Pleonexia (Greed)

1 August 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for the Eucharist, 1 August 2004, Westminster Abbey
by the Reverend Dr. Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

Readings: Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21 (NRSV)

The readings this morning focus on the sin of greed. ‘Put to death’ says Paul, ‘whatever in you is earthly in you … greed (which is idolatry)’. ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed’, says Jesus, ‘for a one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ In both texts, the same Greek word is used: pleonexia, which means a concern with ‘having more’. Pleonexia is an obsession with what you have or with getting more. Older English translations spoke of covetousness. The bluntest Anglo-Saxon word is word for it would be greed. Jesus’ understanding of pleonexia is made clear by the story that he told.

With gospel stories we always need to look at the context. Here, someone is trying to cast Jesus in the role of a judge or arbitrator. This person wants his fair share of an inheritance that is to be divided with his brother and he wants it now. Jesus is there, so he turns to get him on his side. Jesus’ response, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ seems to betray exasperation: is this what the man thinks Jesus’ ministry is all about? Is he so focused on possessions and on his rights he doesn’t see that Jesus’ authority and his message is not about squabbles over possessions but about the life of the spirit? It is on a completely different level, a level to which the man seems to be blind. Jesus warns him: beware of pleonexia, of greedy materialism. Life is about a great deal more than the things that you own in this world.

It is clear from the parable Jesus then tells that this pleonexia is not simply greed or desire for more. Jesus begins by saying the land of an already rich man was so fertile he became even more rich. The riches came because the land produced the crops – we don’t know whether the rich man was clever or hard-working. What he was worried about was how to store his crops - not how to share his wealth, or how to show his thankfulness to God for all he had been given. He wanted to store his crops, so his big idea was to pull down his barns and build larger ones. At this point it is not concern for more that he displays but concern that nothing - nothing of what he owns - should be taken away from him, so he can do what he wants with the rest of his life, knowing he has plenty of this world’s goods laid up to meet all his needs. He’s not that interested in what he doesn’t have, but he is fixated on what he does have. There’s no sense here that he might do something creative with all this wealth. His wealth has made him a moron, a fool with a two-dimensional approach to life: ‘Fool’, says God to him, ‘This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ The moral of the story can be summed up in familiar words from the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.’ (Mt 7:19-20)

This contrast between laying up for yourself treasures on heaven and laying up for yourselves treasures in earth is very similar to the contrast Paul speaks of when he tells the Colossian Christians to ‘seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God’. Paul uses the extraordinarily bold image that Christians who have become one with Christ have died with him and been raised with him, so it is for them to set their minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth. In the story Jesus told, the stupidity of the rich man was that he set his mind on the things of earth, on his wealth, and gave not a moment’s thought to the things that are above. He had no sense of what it was to see this world’s goods, all his possessions, as gifts that had come to him from above, from God, through the fruitfulness of the earth, and that they could never really be possessed at all.

Just as in the story Jesus told pleonexia is not simply desire for more, so in Paul’s letter to the Colossians it is more than simple greed. Paul speaks of it as ‘idolatry’. It is not that people like the rich man in Jesus’ story bow down and worship their possessions but, because they look on their possessions in a self-satisfied, self-absorbed way, without any sense of the generosity of God which has made them rich, they lack any sense of material goods as they are truly to be seen. They have no sense of the material as the sacrament of the spiritual.

Paul develops his teaching in terms of some very sharp contrasts: the things that are above and the things that are on earth; life and death; the new nature and the old nature. You either share in one or you share in the other. Which, he asks the Colossians, is it to be? If you share in the new life with Christ, you must put to death the things that hold you back from sharing in it fully. You must get serious about dealing with pleonexia – because it has about it the stench of spiritual death.

The best antidote that I know to this pleonexia, which affects us all in our consumerist culture, is the eucharist, precisely because so long as one shares in the eucharist one cannot lose this sense of the things that are above and the things that are of the earth. At the heart of every eucharist is the extraordinary miracle by which the ordinary bread and the ordinary wine of this earth become the bread and the wine that are from above: they become the means by which we share in the new life of the risen Christ, by which our new nature is spiritually fed. They become for us the body and blood of Christ. Once we see this bread and this wine of the eucharist as nothing but gift, we have a perspective in which to see all bread and all wine. Once we begin to see the money that we offer at the eucharist as a token of gratitude for the gifts that have been given to us, whether of intelligence or strength or education or of inherited wealth, we have a perspective in which to see all our money and all our wealth. Once we begin to see the bodies that we bring to the eucharist as themselves God’s gifts to us we have a perspective in which to see all our bodiliness, our health, or lack of it, our strength, or lack of it, our failures and successes, our sorrows and our joys. For eucharistic Christians there can be no grasping at wealth or strength or security or stability: in the eucharist we are offered with all that we are and all that we have, that we may receive our very selves back as gifts from God. The antidote to pleonexia is thus thanksgiving – and that is the very meaning of eucharist.

Gratitude is a great leveller. Paul moves quickly in his words to the Colossians from exhorting them to leave behind the things that make them earthbound Christians, to the bonds that are forged in heaven. He tells them to ‘seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God’ – to rise above anger, wrath, malice, slander and foul talk. Grateful Christians can do better than squabbling. For those who really have entered into resurrection life there is a completely new quality of human relating. The wretched human behaviour towards each other that Paul writes about has no place in the Christian life. The petty human distinctions of race, class, colour, status, education, wealth must be left behind – for in this new life, at the Lord’s table of the eucharist, ‘there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all and in all.’ Here, at the eucharist, nobody is better than anybody else, nobody can sit back and say ‘Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ Here, we eat and drink because without this food, in a materialist, selfish, superficial and toxic culture, we shall perish; we shall cease to know ourselves; and we shall cease to know our neighbours as daughters and sons of the one heavenly father, whose delight it is to shower his blessings upon us. And if it should be that tonight our soul is required of us, then eucharistic Christians need have no fear: for those who, by God’s grace, sit light to the goods of this world really do, by God’s grace, have treasure in heaven.

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