Ecclesiastes 1:1214, 2:17, 11, 1823; Luke 12:1321
There is no way to avoid the theme of the lessons today. They are about wealth, greed, our attitude toward money, and how it affects our relationships with God, ourselves, each other, and the world.
In our family, we are constantly struggling with when is enough, really enough. Should we spend our money on something we want?, invest it for retirement? or should we give it away? We are bombarded all day long with advertisements on the radio, TV and a plethora of catalogues arriving in the mail, that tell us we need more. Reality series on TV like, for example, Donald Trump’s, “The Apprentice” or “Joe Millionaire”, or “For Love or Money” hold up for us the enticement of money over other values that we would say are vitally important to us like friendship, covenant, love, mutual respect, and trust.
In addition to the catalogues that arrive each day in the mail, come numerous brochures promoting books, conferences, and cruises which focus on spiritual growth. One of the topics which is repeatedly discussed in these materials is “Abundance.” Interestingly, Webster has two definitions of abundance. The first is: “marked by affluence, wealth and great plenty.” The second is: “amply supplied or a relative degree of plentifulness.”
These two definitions are at the core of two different world views about money. One world view is that the goal of work is to choose a career that will enable us to make a lot of money, accumulate wealth and be free to buy what we want and do what we want. “My money belongs to me, I worked for it. I will enjoy it and will pass on the fruits of my labor to my children.”
The second world view holds that my work is my vocation. It is my calling which expresses who I am and what I value. How much money I have or what I do does not define my worth. All that I have is a gift from God. And my excess is to be shared with those in the world wide human family who don’t have enough to meet basic needs.
We face a constant battle between our spiritual selves and the seduction of our material wants, a struggle between fear and faith. There is little in our modern culture that supports the belief that if we trust God, God will provide for our needs.
When we look to the Holy Scriptures for guidance in the matter of how we handle our money, we find that in some parts of the Bible, wealth and riches are signs of God’s blessing and approval.
For example, Jesus’ parable of the talents teaches that the person who takes a risk and invests the money he or she has been given in order to multiply it, is blesses with even more. And the person who is afraid of loosing the money and doesn’t try to multiply it, is punished by having it taken away.
We find a different view in many of The Psalms which are critical of wealth and those who build their wealth on the backs of the poor.
In 1st Timothy, Paul says, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” Not addiction to drugs or alcohol, or any of the other universally recognized human failings like pride, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth, but the love of money, or greed, is singled out by Paul to be the root of all evil.
Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” inviting us to see that what we do with our money clearly expresses what we love.
And yet here we are, North Americans, living in the richest nation in the world. We are wealthy, through no choice of our own. So given the fact that we are wealthy by the world’s standard, how do we keep from the sin of greed?
I believe that one may conclude from reading the scriptures that wealth is morally neutral. But having it is a serious challenge to the health of our souls. Jesus went so far as to say to the rich ruler, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus was using the illustration of a camel which could pass through a narrow archway if it wasn’t loaded with too much baggage to illustrate the burden of “baggage” or material things that one must carry if one is rich.
There is no indication that the rich man had gained his wealth by oppressing others or that he didn’t care about his relationship with God. It was just that he loved it too much; he loved it, depended on it, trusted it, more than God.
In addition to loving money more than God, wealth is seductive in that if we are not careful, we will see it as a reward for hard work or our cleverness rather than a gift from God.
One might argue that one’s cleverness and hard work does have something to do with financial abundance. We easily forget, however, that God gave us life and the intellectual capacity to be clever and creative and our parents or someone in the wider community provided us with an opportunity to be educated. And our parents or a caring mentor believed that we could succeed and taught us to work hard.
Yes, we are co-creators with God but if we forget to be grateful, we loose the heart of what gives life meaning. That is, all that we have belongs to God, and we are stewards of what we have been given.
