The Seven Deadly Sins (4) — Greed

The story is told of a man who is walking down the beach and he comes across an old bottle. He picks it up, pulls out the cork and out pops a genie!  The genie says, “Thank you for freeing me from this bottle.  In return, I will grant you three wishes.”


The man says, “Great! I’ve always dreamed of this and I know exactly what I want.  First of all, I want one billion dollars in a Swiss bank account.” Poof! There’s a flash of light and a piece of paper with account numbers appears in his hand!


Then he says, “Second, I want a brand new red Ferrari.”  Poof!  There’s a flash of light and a bright red, brand-new Ferrari appears right in front of him!


Then he says, “Finally, I want to be irresistible to women.”  Poof!   There’s a flash of light and he turns into a box of chocolates.  I guess the moral of the story is that if you’re going to be greedy, you need to be a little more specific.


Root of Sin


This morning, we come to the fourth sin in our series on the Seven Deadly Sins.  And I appreciate so very much your positive comments regarding the sermons so far.  I have to admit that I was a little bit nervous when I started this series because a preacher never knows how well sermons on sin are going to be received.  I understand that people would much rather listen to a preacher talk about grace and love and Jesus and all sorts of other positive topics.  But it is important that we talk about sin.


Sin is a big part of who we are.  And thinking about sin is one of the things that we need to do in our worship. Along with praising God and enjoying God’s presence, we need to spend time in our worship acknowledging who we are.  Because the more time we spend with God, the more we become aware of our shortcomings.  The reason we look at our sins is not to wallow in them or feel depressed or hopeless.  Rather, we look at them in order to confess them to God so that we can move on to a holier life.


And while we can confess our sins anywhere and at any time, our time together in worship is an important time for us to do that.  This is a time when we can confess our sins to one another and help each other to overcome our struggles with sin.


So far, we have looked at three sins on this list – envy, vainglory and anger.  And perhaps this is a good time to pause and ask what it is that ties these Seven Deadly Sins together?  Is there a root sin from which all these other sins come?  The ancient fathers would have said that it was pride and I can’t say that I disagree with that answer.  But I think it would be more accurate to say that each of the Seven Deadly Sins is rooted in selfishness.


Each of these sins is rooted in a selfish desire for our own welfare in disregard of what is best for others.  And selfishness is directed opposed to love.  That’s why I think so many of the descriptions of love in I Corinthians 13 relate to these seven sins – “Love does not envy or boast…it is not irritable or resentful.”


You see, whenever I give in to Lust, or Envy, or Anger or any of these other sins, then I have decided that my well-being is really all that matters in the universe.  But, when you put together a bunch of people who all think that they are number one, that they are all king of the universe, the end result is going to be a lot of fussing and fighting and pushing and shoving.


This focus on self seems to me to be at the very heart of sin and I think it is the common core of these Seven Deadly Sins.



What is Greed?


So, this morning, our topic is Greed.  About 30 years ago, Harper’s Magazine asked seven ad agencies to create ads for the seven deadly sins.  The ad for greed featured a picture of Santa Claus, with the headline, “The world’s foremost authority speaks out on the subject of greed.” The letters piled in front of him all begin, “Dear Santa, I want . . .” Santa looks up and comments, “Do you remember all of the things you told me you wanted as a child?  Well, your list may have changed, but I bet it hasn’t gotten any shorter.”


Greed is so common in our culture that I don’t even know if much of anyone even counts it as a sin anymore.  In fact, in the movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas gives a speech in which he declares that “Greed is good!”


But before we go any further, I think we need to define what we mean by greed.  The dictionary defines greed as “an intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.”  And, as that definition suggests, you can be greedy for a lot of different things.  You can be greedy for power, greedy for fame, greedy for food.


But as part of the Seven Deadly Sins, the definition of Greed is a little more focused.  In fact, most of the ancient lists don’t use the word Greed.  Rather, they use the word Avarice.  And the definition of Avarice is “an extreme greed for wealth or material gain.”


