A while back, I noticed a menu option on my retirement account’s website labeled “net worth.” When I clicked on it, the site asked me to type in information about my assets and liabilities. The result was a brightly colored graph that represented the total of all my worldly goods. I have looked at it many times since then, and its effect is always the same. Instead of making me feel secure about my future, it leaves me anxious. No matter how much I have, it seems that 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 a similar inordinate desire for money and possessions. Most of us are pretty sure we don’t suffer from greed because we don’t see ourselves as wealthy. 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 for a rich person to be greedy, but so might one who is poor. 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 a little more.
Perhaps the great difficulty we face in this matter is the fact that none of us sees ourselves as greedy. We are pretty sure we can spot greed in others. There are some people who, as far as we are concerned, have more than their share. But we do not fall into that category. We are, for the most part, people of modest means. If we have a little more than we thought we would, it is because we worked hard, saved, and have been wise in our financial dealings. Or maybe we are like the majority of those first heard Jesus’ teach. We have limited means. Jesus believed that the poor needed to be warned about the danger of greed as much as the rich. We might be outraged by this if it weren’t for the fact that Jesus Himself was one of the poor. He had no place to lay His head (Matt. 8:20). Jesus was dependent upon the generosity of others for His support. At the time of His death, Jesus owned only the clothes on his back (John 19:24).
Greed is a problem for the rich, the working class, the middle class, and the poor because greed does not focus on what we have but what we want. Greed substitutes things for God. In this respect, greed is a form of idolatry (Col. 3:5). Greed is a misconstrual of life itself. It persuades us that life consists of piling up of goods. If we have enough, we will live. How much is enough? It does not matter how much or how little we possess. Where greed is concerned that answer is always the same: “Just a little more!”
Jesus’ warning also reveals that greed comes in many forms. “Watch out!” He says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.” One of the ways we drop our guard is by defining greed too narrowly. We associate greed with a particular income level or specific set of goods. Somehow the very specific picture we have of the greedy person never looks like us. The forms that greed can take are so various that we could devote an entire book to them and still not exhaust the subject. But the Bible does single out a few of the most common modes that greed assumes. One of its most basic forms is the greed of desire.
The old-fashioned term used for this kind of greed is covetousness. This mode of greed is singled out in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21). Desire is the fundamental characteristic of covetousness, but it is a particular kind of desire. The problem with covetousness is not that we want the same kind of thing that a neighbor has. If my neighbor buys a particular kind of car and I decide to buy the same make and model, I am not necessarily acting out of covetousness. I may simply agree with my neighbor’s choice. The distinguishing mark of covetousness according to the commandment is the fact that I want something that belongs to someone else. It is not that I want a car or property or a spouse like theirs. I want their car. I want their property. I want their spouse. There is more at stake than the thing itself. The trouble with covetousness is that the thing I desire is all I have in view. I am so focused on what is my neighbor’s that I have lost sight of my neighbor altogether.
Although the commandment dealing with covetousness focuses primarily on tangible objects like my neighbor’s house, land, ox, or donkey, what I covet does not necessarily have to be material. I may covet their job or their popularity. I may covet the esteem granted to them by others and want it for myself. This is more than a simple desire for the same kind of job or a desire to be well thought of by others. Beneath covetousness is a wish to deprive. I want what is theirs.
Greed, like gluttony, is a cultural sin. Today’s culture has redefined greed. We call it prosperity and consider it to be a virtue. We defer to the opinion of those who have obtained much, not because they are necessarily wise or godly, but simply because they have much. The wealthy control the seats of power in public office and our churches. This is not a new pattern. The New Testament letter of James makes it clear that this has been a temptation to the church from its inception (James 2:2–6). It is certainly not wrong for the wealthy to be a part of the church nor is it a sin for someone who is rich to be highly regarded or function as a leader. It is wrong for the church to show deference to the rich simply because they are rich. This is a reflection of the church’s own greed and its tendency to depend on large donors more than upon God
If lust is the primary garnish of our regular entertainment, greed holds second place. How many of the so-called “reality” television and games shows we watch use greed as the carrot that motivates their contestants to go to extreme measures or put themselves on embarrassing display? This is why reality television is so popular. The lure of greed also shapes public policy and economic planning in our states and cities. School funding is increasingly dependent upon the promise of income from lottery sales, an enterprise that is built upon greed and preys mostly upon the poor.
One of the symptoms of this collective greed is our national habit of justifying unwise practices like these based on some perceived monetary value. We enable the exploitation of others or ignore the negative effects of public policies because they will be good for the economy. Economics has become, if not the only, at least the primary ethical filter that modern society employs when shaping public policy. This is a kind of economic utilitarianism, where the well-being of the few is sacrificed for the good the many on the altar of economic improvement. In actual practice it often seems that the opposite happens. A few reap the profits while the many are harmed. We legitimize greed when we redefine it as prosperity. Since greed is bad and prosperity is good, we convince ourselves that there is nothing unhealthy about the constant desire for more.
Turning away from greed is effective only when it is also coupled with a turning to God: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5). Anxiety about the necessities of life is a trigger for greed. We are greedy because we are afraid. Those who know that God has promised never to forsake them have an answer for their fear. God will provide in the future just as He has provided in the past. His provision in the short-term is a reminder that He offers us something greater in the long-term. We look forward to an eternity in His presence.
It doesn’t matter what our net worth is. We are all prone to greed. How much is enough? The answer is always the same: just a little more. If greed is a form of idolatry then faith is its only true remedy. The fool in Jesus’ parable thought that if he accumulated enough, his soul would be able to rest in those things (Luke 12:19). But rest is Christ’s generous gift to all who trust in Him no matter how much we have (Matt. 11:28–30).