A while back I noticed a menu option on my retirement account’s website labeled “net worth.” When I clicked on it, the site invited me to upload information about my assets and liabilities. The result was a brightly colored graph which represented the sum total of all my worldly goods. I have looked at it many times since then and it always has the same effect. Rather than making me feel secure about my future, it leaves me feeling anxious. No matter how much I have, it seems I would like to have just a little more. There is a word for this condition. It is what the Bible calls greed.
Greed, like lust and gluttony, is a sin of appetite. While lust is usually associated with sex and gluttony is linked with food, greed is typically looked upon as a similar inordinate desire for money. Most of us are pretty sure that we don’t suffer from greed because we don’t have an inordinate amount of money. The rich are greedy perhaps but not us. The flaw in this reasoning is that desiring is not necessarily synonymous with having. It is certainly possible that a rich person might be greedy but so might a poor person. It is not the having but the wanting that is the problem. The adjective that best expresses the impulse of greed is not “most” but “more.” Whatever I possess will not be enough if I succumb to the influence of greed. I must always have more.
According to Dorothy Sayers the character of this sin has changed with the times. “It was an unromantic, unspectacular sin” she observes. “Unkind people sometimes called it by rude names, such as parsimony and niggardliness. It was a narrow, creeping, pinched kind of sin; and it was not a good mixer.” But times have changed and so has our view of greed. “It was left for the present age to endow covetousness with glamor on a big scale and to give it a title that it could carry like a flag” Sayers explains. “It occurred to somebody to call it enterprise. From the moment of that happy inspiration, covetousness has gone forward and never looked back. It has become a swaggering, swash-buckling, piratical sin, going about with its hat cocked over its eye, and with pistols tucked into the tops of its jack-boots.”
In our own day, greed still possesses some of the cultural dignity that Sayers describes. But the way we tend to legitimize this sin is by viewing it through a more personal lens. None of us is really greedy. We are merely seeking prosperity. Since greed is bad but prosperity is good, there is nothing wrong with our desire for more. The Bible does indeed speak well of prosperity. In the Old Testament, the prosperity of the patriarchs was attributed to God’s blessing (Gen. 32:9, 12; 39:2). Similarly, prosperity is seen as a blessing of God in the New Testament (3 John 1:2). Our giving springs from God’s generosity to us (1 Cor. 16:2).
But we all know that what is good can also be turned against us. Indeed, one way to understand the nature of sin is to see it as a distortion of that which is good. In the case of greed, it is not prosperity itself that is warped by my desire for it. When greed overcomes gratefulness the focus of my devotion shifts from the giver to what is given. This is why Colossians 3:5 calls greed idolatry. This same verse says that the only way to deal with it is by putting to death “whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” This should be a clue to us that we are all prone to greed. It doesn’t really matter what your net worth is.