THE GOSPEL OF GREED – March 27, 2011, Bethel CRC
We all agree greed is a bad thing. Unless we are Gordon Gekko.
The gospel of greed is focused on one thing – acquiring more; more money, more possessions, more of everything. It doesn’t matter who or what obstacles are in the way, greed will find a way to get what it wants.
Coming out of the worst recession in recent history, you all know the stories about the destructive nature of greed. Greed is not something that we typically celebrate.
However, despite our distaste for greed, it seems that Gordon Gekko’s gospel is the dominant attitude in our culture.
We live in a culture where the pursuit of increasing profits is the norm and where individuals obsessively focus on their bank roll.
And why wouldn’t they? Economic insecurity is an ever increasing reality in a world dominated by greed, a world:
– where CEOs of corporations are rewarded million dollar bonuses for their ability to protect their company’s bottom line while children and families don’t have access to clean drinking water or daily food.
– where credit card debt is on the rise.
– where the gap between the rich and the poor is widening – the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
– where the lives of families and the economies of entire countries are destroyed by the constant pursuit of more.
It is easy to be against greed – we see and experience its destructive effects every day.
Yet at the same time, it seems that greed is a necessity in our world. The measure of a person is weighed by their bank account and the things they possess.
Success is defined in terms of wealth.
Happiness is equated with material possessions.
Popularity is determined by clothing labels.
Greed is necessary in order to be someone in our culture, to get ahead, to be noticed.
So we are stuck between wanting to avoid greed while at the same time being caught in its snare.
And like all humans, when we get backed into an impossible situation, we start to rationalize.
After all, everyone else is greedy, but not me!
But, if I am honest with myself, I know am just as greedy as my neighbour.
I mean – who wouldn’t want more money; a better car; a bigger house; a newer boat.
This is exactly how greed works – it sows the seeds of dissatisfaction with what we already have. When this dissatisfaction takes root it begins to make suggestions:
If I only had this, my life would be complete.
If I only made more money, I would be happier.
If only…If only…
Once the roots are formed, the fruit starts to grow and we find ourselves justifying our dissatisfaction.
I have an i-Pad, but an i-Pad2 is so much better.
My car works fine, but its five years old, so why can’t I buy a new one?
I work hard for my money, so I deserve everything I have.
I’m not over-the-top like so-and-so; they are much greedier than I am.
I give 10 percent of my money to the church and charities – so the rest is mine.
I keep a budget and my spending habits and lifestyle are perfectly under control.
If God didn’t want me to have this stuff, then he wouldn’t have made me rich.
Jesus didn’t literally mean what he said about money and possessions; he was speaking figuratively. He wants everyone to be as rich as me!
Dissatisfaction and the desire for more money; attempting to find fulfilment and happiness in one’s possessions; these are the roots and fruits of greed.
Billionaire Ted Turner once said – “Everybody wants more – that’s capitalism. I believe in private property. It’s your money you can do whatever you want with it”. This is the gospel of greed – that my desires reign supreme, even at the expense of others; that I am entitled to what I have and that I have the right to do with it whatever I please.
This is why greed is one the biggest spiritual problems in our culture. It tempts people into believing that their happiness is all that matters, that happiness can be found in the continual acquisition of money and possessions, and that the needs of others are an afterthought at best.
However, greed is not only a recent problem. In the Bible we hear Jesus and Paul giving very strong warnings about greed. Words that were spoken 2000 years ago become surprisingly relevant today. Therefore, it is important that we carefully consider what they were saying in order to resist the power of greed in our lives.
Jesus and Paul were following in the footsteps of their ancestors who also had some strong warning about greed.
King Solomon wrote:
“When you grab at all you can get, this is what happens – the more you get, the less you are” (Proverbs 1:19)
“A greedy and grasping person destroys community” (Proverbs 15:27a)
“It is better to live humbly among the poor than to live it up among the rich” (Proverbs 16:19)
“Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)
Yet for all his wisdom, Solomon never took his own advice to heart. He become the wealthiest man of his time. Solomon was so rich that he was known far and wide not only for his wisdom but also for his wealth (not to mention his wives). Solomon was enslaved by greed.
Like Solomon, Jesus also had some very strong words about greed. Next to the kingdom of God, money was the thing Jesus talked about most.
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20a).
