Greed is good! This phrase was popularized 20 years ago in the movie Wall Street, where Michael Douglas played Gordon Gekko, who liked to merge companies for his profit and the employee’s nightmare. The movie was meant to be an indictment and warning against Wall Street greed, but instead Gordon Gekko became a hero to many who would now eat him for breakfast. Many people are now calling big bankers “banksters.” Now we are in such as mess and learning the lesson that greed is not good, rather it is wrecking our country.
Greed gets me angry. When I hear that in 2009, the Forbes 400 added an average of $500M EACH to their net worth, it makes me angry when I think what most of us got- salary freezes, cut backs and declining home values. The wealthiest people, the top 1% of this world, have grown their fortunes by over $20 trillion in the past decade while, coincidentally, the world’s governments have gone over $20 trillion into debt. The gap in inequality between the super wealthy and the rest of us is increasing dramatically as we go through the worst recession in decades.
I’m still trying to understand how this is happening, but I
do see part of the problem. Last week it
was revealed that one of our New York Congressman, Charles Rangel, is being investigated
for enriching himself with rent controlled apartments and large gifts while
making loopholes in laws for oil companies and powerful friends. That is the tip of a massive
What do Jesus and the Bible have to say about greed and wealth? As I look at the lectionary for the next few weeks, we will get several opportunities to look at this issue from different angles, as Jesus talks about living like the lilies of the fields and giving great banquets. Jesus words give us the grounds to challenge what I see as economic injustice, but also caution me against how easy it is to be greedy myself. And Jesus advises us on ways to think about wealth that are life-giving.
Jesus clearly warns against greed in today’s parables, and I’m interested in what he means. First, a man asks Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute with his brother. On close reading, its hard to know the dynamics of what set Jesus off. The man who wants his inheritance doesn’t reveal any bad traits and what he asks for may not be unreasonable or wrong. Of course we probably know how siblings can be torn apart over unclear inheritances. It can get very ugly. My thought here is that Jesus is counseling this man to not let his desire for wealth overshadow the importance of his relationships with his family. This is the essence of what is wrong with greed-it unbalances our relationships with others.
The next parable Jesus tells is intriguing. Jesus notes that the land of a rich man produces abundantly and he doesn’t have room for all his crops. So he decides he will build bigger barns, store his abundance and relax, eat, drink and be merry. Now what is so bad about that? Would you honestly handle the situation any differently? Nowhere in this parable does Jesus say the man acted unjustly. He does not lie, cheat or steal to get his wealth. He grew it on his own land, there is no reference to underpaying his workers or any other form of injustice. What has he done wrong?
The book of Proverbs has much to say about how God views wealth. There are many verses that tell us that those who work diligently and live righteously will prosper and those who are sluggards will be poor. Proverbs 6:6 counsels us to be diligent like the ant and gather provisions during harvest so we will have enough, but too much sleep and you will be poor. Proverbs 11:18 reads “The wicked earns deceptive wages, but he who sows righteousness gets a true reward.” The idea that the righteous will prosper is so ingrained in the wisdom literature that Job and his friends are quite perplexed that so much tragedy has befallen him. Job’s friends feel terrible about his calamities, but they begin to question him, taking a moral inventory to see what thing he did wrong to bring all this misfortune into his life. Last week a co-worker of mine was struggling with many challenges at home and said, “I don’t know what I did to bring all this on myself.”
Today there are many popular books like “The Secret” that believe we create our own fortunes and misfortunes by the positive and negative thoughts we send out into the universe. If you think rich you will grow rich and if you think poor you will be poor. I think we want to believe this is true, in part because our culture worships wealth. We are conditioned to believe that if we work hard and live a good life we will prosper. This may have been true for much of our history, but things have changed. Now we see people getting wealthy through political connections and hard working people struggling.
While the Bible does affirm that righteous and wealth should go together, it gives us a much more complex point of view. Proverbs 3:9 reads, “Honor the Lord from your wealth, and from the first of all your produce.” From Proverbs 11:25 we learn, “The generous man will be prosperous, And he who waters will himself be watered.” The Bible is very clear that we are called to be generous with our wealth and if we have an abundance, we are to give to others in need.
I was struck by something Jesus said in the parable of the rich fool. Jesus said that the man’s LAND produced a great abundance. Yes, he played a role in farming the land through hard work, but he did not do it alone. The land itself produced the abundance. Without land the farmer can do nothing. He can’t grow grain out his ears. The fertile soil existed long before humans walked on the earth and started thinking that we own everything. All that we have ultimately have is a gift from our creator that was made over centuries. Human beings are remarkable. We can figure out how to drill oil far below the surface, but we cannot create oil. We can mine metals, gold and coal deep below into the earth’s crust, but we cannot make these things. We can cut down forests for lumber and plant trees, but we can’t make trees. The very air that we breath is a gift from another species. Without lots of trees and vegetation we would suffocate. Everything we have and life itself is ultimately a gift, not a possession.
We use the word “stewardship” to refer to our Fall fundraising, but it is a much richer concept. Stewardship means that we are really caretakers for God. We are to take care of the earth and its abundance, we are to use the land and its wealth wisely. We may benefit from its abundance, but must remember that everything really belongs to God. Greed arises from the belief that we are the sole owner of all that we have, when really everything we think we own ultimately belongs to God. It is all on loan to us for the short period of time we walk on this earth. We can benefit and enjoy God’s abundant world, but it is all a gift and must be used wisely and responsibly.
How might this change the way you think about money and possessions, if it all belongs to God? Does it change your budget? Does it affect how you feel about people who have less or more than you? How are we called to live in a world with great inequality and poverty? These are deep questions, and today’s Gospel lesson gives us the starting point. Life is a gift and we are called to be good Stewards, to use God’s abundance wisely, and to be generous.