A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 12:13-21

12:15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

 

12:18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.

12:19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

 

12:21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Some Questions:

  • Why does greed matter so much?
  • Does anyone really believe that “life consists in the abundance of possessions?”
  • Does anyone NOT believe this?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene starts with a simple warning.  “Be on your guard,” says Jesus.  There is a threat, a real danger.  That danger is greed, all kinds of greed.

Political and economic discussions over the past 30 years have spent time rehabilitating greed.

Do a quick search on the phrase, “Greed is Good.”  The results will give you a tour of not just the last 30 years (when this idea went public and popular), but of Western history since the Reformation at least.  Listen to current political discourse, and pay special attention to the role played by resentment, and you will hear yet more about greed.  Resentment in all its forms is a kind of greed.  At its root is a conviction that someone else has taken possession of something to which I am properly entitled.  Resentment, and therefore greed, shows up in all parts of the political spectrum.

Be on your guard against ALL kinds of greed.

It is worth a long, slow reflection on what might be included with “ALL kinds of greed.”

It is also worth reflecting on whether we can actually protect ourselves from greed.  It is a basic human trait.  That is why capitalism works the way it does, and why other forms of economic organization (at least in their pure forms) end up looking charming, but naïve.

Do not race too quickly through this reflection or you will end up with passionate naïveté, and thin theology.  There is too much thin theology in the world, and it leads to casual dismissing of what was meant to be “prophetic” proclamation.  It also leads to analysis that sees greed everywhere except in one’s own community or ideology or self.  This kind of selective blindness makes it hard to beware of ALL kinds of greed.  If greed is properly to be linked with with resentment, then people of character will need to listen carefully for instances of resentment: economic, social, political, all forms.  People of character will need to analyze these resentments to look for greed.

People of character will have a lot to analyze.

American political seasons bring out resentment in a wide variety of forms.  It does not matter whether you identify with Democrats or Republicans, resentment has become a major political motivator.

If greed stands behind resentment (and it might, or might not), then the political use of resentment will need to be examined by people who are on guard against all forms of greed.  This will surely include those who consult Ayn Rand for ethical advice.  But it will also include progressives of all types.  Resentment plays a decisive role in both brands of politics, perhaps in all brands of politics.

But now, the thought experiment, the parable:

Some interpreters see in this parable an indictment of capitalism, or even of the business of buying and selling itself.  That interpretive line is attractive.  The landowner appears to be entranced by the possibility of independent wealth, of having so much that he would need nothing.

The problem is that this interpretation misunderstands economics.  So does the landowner.

Barns and storage bins have a dynamic function.  They are filled so as to be emptied, and they are emptied so as to be filled.  The landowner seems not to understand this.  He fills his barns and his bins and imagines that he now has no need of further planting and harvest, of continuing buying and selling.

In this imagining, he is quite wrong.  This year’s crop is harvested, consumed, and sold so that next year’s crop can work its way through the same cycle.  Either the landowner imagines that next year’s crop will magically fit into the already filled storage bins (in which case he is in for a nasty, wasteful surprise), or he imagines that he no longer needs to plant crops (in which case his stored up grain will gradually be used up, consumed by him and by rats, rotting eventually into nothing).  Either way, he has misunderstood the cycle by which all human activity manages itself.

Of course, greed does lead some people to misunderstand economics.  The 1st century is not the only century in which people with land, wealth, and power warp the economic system so that they control an unsustainable proportion of wealth and power.  They sometimes even do this with the support of their underlings, who are fed just enough false hope to keep them subservient.  This makes the underlings resentful of others who might beat them in the scramble to amass wealth.  This is a neat trick as long as it works.  People with power divert the resentment of those from whom they steal, turning them against others who might have been allies.

All of this works because of the power of greed.

But resentment is a dangerous tool, as the history of revolutions makes clear.

Those who hold on to their privilege by manipulating the resentment of those they cheat are energizing the army that will one day overthrow them.  Resentment always breaks loose.  The result is always destructive.  It is often bloody.  And it just continues the cycle of resentment, revolution, and destruction.

This is why the command to guard against greed makes economic and political sense.  Acquisitiveness may be unavoidable, but it carries with it real dangers.  Those dangers arise as soon as the landowner misunderstands the cycle of productivity of which he is a proper part.  His land produces, his crops are harvested by workers who are fed, in turn, by their work.  The fruitfulness of the land generates a cycle in which all are fed, and in which all have a role to play.

But as soon as the landowner misunderstands this cycle it changes.  It becomes a cycle of greed and resentment and leads only to violence.

It is finally a matter of balance.

Jesus’ thought experiment only works if you realize how difficult it is to maintain your balance.  The land is generous, but responds to the human traits of hard work and acquisitiveness.  Hard work allows us to achieve great things, but unless we recognize the need for generosity, all that grows, finally, is bloodshed.

The cycles are twins together, and we have to learn to maintain our balance.

We have not learned to do that, at least up to this point.

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