Sunday, September 16, 2007

“Open Hands”

Psalm 107; Luke 12:31-21[1]

The 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street is a story about Bud Fox, an ambitious young stock broker who tries to make a multimillionaire corporate raider named Gordon Gekko his newest client. To get his business, Bud calls him 39 days in a row, and then presents him with a box of Cuban cigars on the 40th day, his birthday. Gordon agrees to take Bud on as a protégé, and Bud agrees to take shortcuts he knows to be illegal in order to reap the benefits of success.

Perhaps the high point of the movie is when Gordon addresses a shareholders’ meeting of the latest target of his hostile take-over tactics. In an eloquent effort to convince them that he really has the company’s best interests at heart, he says, “Ladies and gentleman, greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

I can’t think of anything more characteristic of “the moral bankruptcy behind today’s money society” than that statement;[2] nor can I think of anything more blatantly contrary to the truth of the Scriptures. The sad thing is that this fictitious speech is based on an actual commencement address given by one-time financier Ivan Boesky on May 18, 1986, at the School of Business Administration, University of California, Berkeley. He said it this way, “Greed is all right, by the way... I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.” Incidentally, Boesky was later convicted of insider trading violations, and agreed to pay $100 million in fines. Maybe he didn’t feel so good about himself after that!

Even more sad is the fact that in 1998, John Stossel devoted an episode of his ABC show “Give Me a Break” to the topic of greed. Stossel did stories about various people, from the “robber barons” like the Rockefellers and the Carnegies and the Mellons to “America’s toughest boss,” a man who lays off employees to keep his profit margin is strong—while enjoying his multimillion-dollar salary!

But greed is not good, it is a thief. Psychologist Erich Fromm said it this way—“Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”[3] The point is that greed robs us of life! Greed is not good, it is a poison. Charlie Chaplin said, “Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.”[4]

Greed is not good, it is a slave master. Jesus said it this way: “Your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Now I dare say that there’s not a soul in this congregation who would argue that greed is good. I would even venture the opinion that there is probably not a single person in this town who would claim to support “greed.”

But just to make sure we don’t miss the point of what Jesus is saying, he tells us a story. It’s a story about a man who has a great windfall, and takes what we might otherwise think of as the “prudent” and “wise” course of making provisions for his continued security. But Jesus says that his actions are foolish, because he has stored up riches for himself, but he was not “rich toward God.”

What is Jesus trying to say, that we shouldn’t plan for the future? I don’t think that’s the point. I don’t think Jesus is talking about saving for the future; what he’s talking about is the way the “stuff” of this life has the potential to seduce and enslave us. We’re used to hearing that from slick TV preachers who want us to give all our “stuff” to them! But Jesus wasn’t interested in our “stuff”; he was interested in people and their hearts. He was representing God’s claim on our lives—on all that we are and have.[5] And he makes it clear to those who would follow him that seeking an “abundance of possessions” has a way of turning into hoarding everything we can get our hands on. It turns into the attitude of “I’m alright Jack, keep your hands off my stack”![6]

But the Psalmist reminds us that an attitude of hoarding “stuff” is completely inconsistent with God’s character. The Psalmist defines God’s character as “steadfast love”—a love that never lets us go. God’s character is such that “He satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9). God’s character is such that “he shatters the doors of bronze, and cuts in two the bars of iron” to set the prisoners free (Ps. 107:16). God’s character is such that “He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water” (Ps. 107:35). God’s character is such that he “raises us the needy out of distress” but he “pours contempt on princes” who bring oppression on the poor (Ps. 107:39-41).

Yes, God is the one who “pours contempt” on the robber barons and the corporate raiders and the CEO’s who throw people out of work to ensure they get a good dividend on their investment!

But I think, more importantly, the Psalmist also tells us who we are. We are not the strong, self-made individualists who have pulled ourselves up by our own boot-straps. The Psalmist reminds us that “We are the hungry and thirsty who have been fed. We are the bound who have been liberated. We are the sinners deserving death who have been given life.”[7] When we look at it that way, it puts things in a whole different light, because it means that we cannot do otherwise than to give the same to others.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/5/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Review of “Wall Street” by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, accessed at .

[3] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, 136; accessed at .

[4] Charlie Chaplin, in The Great Dictator, 1940, in a speech given as the Jewish Barber who has been mistaken for the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynckel (a parody of Adolf Hitler); accessed at #The_Great_Dictator_.281940.29 .

[5] Hans Küng, in On Being a Christian, 246, puts it this way: “The time for relativizing God’s will is past. … [God] demands man’s heart. He wants … not only good fruits, but the good tree; not only action, but being; not something, but myself—and myself wholly and entirely.”

[6] Pink Floyd, “Money” from the album The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973.

[7] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 347.

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