 2016.
[8] Roger Highfield, "Relative wealth 'makes you happier,'" The Telegraph, November 22, 2007 retrieved July 25, 2016.
[9] S. Maclean Gilmour, “Exegesis of Luke,” Interpreter's Bible, ed. G. A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952), vol. 8, p. 225. Also, cf. Deuteronomy 21:15-17; Numbers 27:1-11.
[10] John Knox, “Exposition of Luke,” Interpreter's Bible, ed. G. A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952), vol. 8, p. 225. Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 969. Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 356.
[11] Sirach 11:11.
[12] Colossians 3:1-2.
[13] Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV (New York: Doubleday, 1985), p. 970.
[14] 1 Timothy 6:10.
[15] The Door, May/June 1995

1 comment:

Dotun Olagoke said...

Fr George---Great write up which remind me of Mahatma Gandhi’s quote---“There is a sufficiency in the world for man's need but not for man's greed”---Thanks