Deuteronomy 8.6 – 11: Luke 12.13 – 21
Although I was brought up in a household that was not extravagant with money, as a twenty-something with a salary flowing into my bank account, I had to have a flash car, an account with Austin Reed and later my bite of the electronic Apple become an addiction. OK I have to ‘fess up. I have an iWatch, iPhone, iPod, iPad, iMac and Apple TV.
Marriage didn’t improve matters as we both enjoyed the good life. But our nemesis came in the form of two delightful Afghan ladies we invited to lunch, who were on sabbatical at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. After giving them a tour of our converted granary on three floors, one asked with innocent directness, “Why do you have so many things?” My wife and I exchanged glances that said, “Thank goodness we didn’t show them the attic.”
It took me a while to shake off the culture of an economy that pursues owning and consuming over doing and being. My attic is now half-empty rather than half-full. Taking an interest in ecology has speeded up this learning process, the problems of climate change, water, soil and air pollution have heightened my awareness of the consequences our consumerist culture. In short, the landscape has taught me important things about the sufficiency of enough.
In the parable of the farmer we heard this monologue: “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” [Luke 12.18]
On the surface, this parable is not about greed. On the surface. He seems surprised by his good fortune and makes what appears to be reasonable plans to reap the abundance of the harvest. A sensible chap, one might say. What is wrong with building larger barns to store away a bumper harvest? After all, he might have to face a leaner one tomorrow.
But his language betrays him. The repeated “I” and “my” reveals a preoccupation with self. He doesn’t give a second thought to sharing his abundance with others. His land has been productive, he has more grain and goods in storage than he could ever hope to use, yet he expresses no sense of gratitude to God, or to the workers who have helped him plough the fields, sow the crop and take in the harvest and seems to have no thought of sharing it with others. His foolishness is laid bare because he believes that by his wealth he can secure his life in the future: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” [Luke 12.19]
We may be less concerned about filling our barns with grain; but we do have concerns about accumulating money, not too much perhaps, but enough to protect ourselves in the future. Yet money is of no value in itself; it only has value when it can be translated into other things.
There’s a lively economic debate about the claim that the pursuit of growth brings happiness. In economic terms it is probably true, but psychologically I think we need to be clear about what kind of ‘happiness’ we are talking about. On the one hand, global economic growth impacted beneficially on everyday life for many on this planet, but happiness is not a commodity we can demand.
For those who have yet to experience the material security of good fortune, life is fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. 4 billion of the world’s 7 billion do not have enough. At least 2 billion do not have enough to eat, do not have adequate housing, and are unable to educate their children, or afford adequate healthcare. Today there are many billions who are “just about managing”.
No one is untouched by concerns about money, but a corrosive effect on our society is an obsession with accumulating money. The corrosive effect is that while some are content to admire good fortune, others covet that success. We covet much, we want things, we demand things; and in that innate selfishness, we resent those who have what we want, or who we perceive as being better off than ourselves. The rich fascinate us, glossy magazines spill out the intimate details of their lives, the developing cult of the celebrity.
Politicians boast about how they can deliver growth because they know that a strong economy delivers votes. But pare away at the gloss of global capitalism and something very nasty lies underneath; think of the corporate behaviour of Uber and Ryanair, for example. Many people find themselves in a terrible uncertainty and instability that is developing into a nastiness permeating our politics; permeating our media.
We celebrate our technological advances, and our growth in education and cultural achievement, and rightly so, yet the human race as a whole remains contingent, vulnerable, fragile. Witness the impact of the hurricanes on the people of the Caribbean and other climate stressed parts of the world.
Managing a global economy is of course highly complex. But in essence it is quite simple. Either we use our resources as efficiently as possible, sharing them fairly between people and allowing people as much self-determination as possible. Or we focus single-mindedly on growth, with the assumption that individual liberty will develop a sense of self-discipline, perhaps guided by the ‘Protestant work ethic’ and aided, in that much misused phrase, by ’the invisible hand of the market’.
Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher wrote his famous book known simply “The Wealth of Nations” mentions this several times. Smith’s basic argument was that humankind’s natural tendency toward self-interest results in prosperity. By giving everyone freedom to produce and exchange goods as they pleased and opening all markets to competition, people’s natural self-interest would bring about universal prosperity. But Smith is sometimes wilfully misunderstood, since he also believed in an active role for government, in creating the rules and regulations of society. He wanted people to practice thrift, work hard but to be fully conscious of the need for compassion and community.
We live in the grace of an extraordinary beautiful and diverse world; in the ebb and flow of life that delights its Creator. It is not that God doesn’t want us to save for retirement or future needs. It is not that God doesn’t want us to “eat, drink, and be merry” and enjoy what God has given us. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent time eating and drinking with people and enjoying life.
But Jesus was very clear about where his real security lay and he warns, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” [Luke 12.15]. Our lives and possessions are not our own. They belong to God. We are merely stewards of them, for the time God has given us on this earth.
The true value of money lies in how we invest it. True growth lies in investing our lives with the gifts that God has given us and, most importantly, investing those gifts in the lives of our neighbour. Ultimately, the fruits of our harvest should be about how we orient our desires towards God’s mission to bless and redeem the world. Amen.