We set the theme for much of our fall by exploring the effects of greed on our lives and community.
Jesus, how is my greed keeping me from true life in You?
When we were teaching one our children to swim, we spent a lot of time at a zero-entry pool. One of our children loved the water, and although he couldn’t swim he knew that he could run in at full speed and stop before it got too deep. This worked perfectly well, until we stayed at a hotel and visited the hotel pool, and our son decided to repeat the experience by running headlong into the water. I will never forget looking up just in time to see him run with reckless abandon and topple head first into the water. Thankfully I was close enough to jump in and pull him back to the surface without any real danger, but we spent the rest of the summer trying to teach him not to be terrified of the water.
Today’s scripture passages feel a bit like that head-over-heels entry that none of us enjoy. Seriously, our first Sunday back and Jesus is hammering us on money and greed? If this is how the year starts…where are we going to go from here?
And I hate to break it to you, but it gets worse! As I’ve been praying and preparing for our services this fall, I’ve noticed a familiar pattern in the gospel passages. Jesus repeatedly teaches about money, possessions, wealth, giving, sacrifice, and poverty. It is not something we can escape, without doing some theological gymnastics. So rather than trying to avoid it, I’m going to challenge us today to run into the pool, and trust that God will be there to catch us and help us learn to swim together.
In fact, of all the topics we could talk about in a church, money should be one of the most familiar to our ears. Jesus talks about money frequently, especially in the gospel of Luke which we are reading through this year. When Jesus is teaching in parables about what the kingdom of God looks like, or how his followers are to listen and obey his teaching, he spotlights the use of money more than almost any other topic.
And yet, as Christians we often shy away from talking about anything related to money or finances. In the passage we read from Colossians 3, Paul lists several things we should put to death, things that belong to our “earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”
Now, Christians have done a lot of talking about the first four items: sex, impurity, lust, and evil desires. We have no problem calling out these issues, shaming anyone who does not adhere to our standards, condemning a heathen culture that promotes immorality in these areas, and drawing deep boundary lines of protection around “the faithful.” But we are conveniently silent when it comes to the last one, which is greed. And, interestingly enough, the item which we quietly pass over is the only one Paul highlights as being idolatry, a direct violation of the second commandment! You would think, with Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s direct challenge we would take the issue of greed very seriously. Both Jesus and Paul are saying, “Be careful. Greed is a silent thief. And if you’re not careful, it will steal your very life.”
Instead, we have run headlong into a society that is built on the laws of greed. Everywhere we look, greed is the engine of what we see. The fight to consume more and more isn’t viewed as something dangerous in our culture, it is praised and celebrated. Consumer confidence is up! Consumer spending is up! Sales numbers are good! And as Christians, we very rarely think twice about any of it.
But if we stop and get quiet long enough to really hear the words of Jesus, to really chew on these words and wrestle with what he’s teaching, Jesus has a dire warning for us. “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15b) Be on your guard. “Be on your guard” is a phrase that means to watch and protect something closely. It’s the same verb Luke uses later in Acts to describe when King Herod put Peter in prison and had four guards stand watch over him. It’s intense, intentional, not a flippant word.
Jesus is saying… “There is a silent thief at work, and it’s coming to steal your very life. Greed will creep in quietly, sneak through your defenses, and before you know it you’ll believe that life is bound up in possessions. And suddenly, without thinking about it, you will be a slave to things, a slave to money and wealth and power and prestige. It’s not something you have to choose to engage in, it is a force actively coming after your life. And if you want to protect that life, you’d better be on your guard.”
And notice that Jesus said to be on your guard against “all kinds of greed.” What does that mean? In this passage, we see two very different kinds of greed. First, there is the child who calls out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” He wants something he doesn’t have.
But later, he tells the story of a rich man who has too many crops for his storehouses. This man is probably not just a farmer, but is in charge of an entire region of farming. So he decides to tear down barns and keep all of the excess for himself. This man has more than he needs.
One wants something they don’t have, the other has more than he needs. Both are being silently robbed by greed, and they don’t see it. In both cases, greed distracts their attention and fractures their community. It does the same thing to you and me, and we would be wise to listen to the words of Jesus and pay close attention to where greed is at work.
First, greed begins its silent work by distracting our attention. Every good pick-pocket knows how to do this, get someone looking in one direction or cause them to be concerned about something unimportant so that you can take what truly matters. In fact, greed distracts our attention from our deepest desires and moves it to a cheap substitute. It gets us sidetracked so that we forget what we truly long for, and we miss it entirely.
The man who asks for Jesus to convince his brother to split the inheritance, what is he really after? He doesn’t just want money! The inheritance is a sidetrack, a misdirection away from the true desire that is deep within his heart. What he really wants is security, the peace that comes with knowing that the future is not at risk. And that is a good desire, it is a God given desire. What is more, the person who can actually fill that desire happens to be standing right in front of him! Jesus can fill this man with hope in what ultimately matters. He can help him see that in the kingdom of God, he is never at risk, no matter what his bank account says. Jesus can grant peace— deep, lasting peace that goes far beyond any financial situation. But he misses it altogether, because he’s distracted by the silent thief of greed.
The man who builds new barns to store up his wealth, what is he really after? He doesn’t just want new barns, he wants control! He wants to control the future, to assure himself that he is able to conquer anything that may come his way. As Jesus tells the story, he pictures the man kicking back: “And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ (Luke 12:19) Now, everyone who heard the story would have known that Jesus was quoting Isaiah 22, and that he stopped short of finishing the quote. The full quote is: “Eat, drink and be merry…for tomorrow we die.” This man missed it! He was so focused on controlling his security through wealth that he missed the one thing that he could control. The crops he stored up could have been given away, or at least sold at a good price. He could have participated in the kingdom of God, he could have been a part of the work of God in the world caring for those in need, that participation was in his control, and he missed it. He misses it, because he’s distracted by the silent thief of greed.
