Connections 08.04.2019: Greed (Which Is Idolatry)

Luke 12:13-21, 29-31

There’s a scene in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey asks Clarence the angel if he has any money.

Clarence says, “No, we don’t use money in heaven.”

George replies, “Well, it comes in real handy down here, bud!”

We wouldn’t argue the point. We need money. We need enough money to cover our expenses. We need to be able to put food on our table, clothes on our backs, and a roof over our heads.

We need enough.

But what would we do if we suddenly had more than enough? How would we respond if we experienced a financial windfall?

There’s a scene in the 1994 film Forrest Gump in which Forrest opens an envelope with the Apple Computers logo on it. Lieutenant Dan had invested some of the money from their Bubba Gump shrimp business in “some kind of fruit company.”

Forrest says that one day he got a call from Lieutenant Dan telling him they’d never have to worry about money again.

“That’s good,” Forrest says. “One less thing.”

What would we do if we never had to worry about money again because we have all we need and then some?

Hopefully we wouldn’t do what the man in the parable in this week’s lesson text does, because his choices don’t work out for him.

Surprised by a bumper crop, he decides to tear down his barns, build bigger ones, and store his excess income. He says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (v. 19).

But he loses his life instead. This apparently means that he dies, but because of his faulty approach to life, he would have lost his life even had he continued existing.

The man doesn’t thank God for his blessings. He doesn’t think about using his excess to help others. He thinks only about himself.

He sees his bumper crop in terms of what it can do for him, not as an opportunity to do good for others.

The man’s problem is greed; we know this because of the context of the parable. When someone asks Jesus to intervene in an inheritance dispute, Jesus says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15). Then Jesus tells the parable to illustrate his point.

In Colossians 3:1-11, which is another of the lectionary’s readings for this Sunday, Paul talks about what it means that we “have been raised with Christ” and what we should do as we “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (vv. 1-2). He lists greed among the things he says we should “put to death” (v. 5). When he mentions greed, he defines it as “idolatry” (v. 5).

To practice idolatry is to put something in the place in our lives that only God should hold. At first glance, we might think that the man in Jesus’ parable made an idol out of money.

In fact, he made an idol out of himself.

And in so doing, he lost himself.

Discussion

  1. Why do you think Jesus declines to arbitrate the inheritance issue that someone brings to him?
  2. Jesus says, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (v. 15). What does one’s life consist in?
  3. Imagine that the man in parable doesn’t die. Imagine that he builds his barns, stores his bumper crop, and lives out his life in ease. In what ways might he still lose his life?
  4. What does it mean to be “rich toward God” (v. 21)?
  5. Imagine that the man in the parable lives as Jesus teaches in verses 29-31. What if he “strives for [God’s] kingdom,” and has “these things…given to [him] as well” (v. 31). What might his life have looked like? How might our lives look if we live this way?

Reference Shelf

Luke, at least, thinks the rich man’s sin was greed. Although the parable is told as if the rich man were the only person in the world, that is only because it is told from the rich man’s point of view. He had neighbors; there were poor persons living near him; there were day laborers who harvested his crops and built his new barns. One solution to the “problem” created by the bumper harvest was that he could have filled his old barns and then given away the surplus; holding the grain in the barn was not so that he would have some- thing to eat in tough years, but so that he could sell it later, when there was no surplus and the prices were higher. Also, notice the word for the rich man’s property; Luke uses chora, which normally is translated something like “district,” rather than one of the normal words for a farm or a field. The rich man owns half the county, and so when his fields produce plentifully, it really is a problem. Where is he going to put all his stuff?

This is one of Luke’s straightest jabs into the American solar plexus, and we are going to be tempted to dodge or deflect most of the blow. First sidestep: well, I’m not a rich man. I have a modest house, drive an old car, have my kids in public schools, and buy my clothes on sale from discount stores. I don’t have money to buy lake houses or to invest in high-yield bonds. This is a dodge, because while we are not rich compared to the truly wealthy in our country, compared to much of the world we are. We are part of a nation that uses a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources, and the fact that we can pay for it legally does not change greed into something virtuous. Our ability to pay keeps prices too high for the truly poor. Second sidestep: I give to charity. This is also a dodge, because it fails to address the real issue of greed. The rich man probably tithed, and part of that was set aside for the poor. But he had enough to feed all the hungry in his district stored up in his barns, more than he needed for his own subsistence, more even than he expected to get when he planted his crops. No doubt his old barns held enough to feed him and his household and enough to sell for a profit. Why not be satisfied with that, and give away the windfall?

When we hold the rich man in this parable against the rich man in the story about Lazarus, we can see the same emphasis on personal consumption and the same blindness to the needs of others. When we hold both of them up against Zacchaeus, or against the merciful Samaritan, we can see what behavior was expected. God’s voice brings the parable to a tragic end. The rich man will die—well, we all die, so that is not necessarily a tragedy—and the things that he has worked hard to protect will be out of his control. Whose will they be? Will he leave behind an inheritance battle, like the one that introduced the parable? Will his property be confiscated by some greedy king or by a colonial power? Will there be a fire or a flood that ruins the goods stored?

The conclusion of the parable in v. 21 describes the rich man and his genus. The verb thesaurizo, like the English word thesaurus, means to put things away or store them up; the one who does that for himself or herself and is not “rich towards God” is a fool. This is not about giving to religious causes or to the church, but about not accumulating money in the first place. Instead of being rich in accumulated things, we are directed to sell our possessions and give away the proceeds (12:33-34), and in that way put our affections and our efforts where God’s heart is—with the poor.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 413-15.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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