What about greed?

I was reading a biography of Catherine de’ Medici today. The book opens with an extended argument that it was in the late 15th century and early 16th century that capitalism and a social order based on competition finally swamped the medieval church’s prohibitions on greed. The author argues that the church was simply and finally pushed along by the currents of social change into accepting a set of values that it had resisted for hundreds of years before that.

I was thinking of that as I was reading this evening from Ephesians 5.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. (Ephesians 5:3-7, NIV)

In the midst of our current church debates, our eye might first be drawn to the apostle’s concern of sexual immorality, but I want to draw your attention for a few moments to the sin that draws equal condemnation here: greed.

If I asked a hundred clergy, I think I would have a hard time getting much consensus about what the biblical definition of greed might be. I wonder how many of us have preached on this topic or discussed with our members the dangers of this sin. I wonder how many of us could even articulate clearly what we think the sin might be.

In our Methodist tradition, of course, we have some resources to draw upon. John Wesley wrote and preached on “The Dangers of Riches” and “The Use of Money.” In the eighth his 13-part series of sermons on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, he devotes extended attention to the sin of laying up treasures on Earth. Because this is my blog and I enjoy this particular bit of Wesley’s writing, I am going to share an extended quotation from that sermon:

With regard to most of the commandments of God, whether relating to the heart or life, the Heathens of Africa or America stand much on a level with those that are called Christians. The Christians observe them (a few only being excepted) very near as much as the Heathens. For instance: the generality of the natives of England, commonly called Christians, are as sober and as temperate as the generality of the heathens near the Cape of Good Hope. And so the Dutch or French Christians are as humble and as chaste as the Choctaw or Cherokee Indians. It is not easy to say, when we compare the bulk of the nations in Europe with those in America, whether the superiority lies on the one side or the other. At least the American has not much the advantage. But we cannot affirm this with regard to the command now before us. Here the heathen has far the pre-eminence. He desires and seeks nothing more than plain food to eat and plain raiment to put on. And he seeks this only from day to day. He reserves, he lays up nothing; unless it be as much corn at one season of the year as he will need before that season returns. This command, therefore, the heathens, though they know it not, do constantly and punctually observe. They “lay up for themselves no treasures upon earth;” no stores of purple or fine linen, of gold or silver, which either “moth or rust may corrupt”, or “thieves break through and steal.” But how do the Christians observe what they profess to receive as a command of the most high God? Not at all! Not in any degree; no more than if no such command had ever been given to man. Even the good Christians, as they are accounted by others as well as themselves, pay no manner of regard thereto. It might as well be still hid in its original Greek for any notice they take of it. In what Christian city do you find one man of five hundred who makes the least scruple of laying up just as much treasure as he can? — of increasing his goods just as far as he is able? There are indeed those who would not do this unjustly; there are many who will neither rob nor steal; and some who will not defraud their neighbour; nay, who will not gain either by his ignorance or necessity. But this is quite another point. Even these do not scruple the thing, but the manner of it. They do not scruple the “laying up treasures upon earth,” but the laying them up by dishonesty. They do not start at disobeying Christ, but at a breach of heathen morality. So that even these honest men do no more obey this command than a highwayman or a house-breaker. Nay, they never designed to obey it. From their youth up it never entered into their thoughts. They were bred up by their Christian parents, masters, and friends, without any instruction at all concerning it; unless it were this, — to break it as soon and as much as they could, and to continue breaking it to their lives’ end.

Our bishops have taken up the charge to sort out how we can live in a church where there is widespread disagreement about exactly what is and what is not sexually immoral. We have no need of such a commission on the topic of greed. We seem to not be vexed by that sin at all. I fear, though, that it is because we have ceased to view it as a sin and not because it is no longer a problem among the people called Methodist.

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6 thoughts on “What about greed?

  1. I’m wondering, in your opinion, is Warren Buffet greedy? He is currently the 2nd or 3rd wealthiest American yet he lives in a relatively modest home which he has owned much of his adult life, he eats modest meals, and always appears to have slept in his clothes. His annual salary is $100,000 and he drives a single car, either a Lincoln or a Cadillac, for several years before trading it in. He and his current wife, his first wife died, appear to live quietly and comfortably.
    One final point, he has bequeathed a couple of million dollars each to each of his children in his will and has left instructions that all of the remainder of his fortune should be given to charity.
    Is there anything else you need to know before answering the question, is he greedy?

    1. Based on your description he does not sound like it. I might ask why it is necessary to wait until he dies to give most of his fortune away. The question to ask — I think — is what would Jesus do with the money if he were in Buffet’s place.

      1. This was not a trick question per se, but it does illustrate how tricky this issue is, something you pointed out at the beginning of the blog. Like Buffet, I am interested in financial matters so I’ve spent some time thinking about this example. Here are the details I left out yesterday.

        I’ve read a lot of Buffet stuff, biographies as well as his own writing, and I’m pretty sure he is atheistic in his beliefs. He doesn’t attend church, doesn’t mention church affairs, although he will use Biblical illustrations at times in his writing. His main interest in life is his wealth. He still at 83 works daily at making money and is still consummating deals worth millions of dollars. Both of his wives have written about how much time he spent reading financial reports in lieu of communicating with them. His children have made similar comments. Finally, although he is giving away all of his fortune, billions to charity, his charities include those that support abortion clinics. No religious institutions effect these decisions.

        I think a person can be greedy in many ways. He can be greedy for money, or for fame, or for model trains. What determines whether the appellation “greedy” fits the situation, in my opinion (at least until I read your reply to this), is where God fits in his life. We agree that a person should be greedy for God, in that God should be first in his life and should influence all that he does. If this isn’t the case he will probably be greedy for something else, and although his life may meet the secular world’s requirements for a “good” life, he will in fact have a very strong possibility of violating the very first Commandment throughout his life’s journey. He will be regarded as a good person by the world, but he will actually run the possibility of being the current incarnation of the wealthy young man from the parables.

        So, I don’t know Buffet the man, and of course I can’t make judgments about his soul. But at least in his public persona he does offer an illustration of some of the complications involved in thinking about greed. In short, it’s not whether or not a person is greedy, we’re all dominated by a search for something, it’s what he is greedy about that matters.

        1. These are excellent points. My only disagreement is with the phrase “greedy for God.” Although I understand the point, I read in the word itself an emphasis on self that is at odds with a true love of God. It is like the difference between Eros and agape, to the extent I understand them. The latter has an intrinsic self-emptying and self-sacrificing that can be intense but is of a different character than greed.

        2. I’m replying to my reply.

          It leaves me unsettled, and I think it’s because it doesn’t feel right to say “greedy for God”, something is wrong with that. Perhaps it implies fanaticism? Maybe the entire comment is slightly off target because in a subtle way it strips the word “greedy” of its negative connotation an aspect that gives it its actual meaning.

          You were right. It’s quicksand.

        3. It is not simple. I think we are best served by always trying to widen the frame to start with the question “What is God’s intention for Creation?” Whether we are talking about sex or money or some other topic, starting with God helps put our questions into the proper frame.

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