Don't be fooled — it's not just about money and things.
retold by Deborah
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me.”
He answered, “Friend, I’m not a judge or an accountant.” Turning to the crowd, he said, “Pay attention! Be on your guard against every kind of greed; because life isn’t about having many things.”
Then he told them a parable: “There was a rich man who had a very successful business, and he wondered what to do with all of his wealth. He decided to tear down his house and build a larger one with a five-car garage, tennis courts, and a swimming pool, and put the rest of his money in an off-shore account. ‘Then,’ he said to himself, ‘I will be secure for years to come; I’ll just sit back and relax, eat, drink, and be merry.’
“But God said to him, ‘Foolish, foolish one! You’re going to die tonight! Instead of worrying about your bank accounts, what about an accounting of your life? And as for all of this stuff — what's the use of it now?’
“That’s how it is with those who accumulate earthly treasures and disregard heavenly ones.”
Not even the Lord Christ himself would get involved with people squabbling over an inheritance. It is best avoided. Nobody wins.
Those of us on the outside of these disagreements often shake our heads and say, “Oh, it’s only stuff.” But we’re wrong. Although items and objects often contribute — and money, of course — a more powerful, utterly uncontrollable, ultimately irresolvable issue is greed of a very different kind.
A few years ago I served as co-mediator for a dispute over an inheritance which consisted of a single mobile home. The term is misleading, as these residences aren’t particularly mobile: it isn’t as if you can hitch one to the back of a pickup truck and haul it away. An older, poorly-maintained model, the unit in question was unlikely to survive a transfer, even over a short distance. It would, in fact, have cost more to move than it was worth. Neither of the disputants had a place to put it; neither of them wanted to live in it. Yet both wanted, needed — had to possess it.
The atmosphere in the room was tense from the outset. The brothers — both successful professionals, well-groomed and articulate — arrived prepared for combat and remained hostile, edgy, and antagonistic throughout. Neither would give an inch. It was all or nothing. They were desperate, driven.
In the end the only thing we could agree on was that there could be no agreement, and the case was returned to the Court system. I do not know how it was eventually resolved.
It was all too typical and terribly predictable: the disposition of the deceased’s assets becomes the acting out, in concrete terms, of the need to prove (or convince oneself) that one was loved, was cared for, was “the favorite” — or to finally exact revenge on an envied sibling. This isn’t about need, but hunger: a wild, desperate desire far more powerful than mere love of money. The emotionally fragile will frequently revert to childhood patterns of tears or tantrums, and, in extreme cases, may even experience a psychotic break.
Those not afflicted by the demon Greed will stand, uncomprehending, in confusion, distress, astonishment, and anger at the sudden, often-unwarranted and unexpected outbursts and attacks. Feelings are hurt, relationships are damaged, sometimes permanently. No one “wins.” No one escapes unscathed.
Even the “best,” seemingly-happy families, in which all of the members appear to get along swimmingly, can dissolve into chaos at such times. Death is a tremendous shock to our systems, and long-forgotten insults, minor slights, hidden resentments, and repressed anger can float to the surface like dead fish after a stick of dynamite has been tossed into a lake.
Immediately after refusing to deal with the inheritance dispute, Jesus warned his listeners against “every kind of greed.”
Jesus said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against every kind of greed; because life isn’t about having many things."
The Lord’s words should make us stop and think; he’s obviously directing our sight beyond our ordinary vision of what constitutes “greed.” There’s more here than meets the eye. Or ear.
Most of us ignore the dangers of greed, not considering it to be much of a threat to our souls — after all, we’re not millionaires with vaults filled with gold and jewels and brim-full bank accounts. But it isn’t only the rich who are greedy, and the love of money isn’t the only form greed takes. There are, as the Lord said, all kinds of greed.
We can also be greedy for attention, for power, for fame, for status, for excitement, for food, for sex. We can be greedy for love.
We may be greedy for acclaim or admiration; concerned for our reputation, anxious that we be well thought-of — or simply thought of, period. With greed, it is the accumulation that counts: naughtiness, noisiness, nastiness, bullying, and even criminal conduct — whatever brings the attention that is sought, good or bad, may not matter.
The same is true with greed for power or status; all else falls by the wayside in our pursuit of the object or experience that is consuming us. And it will consume us — though we may delude ourselves that we are “the consumers,” these idols that we worship do not care what harm they cause, what cost their satisfaction: the only thing that matters is their gratification.
And therein hangs the chain that binds us.
The extraordinary destructive power of greed comes from the fact that it never ends. It is the emptiness that can never be filled; the desire that can never be gratified. There is never “enough.” Greed is, by its nature, insatiable; it is a hunger that can never be sated, the great devourer.
Enthralled by greed, we cease to reason. We are desperate, starving for the object of our desire. It is our all in all; we are unthinking; blind, deaf — senseless, oblivious; eaten up by our desperate hunger.
Those brothers in mediation weren’t arguing over a broken-down mobile home, they were two starving men, fighting over the last crust of bread; desperate, driven, half-mad with hunger, consumed with desire…. For what, precisely, we can only speculate. A good guess would be a hunger for their mother’s love. What other force but love can move mountains, the sun, the earth, and the stars? What other hunger is as fierce?
In warning the people against greed, Jesus told a parable about a guy who surrounded himself with stuff: it was all around him, wherever he went, whatever he did; it was all he thought about: nothing else mattered. His greed was his fortress and his prison, insulating him from the rest of life.
But then the man was given word of his impending death. In an instant his planning and arranging, accumulating and accounting was for naught. Bank balances and stock certificates, fame, family, philanthropy, power, position, reputation … all meaningless. The bottom line is that none of what we can count really counts.
Encountering Eternity focuses the mind wonderfully; dross and window dressing fall away, and we see clearly: the only treasure worth accumulating is one founded in love. What matters — what truly counts — is not how much we have or what we have done, but how much we have loved.
Greed grows when love is lacking. We use things to fill the empty spaces, to soothe our suffering, to cushion ourselves against loneliness and pain. We resort to greed to “balance the accounts” when we believe ourselves unfairly treated, and to make up for what is missing in our lives. Greed is love deformed and twisted, misdirected. It does not heal or help, but only adds more misery.
“That’s how it is with those who accumulate earthly treasures and disregard heavenly ones.”
It would be wonderful — heavenly! — if we truly loved one another; if no one was abused or abandoned, ignored or forgotten. But there are many people who have no experience of love, or have had its light obscured by duplicity, violence, or hate. They are the walking wounded, often victims of other loveless souls; with compassion and pity we lift them up to God for healing and restoration. They are living proof that “life isn’t about having many things.”
That we have little taste for heavenly treasures should come as no surprise; they offer no glitz or glamor, only gentle joys in our plain brown wrappers. They are simple to describe, easy to do, but sometimes challenging to accomplish — bumping up, as they often do, against our pride, our prejudices, and our lack of practice:
love, mercy, kindness, compassion, faith, hope, and charity.
There is no shame in our limited experience, these qualities are little-known (and less valued) in our culture. What counts is that we incorporate them into our lives, and hold them in our hearts: smiles, greetings, sincere listening, genuine concern, truthful speaking. These are not works of high drama or heroics, but simple gifts: tiny treasures of love and kindness as small as mustard seeds.
May Christ’s grace and healing love abound,
Where is your weak spot for greed? What do you feel that you really need? What can drive you to distraction?
What “tiny treasures” can you dispense today?
Have a written, legally-binding will in place and keep it current. Your family will be thankful for it.
Some of the aspects of the mediation have been changed to protect the parties involved.