Jesus tells a parable of a rich man who builds himself bigger barns assuming that he will continue to have years of prosperity. However, the man dies. Jesus concludes the parable with these words: “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God”
Jesus does not mince words when it comes to greed.
The same is true of St. Paul:
“People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
“Be imitators of God…as dearly loved children and live a life of love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be a hint of sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people…For of this you can be sure: No…greedy person – such a person is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ” (Ephesians 5:1-5).
“Greed is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
So what are we to do? As Christians, we can’t simply ignore the Bible. But, as we’ve seen, under the power of greed, we fall into the pattern of rationalizing our greed. However, the words we’ve just heard seem to be very clear in their meaning.
Following Jesus’ teaching that we cannot worship both God and money, Paul goes as far as to single out greed as being a root of evil and a form of idolatry.
It’s not difficult to understand Paul’s claim that greed is a source of all kinds of evil. But what is Paul getting at in saying that greed is idolatry?
Idolatry is all about worship. And I’m not talking about what happens on a Sunday morning. Worship is about giving devotion and adoration to the things that we value above all else. We worship what is most important to us, what we want more than anything else. What we worship gives our lives meaning and shapes our identity.
The idol of greed causes us to be continually unsatisfied with what we have. It demands more money and more stuff. We become slaves to the demands of the market, to our bank statements, and to the whims of advertisers. Although we are the ones who create idols, we always end up serving them because we will never be able to meet their demands. Idols control us.
Greed distorts our love of God, our worship of him, and replaces it with a love of money and possessions. Our identity becomes defined by the size of our wallet and the number of toys we own. In this way, the idol of greed robs us of our identity as God’s image bearers and attacks “God’s exclusive right to our love and trust” (Greed as Idolatry, p. )
It is clear why greed is such a big spiritual sickness in our culture.
So, how do we uproot greed and its poison fruit from our lives?
The cure can be found in the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler.
It’s a story we are all familiar with, mostly because of how it ends.
A rich young ruler comes to Jesus asking him how to obtain salvation. The ruler assures Jesus that he is a very pious and devout man – he keeps all the commandments and follows the religious traditions.
Jesus’ answer to his question is shocking – Jesus tells the young man that if he wants to inherit eternal life that he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.
The rich young ruler leaves shaking his head, unable to part with his money.
Jesus tells those who are around him that it is as easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. In other words, Jesus is saying it is impossible.
These were difficult words for the young ruler to hear.
These are difficult words for us to hear.
Immediately we want to look for a deeper meaning or to explain away Jesus’ intent.
But Jesus isn’t speaking in parables here. He means what he says.
So, how does this story help us uproot greed?
There are three things we can learn.
First, we learn the importance of detachment from money and possessions.
When our identity and worship are tied to money and stuff, we will never be able to follow the radical demands that Jesus makes on our lives. He is interested in followers who will give him total devotion – like the 12 disciples who left their jobs and homes when Jesus said “follow me”.
The rich young ruler was attached to his money – he couldn’t imagine life without it. He was unable to trust that God would take care of him; instead, he trusted his bottom line.
In the Bible possessions are defined not as the things we possess, but rather the things that posses us. When Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, he is telling him to get rid of those things in his life that possess him. Jesus is saying – to be my disciple, you have to give up what matters to you most – your wealth; if you don’t, how can I expect you to be faithful to me? This is the ruler’s dilemma – he must get rid of the thing that he can’t possibly get rid of because it is the thing that matters to him most. Jesus is asking the impossible.
However, rather than throwing himself at Jesus feet, asking for help to do the impossible – he walks away in defeat, possessed by his possessions.
Detachment doesn’t mean that we can’t use and enjoy the things we have – of course we can! They are part of the goodness of creation. Detachment means that we recognize money and possessions for what they are – things created by God for us. When we become attached to money and possessions, they become our god. Becoming detached from our things allows us to attach ourselves to Christ and follow him whole heartedly. You can’t serve God and Money.
Second, in this story we learn the importance of generosity.
In asking the ruler to sell all his possessions and to give the money to the poor, Jesus was reminding him of the original purpose of God’s blessing. God blesses people in order that they would be a blessing to others. If God blesses you with wealth, the wealth is not yours – it is a gift meant to be given to others.
Everything we have is a gift from God. However, when we selfishly hoard these gifts, they cease to be gifts and become possessions.
