If I were to attempt to name in one word the cause of the current financial/economical distress in our country today, I suppose I wouldn’t be the first to say “greed.” Bankers, money managers and CEOs were out for all they could get and they got it. Congressmen and senators, elected and supported by money from those same persons allowed it to happen and bailed out those who failed (see THE BIG SHORT). But then these people also preyed on the greed of the “lower classes” – the desire for more than we could afford, which led to massive debt.
The Greek word in the New Testament usually translated “greed” is pleonexia and is related to the word pleon, which simply means “more.” So we could define greed as the desire for more – avarice or insatiableness.
Greed, I suppose, is not looked on as a great evil, at least not in 21st century America. After all, isn’t the desire for more the great driving force of our industry and economy? Doesn’t it lie behind our individual ambitions? Aren’t “we the people” now known as “consumers”? We might even recite that line from an old movie: “Greed – for want of a better word – is good!”
But the New Testament doesn’t seem to see it that way.
Jesus listed greed right along with fornication, theft, murder and adultery as one of the evils that proceed “out of the heart of men” (Mark 7:20-23).
Paul listed greed among the fruits of “a depraved mind” (Romans 1:28-32) and listed greedy persons (pleonektai) along with fornicators, idolaters and homosexuals as among “the unrighteous” who will not “…inherit the Kingdom of God” (1Corinthians 6:9, 10). He even said “… greed … is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
Apparently God takes greed pretty seriously!
Yet, the one time that we find Jesus giving a specific warning of the dangers of greed, He is not addressing bankers or CEOs or swindlers or even necessarily, the rich, but just ordinary people – the crowd – who were following Him:
“And someone in the crowd said to Him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!’
But He (Jesus) said to him, ‘Man who appointed Me as a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And He said to them (the crowd), ‘Watch out and guard yourselves from every form of greed, because a person’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of stuff that he has!’” (Luke 12:13-15).
Sounds like Jesus was being a bit harsh on the man, doesn’t it? After all, the guy may have had a legitimate complaint. Jewish inheritance laws were pretty specific and it’s not hard to imagine that his older brother was holding out on him. If the brother was there in the crowd, it would have been easy for Jesus to make an effort at arbitration. Or Jesus could have referred him to a good lawyer.
But Jesus was a Man on a mission. He had just been speaking to His disciples about the necessity for bold witness and the certainty of God’s provision. This guy had either been too preoccupied with his problem to hear or something that Jesus said had triggered a thought that led to this outburst.
Anyway, it looks like Jesus is speaking of some particular aspects of greed that we might fail to see.
• Greed can be simply the desire to get what’s due me. Jesus didn’t question the legitimacy of the man’s claim. I believe what Jesus was speaking to was the man’s preoccupation with getting what was due him, especially in the area of material things. It is this feeling that preoccupies many of us. We deserve better. We deserve more. If only I could get my due …
• Greed is also the assumption that real life consists of the goods that we possess. If I could have only a bit more. If I could only have …
The Jesus tells the crowd a story:
“And He told them a parable, saying, ‘The fields of this rich man bore good crops, and he was reasoning in himself, saying, ‘What’ll I do, because I don’t have any place to gather my crops?’
And he said, ‘I’ll do this: I’ll tear down my barns and I’ll build bigger barns and I’ll gather there all my grain and my good stuff. And I’ll say to my soul, you have a lot of good stuff laid up for many years. Take it easy, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’
But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is demanded back from you. And the stuff you’ve prepared – whose will it be?’
So is the one who treasures up for himself and is not rich toward God!’” (Luke 12:16-21).
To be truthful, I wouldn’t have thought of the man in the story as greedy. He didn’t seem to be wanting more; he seemed satisfied with what he had. But he was an illustration of what Jesus said in verse 15. He thought he had it made, that his life really did “consist in the abundance of stuff that he had.” But he had left God out. His financial planning was all wrapped up in his own comfort – his stuff --and he had failed to recognize God as his provider and the One who had a claim on his life.
• Greed is the assumption that I’ve got it made, the false security based on possessions.
And then Jesus turned to His disciples and addressed them, still on this whole issue of greed:
“And He said to His disciples, ‘For this reason I’m telling you, don’t worry about your soul, what you’re going to eat, nor about your body, what you’ll wear; for the soul is more than food and the body more than clothes’” (Luke 12:22, 23).
He then goes on to tell them about God’s provision (verses 27-30).
Were the disciples greedy? Jesus didn’t accuse them. But He did address their worries about material things. Could this be one more aspect of greed? Could we say this?:
• Greed is the worry that I may never have enough – the insecurity brought on by looking to possessions I don’t have.
If the above definitions are accurate, then greed is a problem for all of us, a sin that we can fall into whether we are rich or poor, whether we are among the “haves” or the “have-nots.”
I’m not trying to excuse the greed of the rich, the CEOs, bankers and money managers. The Bible speaks to their greed and of how it leads to the oppression of the poor.
But I do believe that greed is or can be a sin problem for anyone in any place on the socioeconomic scale, and that is what this passage speaks to.
As often in the New Testament, we are presented with an alternative, what could be called “habit displacement.” It’s found in verse 31 of this passage:
“Seek His Kingdom and these things will be added to you.”