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Greedy freedom

August 5th, 2007 by isaac · 2 Comments

Title: Greedy freedom
Date: August 5, 2007
Texts: Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21.

Jesus means freedom… But what kind of freedom? What does it mean to be free?

There’s a new movie on the shelves of the video stores. It’s called The Pursuit of Happyness. It’s one of those tender movies—and if you’re a sentimentalist, like I am, and if you’re not careful, it may even force a tear from your eye. Part of the reason why it tugs at your emotions is because it’s about a father and son trying to make it in a world marked by racism and classism, and the father and son are really father and son off the screen—Will Smith and his son Jaden.

Now the film offers a vision of what it means to be free. From the title of the movie, you may be able to guess—it’s the freedom of the American dream: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The idea of freedom that is at the center of the film is best summed up in a heated exchange between Chris (played by Will Smith) and Christopher (played by Jaden Smith).

They’re shooting hoops—A happy scene of father and son playing together. And the young Christopher says that he wants to grow up to be a basketball star. But Chris is far too much of a realist to approve of his son’s dream. He discourages Jaden, says it’s too difficult to make it as a professional basketball player; the odds are against him, so he should think about something more realistic—go to college, become a lawyer, get a stable job.

Christopher is hurt. He starts crying. Then Chris realizes that he is killing his child’s spirit, and not only that, he is giving advise that he doesn’t really believe—because Chris has always been a dreamer, pursuing dreams despite the practical advice of his wife and anyone else who he thinks is getting in his way. He’s a solitary man who knows what he wants and won’t let anyone stop him.

And so he takes it all back, all the realistic, dream-killing, advice about the silliness of growing up to be a professional basketball player. And Chris grabs his son, looks him in the eyes, and says, “If you want something, go get it. Period.” If you want something, go get it. Period.

That’s liberty; that’s what it means to pursue happiness. Free to do what you want with your life no matter what anyone else says or does.

(pause)

A man comes up to Jesus and wants him to make his brother give him some family money. It seems that there’s been a falling out with his brother, and this man wants to get on his own way with some cash for the road. Jesus calls the man greedy and tells a story.

There’s a rich man with a bumper crop, who likes to talk to himself. He says, “Self, you got yourself a lot of grain this year. The Lord has been good. But what to do with all the grain…” And as he sits by himself, considering his crop, he contemplates his options.

One option might be to take it to market. Sell it now while the selling’s good. But here’s the problem: it’s a lot more grain than usual for this time of year, so it will flood the market; and as any amateur economist knows, too much supply drives prices down. And who wants a saturated grain market? Nobody. Well, some people might… but we’ll get to that later.

So, strike that option. Selling it all now is a bad idea. The man can make more money if he holds onto it a bit longer and waits for the perfect moment to sell, like when his friends and neighbors get hit by a sand storm and they lose their crops—their loss will be his gain. That’s when he make a nice profit on all this surplus grain.

But that means he needs to put it somewhere. But where? More silos. Temporary ones? No. Now is the perfect time to expand the business—he’s gonna build storage barns that last, bigger and better than the ones he’s got. But here’s the thing: the man has put quite a bit of time and energy into nurturing the soil of his cultivated land. The crop is only as good as the soil it comes from, and it took some investment to make that soil just right. It would be a waste to ruin that fertile land by building on it. And that would mean less land in the future to grow on.

So, he does the only thing that makes sense to him as he sits out on his porch, thinking to himself, looking out at all his grain: it’s about time to tear down the dinky old barns and build new ones—bigger and better—in their place.

But Jesus says, this man is greedy and wasting his time. He’s gonna die and then what’s going to happen with all his stored up grain? “And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” It will rot—barns and barns of compost. Or, hopefully, the poor people will come and have a feast.

It’s a story about greed and possessions. It’s a story about what we do with our stuff. It’s a story about everyday ethics—all the decisions that we have to make. And here’s what I think the story shows about the way we should think about decisions, about ethics: asking yourself what to do with your stuff is the beginning of greed. The rich farmer never invites others to help him figure out what to do with his grain. His decision-making process is privatized—it all happens in his head.

He never asks his neighbor about what he should do with his stuff. He never talks to friends about it. And he doesn’t ask the masses of hungry and humiliated people in the land who live off hand outs of bread from the Roman occupation. And what’s so wrong with a saturated grain market that might make bread more affordable for those who can’t make ends meet?

But he never asks. He’s content sitting on his porch, surveying his options by himself, undisturbed by outside voices. That’s freedom—no one to bother him as he figures out his life, how to pursue happiness. It’s the vision of freedom that Will Smith’s character captures so well in that movie when he tells his son, “If you want something, go get it. Period.” Everybody else fades into the shadows.

The beginning of greed is the selfishness that makes us think we can do what we want with our stuff. The beginning of greed is the way we think our possessions really do belong to us, and to us alone. The beginning of greed is the way we make our decisions like the rich man does—in the privacy of our heads.

We are called to be people very much different than the rich farmer. We are called to be the kind of people who invite others into our decision-making. We are called to be the kind of people who realize that our lives don’t ultimately belong to us. Our very self is a gift from God that we in turn give in service to others.

And this is what the freedom of the gospel looks like: we are freed from our selfish and solitary, private and imprisoned, desires as we invite others into decisions about what to do with our stuff and what to do with our lives.