The blessing meant as a gift quickly becomes a possession and a curse. When we are possessed by our possessions, we become idolaters – worshippers of money and stuff.
When the gifts of God become possessions, we are prevented from enjoying the gifts they way they were meant to be enjoyed – shared with others in order to celebrate the lavish provision of God, the joy of giving, and the love and fellowship we have with those whom we are serving with our gifts.
There is more than enough wealth in the world to solve hunger and to stop needless deaths from simple to cure diseases. God blesses some of us with wealth, not so that we can buy a new car or a bigger house but so that these problems will become a thing of the past. But as is so often the case, greed steps in to prevent us from using our money to bless and serve others. Instead, we prefer to bless and serve ourselves.
But the extravagant generosity shown to us by God in sending Christ, who became nothing for our sakes, who gave up everything so that we could know God’s love, should prompt us to follow his example of self-sacrificial love. Isn’t this what it means to follow Jesus? Isn’t this the definition of grace?
Third, in this story we learn the importance of simplicity.
The rich young ruler had more money and stuff than he knew what to do with it. But there was one thing he couldn’t do – give it all away.
Christ calls us to a life of simplicity. When we follow him, he makes it clear that we don’t need to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. In distinction from the constant dissatisfaction sown by greed, Jesus offers us contentment as a way of life.
When we are content with what we have, we stop striving for more. The pursuit of wealth and material goods no longer interests us. This allows us to do what the young ruler was unable to – rather than hoard the excess, we share it and give it away in order to bless others.
Isn’t it interesting that the more stuff you own, the more stuff you need in order to take care of the stuff you already have? The stuff we own ends up owning us. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if we just got rid of all the extra – the extra clothes, vehicles, food, entertainment equipment, appliances? Wouldn’t we have more time for things that really matter – our relationship with God and each other?
I have a favorite quotation that always comes to mind when thinking about these things – “Live Simply so that Others May Simply Live”. There are enough natural resources on our planet to end world hunger, to ensure that everyone has safe drinking water and to build a roof over everyone’s head.
However, our lavish lifestyles come at the expense of others who do not have a regular source of food. Isn’t it amazing that obesity rates in North America are rising while at the same time child poverty in North America is also on the rise?
It is difficult to obey the command to do justice, to seek mercy, and to walk humbly with God when we are concerned about keeping our stuff and maintaining our comfortable lifestyles. If we are like the rich young ruler and cannot fathom a life of simple contentment, detached from our things so that we may truly enjoy and generously sharing our gifts, then the roots of greed run deep.
And yet, Jesus is very clear in what he requires in his disciples – that they attach themselves to him alone, living lives of generosity and simplicity.
Jesus knocks money off of its pedestal.
He doesn’t say that it’s not important. He says stop investing in things that ultimately don’t matter. Rather, invest in relationships – with God and with others. Money can never satisfy because it is seeking to satisfy something it cannot – our longing for connectedness to God and to each other. A line from a song by the band “Mumford and Sons” puts it well – where you invest your love, you invest your life.
The struggle against greed in the name of following Christ is difficult. Indeed it is impossible.
But we must remember that there is hope!
Christ won the battle against the struggles of this world by taking on human flesh, dying on the cross and rising from the dead. By participating with him in his resurrection life, we are prepared to do the same. Christ’s struggle is our struggle. His victory is ours. The life we live is no longer enslaved to the desires of the world, desires for wealth and accumulation; our desires are transformed into Christ’s so that the lives we are called to lead as his disciples are ones of self-sacrificial servant hood.
As disciples, we are called to live beyond the ordinary – in our world, greed is ordinary. Poverty is ordinary. Disproportionate wealth is ordinary. Suffering is ordinary. As Christians, as the Church, we are called to challenge the ordinary – to subvert it and redeem it. Our lives are called into Christ’s; we become his hands and feet; we continue the work he started – to heal the hurting, to lift up the poor, to strengthen the weak, and to seek the lost.
Living lives of sacrificial giving reflects and is made possible by Christ’s sacrifice. We don’t have to worry about things because we trust God. We can give our excess away because our happiness is not tied up in stuff; it is tied up in the love of Christ.
The only way to defeat greed is to do what the rich young ruler was unable to do – throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet and ask for the strength and courage to follow him, no matter what the cost.