Greed begins its quiet work by distracting our attention, drawing us away from the true desires of our soul. Those desires are good, holy, and God wants to meet them with his loving care and provision, but instead greed distracts us and gets us focused on a cheap substitute that will never satisfy those deep needs within.
And not only does greed distract our attention, it fractures our community. When we are focused on possessions, focused on wealth and financial security, we end up seeing others as competitors rather than companions. The man who wants his share of the inheritance is ready to take his brother to court to get it, how do you think that went over at home? If you were standing with your brother, so excited to see Jesus, and suddenly your brother pipes up from the crowd, “Hey Jesus! Tell my delinquent brother to give me my money!” what would you think? How would that dinner table conversation go later that evening? Greed always fractures community.
In the same way, the man who stored everything up in barns completely missed out on the opportunity to connect with his neighbors and build a thriving community. Instead, he viewed the people around him as threats, pressing in to take away what was “rightfully his.” And in the end, none of it mattered. He dies alone, surrounded only by those who are in his pay.
Greed is a silent thief, and it quickly robs us of our ability to focus on what truly matters. It pulls our focus away from the things in life that are good, that are given as free gifts from a good Father. Things like love, joy, peace, hope, faith, grace, mercy— the true and lasting things that sustain our souls and keep us centered and secure in His kingdom. Instead, we get distracted and miss what really matters.
And what’s more, greed begins to fracture community and separate us not just from what we truly need, but from one another. We begin to see others as competitors, rivals, and threats to our security. As we lose our ability to connect with our deepest longings and our ability to connect with others, we become something sub-human. We exchange living and thriving as the beloved sons and daughters of God for a life of mere existence. We lose our very life, just as Jesus said.
So what do we do about this? How do we practice the way of Jesus as it relates to Greed? Jesus says to be on our guard against greed, but how do we do that?
It begins with acknowledging that we have a problem. And this is tricky, because nobody likes to think of themselves as greedy. I know I don’t, and chances are you don’t either. Greed is something that is easy to see in others, but hard to see in the mirror. So today, I’m going to give us all a little help, myself included. Let’s all say together, “I am greedy.”
See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?! But it’s true! All of us have some form of greed working in our lives, silently stealing our attention and fracturing our community. For some of us it comes in the form of something we want that we don’t have. For some of us it comes in the form of desperately trying to protect what we do have. But if we live in this culture, in an American society that applauds and rewards greed, chances are we have a little bit of it in us somewhere. So let’s just begin there, and admit together that we all need to deal with greed.
But we don’t make this confession in order to mire ourselves in guilt or shame. That’s not practicing the way of Jesus is about at all. When we find these little indicators that grief has been at work in our lives, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up or try to overcompensate by making ridiculous gestures. Instead, we should see the roots of greed, notice them honestly, and ask two important questions:
- What deep desire is greed is distracting me from?
- Who is greed preventing me from loving?
As we ask these deeper and more helpful questions, we’re doing what Paul said in Colossians 3. We are setting our hearts and minds on the things above, rather than things below. We’re moving past the temporary, the passing, the fleeting, and we’re seeing past the temporary distraction to reveal what truly lasts. We’re finding our deepest desires for peace, security, rest, love, community, and joy. And as we do this, we can bring those desires to Jesus, who actually wants to fulfill them in a deep and lasting way.
Now, this is not going to be an overnight fix. We won’t rid ourselves of greed in the next seven days. If we are truly going to take the words of Jesus seriously and begin to look honestly at our problem with greed, it is going to take a long and difficult road of practice and slow transformation. Over the next few months as a church community, we’re going to have many opportunities to work on this together as we dig into one of our core values and explore some practices of generosity.
But today, all we need to focus on is taking the first step. Let’s simply admit that this is something we need to pay attention to and begin to ask the important questions that take us deeper, beyond the distraction to find the desires and people that we have been separated from all along.
A great example of this is sitting right underneath us today. When you walked in today, you probably noticed these new chairs. There are 100 of them, and although they’re not brand new, they are definitely new to us. No more black folding plastic chairs, no more folding and shifting uncomfortably. These are definitely a major upgrade.
These chairs are an example of what it looks like when someone doesn’t give in to the patterns of greed, and instead chooses to bless others rather than protect themselves. A few months ago, Kevin Agricola called Jordan and I and asked if we might be interested in some chairs. He works for a North Metro Church in Marietta, and they had a lot of chairs they no longer needed. They could have easily sold these chairs, and they would have made a good bit of money doing it. In fact, the money they got selling these chairs could have helped to pay for their new chairs, which is the responsible and expected thing to do. But instead, they decided to give them away for free.
So a few days ago, we loaded up a truck full of chairs and wheeled them into this room. And as we picked them up, the team at North Metro came out from their offices and encouraged us personally. They were thrilled to be able to bless another church and see these chairs continue to be used in worship.
So you didn’t even know it, but there is another church half-way across town that is now connected with us in a meaningful way. They have blessed us, and now we get a chance to do the same. Over the next few months, we get to consider the ways that we can make similar decisions. How can we continue to be open-handed with what God has given us? How can we choose to be on guard against all kinds of greed, and instead begin to find God in our deepest desires and in the community of people around us that He is calling us to bless?
I am excited to begin this journey with you, and I can’t wait to see what the Lord teaches us along the way.
Our breath prayer this week: “Jesus, where is greed distracting me from my deepest desire?”
. Colossians 3:5