Building Bigger Barns: The dangers of greed

“I ain’t never seen a hearse with a luggage rack.” The words of this country song, even if not expressed with the grammatical cohesion that one could desire for the English language, ring true. Our earthly possessions are good for just that, for our life on earth, and that alone. At the end of our lives they will be to us like an expired gift card, the source of only frustration.

Such would be the case of the man in the parable told by our Lord in the Gospel today, whose big, new barns are left not as a testament to his honor or success but rather as a testimony to his folly. He says to himself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God says, in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, “You fool … Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Take care to guard against all greed.

So what, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is greed? One of the seven capital or deadly sins, greed is the excessive love of possessing riches, and the emphasis here is on excessive. We all have a natural and good desire to possess things because possessing material things is necessary for ensuring our own survival and the good standing of our families. God gave us the good and natural desires that we need in order to gives us the instincts necessary to support ourselves and those who rely upon us. But just because a desire is natural does not mean that all of its urges are good for us. We all have a natural desire to eat, but we know that we must regulate the quantity and kinds of food and the frequency with and the time at which we eat it, or else we are liable to become unhealthy. We have a natural desire for knowledge, but we know that at times we must restrain our desire to ask imprudent questions lest we offend our neighbors and make it hard to live in polite society.

This need to moderate our legitimate desires is obscured for us by a culture that, especially through the medium of advertising, tells us that all pleasures are to be pursued at all times. This movement of our society reduces you to what is most base and animal in you, an instinctive search for pleasure. You, though, as made in the image and likeness of God, are called to more than living on the level of animals. It is through your reason that God made you like Himself, and He greatly desires that you use that reason in order to regulate your natural desires in order to direct them to the higher purpose for which He made them. When you subject that which is lower in yourself to that which is higher, you live in a way that is more fully human, and while it might mean sacrificing your short-term happiness, it will ensure your long-term fulfillment, both in this life and in the life to come.

With the question of our natural desire for material possessions as opposed to things like food and bodily pleasure, the difficult comes in determining to what degree we ought to curb these desires. This is a very difficult question because it has to do with considerations that each person or family must make with regards to their own situation in life. No one could ever set an income level that is in itself inappropriate for a Christian. For this reason, the Church has never condemned the possession even of great riches. The point is not how much money one has, but what one does with the material goods one has, and how affected he is by the desire for more. Greed is not a vice only of the wealthy – we are all subject to its temptations.

Since we cannot set arbitrary limits on what is greedy and what is not, the best way to know if one is possessed of the vice of greed is to look at its effects. One of the classical effects of greed is restlessness. Today’s Old Testament lesson tells us of the greedy person, “All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.” Do you find yourself thinking about money all day, or losing sleep over it at night? Of course, there are times where people find themselves in very difficult situations with regards to their finances, and so this worry can be understandable, but when one objectively has a certain deal of financial security yet still is plagued by worries about money, the vice of greed may be stealing your peace.

Another effect of greed is ostentatiousness. The ostentatious person is not content to have material possessions, but she must make it known to others as well. Such was the case of the rich man in our Lord’s parable in the Gospel. Faced with the great blessing of an abundant harvest, he needs more place to store his excess grain. The sensible thing to do in this circumstance would be to construct a temporary building to house this year’s abnormally large harvest. But the man, infected by the vice of greed, is not content to add a small building to his property. Rather, he decides to tear down his barns wastefully and build new, bigger ones. Why would he do such a thing? Surely, so that everyone else could see the size of his barns and be impressed by his wealth.

This vice of ostentatiousness might seem to affect only the very rich, those who build mansions and drive flashy cars. But quite to the contrary, it can affect us all. It suffices that one merely have more than someone else. Even if one drives a Chevy instead of a Lexus, the temptation might still exist to show off in front of your less economically successful sibling who must content himself with a rusted, old vehicle. It is present in the teenager who makes a calculated and pointed comment to his friend, “Oh, I didn’t realize that anyone still had the iPhone 4.” Ostentatiousness is a part of greed because it shows that we are infected by an immoderate desire for more possessions. When we can’t obtain those possessions, we then content ourselves with flaunting the fact that we at least have more than others. This has a toxic effect on friendships and relations within families. I will be blunt: if you have friends who are using you as an occasion to flaunt their material possessions, find new friends. You do not need that kind of temptation to jealousy.