(pause)

It’s common these days to talk about the unity of humanity. Our lives are linked with those around the world through inter-dependent ecosystems, global economies, war, and hopefully friendships. In response to the unceasing violence and injustice, humanitarians call us to consider the unity of our common humanity. If we all realize that we share the same essence of humanity, then we won’t kill each other. How could we defile our essential unity?

In Colossians, Paul says something of the same sort of thing, but makes it much more radical; he makes unity an intensely personal task, not some utopian vision for people out there, but something quite personal to work on.

For Paul, the freedom we have in Jesus Christ is something we discover as we learn what it means to find, what he calls in 3:10, our “new self.” Let me read again Colossians 3:9-11.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourself with a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

This new self is not the kind of life that Will Smith holds up to his son in The Pursuit of Happyness. It’s not a self that is freed from everyone and everything so he can pursue that dream he thinks will make him happy: “If you want something, go get it. Period.”

The new self Paul says we are given is Jesus Christ, the one in whose image we are created. But it’s not a static image. It’s not a cold and hardened image—an object to put on your shelf, an idol to carry around for security. It’s dynamic, more like water, flowing, bringing new life. And Paul says that this new self is the Christ who is “all and in all.”

Our new self is not something we can grasp clearly. Our self is not something that we can possess like we can a pair of shoes. Our self, the self that Paul talks about, is not something we have and hold and carry along with us, independent and distinct from other objects. Our new self is hidden, mysterious, just beyond our reach: “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3).

“Christ” names the new self we discover on a journey that lasts our whole life. And it’s a journey of discovery that calls us to find the Christ who is all and in all, as we pay attention to our differences—“Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free” (v11).

Our self is not private; we are not prisoners to our identity—whether it’s cultural, political, religious, or racial. Our self is that mysteriously hidden self, held together in the embrace of God’s love along with all the others.

I do not belong to me; I am not a prison to myself; I am not something that I can hold onto. Because you and I belong to God—we are hidden in God’s loving embrace displayed in Jesus Christ, who gave his self so that we can have a new one, a mysterious one, one that’s intimately tied to one another. We can’t take Will Smith’s advice, “If you want something, go get it. Period,” because our new self is something that belongs to all of us—It’s Christ who is all and in all. Our happiness is intimately tied to the well-being of each other.

The scandal of Christianity is that we claim a freedom that exposes the destructive lie at the heart of ideals of self-determination, and at the heart of dreams of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We actually call that stuff slavery, being prisoners to the greed and selfishness which is at the heart of all sin. It’s the selfishness and sin revealed to us in the rich farmer who goes after what he thinks is good and right without ever asking for help, without ever being honest about the way his life belongs to the land and the community that made him who he is.

The scandal of our faith is that we believe that humans are really good liars, to ourselves and each other—we are not to be trusted even to know what’s best for us. And church is simply the name of a group of people who have decided to bring all their different selves to the table, and see what kind of humanity we are becoming, to see what kind of unity we can tell the world about, to see what it might mean to receive a new self, the very body of Christ, who is all and in all, passing between and among us, binding us together, giving us a glimpse of what is hidden, mysteries that invite our life-long contemplation.

(pause)

There is no such thing as a human being. We are not hardened and static objects. We are human becomings, always on the move, always discovering who we are as we live by the grace of God, always trusting each other to help us see our new self, the transfiguring presence of Jesus Christ.

And it is God who leads us. That’s what God says in Hosea: “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bonds of love. I was to them like those who life infants to their cheeks. I bent down to feed them.”

It is God who calls to us in the desert. That’s what it says in our Psalm: “Some wandered in the desert wastes… hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord…and he delivered them.”

It is God who sets us free from our greedy, tight-fisted grasp on the stuff of our lives so God can give us a new self, Jesus Christ, that wonderful presence of love that holds us together as his body. But all that takes work. And it’s the labor of loving struggle with all our differences which turns out to be the way we prepare the soil of our lives for the harvest of good news that we can share with the world.

Tags: sermons

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason // Aug 9, 2007 at 8:02 am

    You know, I’ve read that parable a number of times and always found it as difficult to understand as it is to live it. I like your interpretation: “greed is what happens when we start thinking about what to do with our stuff.” But I also struggle with it in the same way I struggle with the parable. Really, should we abandon these mantras of “saving for the future,” “investing,” “401k”, and on and on? I think your push for us to discuss these things with others is a good one, but should this parable push that conversation in a certain direction? Away from our desire for security and hedges against the lean times? I’m not sure, but I think it might be interesting to put this parable in conversation with the one where Jesus insists that his servants are supposed to invest their money (Matt. 25:14-29)

  • 2 isaac // Aug 9, 2007 at 11:23 am

    Yeah, I’m not sure what to do with the parable with the talents. I don’t know if I can read it as a straight-forward story about how Jesus wants us to take up investing. It can’t be about that… Can it?

    If it is, it’s hard to reconcile that with Jesus call to irresponsibility when it comes to capital and money: Luke 5:1-11. That’s where Jesus tells the disciples to abandon all their financial responsibilities and commitments—the biggest catch of fish is left to rot, along with all their fishing equipment. I preached sermon on this once: “Irresponsible stewards.”