(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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When we considered the topic of immigration last Sunday, we acknowledged that it is also a political issue on which there are many opposing opinions. And today’s topic is no different. As I said last week, our politics are informed by our spiritual views. How we answer the big spiritual questions in life often determine our political views – why are we here and what purpose do we serve? It is difficult to separate spirituality from politics.
Nevertheless, it is essential that we make that effort. Jesus himself implored his followers to distinguish between views on civil government versus views on spiritual matters. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”
And so I encourage each of us today to examine the topic of greed only from a spiritual perspective. If you will, for our time here today, take off your political hat and put on your spiritual beanie or your Papal pointy hat if you prefer!
At their core, I believe most people have sincere intentions towards fellow humans. Only the most pathological enjoy the suffering of others. We are each empathetic people who hurt and suffer when others hurt and suffer. And, we celebrate when others experience happiness and joy. Spiritually, each person yearns for a better earth and a better existence, no matter their religion, nationality or political views. Let us approach the topic of greed, therefore, from such common ground.
As disturbing as the video on wealth distribution in America is, it’s important to recognize that it only measures wealth in this nation. Indeed, even the poorest citizens in the U.S. rank above the poor in many nations. Using an international measurement of purchasing power, the global middle class is defined as having a purchasing power income of between $2.00 and $50.00 per day. While that is a relatively big difference, it simply means that anyone who earns less than $2.00 a day in purchasing power is, by global standards, poor and one who earns more than $50.00 a day is wealthy – again by global and not American standards. Using that same index, the average middle class family in the U.S. makes approximately $60.00 per day in global purchasing power. Thus, an average American is substantially above the global standard of middle class.
What this means is that as quick as any of us are to condemn the 1% in our nation who now have amassed a huge excess of wealth, by the standard of people around the world, a majority of Americans are considered wealthy. Many of us would likely fit that international category even though in the U.S. we are likely middle class.
What we must guard against, therefore, is a desire to throw stones at others. It is far more difficult and painful to shine the spotlight on ourselves and thereby question our own values. Each of us already has a higher income, more personal wealth and owns more luxuries than the poorest of the world’s poor, those who survive on less than $1.00 per day, can ever hope to achieve. For the millions who may not own even one pair of shoes, to the millions who literally live in shacks built of scraps, to the millions who daily scavenge for food out of dumps, we are supremely wealthy. We are the global face of excess and greed.
As quick as I am to condemn greed in the 1%, therefore, I must honestly examine my own heart and my own motivations to root out that attitude in me. I must ask myself if I am no better than a Wall Street hedge fund trader who greedily seeks ever larger sums of wealth – even as I think in terms of thousands of dollars while they think in terms of millions or even billions.
Ultimately, I must confront the question which I used as the title for today’s message. How much greed is too much greed – especially when it comes to myself? Where is the line drawn between a person who works for a living and seeks the average pleasures of life versus one who lusts for more material things and amasses immense sums of wealth? What is a spiritual understanding of sufficiency and its negative opposite – greed? If our effort in here is not to cast stones as much as it is to spiritually examine our hearts and seek inner change so that we can in turn improve the world, what can we do in our lives and in our communities to prevent uncontrolled greed? As Gandhi said, and as I often quote, “WE must be the change we want to see.”
As a spiritual text, the Bible addresses the topic of money and wealth far more than almost any other topic. Indeed, it was a primary focus of Jesus. And, typically, he sought not to judge but to teach. As any good teacher, he rarely told others HOW to act or HOW to think. Instead, he asked questions, told stories and used them to encourage self-examination. He wanted people to look at their motivations – and then change their thinking by themselves. As we all know, change must come from within. Jesus simply asked the right questions and acted as a catalyst for inner spiritual change.
In one incident, when Jesus was surrounded by a large crowd of admirers, a man yelled out from the crowd and asked that Jesus tell the man’s brother to stop refusing to divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus replied in his classic way. He first shot down the idea that he was to be a judge. He asked, “Who made me an umpire between you?” But he then quickly added, “Watch out! Be on your guard against wanting to have more and more things. Life is not made up of how much a person has.”
