We are the children of God.
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ;
if so be that we suffer with him,
that we may be also glorified with him.
Our souls are made to desire good things. This desire or appetite is something we share with animals. But our appetites can lead us astray, if we are not exercising our reason. We can become fixated on a lesser good to the exclusion of the greatest Good, God. Our appetite for the earthly must be curbed, restrained, so that we aren’t sidetracked on our pilgrimage to heaven.
St Paul says, My brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die: but if by the Spirit you do put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. [Rom 8:12-13]
As adults we can so easily become enslaved by a “fleshy” or “worldly” desire for possessions. We can end up working long hours, maybe even at a job we dislike, slavishly to acquire things (house, vehicles, furnishings, clothing) or, even worse, stuck paying our debts for what we bought on credit. Our hope was probably to create an environment where we could enjoy life – but we find we have no time to enjoy it. Our time is taken up in acquiring and in maintaining our possessions. We may find ourselves continually afraid of losing what we have or of others stealing it. We have the disappointment when something a little better comes along or when what we have loses its novelty or is corrupted by moth or rust. Our appetite to acquire, our desire, our love, is a spiritual longing for more – it cannot be satisfied ultimately with material things alone.
Paul would have us remember,
You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear; but you have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God. And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. [Rom 8:15-17]
What do we desire in those possessions? What is it that we looking for in them?
… comfort, pleasure, a sense of dignity…
In working to achieve these things will we forget what we were ultimately looking for?
The state of soul that is at peace with God and our neighbour, time to actually enjoy family and friends, time to be able to reflect, to read a book, go for a walk in a beautiful place – these things take less material comfort than we often think.
Did Jesus have need of stuff?
Some in the Church through the ages, such as some Anabaptists in the 16th century, have suggested that it is impossible to have any private possessions and enter the kingdom of heaven, and so have required their adherents to give up all and to live a communal life. They were recalling the community described in the early life of the Church in Jerusalem (see Acts 4:32-37). But this way of living and relating to material goods has never been seen, by the vast majority of the Church through the ages, as a necessity. The Church has taught that it is possible to have possessions and not be destroyed by them. But we are always to be vigilant of our inner motivations around material possessions – always aware of the danger that our love can become skewed and thus be short-circuited.
So if we are going to live with some possessions, how do we know if we are falling for greed?
Here are some tests for us:
- We have to do battle in our choices every time we go to make a major purchase – are we spending too much (greedily acquiring possessions or excessive luxury) or too little (greedily holding on to our cash in a way that is hindering us in our ministry as disciples of Jesus)?
- A right relation to material things means a balance, the mean or middle between being miserly and being prodigal.
- Are we, in our relations with other people, honestly seeking their company as true friends or trying to get something out of them for ourselves?
- Do we treat the rich man as we treat the poor man, showing no partiality? [Jas 2] [Of course we need to be sure we don’t treat the rich man worse than the poor man out of envy! which is a sign of our greed.]
- Will we lie, in subtle ways, to get what we want? or cheat on taxes?
- Having lots of money is not necessarily a sign that we are greedy. The poor person may be suffering from greed, by continually being fixated on getting the material possessions that he or she doesn’t have – the rich person may have come to a quicker realization that possessions are not the source of happiness. What is important is our inner relation to these things – where our heart is.
Greed in its extreme form leads to the devouring of what others have – it can lead to violence. Wars are often fought to attain by violence what others have.
Less extreme – not wanting to share, closing one’s eyes to the needs of others, lacking generosity, being resentful towards sharing (My mother told us she was glad to have three children because it would always be difficult to split things between 3 children precisely!)
Antidotes to Greed:
- Give back to the Lord, and to others in charity.
- The idea of the tithe.
- Generosity with those you meet.
- A thoughtful consideration of how much we give for charitable work is a spiritual discipline that can counter our greed.
- Trust in God’s Providence. Part of being temperate with riches is to be able to trust in God’s providence, that God will provide… If we have been saving up large sums, or think that we must provide for every possible contingency to ensure our future financial security, we need to ask if there is some lack of trust that God will provide for us what we need.
Jesus encourages us to step out in faith, (…seek first the Kingdom of God and all “these things” will be given to you.)
- Seek out the heavenly treasures.
But if we turn this great appetite of ours, this appetite that Jesus is actually stirring up in us, to the things of heaven – to Truth, to holy Wisdom, the knowledge of God, the recovery of joy and seeking peace, to preparing ourselves to receive spiritual gifts – the inheritance of heaven – we discover that the more I get of these, the more everyone gets. [Dante] As I’ve said before – if you are wise and I come into your presence and learn wisdom from you – now we are both wise. Spiritual things grow the more each of us are gifted with them and share them.
Paul would have us continually remember that – we are the children of God. And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.
In the lesson tonight from Proverbs [Proverbs 8:1-21], Wisdom promises that if we follow her, she will fill our treasuries with enduring wealth!
Take instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is better that jewels and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. …Riches and honour are with me [says Wisdom]; enduring wealth and righteousness. My fruit is better than gold; and my revenue better than choice silver…I grant an inheritance to those who love me; and filling their treasuries. [from Proverbs 8]
Job marvels at (and pities) those who go to great lengths to dig deep into the ground for “treasure”, but know not how to get the greatest treasure – Wisdom. [Job 28] And when we see heavenly treasures, it puts earthly things in perspective. John Climacus, a writer on the spiritual ascent in the 8th century, wrote, perhaps a little too starkly, that The man who has tasted the things of heaven easily thinks nothing of what is below, but he who has had no taste of heaven finds pleasure in possessions.
Tolkien expressed this truth well in his great work The Lord of the Rings. The dwarves are a kind of figure of the carnally or fleshy minded person. Their great desire was to dig deep into the earth looking for riches, foremost being a particular precious metal. But in that digging deeply they unearthed a monstrous creature – was it the root of all evil? [1 Tim 6:10] Gimli, a dwarf, who accompanies his human and elf friends on their quest, is at first terrified by what he has heard of Lady Galadriel – an elf princess – whom he calls the White Witch. Lady Galadriel is a kind of angelic figure, perhaps even a figure of Lady Wisdom, the feminine image of God. Gimli says, that those who meet her never return to the mines – and he is right! When he meets her, he is entranced with her beauty, her virtue, her wisdom and says he will never call anything beautiful again but her.
When he must continue on the quest with his friends, she asks him what gift she can give him. He asks, shyly, for one thing only, nothing of material worth, but one strand of her golden hair to remind him of her continually, and she gives him three.
We all want this encounter with Wisdom, an encounter with God.
All of the spiritual disciplines are aimed at moving the focus of our desire from getting stuck on the earthly and raising it to the heavenly, the spiritual.
Reading the Bible and reflecting on it is a way to satisfy and stir up our longing for Wisdom, for God. When we first read it, parts of it can seem either unsophisticated or totally baffling. But at whatever our stage of maturity, we can be edified. When we read the Bible we find our worldly appetites are diminished. The words of Scripture become to us more precious than silver and gold, sweeter than honey, we find ourselves desiring more to be fed with every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. This is what happens as we move from being carnally or fleshy minded to being spiritually minded, as our insatiable greed is transformed into a heavenly avarice.
O GOD, whose never-failing providence orders all things both in heaven and earth:
We humbly beseech you to put away from us all hurtful things,
and to give us those things which are profitable for us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.