It is common to toss around accusations of greed when we see someone in need – or perhaps when we are in need ourselves – and we see others who are much more well off. In the course of political campaigns for time immemorial, erstwhile rulers have sought to leverage the greed of others to secure power for themselves. One side accuses another of being rich and callous, they then are accused in turn of simply wanting wealth without working for it. There is a tendency in both camps to ennoble themselves, but there is nothing particularly noble about being either rich or poor, as Tevya says in Fiddler on the Roof.
In Luke 12, a man seeks redress from Jesus, believing he has been wronged. He cries out, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” In other words, “My brother is greedy! Tell him he has to share!” Jesus is considerably less than sympathetic and declines to intervene. He then says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:14-15, NIV)
It’s common to speak of Luke’s Gospel as showing that God has a special preference for the poor, but it’s worth noting that Jesus is not saying this to the greedy brother who won’t divide the inheritance, that is, to the one who is rich. He’s saying it to the greedy brother who is complaining about it, the one who is comparatively poor. In my own experience, some of the greediest people I’ve met have been the poorest.
This is not to let the wealthy off the hook. Presumably, Jesus would have said the same to the brother with the inheritance – “be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” Perhaps the reason I haven’t met very many greedy rich people is because I don’t tend to get around with very many of those classified as “rich” in the United States. Most middle-class people in the U.S., however, are fabulously wealthy by the standards of the world, and the middle-class can be just as pecuniary as any billionaire.
Not long after this episode, in the same chapter of Luke (12:48), we find Jesus saying, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” That’s us he’s talking to. And we do not meet those demands by pointing to our brother and accusing him of not doing as much as we are, or of not doing as much as he could, or of not sharing his inheritance with us. The question is not what Bill Gates or Warren Buffett (or whoever your favorite rich person might be) is doing with his money, possessions, time, and ability. The question is: What are you doing with your money, possessions, time, and ability?
I daresay very few of us would be able to bear a close inspection on that.
So be on your guard against all kinds of greed, particularly in this political silly season as all manner of politicians will seek to sway your vote by appealing to greed in sometimes vulgar, sometimes sweet; sometimes open, sometimes hidden ways. There’s no doubt everyone accused of being greedy is in fact so, but then, so are all the accusers. Let us, however,
Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. (Luke 12:27-31 NIV)