When I was in college, a fellow student came to class one day wearing a shirt that read, “The one who dies with the most toys wins!” Although the saying was an ironic comment on the excesses of the 1980s, it bespeaks a perennial human problem. In every age, greed—the inordinate desire to accumulate wealth or possessions—is a temptation many struggle to resist.
‘Take care to guard against all greed; one’s life does not consist of possessions.’ (Lk 12:15)
On what do you spend your energy?
What are your “barns”?
What are your personal obsessions that distract you from God’s intent for your life?
Warnings against greed appeared in many first-century texts. The non-Christian writer Plutarch warns against the vice that never lets individuals rest, driving them to acquire ever more without satisfaction (Moralia 525 E). Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s letters list greed among deadly vices (Mk 7:22, Rom 1:29; Eph 4:19; 5:3). The noncanonical Gospel of Thomas shares the same parable found in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, pointing out the way death makes a mockery out of human schemes (Thomas 63). Matthew, meanwhile, emphasizes the value of heavenly treasure by contrasting it with the transitory nature of material possessions. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal” (Mt 6:19).
Luke takes a different approach and warns against confusing wealth with life. “Though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Luke recognizes that wealth has a symbolic value. Material goods represent our time, hard work, talents and dreams. They can provide illusions of present control and future security. An increase in possessions can coincide with advances in education or personal development. These make it easy to regard material possessions as a concrete expression of one’s life or, even worse, as its source and purpose.
Greed is not limited to wealth. It can take the form of the accumulation of anything unnecessary. For example, greed for power is almost as common as greed for wealth, and people can also be greedy for things like social connections or experiences. In each case, the thing desired becomes a counterfeit of life itself.
Jesus urges his followers not to make that mistake. God alone is the source and purpose of life. Food, shelter and clothing support life, and a prudent reserve of resources can ease anxieties about the future. But the basis of life and peace is not the wealth itself but God, who provided it.
Luke locates this teaching in his Gospel narrative during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, a time during which he often taught the conditions for discipleship. Just as earlier Jesus had taught that home, family and good name should not distract one’s discipleship (9:23-24, 57-62), so now he teaches that the acquisition of material possessions must never take the place of the divine mission to which God calls each disciple. The purpose of life is to become like Christ, and true wealth consists of the everyday decisions that make us resemble him. A disciple’s treasure is every act of forgiveness, generosity and kindness, and every deed that confers healing or deliverance or peace. Those who accumulate these treasures have discovered the true purpose of the life God has given.