Being Rich Toward God
Note: This is the fifth post in a 10-part series, drawn from Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health, produced by the Clergy Health Initiative and distributed at the 2010 United Methodist Annual Conferences in North Carolina. Each reflection is tied to the lectionary; we will publish each reflection a week in advance of the Sunday to which it is tied.
August 1, 2010
Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21 • Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.
One word holds together the assigned gospel, epistle, and Old Testament lessons for this week: greed – the unhealthy, human tendency to trust primarily in ourselves and what we can acquire rather than putting our trust in God
In Luke, a man who has recently lost his parents wants Jesus to make his brother divide the estate with him. It appears that the man wants an advocate, someone who will be on his side, not a judge who will make a fair ruling. Jesus senses the man’s greed and responds by telling him a parable. A rich farmer, whose crops are so plentiful that he runs out of room in his barns, tears down his small barns and builds bigger ones. He decides to store up his abundance for many years to come, reasoning that, “then will I eat, drink, and be merry,” not knowing that later that very night he would die. In these verses, the man uses the words “I” or “me” twelve times. This farmer’s problem is not so much with his actions as with the motivation behind his actions. He believes himself to be in total control of his life and destiny. Seeing this lack of faith, God calls him a fool.
Greed takes the form of idolatry in Colossians, as the apostle admonishes his audience: “put to death” all earthly things such as evil desire and greed. Similarly, the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Hosea is framed in the context of the people of Israel not being satisfied with Yahweh and desiring idols who will please them more. Even though Yahweh calls his “son” Israel out of bondage in Egypt, the people turn to other gods: sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols. They refuse to be content with the good that Yahweh has done for them even though they have been gently led, even cradled, by a loving, forgiving God through the wilderness. “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
Each of these lessons on the problem of human greed offers a similar solution: the discontented, overly self-concerned person needs to have a fresh encounter with God. In the gospel lesson Jesus, who speaks more about money than any other topic, reminds his listeners that there is far more to life than the abundance of one’s possessions. If we store up and rely primarily on our “earthly treasures,” then we will have a much more difficult time being rich toward God, seeking first life in God’s Kingdom, which keeps us in communion with God and others.
Colossians invites readers to turn from “earthly” temptations, things such as impurity, evil desire, and greed, by appealing to Christ, the one who was raised from the dead. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Christ has ultimately conquered these “earthly” things, the “powers of death.” If Christians have died and been raised with Christ through baptism, and if their minds and their lives are truly “hidden” with Christ in God, then they will not succumb to the temptation of these powers. Christians, he writes, are to clothe themselves with the “new self” that is lived in the image of its creator.
In the Old Testament lesson, the God of Hosea responds to Israel’s ingratitude by offering forgiveness, an opportunity for a new and renewed relationship with Him: “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” In all of these lessons God offers Himself anew to the one who is moving down a path toward self-destruction.
So, how do we escape the snares of acute selfishness that manifests itself as greed? How do we find the renewal that brings us to wholeness? The answer to our deepest longing is not to turn inward to self-obsession or to turn outward to false gods of material goods or fleeting promises. It is to look “otherward” – toward a God whose arms are outstretched, not only in a cruciform, self-giving fashion, but also in a loving embrace that offers forgiveness and welcomes us home. Only when we allow the One who has come to give his very life for us to truly befriend us, will our affections and our yearnings be changed. And we know this, first and foremost, as a gift. It is not something else to attain, particularly not on our own – for doing so would be adding to the original problem. Rather, when we accept God’s love and forgiveness as a gift freely offered and when we then live into our baptism, we respond with glad and generous hearts that seek to please God and God’s people. By living our lives in harmony with God’s desires, we store up treasures, not for ourselves and our earthly consumption, but for the Kingdom of God and our blessed participation in it.
Susan Pendleton Jones is director of field education at Duke Divinity School and an ordained elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Questions to Consider
- From Enron to Goldman Sachs to angry, confrontational politics, greed appears to be endemic in our society. If the beginning of greed is dissatisfaction with who and what we are – the Israelites leave Yahweh for Baal, the farmer yearns for ever larger barns – then what is the origin of this dissatisfaction? Whose voice has captured us?
- What would it look like authentically to “live into our baptism?” In our vows, we promise to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness” and “reject the evil powers of this world,” but we don’t name them. If we were asked to name what we renounce and reject when we’re baptized, what would we say?