Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Look at it and walk away

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the Aug. 19, 2004edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky Many a parent has chided many a child with the words, “Don’t be so greedy” as the child refuses to share food, playthings or other belongings. Ever happen to us when we were little? Never? Right!

There’s something about the human experience (some may want to call it our nature) that finds us greedy. We hog our toys, hoard our money and cling to our belongings. Even in the absence of a parent, often we adults need to be chided again and again, “Don’t be so greedy!”

As I was growing up I found myself musing about my mother’s advice not to be so greedy. I now place the emphasis on the adverb “so.” Did she mean that I could be greedy in some circumstance but not in the particular one that had garnered her loving rebuke? Is it okay to be greedy in some situations but not so much so in others? Is a little bit of greed tolerable?

A reading of the Gospel according to St. Luke (12:13ff) seems to resolve the question – and uncomfortably so.

Fit to be tied because his bother is hogging his share of the family inheritance, a stranger beseeches Jesus to become an arbiter of greed. The man wants Jesus to act as judge (siding with his greed) against the greed of his sibling. (Doesn’t the scene just remind you of childhood squabbles?!)

Jesus responds by calling the stranger to a higher level of spirituality. The translation of this Gospel passage which we hear nowadays at Mass reads, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Seems rather distant and philosophical on the part of Jesus, doesn’t it?

My old high school Latin teacher informs me that this English translation is more than a bit weak. It even erodes the challenge of Christian discipleship. He tells me with justified frustration that the original languages (Greek and then its Latin translation) capture the Lord’s admonition much more poignantly than the weak English words. Jesus’ admonition more accurately is translated, “Take a look at it [greed] and avoid it in any of its manifestations.”

Now, after hearing this, there is no wriggle room (typical of Jesus’ teaching style). There are no circumstances whatsoever in which one permissibly can be more greedy or less greedy than in other circumstances. Greed is greed is greed is greed.

That precisely is the point Jesus makes to those who seek to be his followers and come to the full joy and happiness in union with God – who alone is the beginning and end our all our happiness. God wants nothing more than to give the kingdom to us, his little children, but our selfish, self-saving clutching after things all too often gets in the way.

Mr. Webster defines greed as “an overwhelming desire to acquire or have, as wealth or power, in excess of what one requires or deserves.” Now there we go again – maybe if our greed is not characterized as “overwhelming,” perhaps it would be tolerable. After all, which of us church-going Christians would be blatantly “overwhelming” with regard our greedy desires and pursuits?

Jesus likely would have a few things to say to Mr. Webster. Greed is greed is greed is greed. In any of its manifestations – explicit (“overwhelming”) or subtle – the disciple must address greed for what it is and – seeing its deceitful, destructive power – make the choice to walk away from it. Such a break with addictive behavior is always characteristic of true conversion. It is not easy.

Greed is a double-decker sin sandwich. First of all, it places things or position ahead of that which can be claimed only by God. No thing and no position of influence is – or ever can be – the source of our true happiness. If we hold onto them for dear life, they will kill us spiritually (and sometimes even physically). In other word, in any of its manifestations greed is idolatry, the worship of false gods. To give the allegiance of the heart to a thing or a vacuous position of power and influence is reminiscent of those who bowed before the golden calf. In the short and long term, greed turns us into enslaved, life-less pagans.

In a similar way, greed – in any of its forms – is a rejection of God’s covenant love. In so concentrating on what we want for our personal happiness, our self-centeredness blindly separates us from the reality of our neighbors and their needs. Nothing could be more contrary to the covenant love God has established with us. Love of God is measured by love of neighbor, not by how much we own or control.

The stranger in the Gospel scene well could be any one of us. We all want, think we need, must have. In our culture we spend a high percentage of our time and energy buying, getting, possessing, claiming, holding, clutching, amassing, hoarding, defending. Our consumeristic society tells us that we count for naught if we do not do so. Jesus advises the opposite. “Sell your belongings and take care of the needs of the poor,“ he encourages us – if we truly want to have a life.

In many ways we adults may have outgrown the childish and selfish hoarding of toys. Perhaps we even champion our freedom from such self-centeredness. But my guess is that an examination of our lives would surface a great deal of greed. In our culture it is nigh unto impossible to escape its lure. Perhaps we, more than the man in the Gospel, need to hear Jesus admonish us to “take a look at it and walk away. For our own spiritual good….

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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