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©Douglas Beyer 2000

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2. GREED

All he ever wanted in life was more. He wanted more money, so he parlayed inherited wealth into a billion-dollar pile of assets. He wanted more fame, so he went to Hollywood and became a major filmmaker. He wanted more sensual pleasures, so he paid royal sums to indulge his every sexual urge. He wanted more thrills, so he designed, built and piloted the world's fastest and biggest airplanes. He wanted more power, so he secretly bought the favor of two United States presidents. All he ever wanted was more. He was convinced that more would bring him satisfaction. History shows otherwise. Howard Hughes ended his life as a miserable recluse, his arms punctured by needles from illicit drugs. He died a billionaire junkie betrayed by the myth of more.

Greed is a one syllable word for the sin of covetousness. It comes from a Greek word meaning "to have more." Greed is a demon within us that whispers to our heart, "You ought to have more than you have."

Novelist Dorothy Sayers questioned the Church’s seriousness about the sin of greed. "Do the officials stationed at church doors in Italy to exclude women with bare arms turn anybody away on the grounds that they are too well dressed to be honest?" she asked. "Do the vigilance committees who complain of ‘suggestive’ books and plays make any attempt to suppress the literature which ‘suggests’ that getting on in the world is the chief object in life? Is Dives, like Magdalen, ever refused the sacrament on the grounds that he, like her, is an ‘open and notorious evil-doer’? Does the Church arrange services with bright congregational singing, for Total Abstainers from Usury?"

When someone asked Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me," Jesus asked, "Man, who appointed me a judge or arbiter over you" (Luke 12:13-14)? I think he said that with a twinkle in his eye. Not only is he that man's judge, he is the judge of all the world (2 Corinthians 5:10; John 5:22). But neither he nor we think much about that unless we believe it is to our advantage.

Judgment, however, is not what Jesus wanted to talk about right then. He shifted the focus of the discussion to something more immediately important. He said to the man and the crowd who was listening, "Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions" (verse 15).

GREED SEEKS WHAT IS RIGHT


"The truth be told, I no longer think of myself as a sin at all."

The greedy man who asked Jesus to arbitrate his dispute with his brother thought only in terms of right and wrong. "Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me," he demanded. He thought he had a right to his share of the estate. Jesus made him think in terms of good and bad. He doesn't question the man's rights. Neither does Jesus deny his authority to arbitrate the property dispute. He simply asks who gave him that right. Then without waiting for an answer, he went immediately to a far more crucial matter: greed which divides brothers and destroys families. "Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed," Jesus warned, for greed is a much greater danger than being swindled. It is not enough to think in terms of right and wrong. A greedy person can be legally right — and thoroughly bad.

Roland Diller is a name you may not know, but it was well known to Abraham Lincoln. Roland Diller was his neighbor in Springfield, Illinois. Like the neighbors of many famous people he wrote a book. In his book he said one day Mr. Lincoln came striding down the street holding two of his boys, one in each arm. Both boys were wailing and crying. "Mr. Lincoln," he asked, "what's the matter with your boys?"

"The same thing that's the matter with the world," Lincoln answered. "I have three walnuts. And each wants two."

Greed is sin, one of the seven deadly sins. It is a state of mind which constantly wants more. Who is the most satisfied: someone with six million dollars, or someone with six children? The answer is someone with six children, because the one with six million dollars wants more. Greed is insatiable. When someone asked Lyndon Johnson how much Texas farmland would satisfy him, he said, "All I want is all I've got — plus all that borders it." The god of greed is never satisfied.

The Bible identifies greed as a form of idolatry, one of the worldly desires we must "put to death" (Colossians 3:5 TEV). The Bible associates greed with adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, drunkards, and slanderers and says it is grounds for being excluded from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians. 6:9-10). Greed may exclude people from the Kingdom of God, but it doesn't exclude them from church. Indeed, we welcome greedy people and may even elect them to high office. Have you ever heard of someone being disqualified from the board of deacons because he was "greedy of filthy lucre" (1 Timothy 3:8)? That's one biblical disqualification no church that I know of takes seriously.

An old joke claims that a miser makes a terrible neighbor and a wonderful ancestor. As disagreeable as greedy people are, we rarely think of them in the same category as adulterers, homosexuals and thieves. We think greed is bad, but not that bad. Its badness lies not just in itself, but, like all the other deadly sins, it is an attitude that leads to many other sins. People who want more become hard-hearted, especially when they think they are only demanding their rights.

