Greed and Gratitude

23 October 2006: Monday of the 29th Week in Ordinary Time
Ephesians 2, 1-10, Psalm 100, Luke 12, 13-21: Greed and Gratitude

The introduction in the daily missal paraphrase Luke Timothy Johnson’s comment that Luke in the Gospel today grasps astutely the function of material possessions in human life. That greed expresses a certain fear, a massive insecurity that seeks to secure life with many possessions.

A person who is greedy is first of all selfish. The rich fool in the parable was so self-centered that he could not see anything beyond himself and his world. In the parable, the rich fool’s dialogue has so many of these pronouns: I, my, mine, and myself. He was so full of himself. He fills his emptiness with material possessions which actually does not totally satisfy him --- proof, he always asks for more. A reporter once asked the elder Rockefeller, “How much money does it take to satisfy a person?” The billionaire snapped back, “Always a little more!” It is like taking softdrinks: the more you drink, the thirstier you become. The satisfaction is immediate, but it does not last.

Second, the greedy person plans on the basis of this world --- never investing on the next. The rich fool is concerned with storing his harvest, and plans to build larger storehouses, even if it means tearing his present barns apart. He puts everything in, so that he can rest and enjoy it for himself in the years to come. He does not concern himself with lasting things: sharing it, so that he builds lasting friendships and relationships; giving it to those in need, so that he is able to help others find new hope in the future. There was once a woman who asked a bank to open a joint account. When asked if the account would be with her husband, she replied, “Oh no, couldn’t I have one with someone who has lots of money?” The rich fool always thinks of a profitable venture that is lucrative only to himself.

What is then the solution for our greed? St. Paul in the first reading tells us to look at life as a gift of God, and that all things are grace, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” Thus, to take life as a gift is a counter-attack on our tendency to acquire as much material possessions as possible to fill what is lacking and empty in us. First, if greed is self-centered, gratitude is self-giving. When we are grateful to another person, our tendency is to return the favor. The pronouns changes into something tender and selfless, “You and yours.” It also means to honestly see what one has and be satisfied with what has been given --- not looking for what is not there. It is life, lived simply. To take what is just enough and necessary.

Second, if the person lives according to this world, the person who gives back acknowledges the Giver. His life is now founded on his love for God. The responsorial psalm says, “The Lord has made us, and we belong to him.” There is a traditional prayer that many Christians recite which has acquired many forms. But all these prayers are all in gratitude and in acknowledgement that everything has been given by God. It is the grace before meals. Protestants pray, “Lord, we thank you for this food, and we ask you to bless it for the nourishment of our minds and our bodies in your service.” Catholics pray, “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.” and end with, “We give you thanks, almighty God, for all your benefits, who live and reign, forever and ever. Amen.”

Our Christian faith has offered this prayer so that we may move from a greedy person to a grateful person. Prayers before and after meals have been passed on from the Jewish life and the early Christians at the beginning of blessings at supper, and encouraged by the early Church fathers such as Tertullian (2 AD) who writes, “But withal, it becomes believers not to take food, and not to go to the bath, before interposing a prayer, for the refreshments and nourishments of the spirit are to be held prior to those of the flesh, and things heavenly prior to things earthly.” And thus, since the beginning, these simple table prayer helps to build our lives not on things earthly but heavenly.

Perhaps, if you think that your greed is still difficult to overcome, do what GK Chesterton did: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink.” If we do this, I think we can prevent ourselves from becoming rich fools. More importantly, we have prayed. Spirituality has it, that gratitude is the heart of prayer.

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