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]
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.
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.
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.