So Avarice is the more accurate word to describe this sin, but I’ve decided to keep Greed on my list because I think that’s a word we’re more familiar with, but keep in mind that throughout this lesson, I’m going to be talking specifically about Greed for money.  Greed is an intense love of and desire for money or any possession that money can buy.


And while our society may not consider greed to be a sin anymore, the Bible has a lot to say about our attitude toward money.  In fact, there are more references to money in the Bible than there are to sex, which may be an indication of both the frequency and the seriousness of this sin.


Examples of greed in the Bible would have to include King Ahab who wanted his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard, and ended up killing him to get it.  And, of course, there’s Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  Some biblical scholars have attempted to figure out some other motive to his betrayal.  For example, maybe Judas was a would-be revolutionary who was disappointed by Jesus’ failure to run out the Romans and he was trying to force Jesus’ hand.


But the Bible says there’s no need to look for any reason for Judas’s betrayal other than simple greed.  Sometimes you hear people say, “It’s not the money.  It’s the principle of the thing.”  Well, for Judas, it wasn’t the principle of the thing.  It was the money.  It was greed.


Paul said that the love of money is “a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10), which seems a strange thing to say, especially since I have just identified selfishness as the root of all kinds of evil.  So how is a love of money the root of evil?  Is it because money is so attractive that we will commit many sins in order to acquire it?  Or is it because money gives us the power to satisfy any sinful desire we may have?


Perhaps the most famous statement in the Bible regarding money is Jesus’s warning, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24).


But, that makes us wonder, why can’t we be both rich in material wealth and rich in love for God?  After all, Abraham, the great man of faith, was a wealthy man.  Job was a wealthy man.  David was a wealthy man.  Joseph of Arimathea was a wealthy man.


And so, we’re quick to rationalize all the wealth we’ve accumulated.  We would agree that greed is a sin, but not for us.  We tend to shrug off greed by comparing ourselves with those who are richer than we are and thinking that greed is their problem. “When I’m a multimillionaire, then I’ll worry about greed!”


But Paul wrote the book of Colossians to average Christians in an average small-town church. And he told them that they must put to death their sinful nature with regard to “greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5, NET). If greed was a problem for them in that culture, then surely those of us who live in this prosperous nation, need to be very careful about greed.


But greed is not an easy subject to understand.  How do you identify greed?  It’s obviously a heart issue, but the condition of the heart will always manifest itself by what we do, and greed will always demonstrate itself through our actions.  So, are we being greedy by living in nice, spacious homes furnished with all the conveniences of modern life, when there are millions of people around the world living in shacks with no indoor plumbing?   Are we being greedy if we have nice cars in our driveways or a wallet full of credit cards?  Exactly how do we identify greed?


Because let’s be honest — most of us can easily identify greed in just about anyone who has more than we do, but how do we identify it in our own lives?



Greed and Generosity


Perhaps the best way to identify greed is by comparing it with its opposite.  The opposite of greed is generosity.  A greedy person isn’t generous, and a generous person isn’t greedy.  John said in I John 3:17, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  The question we need to be asking ourselves is this — are we eager to use what we have to help others or do we have a strong tendency to hold tight what we have?


Thomas Aquinas also believed that generosity is the opposite of greed, but he didn’t use the word generosity.  He used the word liberality.  We still talk about being liberal in our giving.  But what’s significant about the use of that word is that liberality comes from the same root word as the word liberty. And that’s important, because the virtue of liberality is about freedom — freedom from attachment to money and whatever money can buy.


You may have noticed that the more money and stuff we possess, the more money, time, and energy we need to protect and take care of it all.  You would think that having more stuff would give us a greater sense of security, but it really does just the opposite — wealth actually increases our worry, our insecurity, and our desire for more.


Generosity makes it easy to loosen our grip on our stuff and allows us to give it away.  And we have a lot of good examples of this in scripture.


I think of the Macedonians that Paul referred to in 2 Corinthians 8:2-4.  He said “their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints…”


Paul said, “I didn’t want to take their money.  I thought it was too much.  But they begged me to take it and to use it to help Christians who are in need.”  A mark of generosity is the way it becomes a natural part of who we are, so that giving isn’t some burden that we have to do, but rather it’s a joy, it’s something that we get to do.  In fact, one of the tests of generosity is whether giving things away is easy and enjoyable.


