And Jesus told them, “Watch out! Protect yourself from every form of greed! No one’s life is based on an abundance of possessions”
Luke 12: 15
Today’s gospel passage begins with someone requesting that Jesus intervene in his dispute with his brother over their parents’ inheritance. Jesus, in his wisdom, refuses to do so, pointing out that he has not been appointed their “judge or executor.” It is not the concern of Jesus or the purpose of his teaching to “right the scales of justice” as we see it. It is rather to proclaim the Kingdom of God, whose concerns are of a truly different order. As we see in the parable that Jesus then offers,if we are to be truly just, our very view of and relationship to possessions must first be transformed.
To hear the request of the person in the crowd to Jesus is to realize that in the two thousand years since Jesus walked the earth, little has changed in the human condition. How often do family relationships become affected and even ruptured over questions of inheritance? So often in life we fall prey to jealousy and rivalry over what our parents bequeath to us. If blood is thicker than water, then money and possessions are more impenetrable than either. Perhaps the claim of the stranger is truly righteous and justified. Yet, Jesus says that his concern lies not with what the man is due but rather with his reliance on and need for possessions that are the source of his anger.
None of us is exempt from the human tendency to materialism and greed. Our need for love and our desire for life are insatiable. This, perhaps, is one of the true manifestations of spirit in us. As such, the very core of our experience of soul is lack. Because of this lack, we cannot help ourselves in our tendencies to compare and to compete with others. From the beginning we wonder where we fit in terms of our parents’ love. Do they love me as much as my brothers and sisters? Later we wonder about where we fit with our friends, and then with our employers and supervisors, and even about our position in our society at large. We are ingenious and creative in the ways we choose to test and measure our worth. Is my birthday or Christmas gift bigger or better? Are my grades higher? Are my athletic accomplishments superior? Is my salary greater? Or, as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesmen, am I truly not only “liked” but “well-liked”?
So, at the moment of the distribution of inheritance and reading of the will, our very identity is on the line. If another gets what we perceive to be more than our due, then our greatest fears about our value in the eyes of our parents are realized. So, while Jesus refuses the request to judge on the basis by which we judge our value in light of possessions, he does teach that we must come to learn, by the very transformation of our hearts, that our life is not “based on an abundance of possessions.” If we do not judge our value based on the possessions we receive and accumulate, much of the steam is taken out of many, if not most, of our familial and societal conflicts.
The roots of greed and possessiveness lie deep in our hearts. In the dialogue in today’s gospel, we see Jesus refusing to litigate between the brothers involved in the dispute because he recognizes it is merely symptomatic of their spiritual struggle. No matter how wise his judgment, there will, in time, arise between them yet another conflict unless they truly repent and change their hearts. Their relationship to each other will not change until their relationship to money and possessions changes. What this requires is a conversion of consciousness that sees all of what we have and are not as rights and entitlements but as gift. Jesus makes clear that we are to come to see our life and all that is part of it as given to us by a God who is a loving parent. Thus, our primordial dispositions of heart must be awe and gratitude. To realize the graciousness of the gift of the life that is ours leaves no room for envy and greed. The fruit of gratitude is joy. The result of greed is resentment and sadness.
Psalm 116:12 asks us the question: “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?” So many of the torments that afflict us at the level of spirit disappear when we devote our life to answering this question. When we are living out, in our words and actions, our thanks to God for all we have been given, there is not room in us for envious and violent comparison. There is only the wholehearted effort to give as we have been given. As Dag Hammarskjold wrote: “For all that has been, thanks; to all that will be, yes.”
Just as death and life cannot be shared in at the same time, so also it is an impossibility for charity to exist in anyone along with money. For charity not only gets rid of money but even of this present life itself.
The one who flees from all worldly pleasures is an impregnable tower before the assaults of the demon of sadness. For sadness is a deprivation of sensible pleasure, whether actually present or only hoped for. And so if we continue to cherish some affection for anything in this world it is impossible to repel this enemy, for he lays his snares and produces sadness precisely where he sees we are particularly inclined.
Evagrius Ponticus, Praktikos, 18-19