Sunday, 4 August 2013

greed and transformation

The other day I had my first meeting with a financial advisor. He is the brother of a friend and a really nice guy. Frankly, I can use the help. So we met and had a discussion to get to know each other a bit and so that he could get a sense of where we could use his help.
Eventually he showed us a picture of a healthy financial plan. It was a bit like a puzzle that was made up of a variety of pieces. Each piece of the puzzle represented an important piece in a financial plan. Some pieces represented insurance and savings that would protect my family in case of non-controllable events that might happen- like illness or disability.  Other pieces represented planning for retirement and paying off student loans. At the very top of the puzzle were the gold pieces “maximizing wealth” and “estate preservation”. I’m still not completely sure what those mean, but the goal of the plan was to eventually retire comfortably, and be secure in the thought that my family will be taken care of.
I read the Gospel for today and I feel like I am supposed to plan to be the man in the parable. I should plan to have enough that I can say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry' (Luke 12:19).  
This leaves me feeling awkward in all kinds of ways.  First, I’m left wondering how to be obedient to Jesus regarding money and still plan for retirement and for my children to go to school. Second, I’m conscious that a number of you are retired or are planning you retire, and I love you and don’t want to offend you. Third, I’m conscious that we live in a hyper-consumerist world and I’m not quite sure how to not live as a consumerist in the world we live in. We are surrounded by advertising that is continuously trying to convince us that we are in need. We live in a world that thrives on lending money at interest, which was against God’s law and called usury (Ex 22, Lev 25, Deut 23). Usury has been condemned in many cultures throughout the world, but it is pervasive in our world. The whole stock market and banking system is based on it. It can be a system that allows greed to run rampant. It was greed that caused the near economic collapse just a few years ago. We have seen some of the effects on our neighbors to the south where many homes have been foreclosed on after interest rates inflated. This is the world we live in. If we have money in the bank we are a part of this system. If we have stocks and mutual funds or GICs we are a part of this system. The system wants us to be the man in Jesus’ parable who is able to make the system work in his favour. We accumulate so much that we need to tear down our barns and build bigger barns to hold all our wealth.  We accumulate so that we can say to ourselves in retirement, “you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”
We are told to be this person, but what does Jesus say in the parable? God says to the man, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." (12:20-21).
Anyone who loves Jesus and has any savings in the bank is feeling a bit bothered right about now. There are three questions that arise out of this state of anxiety- What is wealth for? What does Jesus intend by his parable? And, can we trust him?
First, what is wealth for? We have attached to wealth notions such as security, power, successfulness, and happiness. And there is some truth there, though it is a partial truth.  We have become convinced that all we need to make our life better is more money. I was in a coffee shop the other day and I overheard the person next to me lamenting the fact that a lottery can be won for 50 million dollars. “Why can’t there be 50 winners of a million dollars”, she said. “Imagine what that would do for your life”. … You don’t have to be rich to be consumed by wealth. Anyone who places their ultimate trust in wealth- rich or poor- has fallen pray to greed. It is an especially deep trap because it is insatiable. There is always more to have. I read that John D. Rockefeller, who I’m told was once the wealthiest man in the world, once expressed to a reporter that he was not really happy or satisfied. When the reporter asked how much money it would take to make him happy, Rockefeller replied, “Just a little bit more”.[1] The ability of wealth to satisfy all our desires is limited. Like Rockefeller, we will eventually reach the limits of our wealth to give us security, happiness, success, etc.
One response to this dilemma by Christians has been to reject wealth- To leave it all behind and enter the wilderness like John the Baptist, like the dessert fathers and mothers, like St. Francis of Assisi, and like numerous monks throughout history up to the present day. I believe that this is a valid response. In fact, some may be so stuck in the trap of greed that getting rid of it all will be the only cure, just as an alcoholic might have to commit to leave the world of alcohol showing themselves unable to drink in a responsible way. Jesus told at least one person to give all his wealth to the poor (Luke 18). It is one path to free oneself from greed.
Not all of us are called to take such a step. In fact, the spiritual writer and philosopher Dallas Willard thinks it would be disastrous for all faithful Christians to abandon their wealth. He believes that we need faithful Christians who know what wealth is for in order to bless the world.[2] It would be a disaster if all faithful Christians gave away all their wealth and fled to the desert because they might be leaving the world’s wealth to be managed by greed-filled powers of this world. I believe the monastics have their place in the Christian world, but that won’t be the path for most of us.         
The majority of us will be called to a life of simplicity where our needs are met, but not necessarily our wants. We are called to live not being possessed by our possessions. But, ultimately this isn’t about ‘stuff’ it is about our hearts. We can have very little and our heart can be twisted with greed, but we can also have a lot and have our hearts twisted by greed.
In Jesus’ parable the rich man isn’t necessarily criticized for his wealth. He is criticized for his lack of wealth towards God. God said to the rich man who died with full barns, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." The rich man planned for his retirement, but he didn’t plan for his future. He neglected to plan for the fact that he is going to live forever. He planned for his retirement, but not his future. This is what St. Paul is teaching us today, (Colossians 3:1-2) “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth…

 At times Christians haven’t taught very helpfully about life after death. Because of that we now tend not to teach about it hardly at all.  But, the Christian hope and promise is that we will live forever and we are on a journey of transformation. We are learning to be saints. This is about what it means to be human- the way God wants us to be human. That doesn’t start after we die. It starts right this moment with every decision we make. Each choice we make transforms our heart, even if just a little. The choice to be kind to someone who doesn’t deserve it transforms us a little. Little by little we cooperate with the Holy Spirit as He makes us into a new kind of person. If we allow the Holy Spirit to work on us we will grow to reflect God and our life will be filled with the fruit of the Spirit.  
 Jesus wants us to be rich toward God- this is what is means to be a saint. He wants us to invest in our own transformation and relationship with God.  It is a life and relationship that starts in this life, but it doesn’t end in this life. It continues. And it continues to develop and be perfected in eternity. This life is marked by love of God and neighbor.  We slowly learn to want what God wants, and even love as God loves. The result is that we start to look more like Jesus as we learn to live like him and spend time with him. This is the investment advice Jesus offers us. Invest in your relationship with God.
The question we need to ask ourselves is “do we trust his advice?” Do we truly believe that there is an eternal reality? Do we believe that we can be rich or poor toward God? Do we believe that God will protect us and hold us in his hand no matter what happens? Do we trust our future to Him? That doesn’t mean don’t plan and that we aren’t responsible with our money, on the contrary, we will plan with God’s priorities in mind. Ultimately is our trust in God and not in what we have in our barns? 
If we do believe that there is an eternal reality and that we will live forever, and if we do believe that God loves us and is taking care of us and that he desires our transformation and salvation, then we are free to live the way he told us to- seeking to serve God with all we are and all we have. We can trust that if we seek first the kingdom of God that God will take care of us (Matt 6:33) and that by doing so we will be storing up heavenly treasure (Matt 6:19-21).  And that is an investment in our future.   

[1] Good and beautiful life, James Bryan Smith, p. 157
[2] The Divine Conspiracy

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