Proper 20 ~ Lectionary Year A ~ September 21, 2008
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
The love of money is the root of all evil
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
Sometimes the calendar and lectionary present us with an uncanny coincidence, such as the current economic disaster just when the lectionary draws our attention to what might be called the political economy of the Kingdom of God. So then, it is the preacher’s job to interpret the connection. And just in case that were not “coincidence” sufficient to capture one’s attention, today happens to be the Feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, and before that a greedy tax-collector . Those of us old enough to remember the old Prayerbook may be astounded to recall the old collect for St. Matthew ~ inexplicably replaced in the 1979 revision ~ which prays for grace to forsake all covetous desires, and inordinate love of riches.
Money is nothing, as recent events invite us once again to learn. Money is nothing but credit – someone’s promise to pay you something. In itself it is worthless, so the love of money, for its own sake is just insane. But even when it is treated rationally, as a symbol for wealth and a medium of exchange, it is dangerous. So dangerous that the old Prayerbook appoints a special prayer for deliverance from it on Septemeber 21, today, for grace to forsake all covetous desires and inordinate love of riches. But the whole financial system is based on covetous desires and the inordinate love of riches. Maybe that is why the 1979 revision axed the old collect, which was left over from pre-modern times, before the triumph of capitalism and the paradigm shift that turned greed into a virtue.
Let’s look at that term, inordinate love. We take “inordinate” to mean “extreme” or “excessive” or “undue”. But it is always good to look at deeper connotations. Something inordinate is out of order. It is not fulfilling its function. It is not pointed toward its proper end. Instead, it is pulling in the opposite direction. It is disorderly or disordered. Something that is inordinate is itself a disorder, a kind of pathology, a tendency toward the opposite of order, toward chaos, toward nothingness, toward death. Does that mean that there can be such a thing as a due or proper love of riches? Or a love of riches that is NOT a disorder? I don’t think so. This expression is a redundancy, a rhetorical device intended to emphasize that ALL love of riches is a spiritual disorder, in a word, a SIN, which we pray for the grace to forsake, as did the Holy Apostle Matthew.
It is a sin because it is a disastrous and death-dealing mistake: the illusion that I own anything. Anything at all. When the fact is that everything belongs to God, and that what we “have” we enjoy only as a temporary gift. The idea of private property is problematical for Christians. And although we have come to accept it, officially, as an instrument of human betterment, it is always just that ~ instrumental and provisional and secondary, never an end in itself . The fathers of the Church uniformly rejected it, and St. Ambrose of Milan, the great teacher of St. Augustine of Hippo, went so far as to say that the notion of private property IS ITSELF original sin ~ the very essence of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Our mythical first parents enjoyed the inexhaustible riches of the Reign of God, but they decided that they wanted to OWN them, and that inordinate desire put them outside God’s Reign, and subjected us to death.
Those who would save their life shall lose it,
And this past week we have before our eyes a recapitulation of that sorry event: the inordinate love of riches again resulting in death, or very near to it. Thursday night the Treasury Secretary had to call an emergency all-night summit meeting to keep the American economy from dying. Because that is what the “financial melt-down” that everyone is talking about actually means: world-wide depression in which a great many people die. We will probably find out next week whether the desperate, trillion-dollar effort to avert this very possible catastrophe will work. The love of money is, indeed, the root of all evil.
The modern world is not the first time human beings have made greed into a virtue. Let us consider the laborers of today’s parable. At first glance, they were justified in their outrage: why should they not get more than the lucky few who worked only an hour, when they had borne the heat of the day and produced the bulk of the wealth? It just doesn’t seem fair. They didn’t care for the Reign of God, which Jesus says is like the behavior of the Landlord. They were, in a word, GREEDY. The consciousness of each was entirely focused on himself as an individual and not on the common good. They thought the wealth of the vineyard ought to be distributed according to work, and not according to need. The poor workers who had been overlooked and invited to work in the vineyard only at the eleventh hour, after all, had just as much need for the riches of the economy as those who had worked from the first hour. They too had families to support, children who would go hungry without the just, living wage the Landlord had promised the first workers. But those workers thought only of themselves.
Notice that the Landlord was not cheating the first workers: they were getting just what they contracted for and (in some cases) more. It was, presumably a fair, prevailing wage – union scale. Everything they and their families needed .But they could not stand the idea that the wealth of the earth and human industry is for everyone and that if someone is needy, they have a right to life-sustaining goods, no matter how much they produce.
In other words, they had no sense of solidarity with the later workers. They did not consider that they were all in the same boat. They regarded the wealth of the Vineyard (the economy) not as something rightfully intended to be shared by all, to be divided up according to need, but as something that belonged to them because they happened to be in the right place at the right time. It was the first-called who were the lucky ones, and their sense of entitlement was based on nothing more than their own good luck. But if the later workers were going to get what they needed, too, despite not having worked as much, then, by God, the first-called wanted even more. They were greedy, and they said it was only fair. Like our own era, they turned greed into a virtue.
But greed isn’t a virtue. It is a vice – a capital or deadly sin, even. That same old Prayerbook has a prayer for All Christian Rulers, which rather sternly requested God’s guidance that they might “punish wickedness and vice.” A later revision changed it to “restraint of wickedness and vice”, but it amounts to the same thing. Greed is a vice that needs to be restrained ~ REGULATED in other words. The function of the Sovereign is to protect society from, among other things, our own vicious greed. If we are going to have an economy driven by self-interest and ambition and desire for more (covetousness), then it has to be adequately regulated by the government ~ the vices have to be restrained by the Sovereign. This is a principle of political economy.
It may well be that the Gospel ~ as one often hears ~ has no particular blueprint for social change or plan for improvement. But it does offer some principles of political economy, which the Gospel calls the Reign of God. We hear one of them today. The Reign of God is like a Landlord who had a Vineyard….
The wealth of the Vineyard is for everybody, not just the lucky few.
O ALMIGHTY God, who by thy blessed Son didst call Matthew from the receipt of custom to be an Apostle and Evangelist; Grant us grace to forsake all covetous desires, and inordinate love of riches, and to follow the same thy Son Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.