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Do Your Possessions Possess You?

31 Jul
Greed? What does that mean?

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“I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry…’”

–Luke 12:19

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Physically demanding, difficult, and sometimes dangerous work. Long and odd hours – not 9-5, to say the least – but the rewards, the financial rewards I mean, are really good. 

Because of personal experience, I’ve recently become much more familiar with a number of men who are working very, very hard in order to, as they say, “make a living”…

The jobs these men do are in high demand. 

The company is always looking for good workers and even though not a whole lot of training is required — and the company will even pick up the tab for it! — not a lot of folks will do these jobs. 

…even many who realize they can never afford to be lazy… 

When the women’s movement got rolling in the 1960s and 1970s and more equal representation was sought in this or that profession, women were, strangely enough, not thinking about or looking at this kind of “blue collar” work… 

In fact, by doing this kind of work, no one is achieving high social status in the wider world by virtue of the job they hold…

And yet – that does not seem to be the main concern of any of these men. 

The men who do these jobs appreciate that the work that they do is finally understood to be valuable and will make them a decent income.  

Understandable. And yet, what is the deeper motivator for doing such a job? 

Well, some of these men will say that they have no choice: they need to do this, earn what they can, to survive in what amounts to a dog-eat-dog world. 

Others hope to work hard for 3-5 years and make a good chunk of money to get a good start in life: make some investments, save for college, maybe even buy a home…

Others will say that they do this kind of work because it is the only way they can support a family where mom is able to stay at home with the kids… Jobs that actually meet this need are definitely fewer and farther between these days, but some of these men have found an answer to this problem here…

That said, these are not the only reasons. Some of these men will admit that they subject themselves to the work they do because they like having their “toys”: the latest and greatest machines, technologies, and furnishings that can make their living space more comfortable and also allow them to participate in the leisure activities, hobbies, fun, or even thrill-seeking they enjoy. 

It seems then that some of these men at least are looking ahead – not only to the weekend or that next vacation when they can do the things they love doing – but to a time when they, having achieved a measure of security, can really enjoy their possessions and…

Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

And they, of course, are not alone.

Also those fixated on achieving elite social status in the world often love their “toys” – the “goods”, from nature or invented by us – that bring them comfort and pleasure….

And why not? Why should anyone be ashamed of any of this or even ever think twice about it?  

After all, didn’t Jesus once say to Judas, “the poor you will always have with you…”?   

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Of course, before Jesus tells us the parable we heard today about the rich fool, He first says this: 

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.

Even if several people in America have argued that greed can be seen as a good thing – driving capitalism and finally, counter-intuitively, raising the “standard of living” for everyone as a “rising tide lifts all boats” – this is a relatively new opinion in world history. 

Most cultures throughout time have, of course, seen greed as something quite bad. 

And as regards possessions and wealth specifically, arguably the most well-known philosopher in the Western world, Plato, had a definite opinion, saying: 

“The beauty of proportionality that has led one on, because one loves it, would cause one to abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else… [This happens when] the impersonally sublime is internalized into personal virtue…” (Plato at the Googleplex, p. 392, 393, see Gorgias 507e-508a, Philebus 64e, and Timaeus 47b-c)

I mean, it is not just Plato. So many men and women see the basic inequality in the world – the lack of “proportionality” regarding possessions, let’s say for now – and they simply know something is wrong and want to fix it… 

How though? 

Well, there are some pretty creative ideas out there… Have you heard about “prospect research” and “wealth screening”? 

What’s that? 

Well, I’ll get to that in a minute, but for now we’ll say these are things many non-profit institutions in America, for example, do…

And what are non-profit institutions? 

There are a number of non-profit organizations in the world devoted to any number of causes – some are Christian, some are more secular, and some of them are decidedly post-Christian or against Christianity. Many of them seem good on the face of it. 

I am sure you can think about many of them, perhaps many that you have supported. The Red Cross, World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children… 

Many of these organizations are interested in assisting those with little, who are “down and out”… lending people a hand, helping folks get a leg up, making opportunities or things more equitable, as we say today, as much as they can…

Some want certain kinds of people or groups in certain circumstances to have more opportunities to succeed, for example. 