Because generosity’s measure is not how much we give away, in terms of the flat amount, but rather the way that we give it.  The way we give reveals something about our heart.


In Luke 21, Jesus told about the widow who gave her last two copper coins out of devotion to the Lord, and Jesus commended her (Luke 21:1-4).  Her coins couldn’t buy a single church bulletin, but there was a willingness to give.


Matthew tells us about the expensive gift of a newly cut tomb for Jesus’s body, given by a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57-60).  The mark of his generosity was not the size of the gift, but his readiness to give what he had to God.


But we’re still left wondering, how generous does a person need to be to avoid being greedy?  Because let’s be honest – most us could give away pick-up loads full of clothes or other household goods and hardly even notice a difference in our lives.


Thomas Aquinas defined generosity when he said, “It is enough for people to have only a few things, so [generous] people are commendable because in general they give away more than they keep.”  Aquinas believed that most of our income is not to be spent on upgrading our lifestyle, but to be given away.


And that’s basically what Paul said in Ephesians 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”  Paul said, that’s why we work.  That’s why we make money.  So that we’ll have something to give to anyone who is in need.


But to those of us who are Christians in 21st century America, this concept sounds absurd.  We can’t imagine actually giving away more than 50% of our income.  In fact, some of us struggle to imagine giving away even 10% of our income.



Why is Generosity Difficult?


So, what is it that makes it so hard for us to give things away?  What is it that drives our acquisition and possession of material goods?  Aquinas said there are two things that make generosity difficult.


First, because we’ve earned it!  It’s hard to give away something that we have earned ourselves.  Consider this.  Children usually find great joy in putting Mom and Dad’s money into the collection plate, don’t they?  But as they get older, and that contribution money is a piece of their own hard-earned income, suddenly they feel much less eager to give.


And, even as adults, it’s much easier to be generous with other people’s money.  That’s why corporate credit cards are so easily abused.  Let’s order the very best.  After all, I don’t have to pay for it.  And it’s easier to deal with it when something bad happens to someone else’s stuff.  Have you ever been in a wreck with a rental car and basically said, “It’s no big deal, it’s not mine.”


But what we earn and what we buy and possess feels like a part of us.  Greed is not just about having more; it’s holding on to this idea that this is mine.  And that word that becomes a favorite word for toddlers becomes the theme of our lives – it’s mine.  Everything in my house is mine.  Everything in my bank account is mine.  I earned it.  I brought home the paycheck.  It’s mine.  And it’s hard to be generous with something that I worked so hard for.


The second thing Aquinas said makes generosity difficult is having experienced poverty. If there has ever been a time in our lives when we have been in great need, it can affect our willingness to let go of our money.   For example, if you know someone who lived through the difficult years of the Great Depression, you may have noticed that they don’t let go of their money easily. The fear of poverty is difficult to get rid of.


Or, to give another example — during World War II, thousands of refugee and orphaned children were traumatized and starving.  Many of them were taken into care, but they couldn’t sleep at night because they lived in constant fear that they would be sent away the next day without food.  But someone discovered that if the children were given a piece of bread to hold when they went to bed at night, they could sleep peacefully, because they were reassured that they would have food for the next day.


Part of being generous is adequately trusting God for the future.  We see this in Paul’s instruction to Timothy in I Timothy 6.  “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.” (I Timothy 6:17-18).  Paul says, Trust in God, not your money.  And one of the ways that we demonstrate this trust in God is by being generous, by letting go of our money and sharing with others.



Greed and Trust


I said earlier that the opposite of greed is generosity, but you could just as accurately say that the opposite of greed is trust in God.  In Proverbs 28:25, we read, “A greedy man stirs up strife, but the one who trusts in the Lord will be enriched.”  Notice the parallel here.  On the one hand, you have a person who is greedy.  On the other hand, you have someone who trusts in God.  Which means that greed and trust are opposites.


