Monday, October 10, 2016

Greed Versus Mercy

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Luke 16:19-31:

“Ladies and gentleman, greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” Most of you probably recognize that speech by Michael Douglas from the 1987 movie Wall Street. What might be less known is that the speech was not really the creation of the screen writer of the film, but instead came from the person on whom Douglas’ character was based, Ivan Boesky. Speaking at the graduation ceremony for the business school at the University of California at Berkley, Boesky said, “Greed is alright, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” That was just a few months before he would be arrested by the SEC for insider trading to which he would plead guilty to one charge and pay a then record individual fine of $100 million. But before all that happened, he turned against his former compatriots and while collecting information against them for the SEC was allowed to continue doing insider trading making millions in profits until the SEC had enough information to also indict Michael Milken who was then forced to pay what is still the record individual penalty of $600 million. In response to the actions of wall street in the 80’s, congress passed a law that called for life in prison for certain financial crimes, and if you are wondering how many bankers or wall street execs have been subject to that penalty, the answer is less than one. Who says that crime doesn’t pay, and that greed is not good?

Or at least that’s what we’re told, and at the very least shown. Make as much money as you can, buy as much stuff as you can, exercise or gain as much power as you can. If you are rich, you are good. If you are poor, you are bad. And of course we all know that if we make lots of money and drive the right car and live in the right house and even drink the right beer then we’ll all be happy and will attract the most beautiful member of the opposite sex right? And if you can’t actually afford to live that lifestyle, it’s still all attainable, just buy it all on credit, because no one really knows how much money you’re worth and so if you can show how successful you are through how much stuff you have, how much gold you own, then surely you have to be successful because we do indeed judge people not on who they are, but how much they make and what they own, and unfortunately we judge ourselves the same way. We think our salaries, or lack thereof, are a reflection of who we are and what we are, and there is the crux of the problem of greed, the deadly sin we are looking at today in comparison to Jesus injunction that the merciful are blessed and that they will receive mercy.

Greed is not about making money or even about having money, because you can be extremely poor and still be greedy and be extremely rich and not necessarily be greedy. Money, or the other things we may be greedy about, in and of themselves have no value. It’s the value and meaning that we give to them that makes all the difference.  Although we routinely hear that money is the root of all evil, the scriptural passage, which we heard this morning from 1 Timothy, actually says “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” It’s about where we place our trust and allegiance, do we trust in God or do we trust in money and stuff. While Jesus’ clearly says that money is a problem, he does not say that it is a sin, but our relationship with it. When the rich man asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. But, we are told the man goes away sad because he has many possessions, and then we hear Jesus say “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle then it is for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of God.”

Rev. Stacey Simpson, a Baptist minister from Georgia, recalls encountering this scripture for the first time while reading in bed when she was seven years old. She says that she became so alarmed that she slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed and ran down the hall to her parents’ room, where she awakened her mother out of a sound sleep. “Mom,” she whispered urgently, “Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!” Her mother’s response was brief and to the point: “We are not rich. Go back to bed.” Of course that’s the trap we fall into isn’t it, that we’re not rich, and we’re certainly not greedy. It’s those other people that Jesus is talking about. He’s not talking about us.

Even Matthew does this because when we compare Jesus’ statements between Matthew and Luke we see some stark contrasts. In Luke’s version of the beatitudes, Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst.” Those are economic statements which go hand in hand with the story of Jesus that Luke tells. Matthew, on the other hand, spiritualizes them to “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Now it’s believed that Matthew and Luke are writing to two different communities when it comes to economic realities, that Luke’s community are people who are truly concerned about where their daily bread will come from, and for them hearing that they are blessed and are receiving God’s favor in their poverty is comforting and provides hope. Whereas Matthew’s community is better off financially, and so Matthew has changed the language to soften the blow and make it a little easier for them to hear and accept.

We want to think we’re not rich, that these things don’t apply to us, but I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that all of us are rich. We are definitely rich by the standards of Jesus’ time and we are even rich by the standards of today when we compare ourselves not to each other, but to the world. But here is the good news. Possessions and wealth in and of themselves are not a problem, but it’s our relationship to them and with them and what we choose to do with them that gets us into trouble.

The parable we heard from today, known as Lazarus and the rich man, is indicative of this, because if you notice, we are never told anything negative about the man. We are not told that he is bad or evil. All that we are told is that he is rich and that he is dressed in purple and fine linen, a sign not only of wealth but also of power and privilege since the roman empire had rules about who could wear purple and how much could be worn by who, and that he feasts sumptuously each day. This is conspicuous consumption at its most conspicuous. And, we are also told that he has a gate, that is that he has shut himself off from the outside world. We might say that he is using his money to protect him from the cares and concerns of the world, and one of them is lying right at his own gate. Lazarus, a beggar, and the only person ever named in any of Jesus’ parables, which should tell us something right at the start about importance.  And for those who may remember the rich man being named as Dives, that’s simply a misattribution and dives is the Latin word for rich. But Lazarus is at the gate begging for food.  In the ancient world, at a feast, diners would use bread to wipe the grease from their hands which would then be thrown under the table, so when they are talking about the food that would drop from the table, this is probably what is being referred to. It’s so bad and Lazarus is in such bad shape, that the dogs would even lick Lazarus’ sores, not a pretty picture, but then they both die.