Sometimes this means things like scholarships for hard-working individuals and sometimes this means long-term programs, “long marches through ”, that are really geared towards changing the way that society works – and that will work towards achieving more similar “outcomes” for this or that social group… 

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In any case, back to “prospect research” and “wealth screening”. What are these?

Well, let’s do “Wealth screening” first. As one site assisting non-profits puts it: 

“Wealth screening is a way that organizations assess their donors’ assets to learn how much they can give. This information informs how much your organization should request when making an ask.”

Of course, as another website puts it: 

“[j]ust because a donor has the capacity or wealth to donate to charity, it doesn’t mean they have the willingness or affinity for giving.”

This brings us to the importance of  “prospect research which: 

“…is a technique used by fundraisers, development teams, and nonprofit organizations to learn more about their donors’ personal backgrounds, past giving histories, wealth indicators, and philanthropic motivations to evaluate a prospect’s ability to give (capacity) and warmth (affinity) toward an organization.”

So, finally, what are the brass tacks of how you really can find out who to ask? 

  • Use publicly available data on “wealth markers”: a person’s demographic location (and with this their estimated household income), business affiliations, club or group memberships, real estate ownership, political donations (FEC.gov), their participation in auctions, whether they serve as a foundation trustee, their stock holdings (SEC.gov), their clients, their social media profile, and their full employment history. Analyze, analyze, analyze!
  • Also, as you seek to “track each stage of the major gift cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship process” be sure to try to take into consideration their past giving as well as its recency and frequency, their giving to other organizations, their patterns of support, and the potential appeal to them of “getting a match” for any of their donations.
  • And… be winsome, wise, strategic, about how you target encounters with major prospects at things like fundraising dinners or other networking opportunities. If you can get to know their peers and friends who’d be willing to do the ask on your behalf this possibility should certainly be considered! 

One company brags of a novel solution to do this important work of targeting and tailoring donation solicitations from constituents who are wealthier: 

“[we have] proprietary techniques to screen as many as 25 different data sources to identify donor assets which are combined into a simple donor giving-potential score that can be used to drive targeting and ask levels…”  

Is this a good way to try and make the world a better place? More fair? Just a good tool for the toolbox, so to speak?

What should we think about this? 

When the book of James talks about not showing favoritism to the rich who attend one’s congregation or Jesus speaks of the overriding value of the widow’s mite, how should this impact our own thinking about matters of wealth and possessions and our approach towards others who have them?  

Whatever you feel or think – or suspect we all should feel or think! – about “prospect research” and “wealth screening”, they certainly cause me to think a lot more about my late grandfather’s massive donations to a Christian University… which was facilitated through one of these fundraisers… 

Whether one is trying to earn money or secure donations, whether one is trying to purchase possessions or seeking to distribute them more equally…

…we are certainly challenged by mammon, that is, worldly wealth, and its tests and temptations.

With many sins, they are obvious. Often however, with things like possessions and greed, the answers do not come to us so easily… they seem less than obvious! 

I just want to point out that even Jesus didn’t seem to want to get involved with personal disputes over money: 

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 

So, what does it mean to trust God regarding all of this?

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Do you question yourself regarding issues of wealth and possessions often? 

If not, why not?

Jesus isn’t going to pry or force His way in here, it seems, but that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t want us to reflect on these matters…

And yes, as we do this we should guard against envy and greed, but we should also recognize that it was not only the philosopher Plato who had these ideas about the appropriateness of men being somewhat proportionate regarding one another…

Let’s look, for example, at what Paul says to the Corinthians about giving in 2 Cor. 8:

“….since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little…”

Paul is doing some serious fundraising here, isn’t he? And his approach sounds a bit like Plato’s here doesn’t it? 

Nevertheless, let’s not turn the Apostle Paul into a contemporary, full-blown social justice warrior just yet. 

