Greed

This past May I traveled to Israel, for my first ever trip to the Holy Land.  Our first four days were spent in the north, in Galilee, and that sojourn included a visit to New Testament Bethsaida, just north of the Sea of Galilee.  It is in Bethsaida that Jesus called several of his disciples.  Bethsaida is one of those fishing villages in which Jesus spent considerable time.  But Bethsaida was not always a small hamlet.  A thousand years prior to Jesus’ life, in the time of David, it was the capital of the kingdom of Geshur.  It was to Geshur that the young David traveled to find a wife.  It was to Geshur that David’s son Absalom fled after he’d murdered his brother Amnon.

Bethsaida is now the site of a major archaeological dig, and the findings there are amazing.  With my colleagues, I walked along the stone pavers of a road upon which Jesus himself trod.  Most striking of all is the main gate to the ancient Davidic-era city, when Bethsaida was Geshur’s capital city and a walled fortress of a place rather than a fishing village.  The gate is actually a fortress all its own, encompassing a series of granaries protected by enormous walls that are six meters thick, by far the strongest, most monumental walls of the ancient world.  The walls are so thick as to be conspicuous, in fact.  Talking about the ancient inhabitants of Bethsaida, Archaeologist Kate Raphael says, “The feeling you get is that [the city’s inhabitants] are either terrified of something on the outside or they are protecting something really valuable on the inside.”[i]

Bethsaida walls

The Bethsaida walls

I thought of the Bethsaida ruins again this week when I re-read for the thousandth time the “Parable of the Rich Fool,” as it is known, in Luke’s Gospel: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And the man thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then the rich man said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my silos and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.  But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’”

This is a parable about greed.  Indeed, the precipitating warning for the parable has Jesus saying, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”  But in what, exactly, does greed consist?  In our era, greed is often identified with our capitalist economic system.  In the 1980s, after all, the character Gordon Gekko famously declared in the Hollywood film “Wall Street” that “Greed is good.” Gordon Gekko was a caricatured image of a rapacious and unscrupulous Wall Street raider, but as so often happens, over time the caricature was assumed to be capitalism’s real life definitive norm, and capitalism itself was equated with greed.  That’s unfortunate for many reasons, but most especially because the caricature contributes to attacks on a paper tiger that doesn’t conform to reality.  Is capitalism just greed in the aggregate?  Is it merely a vehicle for vampires seeking prey?  No.  According to a study reported in The Economist magazine, in the last decade world poverty was reduced by more than fifty percent, and the drivers of this reduction, revealed by the specific places on the globe where poverty decreased, were open capitalistic markets.[ii]  Now, I’m obviously trained as a theologian and a priest, not an economist.  I have personal, amateur opinions on appropriate market regulation, important consumer protections, and the like, but that’s for coffee hour conversation, not the pulpit.  From a theological point of view, I’ll simply say that, overall, an economic system that lifts, in a decade, half of the world’s impoverished people from misery and closer to sustainable living is a virtue we should cherish and hone, and it can’t be what Jesus is decrying in his parable.

LEHMAN/GEKKO

Gordon Gekko

 

What then, is greed all about, from Jesus’ point of view?  The key is in the event that immediately precedes the parable.  A man approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

Any priest or family lawyer knows immediately the background of this request, because it is our lot often to be in the middle of just such disputes.  What has happened prior to this request is so common as to be tragically mundane.  There are siblings.  There are family possessions—things—and the desire for those things has taken precedence over the relationship between the siblings.  The man who approaches Jesus wants his inheritance more than he wants a relationship with his brother.  I suspect the other brother feels the same.  Both are willing to sacrifice the latter for the former.  They crave the tangible; the finite; the things they can have, hold, and possess; the material wealth that they can pretend imputes intrinsic worth to them.  They crave this more than they value continuing community with those they have loved.  And that is greed, whether in an economic system or a person, whether in a society or an individual.  Greed is the desire for anything so intense that it comes to believe its object is of greater value than human relationships.

Greed need not only be directed toward material things.  Greed can be the desire for physical or emotional protection.  It can be the craving for acclaim or esteem.  It can be the gnawing need for attention or pity.  The objects of greed are infinitely varied, but in every instance, greed is defined when the desire for its object takes precedence over relationships, when desire concludes that community with others is disposable, so long as greed obtains its object.   Relationships are always sacrificed on the altar of greed.

