19 “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. 20 Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. 21 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
18 A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life? 19 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 20 You know the commandments: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother.” 21 Then the ruler said, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said, “There’s one more thing. Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 23 When he heard these words, the man became sad because he was extremely rich. 24 When Jesus saw this, he said, “It’s very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” 26 Those who heard this said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.”
I think I’ve shared this story with you before, but it’s worth sharing again, especially considering the topic at hand today. When I was 7 years old, I was going to the ballet with my family one night. But before that, we went out for dinner at a nice place. While in the bathroom with my grandmother, a lady told me how pretty my dress was. Instead of saying thank you, I smiled at her and said, “It cost $70!” Of course, my grandmother quickly scolded me and said that I shouldn’t say things like that. This moment has stayed with me throughout my life, because in that moment, I realize, looking back, that that was one of my introductions to the deadly sin of greed- that desire to have that which we think we that need, but we really don’t- that desire to have the nicer things that our consumer culture has ingrained within us that define who we are based on what we have or what we wear, or what might make us better. And the tricky thing about greed, no matter our age or how much we already have, it always leaves us wanting more, no matter the cost, and sometimes, no matter who might get in our way.
Just last week, there was a story floating around about a young man named Martin Shkreli, a former hedge fund manager turned pharmaceutical businessman, who purchased the rights to a 62 year old drug mainly used to treat AIDS patients. After this purchase, he made the decision to raise the price of the pill from $13.50 to $750 overnight. While he claims that this outrageous move is really about staying in business, you can imagine the criticism and scrutiny he is receiving over this move. When I read this, my first thought was that here is a prime example of what the sin greed looks like: personal favor and more for “me” at the cost of someone else’s well-being and very life. (Full article HERE).
In the Bible, Judas betrays Jesus out of greed for a mere 30 pieces of silver. Yes, out of greed. Biblical scholars and theologians have gone back and forth in the texts, trying to get some kind of in depth theological principle out of why Judas would betray Jesus and hand him over to his death- some significant theological idea that will help us to understand how or why a mere 30 pieces of silver was worth the crucifixion. The Gospel of John notes that the devil entered Judas. I’d like to argue that the devil is just another word for the deadly sin of greed. We struggle with this story because we want to pin greed on someone else and see it as a lofty and global concern, to come up with more profound reasons why Judas led Jesus to his death. But the hard truth is that greed was the driving force, and it is real and relevant still today. The hard truth is that we need not look much further than ourselves to discover this deadly sin.
Even children, at a young age, learn of the deadliness of this sin with the beloved Christmas story, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I particularly remember the animated version by Disney that my sister and I would watch every Christmas growing up. In this version, we meet Scrooge McDuck, played by Donald Duck.
As you can imagine, he is just as mean and greedy as any other portrayal you might have seen or read. This classic character’s greed is complex, a mix of childhood cares and adult disappointments. It doesn’t take a lot to figure out that Scrooge was a lonely old man (97). Scrooge is the perfect example of how Greed gets the best of us and brings out the worst in us. “Greed tends to be solitary, miserly, because there is something about Greed that puts us in competition with our neighbors and ultimately in alienation from them” (97). There are some sins that only hurt us (gluttony) but greed is also a sin against our neighbors. In this beloved Christmas story, time and time again, Scrooge alienates himself, pushes others away, and spends his time counting his money, not caring about anything else. It seemed that only a miracle could soften his heart and open his greedy hands.
Scrooge perhaps needed to hear the Matthew text read for you this morning, where Jesus reminds us not to store up treasures here on earth, but to store up treasures in the kingdom of heaven, such as acts of kindness, generosity, compassion, hospitality, righteous living. It’s also a reminder that you can’t take it with you! And because we are too caught up in the web of complicity that characterizes our consumptive economy and culture, we must be ready pray with particular earnestness, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (97)
Perhaps you are sitting there thinking, “but I have to make a living.” But at what point does “making a living” become a life like Scrooge? It has become difficult to define our minimum daily requirements for art, music, cars, or attractive clothes. The issue isn’t about making a living, but it is finding the line between want and need. For most of us, the line between desire and necessity is very thin, especially in our consumer culture where we are overrun with messages we receive in advertising. We must ask ourselves, “when does our need for that ever expanding ‘more’ of life become too much? When does the desire for the abundant life become the life that is jerked around by grubby Greed? (99)
As Michael Douglas in the Wall Street clip pointed out, greed and desire- that restless, seemingly unquenchable desire, might lead us toward some of the best things we do, but what he failed to mention is that it also leads us into some of our worst misery. We want more and can’t get enough, and the more we have, the more we want (99). The problem isn’t that we deeply desire. The problem, and what makes greed a deadly sin, is that we desire the wrong things. The Buddhist faith teaches ways extinguish desire. Christianity, on the other hand, hopes to enflame it, and to direct it toward its proper object, which is God and finding abundant life within Christ.
