Novelist and Theologian Dorothy Sayers once wrote an interesting essay entitled “The other six deadly sins.” She was complaining, nearly 50 years ago, that we’ve essentially reduced all of the deadly sins to just one: lust. When someone’s accused of “immorality,” what does that mean? For most people today, that means sexual immorality. And, given the state of sexual morality today, that doesn’t mean all that much anymore. But those other six deadly sins—they’re still out there, and they’re still deadly. We have lots of flavors of immorality to deal with. The problem is we want to make most of them into minor character flaws. Pride becomes ego. Sloth becomes a lack of motivation. Envy becomes a lack of self-esteem. Gluttony becomes a reason to go on a fad diet, or maybe look into bariatric by-pass surgery. None of them are really regarded by most people as deadly.
And deadly in this sense means more than physical death. It means eternal death—sin serious enough to endanger our salvation. Although it’s hard for us to hear it, this is serious stuff. And the one deadly sin that may be the hardest for us to look at is the one addressed by this week’s scriptures: Greed. Greed values things more than people, sees all human interactions as essentially economic. Greed is a sin that knows no moderation; there’s never enough.
Most people don’t set out to be greedy. It’s something that accumulates on the soul, like the stuff that accumulates in our homes, our financial institutions, and our waistlines. The gospel opens with someone in the crowd demanding that Jesus intervene in the division of an inheritance. On the surface, this might seem like a reasonable request. It’s a matter of justice, after all. Isn’t it? When justice isn’t balanced by charity, it easily becomes a tool for greed. Is there anyone here who doesn’t know of a family that’s been torn apart by the division of an inheritance? If you want to see greed played out as a deadly sin, spend some time in a probate court. Wisely, Jesus refused to play the game, and instead tells the parable of the rich fool.
That seems like an odd title for a parable: The Rich Fool. We usually assume that wealth comes as a result of smart decisions in investing or business. After all, a fool and his money are soon parted, right? The point of the parable is that eventually, EVERYONE and their money are parted. What makes this man foolish is that he devoted all his resources to the gathering and storing of his wealth. What was it all for? Maybe so his children would have something to fight over when he was gone.
But the question, “What’s It All For?” is one that all of us have to answer. What sort of treasure are you accumulating? What are we all accumulating? It has been said that the U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we use 25 to 35 percent of the world’s resources and produce 25 percent of the world’s pollution and waste. A few years ago, the Medicare program declared that obesity is a disease, and one that’s become epidemic. This is not a problem that most of the world has. While there are people with medical conditions that affect their weight, most of us are heavy because we’re storing up treasure on earth. With some regret, I have to include myself in this category. I don’t want to sound accusatory of people who are overweight because they have enough to contend with. But as a country, having a disproportionate share of the world’s resources doesn’t appear to be making us collectively healthier.
It’s a cliché that money doesn’t buy happiness. Having lots of money, or lots of stuff, seems oddly comforting in the short term. We want to feel secure, and a big 401-K certainly feels safe. But to really be secure, to really be happy, requires all the things that can’t be bought: loving relationships, a sense of belonging, the satisfaction of saying, “I have enough,” the peace that comes from an honest, adult relationship with God. Poverty is not a good thing, and clearly poor people can be just a greedy as the rich. In the same fashion, it’s possible to someone who’s well-off to be generous and giving. But today’s Gospel is a reminder to all of us that wealth is not our god, and that what we most want and need in life transcends our economics.