By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
This past Monday afternoon, as I was sitting in my study working on my thoughts for this morning’s message, George Crozier walked in with a sly, slightly naughty grin on his face. He said that all morning he had been at work tearing his garage down to make room for a larger garage – more space to store more stuff. But then he said that the only thing that bothered him was the recurring thought of the story Jesus told in the Gospel about the fellow whose farm had been so successful that his barns were bursting at the seams. The decision was made to tear down those barns and build bigger, the better to relax and take life easy. BUT… And we know the rest of the story. [DIRGE]
I said, “George, I don’t want you to have a heart attack, but guess what text I am preaching on this Sunday.” Duhm, de duhm, duh-h-h-m.
Did you happen to see Bill O’Reilly’s column in the paper at the beginning of the week?(1) It was titled, “Feeling those gas pains,” and was dealing with the rising cost of fuel and what he sees as some of the reasons behind it.
He wrote, “The next time a gas fill up costs you $40 bucks or more, consider this: Lee Raymond, the retired CEO of Exxon-Mobil, was paid close to $1-billion by that company from 1993 to the present. Raymond’s retirement package is about $400 million, according to published reports. Does everybody love Raymond? I don’t. I think he’s a greed head. The Exxon-Mobil board of directors approved Raymond’s compensation. Guess who appointed most of those board members to their positions? Does the name Lee Raymond ring a bell? And guess who is paying all those Exxon Mobil salaries, including our pal, Lee’s? The regular folks who must buy gas to go to work and heat their homes. This is called ‘predatory capitalism.'”
Call it what you want, but at heart, all it is is GREED. There is a story in the Mahabharata, one of the central epics of the Hindu faith, where Bhishma, the divine son of the sacred Ganges, is asked about the source of sin and evil in the world. Bhishma replies to his questioner, a young King seeking wisdom. “From greed sin and all irreligion flows, a stream of misery. Greed is the poisoned spring of all cunning and hypocrisy in the world. It is greed which makes people sin…” Greed is the source of evil.(2)
Of course, that same kind of thinking is behind that famous verse in I Timothy: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” FYI, the phrase “the love of money” is in fact one Greek word – philarguros – which literally means “lover of silver” but which we would today more likely translate as avarice or greed.
If in that biblical turn of phrase we focus our attention on the word “money,” we actually miss the point. You have heard that whenever anyone says, “It’s not the money…”, it’s the money. But, in this case, it really is NOT the money. Rather the problem is the seemingly insatiable demand in our culture for more and more and more.
Think about it. A $400-million pension? What one person could spend that much? I do not know Lee Raymond. He is probably a fine, upstanding fellow, and I suspect that, if you asked him, he would probably quickly admit he could probably get by on a bit less.
So why, then, the outrageous amount? Because our society says this is the way we recognize accomplishment, whether it be in business or sports or entertainment. And at the same time, it says something about our screwy sense of values when we put that same measure to the compensation of teachers, nurses, social workers, even the occasional pastor.
A decade or so ago, while I was in North Carolina, the local sports pages treated us to a running commentary on the negotiations between basketball’s Charlotte Hornets and their star center. Back and forth the dickering went, day after day, week after week. Finally, the Hornets offered a contract which would have paid him over $11-million a year. Not enough. The young man said he could not survive on less than $13-million, so bye-bye – he was traded.
WAIT A MINUTE! If this kid got $13-million a year and the average Guilford County school teacher was getting around $25,000, did that mean to say that, to our society, one 25-year-old basketball player is worth the same as FIVE-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY TEACHERS? That is insane. But that is precisely what it said. Disgusting.
To our lesson. The story is prompted by a man from the crowd which has been surrounding Jesus: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Apparently the man’s older brother refused to give him what he felt he was due. The laws of inheritance in that day stipulated that the elder brother would receive a double portion of the legacy,(3) then the balance distributed. For whatever reason, this fellow was feeling cheated and he wanted Rabbi Jesus to act as Probate Judge, just as Moses had done centuries before.(4) But Jesus would have none of it. As is so often the case when families gather for the reading of the will, the issue is not justice, it is greed, pure and simple. And the shame is that families are often permanently torn apart by it. Jesus says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Or as the venerable King James Version has it, “Beware of covetousness.”
Someone has defined covetousness as “wanting more of what you already have enough of.” Wanting more of what you already have enough of. Most of us would not call ourselves greedy, but wanting more of what we already have enough of? Hmm. Sounds almost too close for comfort.
“Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Not an easy lesson to learn in our world. Some time back, ABC news did a special on greed with reporter John Stossel. The program began with a look at the Biltmore estate in Ashville, North Carolina. If you have ever gone down to Montreat, you may have taken a day trip to see it. Stossel pointed out that the house is gargantuan – 250 rooms. Yet it was all built for just one man to live in. The dining room is as high as a five-story building. The dining table seats 64. John said, “I guess when you’re this rich, you make friends pretty easily. From here, you can take in the millions of dollars of art on the walls – Renoirs and Whistlers, Renaissance tapestries. Very beautiful, but isn’t this greedy? Who needs a $100-million house?”(5)
Ours is a culture in which very few people ask John Stossel’s question – “Who needs a $100-million house?” After all, we are the ones who watched Michael Douglas in the movie “Wall Street”(6) proclaim “Greed is good?” Do you remember that? Michael Douglas was playing the infamous Gordon Gecko (a role for which he won the Academy Award as Best Actor that year). The Gecko character was a composite of the Ivan Boeskys and Michael Milkins of the world, the embodiment of avarice gone amuck.
