The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Manisha Dostert
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
So, a good preacher always does her homework to prepare for a sermon. Aside from reading the text really carefully and closely, maybe she does a word study in the Greek or the Hebrew. Or maybe she goes out into the world and talks to the people of God and asks them what is on your mind, and then takes their questions to the word and dwells within it seeing what God wants to say.
Or perhaps, she goes and she reads a paper – she doesn’t read a paper, she goes online and looks at all the websites and figures out what’s going on in the news. And thinks what, God, do you have to say to this current event? Or maybe she opens up her commentaries from seminary and reads through them and finds out what great scholars over the centuries have said about the word that is to be proclaimed to the people this weekend.
So for this sermon I did my homework. I watched the 1987 movie Wall Street, where Michael Douglas plays a corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, who makes millions by buying up these struggling companies, taking them and breaking them apart, and selling them for a profit – delivers that iconic line, “Greed is good.”
Now, that line comes from a monologue that he has at a stockholder’s meeting of the company that he has now become the majority shareholder of, because he slowly and methodically bought up all the shares. And everyone’s nervous because they know that this guy’s a pirate, and so he comes in to tell the people why actually what he’s done in buying up all their shares and being willing to turn the place around, is actually good for them because there’s something wrong with their company that that could have happened.
They had 33 vice presidents and none of them knew what the other one was doing. And so, he gets up, takes a microphone and he says, “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed in all of its forms: greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.” In other words there ain’t nothing wrong with greed.
Greed motivates us to think bigger, to dream bigger, to want more for ourselves. You take someone who is hungry, and they’re going to work hard to get what they want. But someone who is happy and satiated has no incentive to do better. What do you think? Especially in a capitalist economy where we rely on people to do well for themselves, to want more for themselves, where self-interested success is not just virtuous but mandatory. With our states simply acting as a security blanket if necessary.
Does greed have a role in our lives? Was it greed that led to the expansion of the United States past the Thirteen Colonies? Was it greed that had us send people up to the moon? Was it greed that has created our largest corporations that employ thousands and thousands of people, including the ones that live right here in Metro Detroit, because they’re not satisfied and they want more? And they want to make it better and bigger.
Perhaps greed even creates competition. We have here the Big Three, they’re always vying for a piece of that pie and creating jobs for all of us in the process. So is greed, one of the seven deadly sins of the Catholic Church, good? But what does it mean to be greedy? So there’s a secular understanding of greed that to be greedy is to want more of what you already have.
So Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street, was never satiated by making millions which he did, right? He wanted the next kill, he wanted the next big takeover. And at some point in the movie he’s asked when is he going to reach his limit? When is it going to be enough and he’s going to be satisfied? And he responds by saying that’s the absolute wrong way of looking at it. It’s not a question of enough, he says, it’s a zero sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Greed makes of us arrogant winners, and sore losers.
Do you remember that fable, The Goose and the Golden Egg? It goes like this: there was once a countryman who possessed the most wonderful goose you can imagine. For every day when he visited the nest the goose laid a beautiful, glittering golden egg. The countryman took the eggs to market, and soon began to get rich. But it was not long before he grew impatient with that goose, because she only gave him one single golden egg a day. He wasn’t getting rich fast enough.
So then one day after he’d finished counting his money, the idea came to him that he could get all the golden eggs by killing the goose and cutting her open. When the deed was done not a single golden egg did he find. And his precious goose was dead. And the moral of the story: much wants more and loses all. A bird in the hand. And indeed that parable that Jesus tells us is along the same lines don’t you think?
It’s a rich man who is very rich and has everything that he needs. He even has a barn full of crops for a rainy day. And then he ends up with a windfall. And he tries to figure out what to do with the abundance that he has, so he decides to tear down his old barns and build a Costco warehouse. But, lo, his desires are for naught, because it turns out that he didn’t even need what he had already saved in the barns because he was going to die that night and everything that he saved up was going to somebody else.
At Bible study, one of our members who is a financial planner, shared that he actually advises his clients to share what they have while they’re alive so that they can see the fruits of their labor, and it not happen after they die. So in this definition of greed, the key to recognizing when you’re being greedy is when you have enough for yourself and you are called to be satisfied so that you can share it with others.