And then Jesus told a parable of a farmer who was bragging about how his land was so productive. He was reaping far more grain than he had room to store. His barns were completely full and yet his land produced more and more. And so the farmer thought to himself that he would tear down his existing barns and build much bigger ones so he could store the greater and greater excess of his grain wealth. The farmer even assured himself that he will have so much stored away that he can stop working, take it easy and eat, drink and have fun. But God literally has the last word in the parable. The farmer dies that night and the abundance of his wealth is soon owned by someone else. Indeed, God calls the farmer a “fool” for his greedy thinking.
The lesson of Jesus’s teaching to the brothers in the crowd clearly expresses his views about greed. He suggested that BOTH brothers were greedy – the one who wanted more wealth by demanding his fair share AND the brother who wanted it all. Jesus got at the motivational heart in both brothers – each was greedy. Each saw wealth as a source of happiness and well-being. Life is not about how much money and things we have, Jesus said. It’s about much, much bigger concerns.
And then he used his parable to show how foolish greed can be. The farmer arrogantly stores up far more wealth than he needs – his barns were already bursting at the seams – and then he dies. The implied point Jesus made to his listeners and to us is – how much do we really need? How many cars, how many pairs of clothes, how many shoes, how many vacations, how much of ANYTHING do we really need? From both a spiritual AND a practical perspective, the parable tells us that greed is foolish since nobody can ever use up huge sums of wealth and it won’t be ours forever anyway.
Just as important, however, we find in Jesus’ response an answer to my earlier question, how much is too much? He spoke not against the fact that the brothers had an inheritance but against their greedy attitudes. And the farmer in Jesus’ parable had the same motivations. Instead of giving away some of his excess wealth, he figured out a way to hoard it. The farmer was not called foolish for being productive and for storing up some grain. He was called foolish for storing more than what he prudently needed.
Indeed, Jesus did not condemn wealth. He clearly did not condemn hard work and saving for one’s needs. And the rest of the Bible is quite consistent on this point. People who are wise, work hard and save up enough for difficult times are praised. Paul, in one of his letters, sums up the Biblical view. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires…”, he wrote. “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from what they know to be good.” The clear lesson is that money and wealth are NOT bad. It is the LOVE of money – by the 1%, by the very poor, or by any of us – THAT is what must be avoided.
And almost all world religions agree. Bhishma, one of the great Hindu yogis, once said, “Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and goodness. From such coveting proceeds sin. This type of desire is the spring of all the hypocrisy in the world.”
The Buddha said that greed is a desire for an excess of material things and pleasures. Such desire is the source of human suffering. Greed, he said, is about never being satisfied with what one has and always wanting and expecting more.
David Loy, who is a foremost contemporary Buddhist thinker, says that, like Jesus, Buddha did not condemn money. Rather, the Buddha encouraged a middle way to both acknowledge the necessity of money AND for us to avoid excessive attachment to material things and wealth. The desire for money must not control us. We must control the desire. Do our material possessions define who we are? Does the pursuit of money dominate our attitudes and our thinking? Or, are we defined by more important qualities – by our compassion, empathy, generosity, and forgiveness?
The warnings that Jesus and Buddha offered must speak to us and all others. With the accumulation of any amount of wealth – from a few hundred dollars to billions of dollars – we must be on guard not to fall in love with it. Wealth must not be our source of security and material things must not be our source of happiness.
That is the spiritual warning each of us can take to heart. The love of money often brings about a downfall. We’ve seen countless examples of excess greed and how it brings down men and women – from Bernie Madoff to hedge fund speculators who helped cause the recent financial collapse to home buyers a few years ago who purchased houses far larger and far costlier than they needed or could afford.
This attitude of a love of money and wealth, however, is apparent in our nation today. It is the implicit warning of the video we just saw. The concentration of wealth far beyond what is prudent or necessary is a real and present danger. Excessively high salaries and high concentrations of wealth are destructive to the soul and threaten our well-being as a nation. The pursuit of money, instead of the pursuit of love, decency, respect and generosity is dangerous. Money and wealth in our nation are not bad. Indeed, we need it to create jobs, innovate and solve many of our problems. It is the attitude about wealth that is a dire threat.