The author of Ecclesiastes, who, looking back over his life, during which he had worked hard accumulating wealth, power, and worldly wisdom, describes the despair that results from all of our human striving. He said, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”
The problem with wealth is that the internal shift from gratitude to God for what we have been given, to love of money, is so subtle, that often we hardly know the shift has taken place. Before we know it we may find ourselves taking moral short cuts in our business practices or working long hours and neglecting our families in order to make more money when we already have plenty, or fighting with siblings over the family inheritance.
How far we have come from the Puritan’s view of work which emphasized hard work and a belief that finding ones true vocation was a calling, an opportunity to serve God and one’s neighbor. Moderation was a chief operating principle, and they disapproved of the one who worked too much, the same as they did of the one who was lazy. Work was to honor God rather than to accumulate wealth. Too much work could be as evil as too little work.
It would be untrue and naïve to deny that money can make life easier and more enjoyable. It can buy food, shelter, education, beauty and physical comfort. Lurking around the edges though, is the seduction of greed and coveting what others have. Nothing can destroy a person like the unbridled desire to possess.
Greed can even hide behind something that is good. One might give money away or work for a good cause but if greed is hiding there, we will give in order to get something in return. Regarding this, the Apostle Paul said that we can give away everything we have but if we lack love, (that is unconditional love that asks nothing in return), we gain nothing.
Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union attempted to deal with greed by creating a political system to deal with wealth, and the monastic movement in the church tried to solve it by taking a vow of poverty, but containing greed can’t be legislated from the outside.
And although political and social institutions can either encourage corporate greed or discourage it by law, it is an attitude of the heart and a spiritual challenge each of us must face each day that will make the difference for us as individuals and in our corporate life as North Americans.
Given that the dangers of wealth is such a prevalent theme in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures written thousands of years ago, we know that it is not a spiritual challenge that just began with prosperity in North America. It has been, is, and will be, a challenge until the end of time and we must be conscious of its destructive power in our lives.
One way to spot greed in our lives is to commit to a daily practice of meditation, to open to the Holy Spirit to help us see when greed is tempting us to abandon our commitment to gratitude, hospitality and generosity.
Another way to spot greed is to notice when fear and need for material security is driving us to work too much, or causing us to hold on to tightly to what we have, or covet what others have. Or it may help to pay attention to when our giving springs from guilt, because we have too much, rather than our gifts being an expression of gratitude to God for all that we have been given.
To be generous is not only to be in the giving position but to be able to receive the kindness and generosity of others and to ask God for forgiveness when we get off track knowing that we can begin anew tomorrow.
Richard Foster in his book, Money, Sex and Power, suggests that all who follow Christ are called to a vow of simplicity. For him simplicity is marked by contentment and trust. Having an attitude of detachment from all of the things of the world that try to seduce us into thinking they will make us happy and having the where-with-all to reject the prevailing belief that more is better, requires constant vigilance.
Foster says, that “the great moral question of our time is how to move from greed to generosity and from vengeance to magnanimity” and from violence to shalom. The vow of simplicity points the way. Simplicity gives us the perspective and courage to stand against greed, vengeance and violence.”
I would add that simplicity offers us a way to live and experience generosity, avoiding meanness and revenge and engaging us in active peacemaking even towards those whom we could justifiably consider to be our enemies.
We can’t confront this huge moral question alone. We need each other, to love and challenge each other as we face our tendency toward greed. Jesus gave us the Church to be a community that wrestles with these great moral questions and then seeks to find ways to be faithful to his teachings in the way we live our lives.
The spiritual struggle with wealth never becomes easy. If we give up the struggle and forget from where all of our resources and our very lives originate, we will find ourselves in the despair expressed by the author of Ecclesiastes. “I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.”
The Spiritual journey is one that calls us to free ourselves of any baggage that keeps us from loving God with our whole heart, mind and soul and our neighbor as ourselves.
Let us pray to God for unconditional love that will sustain that vision and free us from fear to act in faith. Amen.