Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 1, 2010 – St. John’s Goshen
All three of today’s biblical readings warn us against greed and against placing the meaning and the value of our lives in our possessions. The first reading is from the book of Ecclesiastes in which we hear another one of the gloomy assessments of the world-weary man named Qoheleth. (Today we would probably say that he suffers from depression!) “Vanity of vanities,” he sighs, “Emptiness of emptiness!” “Nothing is worth anything,” “Everything is useless,” we might paraphrase. A man labors all his life to gain possessions, but then has to leave it to someone who’s never worked. Perhaps our example today would be the man who works and works to accumulate as much pension as he can, and then dies a week after he retires. And then there’s all the worry that comes from possessions, worrying about thieves and other problems. He’s lucky he didn’t know about stock market fluctuations. All this is the somewhat jaded common sense that comes from long observation of the human comedy.
With our second reading things get more serious. Greed is the last on St. Paul’s list of “earthly things” that we are supposed to “put to death” because we have died and been raised with Christ–”immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire.” Greed is last but probably not least, because Paul calls it “idolatry,” worship of a false god. As one scholar puts it, Christians are not to make Gain their god. But are there not many people who do that? People who devote their lives to the accumulation of wealth, of things, with a passion, a dedication, an expenditure of time and energy that religious people would find it difficult to match in their devotion to God. St. Paul reminds the Colossians that they have died with Christ and been raised with him and are already living with him, and now they must show this by dying to a way of life centered upon self to one that is dedicated in love for the things of God.
Finally, there is the Gospel reading of the day. Jesus begins by urging us: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” He then tells a parable aimed at those “who store up treasure for themselves, but are not rich in what matters to God.” Simple sayings, we might think, reinforcing the point of our first reading. The parable also is a simple one: a landowner has such a fruitful land that he needs bigger barns and builds them, and then settles down in expectation of a life of luxury and ease, only, like our exhausted retiree, to have his life end before he can enjoy it.
But in our tradition more was read into the story. The man was not criticized by Jesus, so the Fathers and medieval authors thought, because he cultivated the field and enjoyed its abundant harvest. He was criticized, they felt, because he kept his wealth for himself in ever bigger barns when he could have shared it with others and not have needed the bigger barns. If God gave you more than you need, they said, it was so that you could share it with those who do not have even the necessities of life. Why else would God make one person wealthy and another poor? Here is a paragraph from St. Basil the Great, addressed to people like the man in the parable:
But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose that you are doing nothing wrong when you cheat so many people? Who is a greedy man? Someone who is not content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes what belongs to others. And are you not a greedy man, are you not a cheater, when you take the things you received for the sake of distributing them and make them your own? If someone stripped a clothed man naked, we would call him a robber. Well does not the same name fit anybody who fails to clothe the naked when he is able to do so? The bread you are hoarding belongs to the hungry; the coat you keep in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes moldering in your closet belong to the shoeless; the silver you hide in a safe place belongs to the needy.
You may have heard an echo of that powerful sentence in a more recent figure. Peter Maurin, along with Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, echoed St. Basil when he said: “The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor.” A Catholic Worker website in London speaks of their “houses of hospitality” as “centers for learning to do the acts of love, so that the poor can receive what is, in justice, theirs, the second coat in our closet, the spare room in our home, a place at our table. Anything beyond what we immediately need belongs to those who go without.”
What a challenge this poses to us in our American culture! I am probably not talking to many millionaires in this congregation, but I am talking to people whose lives are far more comfortable and secure than those of hundreds of millions of people in the world today. We are living in a society where conspicuous consumption still gets all the attention, where the advertising industry exists to convince us to buy things we don’t need. A story in the local paper last week told of a U.S. Senator who owns a 7 million dollar yacht. Chelsea Clinton’s wedding is said to have cost millions of dollars. The average wedding in the U.S. costs between $20,000 and $30,000, and even that is unnecessarily high. A Christmas or two ago I went into a huge Best Buy store and remarked to my brother that no one really needed about 90% of what was on sale. How many of the gifts we give, and get, at Christmas are things people really need? And I would be willing to bet that most of us–including myself–have more than one coat, more than one pair of shoes, in our closets.
Of course, if everyone followed St. Basil’s advice immediately, the worldwide economy would probably collapse into an even deeper recession. Still, isn’t there much more that we could do than we are doing? We could start by keeping in mind the distinction between things necessary for life and superfluous things. Maybe we should all go home and go through our closets and drawers and bring what we really don’t need–or can’t fit into!–to local charities. Couldn’t we at least consider making our lives simpler? Many people have decided to let care for the environment determine how they will spend their money, what sorts of things they will buy. Could we not let care for the needy enter into our decisions about such matters? Maybe we could decide that every time we buy something we don’t really need, we’ll give an equal amount to the poor. Or perhaps we could revive the old biblical requirement of tithing, that is, giving 10% of our income to God. Could that not be a guide? A commitment to give 10% every year to the poor and needy? St. John Chrysostom had a good rule, I think. “It is not required that you give a lot, but that you not give too little, given what you possess.”
St. John also had a fine phrase when he spoke of how God had created the things needed for human life–air and water and land–and made them common possessions. They were ours, he said, until the day came when people began to use “those cold words ‘mine’ and ‘thine.’” That’s when rivalry and competition arose. “Mine” and “yours” are cold words, he said, words that cause the warm affection that should exist among human beings to turn cold. The man in the parable lived in a very frigid world. We don’t have to join him there.