First note that he gives us some sense of what he means by equality, equity, fairness or proportionality (all potential translations for the Greek term): he references God’s gift of manna to the Israelites in the desert, and says that when they worked to gather “[t]he one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little…”

Also, note that even as Paul is asking for financial help for the Jerusalem church quite vigorously and appealing to them to “put the ball in the hoop” so to speak, he is still asking, not demanding, nor, of course, forcing anything…

In like fashion, we also note that this “ask” on Paul’s part is in fact not an ongoing thing… Basically, this special need arises at one time, in particular circumstances, where out-of-the-ordinary needs have presented themselves and need to be tackled…

In a venerable book from the mid-nineteenth century, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers, we read:

“Christians should contribute liberally while they have the means. In the vicissitudes of life no one can tell how soon he may be unable to contribute, or may even be dependent on the charity of others himself. A change in the commercial world; losses by fire or at sea; lack of success in business; loss of health, and the failure of his plans, may soon render him unable to aid the cause of benevolence. While he is prospered he should embrace every opportunity to do good to all. Some of the most painful regrets which people ever have, arise from the reflection that when prospered they were indisposed to give to benefit others, and when their property is swept away they become unable. God often sweeps away the property which they were indisposed to contribute to aid others, and leaves them to penury and want. Too late they regret that they were not the liberal patrons of the objects of benevolence when they were able to be…

Every Christian brother should bear his due proportion….”

This is both convicting and helps us to be wary of those who would use Paul’s words to in effect demand some sort of absolute equality, and hence major “leveling” of society…

It is not so much that all those who long for some kind of “socialist” or “communist” solution are evil… their impulse is exactly right in a lot of ways…

As a co-worker attempting to explain things to me this past week said, “Everything is out of balance….”

“Some are successful…. higher than other men. Of course though, compared with another, they are relatively unsuccessful….”

And sometimes the “out of balance” is out of all proportion. Recently hearing about the insanity of NFL quarterback Tom Brady making $135.00 every 30 seconds comes to mind also…

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People succumb to greed and then there always appears to be a reaction….

Where history consistently teaches us that others — many who are perhaps genuinely troubled and rightly concerned about an extreme lack of proportionality — succumb to the envy that goes hand in hand with the coveting and greed that inevitably leads to thievery… perhaps even as “governments” more akin to mafias are formed and corporate robbery is the result…. 

So, in a sense, it all comes back to coveting and greed, which the Apostle Paul reminds us is idolatry…

Luther talked about how temptation was like the birds over our heads. 

We can not prevent them from flying over us but we are able to prevent them from making nests in our hair….

But we seem to not only enjoy bird-watching, but getting as close to them as we possibly can….

And even when human nature wants to correct things related to the problems of greed…. it is like we can’t escape the circle and circular motion we are trapped in….

No, in the end, Communism is no answer…. 

It is simply that Communists underestimate the evils of human nature… 

Nevertheless, might some socialistic-kinds-of-things be possible here or there? Where people by genuine mutual consent agree to share their possessions?

I don’t see why not. At the same time, it is one thing for a mature congregation or maybe even a group of such congregations, fueled by deep and thoughtful Christian love, to somewhat pull this off — and even then, perhaps just for a season or two when it is most needed…

It is another thing to think that this can be done by unregenerate men and women without force – without cracking a whole lot of eggs to make an omelet.

All attempts at and forms of socialism have thus far degraded into this or that form of tyranny…

The word “Utopia”, coined in the early 16th century, literally means “nowhere” for a reason. 

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Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes come to mind here as well: “This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind…”

This could also be translated as: “this also is vanity and vexation of spirit”.

What Solomon means to say is that those who operate according to the wisdom of the world – including those who think that they can solve all the problems of disproportionality – will inevitably be frustrated, annoyed, and worried in their spirit.

But things are worse. Damnably worse. The world does not see the real extent of the problem at all.

The bigger issue, of course – and one that the world fixated on wealth, possessions and inequality often does not see – is that this is a very deep spiritual issue.

One that ultimately affects not only our communities but each and every individual as he or she stands naked before God.  

Yes – this goes straight to the heart of our relationship with God…. 

