March 9, 2014
First Readings Luke 12:15-21
And Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Aligheri Dante’s Inferno, from Canto vii translated by Robert Pinsky
How is it that we choose to sin and wither?
Like waves above Charybdis, each crashing apart
Against the one it rushes to meet, here gather
People who hurry forward till they must meet
And dance their round. Here I saw more souls
Than elsewhere, spreading far to the left and right:
Each pushes a weight against his chest and howls
At his opponent each time that they clash:
“Why do you squander?” and “Why do you hoard?” Each wheels
To roll his weight back round again: they rush
Toward the circle’s opposite point, collide
Painfully once more, and curse each other afresh;
And after that refrain each one must head
Through his half-circle once again, to his next joust.
When Dante and Virgil arrive at this 4th circle of hell they encounter Plutus, the Greek god of Wealth, now a demon spouting nonsense words about Pope Satan. Virgil calls Plutus “the accursed wolf”. I wonder if Scorsese had canto vii in mind when he named his most recent movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” with its telling of one man whose life looks very much like curse of the people we meet in Dante’s hell.
Imagine the scene. Well, you don’t have to imagine too much because we’ve included a painting by Giovanni Stradano. You can see Dante and Virgil there and these people in what Dante describes as a round dance – although nothing like the kind that John and Ethel do Fridays and Mondays. Instead of live partners these dancers have partnered with dead boulders. They have to make their partner dance — they strain to push their dance-mates at the boulders of the other dancers. They crash against each other as waves moving from opposite directions might crash against each other, except that nothing ever breaks – not the stones and not the people.
As they ram each they are yelling. One screams “Why do you hoard?” and the other screams “Why do you squander?” Then they promenade away with their great burdens preparing to circle and then crash and yell again. And again. And again. And that is all they know and will ever know.
The dance music might be that song from the musical “Cabaret” – Money makes the world go around, The world go around, The world go around, Money makes the world go around, It makes the world go ’round. A mark, a yen, a buck, or a pound, A buck or a pound, A buck or a pound, Is all that makes the world go around, That clinking clanking sound, Can make the world go ’round. As the back-up singers sing: Money money money money money money .… There isn’t anything else.
The outcome is that a life circled around money and the stuff it buys creates a soul that is forever constrained by a burden and a battle. A game that can never be won or lost, just the perpetual effort at moving the burden of stuff – of money acquired and money spent. In life these damned lacked all moderation and so their rock – money, the stuff they would spend it on – eclipsed the light of God. You cannot serve God and mammon. It also eclipses the life of others. And all the greedy could see of other people were their rocks – their money, their spending. Therefore, the round dance: pushing, crashing, yelling:
Why do you hoard? So that you can spend?
Why do you spend? So that you can hoard?
Life reduced to this.
Psychologist Erich Fromm described greed as “a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”
It is an ancient and contemporary temptation. Jesus talked more money than anything else except the kingdom of God. Eleven of his 39 parables were about money. Most of the prophets and many poets have described it’s soul-sucking influence. The English poet William Wordsworth wrote:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
Yet we are being sold this bill of goods all the time. The temptation is too much with us. When the commercials asks “how will we manage our wealth?” they assumes that wealth is the norm, what average people should expect from life. Another recent commercial suggests that $1 million will not be enough money for retirement. At least to maintain our standard of living.
What does it mean when we talk about living as having a standard? Isn’t it true that when we talk about a “standard of living” we mean money and what it buys. This then becomes the measure life, the same measure used in the 4th circle of hell. The phrase “standard of living” asks is “how big is your boulder?”
What do you imagine Jesus would mean by that phrase? Standard of living. What yardstick to measure what is valuable in a life?
Dante shows another sin in this picture of these damned ones. Jeff Vamos, my colleague at Lawrenceville Presbyterian, wrote about it this way in the blog “DailyDante”: “sin comes in pairs – the opposite version of the same sin. [hoarding and wasting] Aristotelian that he is, Dante shows that one of the sinister aspects of sin is that its nature is to cloak itself by accusation of the other. To be guilty of one extreme is not the real sin; the real sin is to seek to cover oneself by showing another to be worse than you.”
Which is the trap of this sermon, perhaps. Because we have considered the sin of others whether they are those who hoard or those who waste, whether they are the ones who hoard and waste. But the work of Lent is to consider the log in our eyes. So our work is to ponder these questions:
First: What is our standard for living?
Then: What is our standard of living?