Title: Will it make me happy?
Texts: Luke 12:13-21, Colossians 3:5
Date: August 1, 2010
Author: Thomas Lehman
Although today’s scripture passages contain enough attractive material for sermons on several subjects, preparation has been more than usually challenging, and in at least one respect humbling. Preaching to listeners that include our three grandchildren is a powerful incentive to brevity. We have had a big week at the beach, so that they could fall asleep before the end of this… sentence.
The Gospel parable about the rich old man contains several striking themes: one is that the wealthy man felt it necessary to enlarge his barns, a reckless move in one’s later years. Another is that he considered himself to be on easy street, able to live on stored goods for many years–to eat, drink, and be merry. His retirement investments were material, not financial. A third is that he is said not to be “rich toward God,” which means that he was hoarding his goods for himself when he should have been willing to assist the poor. The man was greedy. However, most of the world would like to deal with the man’s wealth, though Jesus condemned him. It would be good as long as it lasted.
It may seem strange to say much about greed. I don’t consider any of you greedy, other than perhaps young children when they reach up to our snack desk, a desk still above their line of sight, to pull down more cookies than they should have. But the temptation to greed is so pervasive and subtle a part of our culture that it would be a mistake to ignore it; some lessons might well apply to all of us, certainly to me. To speak of greed is to ask what our place is as Christians embedded in an aggressive market economy. We can talk about ourselves, not about Bernie Madoff.
A recent New Yorker cartoon has many buyers in an Apple store examining iPads, and one of them asks the clerk this question: “Will it make me happy?” (Published in The New Yorker 5/31/2010 by David Sipress ) Buying happiness is the great dream of American consumers.
But if buying happiness is our dream as consumers, the constant goal of American manufacturers is exactly the opposite: to make us unhappy with what we already have, so we will buy the newest thing. It is a never-ending cycle, one in which we are easily trapped. Even if you are very young, you can probably name several devices or services that you now take for granted that were not known when you were younger. We are all conditioned to believe that a healthy economy requires consumers who are eager to buy.
After the 9/11 attack, with terrified citizens staying home and the economy sagging, President Bush said “I encourage you all to go shopping more.” In today’s Great Recession, the reluctance of American consumers to spend as freely as they used to has economists worrying once again.
A recent worldwide survey to identify the country with the happiest people found Denmark and Finland tied in the top position. Canada was no. 6, the USA no. 12. Happiness and wealth don’t go hand in hand; they can even oppose each other.
Happiness is elusive: it is seldom found by going straight for it. Instead, it is a by-product. The beatitudes, found in Matthew Ch. 5, give us the most detailed formula for Christian happiness. Where the standard translations say “blessed are you…” some translations say “Happy are you…” The happiness described there has far more to do with Christian living than with a comfortable lifestyle. Leading Godly lives, showing mercy toward others, and working for peace bring a happiness that wealth cannot deliver.
Jesus acquired no material wealth, but he was no ascetic; he enjoyed the wedding celebration at Cana, and even added memorably to it. In Luke 7.34 we read: “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”
Women with money supported Jesus’ work (Luke 8:3), and once a woman anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume said to cost the wages of a year and a half–and Jesus approved, over the objection that it was wasteful. Nevertheless, discipleship in the kingdom challenges our attitude toward material wealth. Jesus recognized greed for what it is, and declared in today’s Gospel (Luke 12:15): ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’
Today’s Colossians passage speaks of “greed (which is idolatry).” This declares that greed elevates the pursuit of wealth to the status of a god, and we understand at once why the church has for fourteen centuries listed greed as one of the seven deadly sins.
Greed is fed by the refusal to distinguish needs from wants. It’s something we try to teach our children, who learn at an early age to scream, “I want.” But it’s one thing to try to impose on children the distinction between needs and wants, and another to live by it as adults.
It could be argued that an Oscar Wilde quote does not belong in a sermon. He was a brilliant, witty, 19th century Irish playwright, more than a little ornery in word and deed. Nevertheless he perfectly understood the human dilemma in a market-driven culture long before it reached its current state, and so I quote him: “There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting it.” (Quoted in Swimming Upstream, by Christine Roush.)
Greed has deep roots in this country. Warren Buffett, an investor whose personal fortune is surpassed only by that of Bill Gates, explains the actions of the individual stock market investor in terms of just two emotions: greed and fear. You buy because you are greedy for gain, and you sell for fear of loss. A 1999 book for new investors appeared under the title “Greed is Good: The Capitalist Pig Guide to Investing.”
The late Milton Friedman, probably the greatest free-market economist of the 20th century, said the following on a YouTube clip: “Is there some society that does not run on greed? The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests.”
But some individuals are vastly better at pursuing wealth than others, with the result that we have increasing numbers of very rich people and far more people unable to make a decent living for themselves and their families. I recently read a book that identifies many social problems in about twenty prosperous countries, and points out that the problems are greater where inequalities in wealth are greater. To cite a few of the many examples, level of trust among fellow citizens, prevalence of mental illness, drug use, life expectancy, infant mortality, and obesity are all correlated with income inequality. (The Spirit Level. Why greater equality makes societies stronger. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2009). The same is true for the states of our own nation; the social problems are generally greater where inequalities in wealth are greater.
When the Bible refers to greed it is always individual greed. But much has changed in the past 2000 years, and our country has led the way in advancing two more kinds of greed, both also very harmful:
1. Shareholder or corporate greed, which causes corporations to focus on making shareholders wealthy from one quarter to the next, with too little concern for long-term outcomes. This greed encouraged BP to cut corners in its Gulf of Mexico drilling; the firm will pay no dividends for at least one quarter.
2. Systemic or national greed is a consequence of more than a century of national prosperity and capitalism. It is illustrated by the following quote:
We would need the resources of three planets for everyone on Earth to live as (well as) people in the United States do.
Contrast this with Mahatma Gandhi’s claim that “The earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not everyone’s greed.” (Quoted in Swimming Upstream, by Christine Roush.)
Paul Ehrlich is a Stanford population biologist who for many years has tried to get Americans to reduce our heavy demands on the planet’s resources. The New York Times recently printed this sharp-edged Ehrlich quote: “The world can support a lot more vegetarian saints than Hummer-driving idiots.” Ehrlich reminds us all to make our demands on the planet as light as we reasonably can. That we should all do so is increasingly being seen, even by Christian conservatives, as an obligation. A Google search on the words “creation care” easily finds many indications of this.
If you want to live according to the wisdom of the Bible, you can deal with greed at the most general level, that of our powerful nation greedily consuming the world’s resources. If that’s your goal, it is likely to take over your life, and I wish you great success. You are aiming to move mountains.
If you seek to influence corporate behavior, that is being done from day to day. You may recall that Mark Regier of Mennonite Foundation spoke here two years ago; his job is to attend corporate meetings on behalf of the Foundation and to raise issues of Christian concern. (He recently spoke with BP officials.)
Most of us will struggle with greed only at the level of our individual lives. Our materialist society offers many paths to greed, all of which erode our ability to be the people of God to each other and to the world. The demands for food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials force us into the material world. But we need not be greedy. To avoid it, we can…
- distinguish needs from wants;
- tread lightly on the planet;
- invest in Christian values and relationships. Make these your wealth, not things.
- Share what we have; let it be said that we are rich in God’s sight.
Do these, and happiness may sneak up on you.