As a people and as a nation, we must not encourage the love of money in ourselves or in others. It is not acceptable in a homeless person or in a corporate CEO. Such greed, as Jesus pointed out, leads to foolish actions and a mindset that is contrary to the higher ethics we value. Just as greed encourages hoarding and arrogance in the super wealthy, it also encourages envy and jealousy in the poor and middle class. And those attitudes often lead to outright rebellion and even revolution. The concentration of excess wealth in our nation puts at risk the very foundations of our society – democracy and capitalism. Given enough time without reform, people will rebel and push our nation in extreme directions. Overly greedy capitalists will sow the seeds of their own destruction and perhaps that of capitalism itself. To save our nation, its capitalist economy and to save our souls, we must root out greed in ourselves and in our culture.
And that, like what Jesus and Buddha taught, leads us to morally imaginative solutions. Dating from the 1930’s, an innovative theory has been developed that helps to define much of human behavior. Called game-theory, it was made famous by John Forbes Nash, the subject of the film “A Beautiful Mind”. Creating complex algorithms and mathematical models, Nash and others have shown that humans make decisions in life based on how they perceive others will also act and react. Such decisions are often competitive and guided by self-interest. What do I need to do to get a job over someone else? What do I need to do to acquire more food or a healthier mate over someone else? While human nature is competitive, and often greedy, Nash and others propose that over time, humans learn a better way. They find that brute competition is a lose-lose situation. Nobody wins. As humans learn this fact, they find that cooperation with others is an ironic form of self-interest. I will do better if I cooperate with others. I will do better if others do better too.
And this attitude is not just unique to humans. It is shown in animals with herd instincts and mobbing behavior. One wolf, for example, usually cannot catch and take down large prey by itself. It quickly learns that through cooperation and work with others, prey can be taken down together. Not only will the one wolf eat, so too will the entire wolf pack. This is not survival of the fittest as much as it is survival of the cooperative.
And human history is no different. Society has moved to ever increasing and more complex levels of human cooperation – from lone hunter, to tribe, to village, to city, to nation and, now, to globalization. Each individual retains basic rights but each also understands that cooperation and not competition is the long term answer to individual and cultural success.
Nash called this realization by humans and animals equilibrium or symbiosis economics. We depend on one another to do well in life. No longer is it a matter of competing for finite resources as it is a morally imaginative approach to economic thinking. It is not socialist redistribution of wealth but a recognition that the well-being of the whole requires the well-being of each person. If I help you succeed, I too will succeed. Capitalism will survive and thrive only if it works to assure that most people share in its opportunities and benefits. Capitalism will fail if excess greed is allowed to dominate.
Nash proposed that equilibrium will result one way or another. Either humans recognize and choose it peacefully or they choose it by force. And the history of revolutions supports this fact. Equilibrium is therefore not only a matter of choice, it is according to Nash a mathematical and empirical certainty. It happens when humans understand cooperation works better.
Ultimately, what we realize is what Jesus, Buddha and other prophets taught. We might be born with the original sin of greed, but we soon learn the error of such ways. We each need money to buy things we need. But the love of money and things is not the stuff of a meaningful life. It is not the stuff of a lasting legacy for any person. If we are all empathetic people, we ought to want everyone to succeed and enjoy the average needs of life.
And so we cannot change our nation or our world unless we begin to change ourselves. I know I am a terrible sinner when it comes to greed. I admit to dreams of winning the lottery, to wanting luxuries in my life and to desiring longer and more exotic vacations. I can put my lust for money and things over my concern for others.
But, greed is not good. It is bad. Even though we see it all around us, we can recognize it as a moral and spiritual danger to our souls and to our nation. We must find more and more ways to cooperate with others. That involves not charitable or government hand outs to others but offering helping hands up through better education, healthcare and job training. Most of all, we can stop pointing fingers at others and instead work to change our OWN attitudes and thereby help build what we all desire – a world where every person lives at peace with his or her needs – and refuses the impulse to love money and things.