Our problem is that, too often, we seek abundant life elsewhere. The average American spends nearly 18 hours a week shopping (101). At first I didn’t see how this was the average hourly statistic, but once I started adding up hours that we might spend shopping online, for groceries, going to the stores, making purchases, it began to make a little more sense. Plus, if you count the amount of time we spend watching TV ads that invite us and tempt us to shop, those hours add up very quickly. Advertising in this country feeds on the unfocused, relentless desire. We have too many choices, and we are not convinced of what we want or need, so we keep grabbing at what comes our way, hoping to be fully satisfied. We have become what we consume. We live by phrases such as “Clothes make the man,” or makeup campaigns that say, “Because you’re worth it.” Bishop Willimon, in his book, says that we “are all creations of the Gap.” Some of you may have seen these popular car commercials airing lately. This one in particular struck me. See if you can count how many messages this ad is sending about what we need.
What kind of message is that sending to us? That if we have that car, that watch, those clothes, those shoes, we will get the feeling of luxury that lasts. But does it really? It seems that this kind of desire and material possessions only leaves us wanting more. That’s what advertising does to us. Not only that, but we want it better and faster. We have easier access to information. We can buy with one click of a mouse, or even with one touch from our smart phones. And where do we get the wherewithal to say no? We are constantly bombarded with advertisements and messages about the things that we supposedly need. How do we say enough is enough?
Perhaps church should be a place where we learn the art of healthy desire, but even the church, for many, has become just another way to get our needs met. Church has, on occasion, become a one stop shop for all our spiritual needs (do this, pray that, attend this and all will be well). Church shouldn’t just about “meeting my needs” but is also about judging our alleged need when measured against what God offers us through Jesus Christ (107). Church is also about assessing how we can share what we have with the poor and those who are suffering. At many levels, even Jesus has become a commodity as we make him into what we think he should look like, or what he would have said about this or that. Jesus sometimes begins to look a lot like us: our opinions, our skin color, our political leanings, and our beliefs. On some level, we’ve even become greedy when it comes to Jesus as the real one slowly slips away in place of the one that we want for ourselves.
Greed easily becomes a false God in our lives. Let us recall the words of the Ten Commandments: “you shall have no other gods before me.” What are the other gods in your life? For me, I struggle with my desire for designer handbags, shoes, and clothes. I love to shop, and at times I’m definitely in danger of falling into that average American pattern of spending 18 hours a week shopping. I am guilty of spending money on things that I certainly do not need in place of spending money that could be used to help the poor and needy, to make a difference, to honor God. At the same time, I have prayed earnestly that God will open my heart, to have more compassion, and to give more to the church and to those in need, and at times to go above and beyond in my giving. If I’m honest, sometimes it’s a struggle. But I firmly believe that if we are to begin to conquer the sin of greed, we need to give to the church, the poor, and those in our communities who are suffering.
Giving away what we have is a way of reclaiming part of what we are given as a gift of God- which is undeserved, unearned grace. As Christians, we are asked to give 10% of what we have. And perhaps, instead of seeing that percentage as something that binds us down or burdens us, we should see it as a sign of our freedom. We may give too much of ourselves to the things that we don’t need out of our greed, yet at least there is a percentage of our souls (and our bank accounts!) that is, by the grace of God, free to give to something that honors and glorifies Him (105).
At the heart of this sin of greed, we come across the rich ruler in the text I read for you from Luke’s Gospel. His question to Jesus, “what must I do to obtain eternal life?” isn’t so much about how he can get into an afterlife such as heaven, but how he can live the best possible life now. The phrase, “eternal life,” in this text, is more about how we can enter into a life of righteousness, happiness, and one that models God in the best possible way. The ruler responds that he has kept the important commandments all of his life such as don’t murder, don’t steal, honor your parents, etc. But then Jesus has a more difficult request: to sell what he has and give it to the poor. Then, to come and follow him. The man becomes sad because he is extremely rich. And although Luke’s text does not tell us that the man walked away, we might imagine him becoming sad because he realizes that the words from Jesus challenge him to redefine who he is and how he will live his life, and he’s not ready to give that up. His wealth has defined him for so long that he is not ready to open his heart or his wealth to what is actually a richer and more abundant life. If you think about it, while he held onto his wealth, he really walked away empty handed.
Those who heard Jesus say that it is nearly impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven then became worried for their own well-being, asking, “Who, then, can be saved?” Jesus’ response is the good news of the text and the good news we hear today even as we struggle with the deadly sin of greed: that “what is impossible for humans is possible for God.”
As we continue to struggle with the sin of Greed, and continue to struggle, we will, may we see our time of worship as a time to give of our hearts and our own wealth back to God. In worship, when the offering plate is passed and we are asked to put our money where our hearts are, when we are asked to take a stand about where we are in regard to things of this world, our worship and offering to God may be one of the most radical, countercultural, defiant acts that the church demands of us (113). And we give thanks to God that fortunately, through God, all things are possible. Even opening the hands of the greedy: ours, and even our good old friend, Ebenezer Scrooge.
Friends, we face an uphill battle in the midst of our consumer culture, and we all struggle to dig ourselves out from under the temptations of greed, desire, and our supposed need for the things that we believe will satisfy us. So let us turn our hearts to God, that we might direct our wants and desires toward the One who tempts us not with the things of this world, but with the treasures of heaven, abundant life, and the compassion to give of ourselves to causes that glorify God rather than ourselves. And may we give thanks to God who has the strength to open our hands and our hearts, even as we wrestle with the deadly sin of greed. And may we never cease to give glory to the victory we have over sin and death in Jesus Christ. Amen.