While Jesus is teaching a crowd of people, someone asks him to settle a dispute about an inheritance. Jesus refuses to act as a judge in the dispute, and uses the occasion to warn the crowd against all forms of greed or covetousness. He then illustrates what he means by telling a story about a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. The man decided to build large barns to store his grain and other goods. And he thought about the future day when he would say to himself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, and be merry!” But God said to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you.” The story is a warning for all who store up treasure for themselves, but are not rich in what matters to God.
Jesus’ teaching about the deadly sin of covetousness is at the heart of the biblical tradition. David Noel Freedman, in his recent book The Nine Commandments, contends that the first nine books of the bible after Genesis tell how Israel from the Exodus to the Exile violated all Ten Commandments and as a consequence suffered God’s just punishment: Exodus (idolatry), Leviticus (taking God’s name in vain), Numbers (keeping the Sabbath), Deuteronomy (honoring parents), Joshua (stealing), Judges (murder), 1 and 2 Samuel (adultery), 1 and 2 Kings (false witness). Covetousness (the tenth commandment) is the motivating force behind the violation of all the commandments. (This summary is from a review by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., America, March 12, 2001.)
Today’s homily could use examples from any of these books to deepen the understanding of Jesus’ warning against covetousness. Genesis, particularly the first eleven chapters, also shows how deadly a sin covetousness is. Here the truths that Israel had learned the hard way through the events of its history are revealed to be true for all humanity. Just as covetousness was the motivating force of Israel’s violation of the Ten Commandments, so it was also the motivation of Adam and Eve’s violation of the commandment God had given to them. The covetousness was expressed in their desire to be like gods. In the account we can also see the connection between covetousness and fear. Sensing their fear of death, Satan had said to Eve, “You certainly will not die.” Their fear it seems impelled them to the covetousness that was their downfall.
Covetousness also seems to have made Adam and Eve forget about God as they were about to eat the fruit. They also forgot that they already were like God—created in the divine image and likeness to live and be creative in their beautiful garden of Eden. There is no suggestion of a rebellious, satanic “I will not serve” in the Genesis story of the Fall. Afterwards, God’s response seems to be more disappointment than anger, much like the father of the prodigal son who was so covetous of an illusory good life. It is easy to relate to these universal human experiences in our culture of mass production and advertising. We readily succumb to the fear of being “nobodies” and are stimulated to covet all sorts of things that the “somebodies” have, foolishly forgetting what God might think about the matter. Covetousness seems to engender covetousness in others. It is thus not only the original sin, but it is also an originating sin.
Covetousness is a deadly sin because it causes us to forget about God, at times to the point of idolatry (Col 3:5). It also causes us to forget about other people except in resentment or envy. Notice that in Jesus’ parable, the rich man thinks only of himself—taking it easy, eating, drinking and having a good time. He does not say to himself, “Now that I have all this money, I will feed the hungry, help the widows and orphans, and give my farm-workers a raise.” If he had desired to do such things for others, he would have been rich in what matters to God. “The love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10). Money, on the other hand, at the service of love is the root of countless good things. It takes money to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, do scientific research, or start a business. That love is a good kind of coveting.
At our Eucharist today we might pray that our lives will not be foolish, but will always be in harmony with God’s wisdom. In that wisdom, we can work and live without anxiety even though we realize that this night our life may be demanded of us.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.