How does God respond to human greed in all its forms?  “Fools!” God says in Jesus’ parable, without pulling punches.  No object in this world, tangible or intangible, has that kind of value.  The things we desire in this world are, like the world itself, ephemeral.  They do not feed the soul.  They don’t, when hoarded and held like fetishes, give life either to the bearer or the world.  And, those silos, those walls we build to hold the emotional and physical objects of our greed make us hard, cold, suspicious, and mean. They do not protect us. Ultimately, as Jesus says unequivocally today, our greed, our silos, our walls sacrifice even our relationship to God.

silos

You see, greed is an addiction, make no mistake, and as with any other addiction, its craving grows with time.  Ultimately, the objects of our greed grow to become, as St. Paul says in Colossians today, idols.  And the very emotional, psychological, and physical silos we build with the pretense of protecting those idols instead simply separate us from our brothers, our sisters, our friends, and our God.  The end game of our greed is that we eventually stand emotionally, psychologically, existentially, physically alone.

In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul responds to a community in which the danger of greed—of relationship-sacrificing desire—is very present.  But Paul is an apostle of hope, and he doesn’t merely diagnose the problem.  He also prescribes the treatment.  To the Colossians, Paul exhorts, “Put greed to death,” and he adds that we must also let go those by-products of our greed, those things that flow from our cravings and are the actual weapons that kill our relationships: anger, malice, slander, abusive language.  In a word, Paul says we must change.

But how do we do that?  If our epistle reading went just a few verses further, we’d see.  Listen to what Paul says there: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

Bear with one another, and clothe yourselves with love.  That prescription requires no object at all, nothing into which greed can latch its teeth.  It requires only the very thing all our greed denies, the primacy of relationships of love with those round about us.  It requires the effort and vulnerability and risk to put intimacy in first place, to embrace the humanity of stranger and friend, to recognize the present love of God that binds us all together, and, in light of all these things, to pause and be thankful.

At the Bethsaida ruins, north of the Sea of Galilee, those enormous granary walls are not the only conspicuous things discovered.  There is also “evidence of fiery destruction, arrow heads, spear points and sling shots that bear silent witness to [a] fierce battle that took place when the city gates were breached and put to the torch.”[iii]  Those massive walls, all six meters thick, did not, in the end, protect those within.  They did not preserve their objects.  They ultimately failed.  Those walls, it turned out, weren’t permanent, nor was the grain they held.  The things of this world never are.

We can wait for our silos, our walls, to fall down around us, leaving us alone in their ruins.  Or we can tear them down ourselves, with God’s grace, letting go of the objects of our greed (we all have them) in favor of human relationships of risk and vulnerability, giving up our various idols in favor of love for God and for one another.  We can exhaust ourselves building walls, or we can clothe ourselves with love, bearing with one another—both here and out there—in kindness and compassion.  When we do the latter, craving will cease.  The peace of Christ will reside in our hearts, and we will be truly thankful.

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[i] http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/1.732284

[ii] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578665-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-extreme-poverty-20-years-world-should-aim

[iii] http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/archaeology/1.732284

Skimming the headlines

“Scientists say giant asteroid could hit the earth next week, causing mass devastation.”[i]  That headline screamed across the online news feed on July 9th, Saturday a week ago.  The opening sentences of the story were these: “Scientists have discovered a massive asteroid that is on course to hit the Earth next week and are scrambling to find a way to divert the object.  The asteroid has been named 2016-FI and measures approximately 1 km across. If it strikes a populated area, it could wipe out entire cities and potentially devastate an entire continent.”

asteroid-hits-earth-2

As you might imagine, the story went viral.  If we’re faced with interstellar cataclysm, I suppose one should want the news to spread exponentially.  I wonder if Home Depot saw a spike in sales of bomb shelter supplies…  And yet, here we are.  The week of danger has passed with no asteroid, no Armageddon.

You see, the article turned out to be one-part news and another part social experiment.  The news it shared had, it turns out, nothing to do with meteors.  After those panicked opening sentences, the article revealed its actual content, a research study by Columbia University which found that sixty percent of links shared on social media are never actually read by those who share them.  Consider that.  An almost supermajority of the online information in which so many of us traffic is passed along to others without being vetted, and often without even being read beyond the headline at all.   As confirmation of the trend, the very article announcing it, with an inflammatory title and three supporting opening sentences about a cataclysmic asteroid, itself went viral.

The study’s lead author says, “People are more willing to share an article than read it. This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

We ingest headlines without considering content.  We absorb provocative statements, but we do not test their veracity.  We allow our opinions and, indeed, our beliefs to be influenced by superlatives, but we rarely analyze nuance.

click bait

The study and the article focused on online media, but the same phenomenon surely extends from the virtual into the everyday.  We now, more than ever, live in a surface-skimming world, which is characterized by fast movement, speedy conclusions, and self-satisfying echo chambers in which we too often seek only that data—from media, from our leaders, from our circles of friends, indeed, from our church—which reinforces the things, theories and conclusions we already want to be true.

