Monday, July 29, 2019

Greed, Which Is Idolatry

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Luke 12:13-21) ends with a mic-drop moment: "So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God." Every time I read this parable, I want to know more of what it means to be "rich toward God." But for today I want to explore briefly a related concept in the Epistle reading (Colossians 3:1-11), which isn't intended to tie in with the Gospel but just does.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul uses strong language to urge his readers to leave behind their sinful ways: "Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly..." As is always the case with Paul, he's building his argument on the crucifixion of Jesus, arguing that just as sin was put to death in Jesus, so, too, must it be put to death in those who have been baptized into Jesus' death (i.e. us). Here's Paul's list of earthly things that must die within us: "fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)." The NRSV puts the relative clause in parentheses as does the CEB. The ESV and ASV translate it as "covetousness, which is idolatry," leaving the bit about idolatry outside of parentheses. The CEV helps us understand the difference, by translating the latter part of Colossians 3:5 as "Don’t be greedy, which is the same as worshiping idols."

For the most part, the translators want us to be clear that Paul isn't saying that the Colossians are literally worshiping idols. Instead, they want us to know that Paul is equating the greed or covetousness of his contemporaries with the idol worship of the pagans around them. Paul isn't accusing these Christians of bowing down to golden calves or bringing offerings to the shrine of Zeus. But he is letting them know that their greed is essentially the same thing.

Greed or covetousness is the spiritual practice of seeking security, blessing, and happiness from earthly possessions. It is not merely the pursuit of material wealth. It is the substitution of material goods for God. It is idolatry. Paul wants us to see that it is as empty a pursuit as melting together our golden jewelry, forming it into a statue of a god, and worshiping the statue we have created. In other words, it's lunacy. And yet we still do it.

It's easier to get comfort in the bank account whose balance we can see, whose bills we can feel with our fingers, whose spending power we can apply to the food we taste and the car we drive and the security system we install, than in the God whose love and blessing and protection and promise are real and lasting and triumphant but, alas, ethereal. When Moses was delayed on Mt. Sinai and the people panicked, they made a golden calf not because they wanted to thumb their nose at God but because they were scared and wanted to see the god who had delivered them from Egypt. They needed something to see and touch so that they could believe in it. Big mistake. And we duplicate it.

Put greed to death. Paul encourages his readers to remember that because Christ has died and has been raised and has been seated in the heavenly places, we, too, have power to set our minds on those heavenly things and places. The power comes not from within us, which is why Paul is so bold as to say that the sin within us must be put to death. It is the reversal of power. We must allow the greed in us to be put to death so that our hearts can belong with God and not chasing a cheap substitute we can see and feel. It feels good to buy nice things, but, if greed is our motivation, the good feeling we pursue is idolatry. Look around your house, your garage, your life. Could you let it all go? Or are you building a shrine full of idols?

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