In one scene, Gecco addresses a stockholders meeting for a company called Teldar Paper. It is a company he is about to raid and downsize. Suddenly, he launches into this incredible defense of one of what the world has known for centuries as “the seven deadly sins:”
Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms–greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed, your mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Sadly, Gordon Gecko’s words are much more popular in our culture than the words of Jesus. They always have been. Back in the 16th century, our Presbyterian patron, John Calvin, espoused a different relationship of people to the things they possess, a kind of voluntary community understanding of what we have and hold. Some explain this by the fact that, early on in his ministry, Geneva was flooded with poor refugees, and it was in this situation that Calvin preached, wrote his biblical commentaries, and led a congregation to live out its faith.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of Calvin’s theology of possessions involved the role deacons played back then. Deacons were charged with the redistribution of wealth both inside and outside the church community. They were to keep the flow of goods and services going by calling on those who had more than they needed and commanding them to hand over their excess for the needs of the poor. Do you hear that, Lee Raymond? Said Calvin, “God wills that there be proportion and equality among us, that is, each man is to provide for the needy according to the extent of his means so that no man has too much and no man had too little.”(7) Hmm.
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Back to the lesson. After telling the importuning orphan that he is not getting involved in this family inheritance feud, in good rabbinic fashion Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story.” He begins to talk about this rich guy…a farmer who has done very well for himself. Nothing illegal. This is no slumlord or drug dealer, he does not cheat his employees or mistreat them. This is lawful profit. Horatio Alger stuff. A hard worker, an upstanding citizen. Through a combination of skill and luck and plain hard work, his investment and labor have paid off. He has got this massive crop in.
Now he has a surplus and storage problem. No place to put all his grain. Jesus lets us overhear the man’s thoughts. The farmer debates with himself. “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”‘
Hmm. “MY crops…MY barns…MY grain…MY goods.” “I… I…I…” Sounds like a first-century Gordon Gecko. A totally self-absorbed man preoccupied with his possessions. His only thought is that he can amass his wealth, hoard it all and “take life easy, eat, drink, be merry.” I wonder if he is going to bother to invite anyone else to his perpetual party?
No problem. We know how the story ends. In the words of the text, “God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'”
Leo Tolstoy, tells the story of a man called Martin. Martin worked in a factory in town, but he also had a small farm of 30 acres where he grew vegetables that he and his wife would sell at a roadside stand. Martin would get up in the morning to work on his farm, go into town to work at the factory, then come home and work on the farm till nightfall. At night, as they sat to eat dinner, Martin’s wife would say to him, “Martin, we are most fortunate that our vegetables grow so well. People buy everything we grow.”
But Martin was not satisfied. He wanted more land. Shortly afterward Martin borrowed some money and bought another 30 acres next to his property. He still kept his job at the factory and now worked longer into the night to have a prosperous crop for his roadside stand. One night after returning late from the fields Martin’s wife said, “Martin, God has been good to us. The warm sun and the abundant rainfall have filled our stand, and still the people buy all we grow.”
But Martin was not satisfied. He wanted more land. Soon afterward Martin was able to buy another 140 acres for his farm. He quit his job at the factory so he could work full time on the farm. But even though he worked full time–there were not enough hours of the day to get everything done. When he and his wife would have time to talk to one another she would say, “Who could be more fortunate than we Martin? Our fields are full and we sell everything we grow.”
But Martin was not satisfied. Soon Martin was able to buy another 250 acres of land. He closed his roadside stand, hired people to help out and manage the farm. He built refrigerated storage buildings to store his crops. His wife worked on the books. When they would go out for dinner she would say to him, “God is good to us, Martin. There is nothing we lack.”
But Martin was not satisfied. “I do not have enough land,” he would say. “If I could buy land south of here, we could grow crops that our climate will not allow.” Soon Martin was able to buy 300 acres of land in the south. He began commuting between farms and working long hours on weekends. After a very long day, Martin suffered a heart attack and died. He was buried in a small cemetery plot, seven feet long, four feet wide, and six feet deep. That was just enough land!(8)
What was the word that Jesus used? Oh, yeah: FOOL. But it’s not about money… Uh-huh. “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
1. Creators Syndicate, Warren Times-Observer, A-4, 4/24/06
2. James Ishmael Ford, “Practices of Gratitude,” Homily, 11/24/02
3. Deuteronomy 21:17
4. Numbers 27:1-11
5. Greed with John Stossel: Not Everyone Agrees That Greed Is Bad.” 2/3/98
6. 1987, Written by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone, Directed by Oliver Stone
7. Cynthia A. Jarvis, “The Sins He Died For: Greed,” sermon preached at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 3/21/04
8. William White, Speaking in Stories, (Minneapolis : Augsburg, 1982), pp. 112-113
Copyright 2006, David E. Leininger. Used by permission.