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 be profitable for us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[Collect for Trinity 8]
Our readings in Trinity season bring us through a reflection on the ways our souls can be distorted by temptation. We consider these key distortions of our love, not to make us feel bad, but to help us to see how we can better direct our love. Jesus wants to redirect all our energy, our desire, our love towards its true aim, which is the love of God and neighbour, which is the life of heaven, which is the life of freedom and of flourishing and adventure for our souls.
This week the focus is on Greed or Avarice, an element in covetousness. You see this in the use of words normally associated with finance: in the Collect – we have the word “profitable”; in the Epistle [Romans 8:12-17] we have reference to “debtors” and to “inheriters”; and in the Gospel [Matthew 7:15-21] Jesus speaks of “ravenous wolves”, an image that has been used through the ages to describe the greedy.
We know that with food – a certain amount is necessary and it is rightfully to be enjoyed but we can get out of control or enslaved by our desire for it – so with material goods, a certain amount is necessary, prudent, and also to be enjoyed, but we can get out of control, so that our desire for it enslaves us. Paul says… we are not debtors to the flesh… we don’t “owe” our fleshy desires (that is, our excessive earthly desires) anything, as if they must be satisfied for us to be happy.
Greed or avarice is defined as “an excessive love of or desire for money or any possession money can buy”. [Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices, p. 100]
Here are a couple of examples:
- In Greek mythology there is the story of King Midas, who was granted a wish by the gods – he asked that whatever he touched might turn to gold. It was quite exciting for him at first – even the roses in the garden became gold at his touch. He was overjoyed until he sat down to celebrate at a meal and even the food became gold. In one version of the story, his daughter came in to complain about how the roses no longer smelled and were hard to the touch – and when he reached out to console her she also turned to gold. We could imagine this as a kind of figure of sacrificing of our children to the idol of greed – forgetting about them, or destroying their souls by teaching them by our example that money or possessions are the most important things. In the story, in this moment Midas realized his error, and he cried out for help – and was given a way of return – to wash himself and any objects that had become gold in a particular river. We could see in this a kind of figure of our return from the madness of greed through the waters of baptism – where our passions are brought into order and our humanity is restored.
- In the modern world we know the madness of greed in the kind of uncontrolled use of the creation to create wealth. We hear of what happens in some of the big cities in China today – days when there is so much pollution that people must stay indoors. It is the same as what happened in the West for years before we put laws in place to restrain pollution. (e.g. the blackened buildings from the industrial revolution, the city of Sudbury in the 1970s) Those restraints cost money, they cut back on profits, and there is always a tension between regulators and big business, between the environment and jobs, both of which are important – you could say this involves the tension between the fleshy and the spiritual – we want to get the balance right.
- That tension between the fleshy and the spiritual we know in our own souls in our decisions about how we spend our money and how much attention we give to earning money – we all need some possessions – how much do we need? How much should we work? Are my career choices being shaped by greed or by my true calling from God?
Greed has deadly consequences – it can lead quickly to injustice between people, between nations, and with the creation itself.
How does it affect justice between people on earth? How much profit should a business give its shareholders and how much to its workers – what is a fair wage and what is a fair profit for those who risk their capital in a business venture? What is a fair price for a product?
These problems have always been there: In the Law [Lev 19:36; Deut 25:15] and in Proverbs [11:1; 16:11] we are warned to use just weights and scales so that people get what they pay for – that there be justice in our commerce. And God speaks through Jeremiah to Israel in several places about covetousness (e.g. 6:13; 8:10; 22:17 and in Babylonians 51:13) and how it leads to injustice (Jer 22:13-17):
Woe unto him that builds his house by unrighteousness, and his rooms by wrong; that uses his neighbour’s service without wages, and gives him not for his work…did not your father eat and drink, and do judgment and justice, and then it was well with him? He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him: was not this to know me? says the LORD. But your eyes and your heart are only for covetousness, and to shed innocent blood, and for oppression, and for violence, to do it…. I spoke to you in your prosperity; but you said, I will not hear.
And greed can also affect justice between people and the creation: industry pollutes and industry provides jobs – how much do we pollute and how much do we focus on ensuring jobs and wealth? The Old Testament is filled with advice about not misusing animals on the farm for our greed and for not excessively using the land so that it might continue to provide – suggesting times of Sabbath rest for people but also for animals [4th Commandment] and for the land itself [e.g. Lev 25:2-6; 26:34,43]. The call to close the markets on the Sabbath day was meant to curb greed.
What is at the heart of greed is a transferring of our trust in God to provide, to a trust in ourselves to provide. We forget God’s providence – his loving care for us in foreseeing to our needs.
Paul speaks about this insatiable appetite as the flesh: not “the body” but “the flesh”, the old Adam, the carnally minded person – who is confused about how to satisfy a longing for satisfaction, and ultimately for peace.
Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not 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 put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
To cut off excessive desire for possessions requires a kind of death – saying, no, to an unnecessary upgrade. Which upgrade – that is something we have to discern at each moment. From the more trivial, What quality of wine should I buy? To the bigger purchases: cars, houses. How much luxury? Asking ourselves, What else could I spend it on? What is reasonable in the circumstances? We’re not to be obsessed, but it should be an ongoing question for us. Here we see truly the tension in our souls, and that we must living under the mercy of Christ – always we are to let love of God and neighbour be our guide. The practice of tithing, some regular portion from our income, not what’s left over, is meant to help us curb an excessive love of wealth.
Paul reminds us, 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.
In the Bible we are continually reminded in the Wisdom literature that Wisdom is more to be desired than gold. Christ is the Wisdom of God [1 Cor 1:18], to be desired more than gold. Is this a reality for us? We are heirs with Christ of the highest things – eternal life, wisdom, love, the spiritual gifts, the Holy Spirit! – let us covet them, let us have a greed for these heavenly things and all will benefit from them – and they create no pollution.
In the Gospel this morning [St Matthew 7:15-21], Jesus warns us about false prophets:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thorn bushes? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit…
Who are the false Prophets of our day?
Near the end of our summer holidays Daniëlle and I spent 5 days in Jasper and Banff National Parks in Canada in the Rocky mountains. For those five days we saw only nature and its glory – and no advertising whatsoever. We didn’t notice that so much until we returned outside the park where billboards appeared everywhere suddenly – we both felt a kind of restlessness when we came back outside.
Advertising has a place in our world. Our church advertises itself. But what are the voices of consumerism coming to us… Are we awake continually to the falseness of the claims? Those voices are not just in explicit advertising but in the culture we live in – what are the implicit claims being made in the movies we watch, the stories we read and the people we mix with? Are we aware of the false prophets calling us to find our strength, our dignity, in possessions?
Just as Jeremiah warned Israel, so do Paul and Jesus warn us there is a judgement for greed – Paul says, If you live according to the flesh you will die… Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. The judgement for greed is not some future action but it is immediate: so long as our attention is focussed on possessions or acquiring them, our hearts are missing out on the highest things.
As if to show us most powerfully that earthly wealth is vanity, the angel Gabriel came to announce to the poor Virgin Mary that the Son of God was to be conceived in her, and he was born in a lowly stable – she and Joseph had few possessions but they knew the greatest wealth, of being inheritors of Christ more than any of us.
We can know that wealth today through the inestimable gift of Christ dwelling in us through the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
In Proverbs [8:18, 19, 21] Wisdom says:
Riches and honour are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity.
My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold, and my yield than choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness, in the paths of justice,
endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries.
Let us turn our hearts from greed, from an excessive love of money and the possessions money can buy, and prepare ourselves to receive enduring wealth, even Wisdom incarnate in our souls.