This brings us to today’s Gospel passage, about Martha and Mary.[ii]  Most often this anecdote from Luke is interpreted as a case of competing virtues.  Martha works for Jesus, while Mary communes with Jesus.  Both are important, just as volunteering at the Beacon, for instance, and attending worship are both important.  “How can we best attend to both?” a litany of books about Mary and Martha on Amazon.com asks.  That’s a fair question and one worth asking, but it is also a question that considers this passage out of context, and as such, it’s not the question the passage itself implies to the reader.  This passage is not, I would suggest, a comparison of Martha’s labor versus Mary’s intimacy, so set that aside for the next few minutes.  What, then, is it about?

In context, Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary immediately follows Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan.  That parable flows directly into this story; there’s not a single verse in between them.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan, as we were reminded last week, is Jesus’ radical, grace-filled redefinition of our neighbors and our responsibilities to and for others as disciples of Jesus.  Its implications are profound for everything we do in the world, for our understanding of our responsibilities, and for our conception of the ways we both receive and extend love and grace to those around us.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan can’t be glossed over quickly, with the easy assumption that we understand its depths.  It demands that we pause and take stock, that we read it again and again, even that we anguish over whether or not we want to believe and follow Jesus’ words.

 

But in the very next verse—the very next verse—Martha pulls Jesus into her house, sits him down like an ornament, and moves on into the next room.  She doesn’t pause at all.  She doesn’t ask questions of Jesus.  She doesn’t wonder about the nuances of his teaching.  She doesn’t take stock of her own life and consider the transformation that may be required of her, of her values and her commitments in the world.  Martha only reads the headline, so to speak.  To quote the Columbia University study with which I began, she makes no “effort to go deeper.”  Perhaps Martha believes she has Jesus figured out.  Perhaps she assumes uncritically that whatever Jesus has to say will agree with, rather than challenge, the life she already lives.  Surely, Martha becomes impatient with those who actually want to hear Jesus, to consider and understand him, to vet the whole article before living it and sharing it.

Martha_and_Mary_He_Qi

No so, Mary.  Mary is entranced and likely even perplexed by the words of Jesus.  She can’t go about her routine as usual, because the words of Jesus—not merely the headlines (so easily misconstrued) but the heart of the Gospel message—have stopped her in her tracks.  Luke doesn’t tell us that Mary wants to give Jesus a warm hug, but that she wants to sit at his feet and listen.  Mary wants to understand the challenge that Jesus presents to her worldview.  She wants to wrestle with what the Gospel means for the way she acts, interacts, speaks, believes, decides, cries, sings; not just as she sits there in the comfort of her living room, but in every moment hereafter.  Ultimately, Mary will share what she hears, and it will go viral like nothing our internet has ever seen, but what she shares won’t be a sound bite; or a willfully misinterpreted verse, wrenched from context; or a cozy platitude; or a half-baked theology that serves to undergird the way of life she already enjoys.  Mary, who has taken the time to listen, who has made the effort to go deep and allow the words of Jesus to absorb into the marrow of her soul, will share the Gospel, the love of God-in-Christ that redefines everything.

St. Paul knows that Gospel.  He shares it, too, and never more profoundly as in today’s Letter to the Colossians.  If ever we wonder whether Jesus is merely a headline, to be slapped up and then quickly forgotten, listen to Paul:

“For in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”[iii]

Jesus can’t be skimmed.  He can’t be touted as a headline in defense of some argument, or support of some theology, or in reinforcement of a life already chosen.  Jesus is the whole thing, and we either take the whole of his Gospel of crazy, radical, life-altering love in all of its implications, or none of it.  God knows, our world needs it.  Like Mary, we must be entranced and perplexed and challenged to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, so that we can be changed and then share those words that are to “have first place in everything,” through which Jesus “reconciles to himself all things,” and by which we encounter grace and find our lives in God.

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[i] http://yackler.ca/blog/2016/07/09/scientists-say-giant-asteroid-hit-earth-next-week-causing-mass-devastation/

[ii] Luke 10:38-42

[iii] Colossians 1:16-20.

The Commonweal and the Jericho Road

I returned home last night from two weeks in Costa Rica.  The first week I was part of Christ Church Cathedral’s mission team of sixteen teenagers and eleven adults.  We worked at an Episcopal church and school in the village of Estrada on the Caribbean side of the country.  There, Afro-Caribbean and Latino Costa Ricans worked alongside our mission team, who represented at least three ethnic groups from the United States.  I was struck, scarcely six days ago, by what a gift it was that such disparate people, separated by language, culture, and skin color, could work, eat, and laugh alongside one another for the sake of the Good News of God’s grace for all people.