There is a second problem with the man who builds bigger barns, which is that he is self-congratulatory. Look at what he tells himself: “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!” Compare that with how our Lord sets the scene: “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest.” Whose land produced a bountiful harvest. It is not that he employed a new and innovative technique that enriched his lands’ yields, or that he worked particularly hard this year; rather, he was fortunate to enjoy favorable growing conditions as sometimes happen, and this year enjoyed the fruits of such good weather. Notice what he did not do: At no point did our rich man give thanks to God for the abundance he had received. This is an important mark of the greedy person: He considers first not the duty to gratitude, but rather his first thought is his own material improvement. If you find that when you do have some extra money, your first thought is not of giving thanks to God for this blessing, but rather the way in which you will spend it, you may be committing the sin of greed.

The third problem with this rich man is related to the second: When faced with the excess of crops his first thought is to how he is to keep them to himself, rather than to share some of this excess with others. When we are blessed with material goods beyond what we need to satisfy our needs, we have a particular obligation to share them with others. Those who do not share their goods with those less fortunate than themselves are very likely to be greedy.

My brothers and sisters, what, then, is the solution to greed? What are we to do when we find ourselves affected by this disordered and intemperate desire for material possessions? As we know from the Gospel, the surest remedy to this vice is to completely divest ourselves of possessions. This was our Lord’s advice to the rich young man who desired to be perfect: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.” However, as I have explained, even the most abject poverty does not exclude one entirely from temptations to greed, and the obligations of life mean that the Lord does not call everyone to this state of perfection as lived out by religious who take a vow of poverty. So what are the rest of us to do?

There are three principle solutions to the vice and sin of greed, and I promise you that I won’t spend as much time on the solutions as I already have on the problem. They are generosity, conscientiousness, and humility.

Generosity: This is the clearest and most effective solution to greed. Giving of our material goods to those less fortunate and to the Church – as the Sacred Scriptures teach us, 10% of our income – disciplines our will and strengthens us in good habits of generosity. Related to this is the basic task of budgeting, and including our provisions for generosity in that budget. Having a clear, thoughtful, and realistic budget helps to avoid those sleepless nights and helps us to rely on God because we can see how he is providing for us. If you are not currently being generous to the Church or those less fortunate with your material resources because the money just isn’t there, a well-planned budget is the first step towards being able to live out the virtue of generosity.

Conscientiousness: What I mean by this long word is this: Avoiding the vice of greed means ensuring that our actions in the economic sphere promote just outcomes for all people involved. For those who own or run a business, this means asking yourself whether the people you employ make a just wage on which they can support themselves and their families, answering God’s call to welcome children generously into their families. Do you have family-friendly policies that enable your employees to fulfill their vocations as fathers and mothers? Or are you more concerned with your bottom line? These are the most serious sins against greed because of the real harm they work upon other people, and they require that we work to make up the wrong that we have done to others if we have committed them.

These questions are not just for those who own and run businesses. Every dollar you spend is a vote. Do you support businesses that treat their employees unjustly? Do you work at a business that treats other employees unjustly? We have a duty not only not to be greedy ourselves, but not to profit from the greed of others, even if they are able to offer us convenience and low prices. The cost to our brothers and sisters ought to be of more concern to us than the cost to our wallets.

Lastly, the solution of humility: This means contenting ourselves with what we have and making good use of our own material resources, rather than coveting those of others. It is a particular remedy to greed’s manifestation of ostentatiousness. If you find yourself struggling with the vice of ostentatiousness that I described earlier, seek to grow in humility, first by asking the Lord to increase this virtue in your soul, and then by seeking opportunities to be humble. Refrain from speaking first in conversations, trying to focus on others instead of on yourself. Volunteer for tasks that seem beneath you or that you find unpleasant. Avoid any sort of complaining at all times, even when it seems legitimate (unless it is necessary to prevent real harm to you or another person). Look at the crucifix on a regular basis and tell the Lord, “You are worth more to me than any material possession.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, the vice of greed is real, and we are all affected by it at times in our lives. But if we ask the Lord for the grace to be satisfied with our own material possessions and make provisions to be more generous, the power to overcome this vice is not outside our grasp. We may not seem as happy in the eyes of the world, but, having overcome the vices of greed and materialism, we will have a greater interior joy.

At this Holy Mass, our Lord will feed us with His very Body and Blood, a gift far more valuable than any material possession. This, the Most Holy Eucharist, should be our greatest treasure. It is the only one we will be able to take with us into the life to come, because it is divine life itself, the life of God within us. We can’t take it with us in a luggage rack, but we can take Him with us in our hearts.

The Rev Royce V Gregerson
Parish Church of St Charles Borromeo, Ft Wayne
XVIII Sunday through the Year, MMXVI