What makes us think we have a right to worldly goods? The modern world has adopted the Roman law concept of property which was the basis of the plaintiff's appeal to Jesus. Roman law declared that the property owner has an absolute right to his possessions. We have bridled the Roman law and hitched it to greed. Together they have become a run-away team which has brought our world to the brink of disaster.

In the movie, Wall Street, Gordon Gekko made a passionate speech to his stockholders. He spoke for many in our materialistic society: "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 its forms — greed for life, greed for money, greed for love, greed for knowledge — has marked the progress of mankind." On the other hand, Jesus said, "Beware and be on your guard against every form of greed."

Greed has been renamed, "enterprise." It swaggers forth proclaiming a new virtue called, "profit motive." It looks so clever and sophisticated that nobody can believe that its heart is cold and calculating. Besides, where is its heart? Greed has been institutionalized into the joints and marrow of our corporate society which, unlike individuals, has no heart to hear appeals and no soul to be damned.

When people are crushed by a "system" nobody feels responsible. As God looks down on the earth, he sees a few of his children enjoying an incredible abundance of worldly goods. They worry about crop surpluses, weight-control, closet space and parking places. At the same time God also sees many others of his children, equally loved, who have no such worries. They go to bed hungry every night. Some of his children will starve to death this year. That's not fair! But nobody feels responsible. Neither the farmers, nor the shippers, nor the retailers, nor the voters, nor the government.

We don't know whose fault it is. The only thing we know is that it can't go on like this. The world can't afford the rich nations. The problem passengers on spaceship earth are the first-class passengers. Less than one-third of the world's people consume three-fourths of the world's non-renewable energy resources. Non-renewable means when it's gone, it's gone — forever! God isn't making any more oil. Every gallon we burn is a gallon somebody else can't burn. It has been taken away, not just from the poor, but from future generations of the rich.

When Iraq turned a greedy eye on Kuwait and invaded its neighbor’s borders. The United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies took up arms against Iraq’s raw aggression. Why? Well, it was certainly honorable to defend a little nation that was gobbled up by its greedy neighbor to the north. But that is not the only reason we heard. Others said we had to go to war to preserve our right to the "American way of life." By that, they meant cheap gasoline and heating oil. They were ready to sacrifice thousands of young men and women so they can fill their gas tanks. If the family of nations were to ask the Lord of heaven and earth, "Tell the Arabs to divide the oil with us," Jesus would say, "Man, who appointed me a judge and arbiter over you? Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for having more does not necessarily mean living better." The one who dies with the most toys doesn't win.

GENEROSITY SEEKS WHAT IS GOOD

It may be right for rich nations and people to acquire and dispose of their wealth by any legal means. Jesus doesn't say one way or the other. What he does say is that it is not what we ought to be thinking about. He asks not "Is it right?" but "Is it good?" And he laid down this principle: "not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions." Life is more important than food, and the body is more important than clothes (Matthew 6:25). "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). That's a lesson Howard Hughes never learned. Have you learned it? You may not have traveled as far down the slope of self-interest as he. But consider where you are headed. Sooner or later you will get so tired of drinking cups of sand, you'll say, "I'm ready for some living water." You can do that now, or fifteen years from now, after you have gone through two or three more marriages and left a trail of broken children and broken hearts. The greed creed says, "Seek first all these things and the kingdom of God will be added unto you."

It doesn't work that way.

Jesus illustrated this principle with a parable about a rich fool whose money cost him everything he had. "The land of a certain rich man was very productive. And he began reasoning to himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no place to store my crops?' And he said, 'This is what I will do: I will tear 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 many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry."' But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?"

Then Jesus drove home his point: "So is the man who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:16-21).

The issue is not right and wrong, but good and bad. The foolish farmer gained his wealth honestly. He didn't steal it or inherit it. He earned it with hard work. His land was "very productive." Every gardener knows that land does not bear good crops without a lot of sweat and labor. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with building barns, taking life easy and enjoying yourself. But God called this man a fool because he wasn't smart enough to ask, "What is good?" He only knew what was right.

The early church theologians echoed Jesus' warning. Chrysostom (born 345 AD) said, "God has invested capital with you. It is not your property, but a loan by him, made to give you opportunity to exercise mercy to those who are in need." Augustine (born 354 AD) said, "Find out how much God has given you and take from it what you need. The remainder which you do not require is needed by others. The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. Those who retain what is superfluous possess the goods of others." In The Great Divorce C. S. Lewis pictures sinners unable to choose heaven because of greed, sloth, and envy. These are truly deadly sins.

Greed seeks what is right. Generosity seeks what is good. What are you seeking? And when you finally get what you want, will you want what you have?

 

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