The second week in Costa Rica consisted of much-needed family vacation, and my wife, son, daughter, and I surely enjoyed our time together.  But virtually each evening we came back from our daytime excursions to news of tragedy at home.  The events that came across the news feed were the mirror image of what I’d experienced as such blessing in Estrada just days before: On Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Alton Sterling was shot and killed point blank by police while pinned to the ground.  On Wednesday outside St. Paul, Minnesota, Philando Castille was killed by a police officer after being stopped for a minor traffic infraction. On Thursday night in Dallas, five police officers–Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith–were killed while faithfully carrying out their sworn duty to protect and serve the public, in this instance protecting people who were protesting police abuses elsewhere, which is a difficult assignment in the very best of circumstances.

In each instance, my wife and I shared news of the goings-on at home with our kids, while at the same time attempting to preserve the atmosphere of our vacation.  I finally exhausted my ability to do the latter on Thursday night, as I stared at the ceiling at midnight praying with sighs too deep for words and wondering about the United States’ societal split personality. On the one hand, we are the icon of Thomas Jefferson’s self-evident truths that “all men are created equal…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We are the land that continues to inspire Emma Lazarus’ tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to be free.  On the other hand, we are a nation in which law-abiding black men are robbed of their life and liberty at traffic stops, and in which good police officers are paid far too little and are respected even less.

The conclusion to which I came, lying in the darkness, is that we have lost the moral compass of our most important national virtue, that of the commonweal.  It is a word rarely used anymore.  In fact, spellcheck attempts to revise it to “commonwealth.”  But the two words have different meanings.  The commonweal refers to the shared well-being of the people, to the self-giving of one citizen for the good of other citizens in need.  Valuing the commonweal provides the social glue that makes a people strong.  It is what grants one the courage to set aside bias and prejudice and imagine oneself in his fellow citizen’s shoes.  It is what saw the United States through the Second World War.  It is what made odd helpmates of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lyndon Johnson.

Signs that we no longer value the commonweal are everywhere.  In the initial draft of this blog post, I wrote several wearying paragraphs describing that loss in our political system, our social media, our lack of identification with anyone different than ourselves.  The more I wrote, the more I realized that those paragraphs were distressingly unnecessary.  In a perverse revision of Jefferson’s language, the lack of value we place in the commonweal has become “self-evident.”

Jericho Road

Overlooking St. George’s Monastery on the old Jericho Road

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.  Jesus sets his parable on the old Jericho Road through the Judean wilderness.  I never fully understood the parable until this past May when I visited the Holy Land and spent an afternoon perched on a sun-scoured desert hilltop overlooking the old Jericho Road.  I became aware then of just how dangerous traveling the road would have been in the ancient world.  Water sources are non-existent.  Rock slides are a constant possibility.  Twists and turns are ubiquitous.  The opportunity for bandits to prey upon an unwitting traveler are everywhere.  The only way for anyone–regardless of race, creed, or social standing–to make it safely from Jericho to Jerusalem was was for each to look out for all, for everyone to cherish the commonweal.  In Jesus’ parable, a traveler on the road is, indeed, set upon by bandits. He is bloodied and left in the ditch.  A number of fellow travelers see the injured man there, but those with social standing, power, and the means to make a difference for good ignore him.  In so doing, they ignore the commonweal.  When they see the molested traveler in the ditch along the roadside, they pretend his plight does not affect them, and they walk the other way.

As a nation, we have lately walked the Jericho Road.  We’ve become lost on its meandering course; we’ve discovered ourselves bereft of nourishment on the journey; we’ve encountered dangers; and we’ve seen the culmination of our collective decision to devalue and, indeed, ignore the commonweal.

This week, we–all of us–are the man in ditch, bloodied, confused, and disoriented.  We don’t know how to pick ourselves up and continue on the way.

But at other times we, collectively, have also been those who have walked by on the other side, pretending that the plight of the one in the ditch has nothing to do with us.

The question is, are we also the Good Samaritan?  Of all the characters on the Jericho Road, can we play that part?  Can we be the ones who will defy the pattern, who will stop and engage the one or ones in need without question, without condition, without expectation of return, and redefine our national conversation?

More than ever before in my life–including after September 11, 2001–I believe that our collective soul depends upon our answers to these questions.  Today, tomorrow, and in the days, months, and years to come, we must remember and cherish anew the commonweal.  Or, in Jesus’ words, we must remember that we are neighbors.