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It's about Greed
Sermon by Dwayne J. Westermann on Luke 12:13-21
“It’s about Greed”
August 1, 2004
By Pastor Dwayne J. Westermann
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…”
If I were allowed to choose a Gospel lesson for this Sunday when we have scheduled a tour of our wonderful, big, new facility, it probably would not be one in which Jesus condemns a man as a fool for tearing down old barns and building new and bigger ones! But unfortunately, or probably more often fortunately for the congregation, this preacher doesn’t get to choose the lessons. So, we are stuck with Luke and this dire warning about building bigger barns. But the point of the parable is not about building barns; it’s about greed.
Greed is something of a hot topic these days, at least in the corporate world. First it was Enron, then Arthur Anderson, then Tyco, WorldCom, and Merrill Lynch, followed by Salomon Smith Barney, J.P. Morgan Chase, Martha Stewart and just last week U.S. Food Service executives were arrested. Brian Cruver fittingly named his book about the Enron scandal and the problem that caused it; he called it, Anatomy of Greed. And, while greed has a very secure place among the Seven Deadly Sins, not everyone thinks it is such a bad thing.
Ø “Greed is good.” according to Gordon Gecko, the stock speculator in the movie, “Wall Street.” “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works!” he said. And there are plenty of others in real life who agree.
Ø Remember Ivan Boesky who inspired that quote from the movie, “Wall Street,” when he opined, “Greed is all right; by the way, I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” After two years in prison and a one hundred million dollar fine for insider trading, we wonder if Mr. Boesky is still feeling good about himself.
Ø Then there is Donald Trump who said, “The point is you can’t be too greedy.”
Ø And Forbes magazine which counsels investors to be greedy if they want to be successful. “[Right now] fear is pervasive on Wall Street, so this is a good time to be greedy. Sell your timid Treasury bills. Buy stocks!”
Ø Walter Williams wrote about “The Virtue of Greed” in Capitalism Magazine. “You can call it greed, selfishness or enlightened self-interest, but the bottom line is that it's these human motivations that get wonderful things done. Unfortunately, many people are naive enough to believe that it's compassion, concern and ‘feeling another's pain’ that's the superior human motivation.” So, now greed can even be classified as among the “superior human motivations.” We don’t think so, Mr. Williams.
Greed doesn’t accomplish “wonderful things.” Greed is malevolent because greed obtains unneeded wealth for one’s self at the expense of another. Thomas Aquinas put it this way, "[Greed] is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them.” It seems Aquinas knew something about a global market economy before there even was one! Julian Edney puts it in modern English, “Greed is the acquisition of a desirable good… beyond [one’s] need, resulting in unequal distribution to the point [that] others are deprived.” Greed is more than simple avarice; greed robs and hurts and even kills people.
And greed invariably visits an ironic and fitting punishment upon the greedy. That punishment is best described in a haunting line from Gulliver’s Travels, “God punishes us best by giving us too much of what we want most.” God punishes us best by giving us too much of what we want most. Think about it; isn’t that the truth! Now, whether it is God doing the punishing as Gulliver suggests, or whether the punishment is simply the inevitable product of greed is disputable, but the point is that in the long-run, greed is not good; greed is not right; greed, in the final analysis, does not work. Ecclesiastes calls it “vanity.” “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.” (Eccl.5:10). The absolute futility of greed has been known since ancient times. There is no satisfying the greed of the greedy, never, not ever. That’s why it is counted as a “deadly sin.” Donald Trump is right, “The point is you can’t be too greedy.” because greed is insatiable. It is also insidious, burrowing its way into the lives of people like a worm into an apple, unnoticed until the rot begins from the inside out.
Are we greedy? As a nation? As individuals? Do we have more than we need while others have less than they need; and, is the fact that we do have it the reason they don’t? Are we greedy? Some people think so, and they document their assertion with examples like this one.
Our desire for fashionable clothing and shoes at the best possible price leads major retailers to buy from suppliers in foreign countries often operated by American-owned companies which have out-sourced production. These suppliers operate what have come to be known as “sweatshops” where manufacturing costs are kept low by paying very low wages to people who are desperate for work, ignoring safety hazards, and employing children who should be in school. Not only does this hurt workers in those countries, but garment workers in this country have lost jobs by the thousands. Why? Because we want to stay in style for the lowest possible price.
Is that being greedy? Do we mean to be doing that? Does that even cross our minds when we buy a pair of tennis shoes? Is it our intention to live fashionably at the expense of the poor in this world? Surely not; if we knew we were being greedy, we would stop it; wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we? But, truth be told, most Americans don’t know very much about the rest of the world and how other people live and suffer and die, and why they suffer and die, so many of them young, so many of them children. Do you know where your clothes and shoes are made and under what conditions? Ignorance and greed are mutually reinforcing and we Americans, among the nations of the world, are particularly uninformed about how our style of living affects the rest of the world because, at least until recently, the rest of the world did not negatively affect our style of living. Well, things have changed dramatically. If the events of the last couple of years are nothing else, they are a call to become educated, to learn about how life is for people in other places and learn about how the way we live affects the way they live.
Is there any good news in all of this? Indeed there is! The good news is that in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven for things done and left undone. Thank God for that! But, there is more; that forgiveness compels us to witness to our Lord’s perfect life which now guides our own, to use all that we have been given on behalf of our neighbors in need. That forgiveness brings with it a freedom that no amount of money can buy; it brings with it a joy that no material wealth can provide. It is the freedom to serve others as Christ has served us. It is this which is good, this which is right, and this which works!
Whether or not this new and bigger “barn” we have built for ourselves here at College Lutheran Church will stand as an expression of greed or as an expression of commitment to others remains to be seen. That will depend largely upon what we do with it, upon whether it serves us only or serves others as well, upon whether it keeps us from sharing our wealth with the poor and hungry or motivates us to do so even more. Let us pray that what we have built here is an expression of our earnest desire to be God’s people in a very greedy and needy world.
Pastor Dwayne J. Westermann
College Lutheran Church
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