The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 21st February 2010 at 10:00 AM
Readings: Micah 6:1-8; Luke 5: 27-end
In our second lesson we heard how Jesus shared a meal with tax collectors and other unpopular characters. Tax collectors were particularly disliked because they collaborated with the occupying Romans and because they were thought to be greedy. Luke’s wonderful story about Zacchaeus illustrates this. We are told Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and he was rich. When Jesus calls him down from his sycamore tree and says he wants to stay at his house - of all houses - Zacchaeus’s response is to say he will give away half his possessions and if he has defrauded anyone he will pay them back four times over. The greed that presumably made Zacchaeus rich is turned into generosity and Jesus says, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’ (Luke 19:9)
Through Lent, the sermons at Matins will continue on the theme of the seven deadly sins. This morning’s sin is greed – not in the sense of eating too much (that will come later under ‘gluttony’) but in the sense of what last year’s Reith Lecturer, Michael Sandel, called ‘an excessive, single-minded desire for gain’.1 Sandel chose his words carefully: he speaks of an excessive and single-minded desire because he recognises there is a reasonable desire for gain - if you accept market capitalism you have to accept that – but the desire for reasonable profit is not the same as an ‘excessive and single-minded’ desire to be rich. When the desire for profit becomes grasping and aggressive, when it harms other people or harms ourselves, when it leads to the choking off of human qualities like compassion, patience and empathy, it can be quite literally a ‘deadly’ sin: the sin of greed. The Bible is very direct about this: ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains’ (1 Timothy 6:10).
Both the Old and the New Testaments contain worked examples of greed. One of the best known is the story of Naboth’s vineyard, the story of a classic Mafia-style landgrab (1 Kings 21:1-29). Naboth had a vineyard next to the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. Ahab wanted the land to create a vegetable garden. He tried to buy Naboth out, or to offer him another vineyard, but Naboth wouldn’t sell land that had been in his family for generations. So Ahab sulked. However, his wife Jezebel offered to get the vineyard for him. Using Ahab’s royal authority, she arranged for Naboth to be falsely accused of cursing God and the king by the necessary two male witnesses. So, Naboth was taken outside the city and stoned to death. Immediately, Ahab took possession of the vineyard. But then Elijah the prophet got to hear of this and confronted Ahab, prophesying a terrible fate both for him and for Jezebel. In the story, Ahab repents and the punishment is postponed but Jezebel’s sin catches up with her and she comes to a terrible end. (2 Kings 9:36-7). This is a truly awful tale of greed, the abuse of power and the wreckage that follows. It is not hard to think of modern parallels. Two weeks ago, the Church of England withdrew its investment in Vedanta, a mining company which seems to be behaving in India in this sort of way. 2
Jesus tells a story which shows how greed can be a deadly sin. First he gives a warning, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ (Luke 12:15). Then he tells the parable of a rich man whose land produced abundant crops. The man decided to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his grain and his goods. He said to himself – actually, he said to his soul – ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But, God then said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus adds, ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:16-21). We are not actually told the man is greedy; rather that he is stupid. He thinks he has more than enough to live a comfortable life for many years. He is smug and self-satisfied; fixated on his possessions. Again, the story rings alarm bells for our contemporary world.
The story of Naboth’s vineyard is about a criminal landgrab in which he and his wife do not baulk at murder. Naboth covets his neighbour’s vineyard, and he has the power to get it by fair means or foul. We know such things go on in today in pursuit of natural resources like oil and copper and the best agricultural land, and it takes immense courage to resist them. The story of the rich fool touches us in a different way. It’s the note of smugness that gets us – as though your wealth could protect you from the realities of old age, infirmity and death. We talk about financial ‘security’ but we know that nothing can protect us from the insecurity of the human condition, from sickness, accident, bereavement and death. What presents as greed has beneath it an unresolved insecurity: an inability to accept the frailty of the human condition.
Another of the sources of greed is the desire for status. We live in a society which places a huge value on success and which uses money as a way of indicating power and success. The man and the woman who won £56 million on the lottery last week were given instant celebrity status, marked out as having succeeded in the lottery of life. Others gain status as footballers or bankers. The desire for status, to be seen as successful, seems to me to be a major driver for those on the obscenely high salaries and bonuses we read of in our papers. We all like to be admired by others, and one of the things our society admires most is having lots of money. Greed for money goes with greed for status and success.
The deepest source of greed, it seems to me, is simply the desire for happiness, tragically misinterpreted. We are surrounded by images that portray the happiness which is supposed to come with having lots of money and living the lifestyle of the rich: life is short and the more money you have, we are told again and again, the more you enjoy it. But it is simply impossible that everybody can live this way, and on the way to riches, so many, like the 24-year old stockbroker who killed himself this week, experience profound unhappiness. The greed of human beings, as we all know, threatens to destabilise and to destroy our planet. The challenge to all of us in a materialist society is to re-learn the art of simple contentment.
And this, I guess, is the real point of thinking about ‘greed’ in Lent. It’s not to point the finger at anyone for being greedy. After all, one person’s greed is another person’s ‘prudence’ or ‘just reward’. In a materialist society, we all need an antidote to greed and the best antidote is gratitude. That’s the missing note in the story of the rich fool, and it’s the last thing Naboth has on his mind. Where, this Lent, will be the opportunities for you and for me to practise gratitude? What opportunities will come our way to experience the special joy of giving not just what we can, but a little bit more, with a glad and grateful heart?
1. M.J. Sandel, Justice, What’s the Right Thing to Do? (London: Allen Lane, 2009), p. 15
2. See http://www.cofe.anglican.org/news/pr2010.html (visited February 20, 2010).