Cue Proverbs: 

Keep falsehood and lies far from me;

    give me neither poverty nor riches,

    but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you

    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’

Or I may become poor and steal,

    and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8,9)

The Bible is not always easy to understand when it comes to the matter of rich and poor, the importance of possessions, or just what it would mean for us to pursue equality… as Paul admirably does on behalf of the Jerusalem church… Even Jesus, after all, talks about some having responsibility for more cities (mansions?) in heaven than others…

Looking at things more closely, the book of James, even if it is written to a particular congregation, really does seem intent to carve up the world into two primary categories, the rich and the poor… The book of Luke also gives the impression of this as well, further indicating this distinction is important…

And even though the Bible ultimately wants to talk about the importance of spiritual poverty – being “poor in spirit” which means being rich in God’s blessing – it also more often identifies these as being associated with the materially poor and not the materially rich.

In like fashion, it is very clear about how easily we can deceive ourselves, thinking that material blessings, temporal possessions, blessings in this world, inevitably come as a result of our own personal goodness, or perhaps simply all the good that we have done in the world with the help of God’s Holy Spirit!

The beginning of the book of Revelation, for example, contains this striking line for the church in Laodicia: 

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked….”

Let that sink in.

One commentator, Wilson, says: “There is only one thing worse than being wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked, and that is to be all five of those things and add to it the sixth misery of not [realizing it].”

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Speaking of Ecclesiastes’ “This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind…”, Martin Luther said this: 

“In short, the pious truly possess the whole world, because they enjoy it with happiness and tranquility. But the impious do not possess it even when they have it. This is the vanity which the impious possess…”  (comments at the end of chapter 2)[xii]

That is some wisdom. 

Luther is just echoing the Apostle Paul here: Christians… “even while having nothing, possess everything (cf. 2 Cor. 6:10)” (44)

“….sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything…”

Money, alternatively, hides God from a man… (What Luther Says, 975), Luther says…

The world will be stubborn, caught in life’s faith-destroying riches, cares, and pleasures. Feeding the lust of the flesh, the eyes, and the pride of life….

Never acknowledging the truth of God…

We are all so very poor…. And God wants us to know this…. 

To be poor in spirit….

This past week, not a few days ago, I was on the job and noticed someone had affixed a sticker to the back of a road sign we were driving past….

“You honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me….” — Jesus

That was familiar, to be sure. But Jesus had said this to who? I couldn’t remember….

The Pharisees, after all, did not honor Him with their lips.

As such, the statement on the sticker seemed more relevant to those who did honor Him with their lips at least… Feeling particularly aware of my shortcomings at that moment, I certainly was feeling convicted!

But who else did he speak this to, actually, in the Scriptures? I was ashamed — convicted here also! — that I could not remember the context of this verse… the verse itself had, I guess has… been far from me….

Truly, how little I know God’s word! How little I know Him….

And then I remembered: I thought this was a quote from Isaiah, and that Jesus had indeed quoted it to the Pharisees to show them that just as their hearts were far from Him, so it was in Isaiah’s day with His Father, whose voice was in fact His also!

As I found out later on, I wasn’t exactly right — in Matthew 15, Jesus was in fact confronting the Pharisees about nullifying God’s commands in favor of their own traditions, interestingly, traditions that were to their financial advantage! — but the primary point is that when one is hid in Christ some of His word is hidden in our hearts as well and hence here God’s Holy Spirit had both convicted me and comforted me — by bringing His word to remembrance, within the span of about five minutes….

Speaking of which, our time on earth is short….

The man in our parable did not have anything like this full experience… 

His heart was set on worldly things. Rejecting God’s work, he did not attend to the matters of his soul, spiritual matters…. 

Other matters, he foolishly thought, were more urgent….

My brothers and sisters, do you hear? Can you see? The end draws near! The Lord approaches!

The time is now.

In James 4 we read: 

“Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil….”

Indeed. And to Whom can we go? 

Worry not, fear not, distrust not… For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions, but the One who possesses you, who is your very life!!!

For as we heard in Colossians 3:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Amen

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2022 in Uncategorized

 

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