A Lenten Devotion – “Greed”

Greed is idolatry. The Scriptures could not be more plain. Greed is not an action but an orientation. It goes the the idolatrous heart that is unbuckled from the fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Greed is the fear, love, and trust in all things above God. Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters. You will love one and hate the other, serve one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.” St. Paul said, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Not money, the love of money. Money-love.

The craving for wealth is strong, as strong as any drug or desire for pleasure. It keeps people up at night feverishly figuring out how to expand their barns, enlarge their portfolios, expand their earnings, well beyond what is needed for daily bread. It drives people to ruin, it destroys marriages, families, relationships. It eats way at the soul, corrodes faith, gets in the way of worship, and pierces the heart with many pangs and griefs.

In the gospel reading, two brothers were fighting over an inheritance. Brother vs brother over the wealth of their father who had died. Instead of grieving together and banding together as brothers, they fought with each other and even enlisted Jesus as a judge to settle their dispute. Wisely, Jesus didn’t go anywhere near it but warned them, and us, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Idols inevitably consume their worshippers. They promise health, life, happiness, and in the end bring destruction. Wealth is no exception. We think we’d be happier if we had more. Certainly healthier. We’d live better, have more to give, be masters of our own destiny, not enslaved to work, we’d be free if we just had a little more. It’s a lie that robs us of contentment, of peace, of everything. There is no more consuming god than Mammon.

The rich man with the bumper crop had all that he needed for a comfortable life. He could have stored his surplus grain in the mouths of the poor, as one church father quipped. Instead, he stayed up all night planning to build bigger barns to store his surplus. The only problem: That was the last day of his life. And it was spent not in contentment and thanksgiving but in anxiety and worry and stress. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The sons will argue over it and come to blows or sue one another.

It’s easy to talk about gluttony and drunkenness when you’re eating is ordered and disciplined. It’s easy to discuss sloth when you’re industrious, hardworking, and diligent. But greed seems to infect all of us as a kind of universal symptom of our original Sin. We’ve almost domesticated greed and made it acceptable if not patriotic. It’s our duty to spend, we’re told. Support the economy. Keep buying stuff you don’t need or even want and have no room to store. It’s American. It’s good for business and jobs. And in the end, our souls wind up in spiritual bankruptcy.

You can’t serve God and Money. There isn’t room enough in the heart for the both of them. One we serve, the other serves us. We serve God, and Him alone. Money serves us. It’s our servant to do our bidding, to help the neighbor in need, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, supply for our family.

We serve the God who came to serve us with His life. Jesus was rich in the riches of His Father’s house. But He left that, surrendered all the perks and privileges of sonship, emptied Himself of His divine bank account, and became a poor and humble servant under the Law so that by His poverty we might become rich in the treasures of heaven. Jesus could have had it all – the good life, the nice car, the beach house, all the power, prestige and glamor of this world – in exchange for worshipping the devil. He declined. Instead, He went the impoverished way of suffering and death on a cross with no place to lay His head.

He did that not to despise wealth but to redeem it. He did it to free us from our enslavement to riches so that we could live a free children of God.

Each of the deadly sins has a corresponding virtue, a discipline of the old Adam and an exercise of the new man in Christ. With gluttony, it’s temperance. With sloth, it’s diligence. With greed, it’s charity. Giving. This is where the life of free will thank offering comes in. It’s a self-discipline against greedy old Adam. It’s holding wealth with the dead hand of faith rather than a dead grip of greed. It’s learning to let go in order to enjoy and use. We entered this world with nothing, we leave this world with nothing. We may as well live in this world as though we had nothing and yet have everything. There’s freedom in that. And much joy.

The apostle Paul said that he had learned the secret to be content in any and all circumstances, whether in wealth or in poverty, in plenty or hunger. He was writing from prison at the time, at least under house arrest. The Philippians had sent him a gift and he was thanking them for it. Imagine that! Paul was under arrest and yet totally free. He was like Alexander Solzhenitsyn on his way to the gulags of the Soviet Union. He describes the long train ride during which he and his fellow prisoners spoke freely about whatever they wanted – politics, religion, what have you – without any fear whatsoever. What could they lose that they hadn’t already lost? But their guards were apprehensive, worried, secretive. Solzhenitsyn notes that the prisoners were free and the guards were imprisoned.

Paul’s “secret” was that he could do all things through Him who gives him strength. Through Christ in whom he had been baptized. In whom he had been declared dead to Sin but alive to God. He had nothing to lose. And in that freedom of being dead but alive, he could be content even in prison, even with nothing to his name, even relying on the charity of others. He could do all things in Christ who strengthened him.

“If we have food and clothing, let us be content, for there is great gain in godliness with contentment.”

Give us this day our daily bread. Bread sufficient for the day, and if more, than a little something for another. Guard us, O Lord, from a life that is rich in things but poor in spirit. Keep us from the idols the would consume us, and grant us to live in the contentment of being your children. Where we lack, grant contentment. Where we abound, grant charity. And above all, grant us to seek first the kingdom of Christ and His righteousness which is ours by faith, trusting that all that we need will be granted us of your goodness and mercy.

In the name of Jesus,