A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 4, 2013
Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11
Giving a sermon on covetous greed is some better than an assignment to remind people to eat their broccoli or beets, but not by much. A preacher’s dilemma is that you know such sermons are in the Good Book but so are lots of other things you don’t want to preach about. They sit in a file labeled: “Things I don’t want to preach about.” For example, I don’t want to preach about worry because sometimes I worry. I don’t want to preach about gossip because sometimes I gossip. I don’t want to preach about gluttony because … well, you know.
Some preachers salivate in telling people what they should or shouldn’t be doing, but I’m not one of them. My need to tell people how they should live their lives is relatively low as I’m someone who’s trying hard to get his own life in order. How can I take the posture I know what you need to be working on?
I’m going to guess most here realize that coveting is a notorious sin. It’s on Moses’ Top 10 list as one of the 10 No-No’s carved on the stone tablets he hauled down from Mt. Sinai. Covetousness also made the list for the Seven Deadly Sins so it must be wrong. Avarice, another word for covetousness, is a word which means “an excessive desire for wealth.”
Greed is a persistent, inordinate desire to acquire or possess more than one needs in life especially with respect to material wealth. Coveting is wanting what someone else has for your own. In that sense, it’s greed at the expense of your neighbor.
If there are seven deadly sins, it stands to reason there are seven deadly virtues. Think about it, behind every sin if a virtue that’s gone to seed. We reason, too much of a good thing can, and usually does, go bad. John Scotus Erigena, a 9th-century Irish theologian and poet said it this way: “No vice is found but in the shadow of some virtue.”
This is where most of us get it wrong. We believe it’s our vices that condemn us and conversely we believe it’s our virtues that hopefully commend us. This kind of dual thinking leads us to a glaring theological falsehood where our love from God depends on the balance between our behavior and our misbehavior. I suppose behavior control and adopting good social manners worked as a form of cultural spirituality in Sunday School back when we were kids, but as we grew up, we learn it’s not that simple. Perhaps in life we’re neither selectively redeemed according to our virtues, nor condemned to an eternity of anything by virtue of our sins.
Jesus handled a curveball pitched from a nameless person in the crowd who unexpectedly yelled out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” Jesus was suddenly invited into the middle a family squabble over the family estate. A while back a lawyer was commenting that the bulk of his legal career was in handling the inheritance fights that occurred between siblings. And sadly, he observed, the adult kids were really fighting over their parents’ love.
Some issues you wish weren’t tossed your way, but when you’re a public figure like Jesus, that’s what you get. It reminds me of the time the adult children of one my church members approached me to get me to come to their aid in their effort to take the car keys from their elderly mother. I thanked them for their trust but declined to enter into their family argument. Jesus, however, took the question and in answering the man, he took a swipe at a condition of the soul that worms its way in us like a cancer attacking one of our organs. If coveting was a serious issue back then, when property and possessions were relatively simple, how serious should we consider it in our own time?
Montaigne, the 16th-century French Renaissance philosopher, wrote, “It’s not want, but rather abundance, that creates greed. In dire need, we want what we truly need, but in the midst of plenty, we want it all.”
Jesus made the conversation about covetousness tangible by calling it a form of barn building. He made it personal by suggesting most of us are bunch of “barn builders.” No matter how big we build our barns, we’re always scheming about how we can grow our pocketbooks enough feel the need to tear them down and replace them with ever bigger ones.
Jesus warned: “Guard yourselves against all covetousness,” and uses a word we could just as easily translate as a combo idea that is loosely understood as, “much-having.” Another writer recently labeled it as “stuff-love.” But as a part of his warning, Jesus added this explanation: “a person’s life does not consist in the raft of goods that belongs to him or her.”
If you’re struggling with the weight of your material possessions and maybe struggling with the guilt of it, let’s struggle together. The Bible is clear about how we work and we earn our daily wages so we can take care of ourselves. The Bible speaks more about money than it does about almost any other subject and there’s a world of financial advice offered, including the advice to store away resources during the times of plenty so you’ll what you need in the times of want. Work is a good thing and earning enough to take care of our needs is honored in the Bible.
But we are obviously to pay attention to the delicate balance of keeping what we need and giving away from our plenty. We are to be wise and frugal and industrious, but we are not to keep it all for ourselves. We are to be open-handed and generous.
I can easily and sincerely pray for your financial success. But at the same time I’m advocating that you understand the spiritual values that are wrapped up in your financial stewardship. I’m thinking and praying that we can recognize that where our pocket books are is connected to where our hearts are. Jesus was hard on those with big pockets but his criticism was centered on how small their hearts were. Nothing is more pleasing to God than the person of plenty who’s learned generosity as the sign of their true allegiance. There’s something’s missing in this story and Jesus zeroes in on the heart of the matter. The story is plain about the man’s thinking.
Nowhere does the man recognize anyone but himself. It’s all about him and he’s closed himself off to those around him and to the needs of the world. There’s no grace and no generosity, just him. Listen to the pronouns in vs. 17-19: I, I, my, I, I, my, I, my, I my. The Greek word for I is ego so it reads this way: ego, ego, my, ego, ego, my, ego, my, ego, my.
The rich man thought he had it made but God came to him unexpectedly and announced the only thing his money could not protect, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Remember comedian Jack Benny? He was famous for the persona of a notorious cheapskate. He had a comedy sketch in which he was accosted by a robber who held a gun on him and demanded, “Your money or your life!” Benny stood there, arms folded, fingers drumming on his cheek, for several seconds. The nervous robber couldn’t stand it and demanded once again, “I said, look bud, your money or your life?’” Benny put his arms out in exasperation, “I’m thinking it over.”
Jesus repeatedly warned us about this kind of conflict. We can’t serve both God and our financial security. Everything we have, right down to the last breath we take, God has given to us. God has given us what we have, not for ourselves, but for the benefit of the community and for the hospitality to strangers.
What’ll it be, your money or your life?
 Forrester Church, from The Seven Deadly Virtues, A Guide to Purgatory for Atheists and True Believers, New York: Harper and Row, 1988, 7
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).