You may or may not have noticed, but I am not around this weekend. I am at the beach…sort of. This weekend, as we receive and welcome Father Ricky Bermas of the Diocese of Legazpi in the Philippines for our part in the Diocesan Mission Cooperative, St. Jerome’s of Largo is receiving me on behalf of Franciscan Mission Service (FMS).
FMS sends lay people on modern mission. As Franciscan followers of Christ, they build partnerships with Catholic women and men who are inspired to live and serve in solidarity with economically poor communities across the globe – and to bring the transformative experience of mission to North American societies and churches as advocates for peace, justice, reconciliation, and care of creation. Back in the day, I served with FMS in Kenya.
One of the transformative experiences lay missioners bring back when they return to life here in the United States is a perspective on a major theme in today’s Gospel: greed. Jesus himself tells us “Take care to guard against all greed.” To punctuate his point, Jesus told the parable of “the rich fool” who built bigger barns for his increasing wealth. His smugness has passed into our everyday lexicon: “Eat, drink, and be merry.” But he died suddenly, left his wealth to others, and never learned to be “rich towards God.”
Do you think of yourself as greedy? I suspect the answer is “no.” But how would you define greed? Biblically, greed is the desire to possess more than we need. We normally associate greed with money, but we can be greedy for many things — for prestige, invitations, food, fame, sex, or power. But then we are not the rich fool, are we? Well, is there something in your life for which you desire to possess more than you need? Do you expend energy in trying to fulfill that desire?
Take guard against greed and its horrible paradox — it’s never satisfied by what it desires. Rather, the opposite is true. John Cassian (b.360) noted that, “When money increases, the frenzy of covetousness intensifies.” He was talking about money, but I suggest it applies to more. Greed is insatiable: “It always wants more than a person can accumulate.”
The examples from the early Church do not indicate that the Church and its members were unconcerned about money and wealth, but that concern existed in a matrix apart from greed. Financial generosity was combined with social generosity. Personal piety and social justice weren’t separated. The early believers subverted normal social hierarchies of wealth, ethnicity, religion, and gender in favor of a radical egalitarianism before God and with each other.
Greed is psychologically complex. Cassian observed how monks who had renounced great wealth got angry over a small sum or a lost book. Monks who practiced renunciation agreed that the possession of money wasn’t the ultimate problem. What mattered most was one’s disposition, desires, or attitude. The renunciation of money is an outward sign of the more important inward struggle.
Saint Hesychios of the eighth century put it this way: “He who has renounced such things as marriage, possessions, and other worldly pursuits is outwardly a monk, but may not yet be a monk inwardly. Only he who has renounced the impassioned thoughts of his inner self is a true monk. It is easy to be a monk in one’s outer self if one wants to be; but no small struggle is required to be a monk in one’s inner self.”
Battling greed is no easier for a monk or more difficult for an investment banker. Jesus’s call to renounce greed is for all of us, not just a spiritual elite. How you do that is a personal and complex spiritual discipline based on God’s unique call on your life. The lay missioners of Franciscan Mission Service are in the process for figuring it out inspired by the example of St. Francis. Francis grew up the son of a rising and prosperous cloth merchant. The early Francis always desired far more than he needed. The later Francis grappled deeply with the invitation of Jesus to hold back nothing of himself for himself so that he could give himself to the One who gave Himself completely for him. And that’s the conversation not just of a summer weekend, but of an entire lifetime.