We are then told that the rich man is being tormented in Hades, and he calls out to Abraham and tells him to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool his tongue. Now there are several things striking about this scene. The first is that he knows Lazarus’ name, which presumably means that he knew Lazarus when he was laying at his gate, he is not just some stranger. But the more important piece is that he believes that he has the authority not only to demand that Lazarus serve him, but to even sort of make the same demand of Abraham. And not only does he think that he can have Lazarus’ serve him, but that he can also use Lazarus’ to serve others by delivering a warning to his brothers. That certainly gives us an indication of how the rich man thinks about Lazarus, and perhaps all those who he thinks are below him. He believes that because he is rich that he is better than others, that he can control them and do whatever he wants to them and with them, one of the great dangers of wealth and possessions. But for today’s message the most important thing is what he says to Abraham, and that is “have mercy on me.” He is suffering and so wants and needs mercy to alleviate his situation, the very thing that Lazarus himself was seeking at the man’s gate, although it was not verbalized as such.

Now what makes the beatitude about the merciful significant, or different, is the fact that it is reflexive. Those who give mercy will receive mercy. In the other beatitudes, people receive things that are different from what they give, but in this one it’s the same. If you give mercy you will receive mercy. It’s sort of like Jesus’ claim that to receive forgiveness, you must also give forgiveness. The rich man wants to receive mercy, but there is no evidence that he ever gave mercy and so it is not there for him to receive. The Greek word for mercy, also has the connotation of pouring out, like oil being poured out of a pitcher, or we might see it as pouring ourselves out for others. That mercy, or to be merciful, involves giving of ourselves, giving of our things, giving of our honor and status, even giving of our lives to someone else who is in need, someone who needs mercy, and that is the opposite of greed. Greed is about holding onto or seeking to obtain not just what we might need, but more than what we need, and a sense that there is never enough. And in seeking to acquire more and more, we also have to hold on to it, not ever losing it, and certainly not being able to give anything to anyone else, because then we might never have enough. It becomes an endless game and rather than us controlling our things, our things control us.  In scripture if someone has a demon in them they are said to be possessed, but what is it that we call things we own but possessions. And so it often turns out that we don’t control our possessions but instead that they in fact possess us. Our possessions possess us, and their place in our lives far outweighs their true importance.

In the last forty years the average home has nearly doubled in size, and yet one of the fastest growing real estate markets is for self-storage units. In other words, we have more space to house all our things and yet we need even more space beyond that to hold all the stuff that won’t fit in the homes. But is any of this bringing any more happiness to us, or more enjoyment to our lives? Does it make us more fulfilled? Does it make us better people? Does it make us any more merciful? The problem that we all find, although few truly know how to fix, is the fact that the more we pursue happiness through our stuff, through greed, whether it’s for more money, more possessions, more clothes, more cars, more vacations, more knowledge, more conquests, more power, more anything, it’s the accumulation of things, and dedicating our lives to the pursuit of such things, which is idolatry, and comes with the reality that the more we seek these things the less satisfaction we get from them.  Thus having to pursue even more and more, conversely ruining the pleasure and happiness we expect to gain from them. What greed does is to confuse for us the difference between means and ends. While money, or other things, can be a means to and achieve the ends we desire, including the practice of mercy; it is when we make them the end in and of themselves that becomes the problem.

In passage with which must of us are familiar, we hear in the 23rd psalm “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” But, other translations tell us that “the Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need,” or that “I lack nothing.” Perhaps I’m wrong on this, but for me there is a big difference between saying I shall not want and I have all that I need. The first has a connotation of fighting urges to get more, of having to say to yourself when you go to the store, “I want that, but I know I’m not supposed to, and so I’m not getting it.” There is a negative associated with it, a denial, and when we have to try and deny ourselves something we are more likely to fail, which is why dieting so rarely works. But instead when we say “I have all that I need” or “I lack nothing,” then we are not denying ourselves anything because we’ve take a position not of scarcity, but of abundance, that we have what we already need, we don’t need to continue to get more and more and more. You can be wealthy and generous and merciful, and you can be poor and greedy, just as you can be rich and greedy, and poor and generous and merciful, although it tends to be the poorest who give the most to charity. Jesus’ addresses this story of Lazarus to those “who love money,” and then he says that this is an abomination in the eyes of God. Funny that we don’t hear about this abomination being talked about very much, just as we don’t hear Jesus’ injunction, quoting from the prophet Hosea, that God does not desire sacrifice and burn-offerings, or we might hear that as right religious practice, but that instead God desires mercy and unconditional love.

I have here a $20 bill, who would like it? What about if I wrinkle it all up, and wad it up, do you still want it? What about if I step all over it and get it all dirty, do you still want it? What about if I tear it in half, do you still want it? Funny that we still want this because of the value that we have assigned to it, even though it’s just a piece of paper with green ink. But what do we do with people who have been stepped all over, who are dirty, who have been bent down and torn, beaten up and bruised by life, and who feel thrown away, un-valuable, unwanted and unloved? The rich man is not tormented because he was rich, he is tormented because he did not show mercy, he did not show compassion, he did not show generosity, he would willing pick up dirty money, but stepped over the dirty man at his gate, and maybe, just for fun, he said “get a job.” God sees this as a piece of paper, potentially useful in helping to bring about kingdom issues, but that life is not about this. Life is about people, about living in right relationship, about valuing each other not by what we have, but by who we are which is beloved children of God.

When we hear this parable, I believe we are not to see ourselves in either the role of the rich man or of Lazarus, instead we should see ourselves in the role of the brothers that the man wants Lazarus to go warn. We should hear Abraham saying to us “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even is someone rises from the dead.” Of course we have testimony to us of someone who was raised from the dead, who when asked what was the greatest commandment, and we keep coming back to this, and he said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And then he concluded by saying, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Love your God and put your trust in him, and love your neighbor and treat them as you want to be treated, that is Moses and the prophets. Blessed are the merciful, my brothers and sisters, for they will be shown mercy, mercy here and mercy at the judgment for God’s mercy will endure forever. I pray that it will be so. Amen.

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