Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit has become a classic of fantasy books. The Hobbit’s plot couldn’t be more straightforward: A dragon dispossessed some dwarves of their mountain home and vast treasure hoard. Over the mountains and through the woods to Smaug’s house, we go. Kill the dragon, get the gold. It is the very essence of an adventure story. But it is how Tolkien describes reactions to the gold which is of interest. Bilbo the Hobbit “had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment … and he gazed motionless at the gold beyond price and count.” After the dragon has been slain, Thorin the dwarf prince barricades himself and his men into the mountain, fearing others will seek some portion of his gold. Tolkien describes that Thorin “did not reckon with the power that gold has upon” people’s hearts. “The lust of it was heavy on him,” Tolkien writes. He gives a name to this kind of insatiable lust for gold – this selfish greed – Dragon-sickness. It’s not just about the gold one craves to possess, but gold one believes he is owed. Nothing else occupies that person’s mind. And when that treasure has been acquired, it will be protected, and not one penny will be parted with.
Tolkien is a master storyteller and can show in story form how subtly greed can overpower our own hearts. And he isn’t the first to use the story format to talk about the dangers of greed. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus also uses a story to talk about the curse of greed.
I. The Nature of the Curse
Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd of several thousand when he was disrupted by an anonymous guy who was utterly obsessed with getting his portion of the family inheritance. But our Lord notices more than a legal dispute at work here. Getting your legal, fair share is not good when greed and dragon-sickness lurk behind it. So, Jesus issued a dire warning, which applies to us all: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness.” Greed is a curse. It is covetousness, that misplaced craving in the heart. Greed is a good desire gone wrong. It is our inordinate desire, our excessive love for wealth and possessions, money and the things money can buy — and even for self-esteem, security, status, and experiences. God made us need certain things. The problem of greed and covetousness is not that we want something but that our desires are misdirected and out of proportion.
Greed lurks in our hearts, and we don’t even notice. We might not see greed in our hearts when we walk the aisles of a store, are tempted to fudge our taxes, or consider how much to tip the waitress. We could be surfing on Amazon, flipping through a catalogue, or planning our retirement when it grips us. Our sinful and broken hearts swell in their desire for material things in a way that eclipses the God of heaven. Our epistle reading from Colossians says that greed is idolatry. (Col. 3:5) Have money or possessions become your god? Anything you fear, love, and trust in more than the Lord is your god. We have a deep, often irrational fear – the fear of one day not having enough. Regardless of how much wealth is squirreled away, this gnawing fear presses frail humans to acquire more. There is never quite enough because the insecurity within never dies. Do you fear the loss of income and stuff more than God’s wrath? Do you place more trust in your retirement package than in God’s provision for you? Beware of dragon-sickness. Do you hoard your wealth like a greedy dragon, or are you generous with it?
Jesus told a story about an already wealthy farmer who gets an unexpected bumper crop. He’d been blessed with just the right amount of rain and sun, no disease or pestilence, and huge yields. But there was no thought of sharing. What is his immediate idea? “What am I going to do with all this extra grain? I guess I’m just going to have to expand my storehouses. You know what? I’m really set here. I’m not going to have to work another day of my life. I’m going to retire young. Take it easy. I’m going to go relax at the beach, sip margaritas, and drive fancy cars.” This rich man is so filled with greed, so full of “dragon-sickness” that it simply never occurs to him that anyone other than himself could benefit from the surplus grain. The only person he can think about is himself. There was no thought for the poor, the ill, and the naked who were all around him. His stuff was his god. He trusted in things to bring him happiness and the fulfilment of all his desires. What would your reaction be if you suddenly came into a lot of money? Would you react like the rich man?
Do you have dragon-sickness? If you think that the cruse of greed is not in you, you’re in the gravest of danger. Greed is commonplace in our society. The craving for material things is strong, as strong as any drug or desire for pleasure. It keeps people up at night feverishly figuring out how to expand their barns, enlarge their portfolios, expand their earnings, well beyond what is needed for daily bread. It drives people to ruin, it destroys marriages, families, relationships. It eats way at the soul, corrodes faith, gets in the way of worship, and pierces the heart with many pangs and griefs. Greed is the fear, love, and trust in things above God. Marketing and advertising capitalize on your greed. They sell you a lifestyle. Ads often come with images of how much better your life will be with this product. There will be fun, romance, safety, security, memories, and good times. Eat, drink, be merry! You deserve it. Get yourself a little something. All are attempting to stir up that insatiable greed for more, dragon-sickness.
II. The Cure for the Curse
There is a cure for dragon-sickness, meaning greed and covetousness need not consume you. Jesus continues his story. What the rich man failed to consider, and we often fail to consider, is that life is on loan from God, and God can demand it back at any time. Everything we have, body and soul, eyes and ears, clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, is a gift from God. Yes, even our life is not our possession but a gift—on loan. Each day is a gift; for all this, it is our duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. “We give thee but thine own, what e’re the gift may be. All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.” (LSB 781:1).
But God has given us a gift far surpassing even our life and possessions. St. Paul reminded the Corinthian church about this gift. “You know the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake, he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Co 8:9. REB). Christ, the Son of God, came down from the glories and riches of heaven and became poor for your sake. He emptied himself of outward glory, laid aside earthly wealth, and walked the way of the cross for you. He came to purchase your salvation. The price was his precious holy blood. In that one self-sacrificial act at Calvary, Jesus dealt greed its deathblow. When he was nailed to the tree on the mountain, Jesus Christ our Lord defeated and ruined the real dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan. Jesus gave you the biggest treasure you could have: the forgiveness of sins. The dragon is defeated. The chains of death have been shattered with resurrection life. Now the grave has no more power over you. Now you have what it takes to pass the test on that night when your soul is required of you. You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and your Saviour. And your life has been joined to Christ in baptism. You have died with Christ. Your old self, the old you, would set its mind on things like covetousness, sexual immorality, anger, and so on. But that self is dead and buried. You’ve been baptized. You now are a new you. You’ve got a new life, an eternal life, because of Christ. So, put those greedy, selfish desires to death. That’s what Baptism indicates. “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
The Law says, “Thou shalt not covet”, and pronounces death upon us all because we’re all infected with the curse of greed. That’s why money is hazardous. It lures us out of love for God. It lures us away from treasuring God. To be rich toward God means that we have the wealth that is found in God. To be rich toward God is to believe God is the giver of all good things. Those good things are not just life and stuff. Being rich toward God is the opposite of thinking you were made for things and not for God. The wealth God provides is pardon, peace, and salvation. This wealth was given to you in holy baptism. You are rich toward God if you have received God’s saving gifts through his Word and if you hold on to them as your highest treasure.
God has given you the best gift, the most priceless treasure, a cure for the curse of greed. Christian, we have a treasure infinitely greater than all the gold in Erebor. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God. Through faith, we lay hold of and possess Christ; in Christ, you have the riches of forgiveness and salvation. Be rich toward God in faith, hope, and love. Be generous in offering and charity, letting that surplus grain flow generously. Cling to Christ tightly and hold your possessions loosely. Christ is your Great Possession, and dragon-sickness has lost its power, and we are freed to possess the kingdom our Father created us to inherit.
May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.