Lure of Greed

Luke 12:13-21
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."

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Yesterday Paula and I completed a 12-day, 1800 mile road trip that took us to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, to Mount Desert Island and Bar Harbor, then down along the rugged coast of Maine to the fishing villages of Stonington and Castine, then to Boston and finally to the quaint and charming waterside town of Mystic, CT, famous for its pizza.

From sea to shining sea America sure is beautiful.

In Boston we walked the Freedom Trail visiting the sites that sparked the American Revolution—Old South Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, Old North Church, Paul Reverie’s home, Bunker Hill and other sites in between.

The Freedom Trail. What a story! America sure is beautiful in more ways than one.

But I also saw some things that were not so beautiful. Along the Freedom Trail we passed homeless people sleeping on park benches or shaking paper cups hoping for a few coins. Most of them were people of color.

We saw streams of nattily dressed young people, nearly all of them white, going to their shiny office buildings. Meanwhile people of color swept the gutters, cleaned hotel rooms or hauled luggage. We attended a pricey Red Sox game at legendary Fenway Park. It was a sea of white faces.

I’m not always that color conscious. But my eyes have been opened by Michelle Alexander. I’ve been reading her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I’m not color blind. I’m not sure I ever want to be. Not in this society.

Alexander is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University. She served for several years as director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, which spearheaded a national campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement agents. She directed the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School and was a law clerk for U. S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. She is currently a professor at Ohio State University. Her book has been among the New York Times best sellers for 30 some weeks. Some of you have been reading it. I hope others will.

Whether you know it or not, there is a racial caste system in this country, a caste system that began with slavery nearly 500 years ago. Following the Civil War there was a brief respite but that was quickly followed by a hundred years of Jim Crow segregation practices—segregated schools, lunch counters and bathrooms. The 20th century Civil Rights movement prompted significant civil rights legislation including the Voting Rights Act. Those laws eliminated many discriminatory practices but not all and not irreversibly. Just consider the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Voting Rights Act.

Today Jim Crow is back in a yet another version of racial control and oppression. It’s called the criminal justice system. According to Alexander, this system of control depends far more on racial indifference rather than racial hostility or animosity.

White America’s control of African Americans has gone from the exploitation of slavery to the subordination of Jim Crow segregation laws to the marginalization by mass incarceration that is then followed by a lifetime stigma that denies former inmates public housing, jobs and the right to vote.

When Bill Cosby or President Obama scolds black men for failing to be good fathers they fail to acknowledge that many black men, including fathers, are in prisons or under probation—90% of them for non-violent drug offenses. Since the War on Drugs began in the 1980s there has been a near 2000% increase in incarcerations—the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison industry is booming.

You’d think a war on drugs would be race neutral. But it’s not. It is not colorblind at all. The enforcers deliberately cast their dragnets over black neighborhoods and ghettos and not over white suburbs or elite college campuses even though drug use and distribution are as great if not greater there. White people wouldn’t stand for it. White people would not allow 50% of its male youth to be incarcerated for 5-20 years for a non-violent drug offense.

Which brings us to the gospel lesson for today.

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."

That “inheritance” was probably material but it could also be freedom, education, health, housing and opportunities—the birthright of most white people in this nation.

Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.

In the gospel lesson it’s a man with a grievance against a brother but it could be a black or brown brother or sister or any other American born into harsh circumstances or conditions. We may be equal in dignity as God’s children but we are not all born into equal circumstances or with equal opportunities.

Tell my rich brother and sister to divide the American family inheritance with me.

Jesus declined to arbitrate that dispute. "Friend, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?" Instead he told a story about the dangers of greed, leaving us to figure out a resolution on our own, in our time, place and circumstances. One law doesn’t fit all situations.

"Take care!” Jesus said. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

Then he told 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 demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'

So it is, said Jesus, with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Abundance may come in money, houses, cars, gold, silver, health insurance and other things. And we may be greedy of such things. But greed is not just about things. It’s also about power. It’s about power, influence, leisure, comfort, conveniences, and privileges we don’t even recognize. How much power and privilege do we really need? How do we use those for others? Whether we know it or not, we can greedily hoard benefits, opportunities, privileges and power and refuse to share with others. “I’ve got mine. Too bad about you and your kind!”

Laws and rules are necessary and good up to a point. But laws and rules are not enough. What is needed most—and this is Alexander’s conclusion—is a transformation of hearts including the transformation of the soul of our nation.

It begins by opening our eyes to the truth.