Now, the church has a different definition of greed that isn’t so lenient for us. Because according to the church, we are being greedy when we are consumed with anything that’s earthly and not focusing on things heavenly. So in Dante’s Inferno, where there are different levels depending on what kind of sin you’ve committed during your lifetime, in the level for greed, everyone, for eternity, is doomed to have their faces shoved into the ground – the earth that they spent their whole entire lives loving so much, for eternity.
And that man who approaches Jesus and asks for Jesus to have his brother divide the family inheritance between them, what does Jesus tell him? Don’t spend your time storing up your own treasures, but be rich towards God, whatever that means. So what we’re learning from these secular and sacred definitions of greed is that it’s not good, although I’m not really sure it’s clear as to why, right? In the first definition of greed, if you have enough you risk losing it all if you want more. And that’s what’s wrong with it.
In the second definition, well it seems like the church is telling us that the problem is being obsessed with things of the world. We’re supposed to ignore the material goods in our life and focus on less incarnational things. Well, I find both of them not very helpful, so I’ve come up with my own definition of greed. And I like this one because I actually agree with Gordon Gekko, I think greed is good. But not for the reasons that he thought.
So, I take my definition from the Colossians text. In there, Paul says, greed is idolatry. When you’re greedy you want something because you’ve made it an idol for yourself. You’re convinced that whatever it is you want will bring you the happiness that you so deeply desire. And, in fact, that’s the work that God actually does for you, not the stuff. So let’s say that I was a very rich landowner, and I learned that my crops were bursting at the seams and it was going to produce me a fortune. And I had to figure out what to do with what I had.
So, if I think, well if I store it for myself then I have nothing to worry about. I have now convinced myself that my stuff is going to bring me security, happiness, joy, peace, patience – all of those things, and actually it’s God that brings me. And if I’m convinced that after I build my Costco warehouse, I’m going to have a lot of just comfort and peace because it’s all been taken care of and I have nothing to worry about anymore, and I can tell myself to relax, what I’ve missed is that God is fully present in all of my circumstances, no matter whether I have or don’t have.
And I’ve missed the point of being in a relationship with God, and I’ve given the stuff the power that God has in my life. So that’s the reason I think greed is good. It’s a warning bell for us. Greed is a sign that we’re letting something else serve as our God. And it’s not that we’re afraid of idols, you understand? It’s not that idols have any power, and it’s not that we’re afraid of God that we’re worshipping something else, because we don’t have that kind of God.
But it’s that we’re not stoics, we’re not people who don’t enjoy material things. We’re not masochists, but we are Christians. And as Christians we believe that Jesus Christ came into this world for the purpose of showing us how to live fully and wholly in human bodies. And what God and Christ has shown us is that the most perfect way to live, the way that you will be most fulfilled, the way that you will find the most joy and happiness is actually to be rich towards God and not be worried about yourself, and not care about the things that are in your life.
And if you strive for these things, I’m going to tell you that the Kingdom of Heaven is then yours. I’m beginning to realize that the gift of being a Christian today in this world is that I get to choose not to believe the story the world is telling me. I get to believe the story that Jesus told us which is God took flesh and gave Himself fully. And in so had abundant life, real life, true life.
Now, the problem with the rich landowner wasn’t that he was rich. It wasn’t that he was wealthy, you understand. It wasn’t that he had a 403(b) and a 401(k), and had retirement savings. It wasn’t that he had enough wealth to produce more wealth. The problem with the rich landowner was he lacked Christian imagination. He was given a windfall and he didn’t know what to do with it.
Imagine if he entered into the space where God gives abundantly and fully, so that we can give abundantly and fully. And imagine if he realized he had that windfall and he phoned up the mayor or did whatever they did back then – used an aluminum can and some string, and said, “Mayor, I got too much on my land and I don’t know what to do with it. Tell you what, why don’t you send out a bulletin tomorrow to all of the town and say come on over to the land and take what you need, because I have enough.”
And even if he died that night, what happens in the morning when they learn the rich landowner is no longer with us, but look at the bounty that he left for our sake? So, yes, I do think greed is good. I think whenever you find yourself getting greedy, use your imagination. Wonder what it would look like to take the things that you want and be rich towards God. Be creative. Wonder what it would look like to let go of that idol that you think is going to provide you so much peace and happiness and joy, and just share it.
May you find that when you get greedy, it becomes the pathway to the riches of God.