For all of us, it comes down to the question, “Who (or what) do we really trust?”  Do we trust that God will take care of us, or do we feel the need to accumulate enough money to take care of ourselves?  I find it ironic that all of our money has the words “In God We Trust” printed on them, but for most people, their trust is in the money itself.


Aquinas argued that human beings are tempted to seek material wealth because it gives us the illusion of self-sufficiency—and therefore serves as a powerful incentive to deny our need for God.


Or as Frederick Buechner once put it, “The trouble with being rich is that since you can solve with your checkbook virtually all practical problems that bedevil ordinary people, you are left in your leisure with nothing but the great human problems to contend with:  how to be happy, how to love and be loved, how to find meaning and purpose in your life. In desperation, the rich are continually tempted to believe that they can solve these problems too with their checkbooks.”


So perhaps greed is the root of all kinds of evil, because greed itself is rooted in pride.  Having the means to provide for ourselves is much easier than trusting God to provide for us.  Greed is the desire to be able to provide fully for ourselves, and therefore not to have to depend on God.


And I think we all struggle with this to some degree, because we all feel the responsibility of adequately providing for ourselves and for those under our care.  And it can sometimes be difficult to know the difference between what is considered adequate provision and what counts as excess.  Or, to put it another way, how much is “too much”?



How Much is “Too Much”?


The Christian ascetics of the fourth century lived by themselves out in the desert, and they only went to the market to sell the baskets they made in order to buy a bit of bread. The leaders of that community advised selling their baskets below the market price, and then if there was any money left over after buying bread, they were to give it away to the poor.  In their mind, bringing home a profit would only tempt them to regard their store of coins as security for the future, instead of learning daily reliance on God.

But that seems so far removed from our lives today.  And so, we’re still left with the question – how much is “enough”?  How much is “too much”?  How much do we truly need for ourselves and how much should we be giving away?  James Twitchell once defined a luxury as “something we absolutely do not need.”  But we have such a warped view of what we think we need.


There may be some of you here who can remember a time when you only had two sets of clothing — one set for school and another for church.  Nowadays, though, nobody wants to buy a house unless it has a walk-in closet big enough to hold hundreds of outfits and dozens of pairs of shoes.  If I were to ask you how difficult it would be for you to get rid of everything but two outfits, most of you would have to honestly say, “It would be nearly impossible.”  So, how much stuff do we really need?  And how much is “too much”?


That line between need and desire can get mighty thin.  I certainly don’t need the computer that I used to type out this sermon.  The truth is, for many years, I wrote sermons without a computer, using a typewriter, although for the life I can’t figure out how in the world I did it.


What am I saying?  Of course I need a computer!  And a fast one with lots of memory, too. And a wireless Internet connection.  My life has changed considerably for the better because of the computer.  Just let it go on the blink and you will find me out pacing back and forth in front of my computer repair shop, begging some computer nerd to save my life by fixing this machine, no matter what it costs.


So, how much stuff do we really need?  And how much is “too much”?


You might think that all of the early Christian fathers thought that Christians should get rid of everything and live on the bare essentials, but that’s not true at all.  When Aquinas and Augustine discussed “the needs of this life,” they emphasized not just what was necessary for bare subsistence, but also what was necessary for living a life “becoming” or appropriate to human beings.


Their point was not that we should live on crusts of bread with bare walls and threadbare clothes. Rather, their point was that our lives should be lived in such a way that we are free from being enslaved to our stuff.  Our possessions are meant to serve our needs, rather than our lives being centered around our possessions.


The truth is, money and possessions are not themselves evil.  In fact, they are rather useful.  Even luxury has its place in our lives.  Jesus fasted on numerous occasions, but there were also times when he feasted.  Avoiding greed doesn’t mean that we have to live on the bare necessities.

But, the problem is, whenever our lives we are filled with greed, we don’t know what “enough” means anymore,


Perhaps a good way to evaluate our lives would be to this – suppose someone had access to all of your financial records and spending habits (investment portfolios, savings, checkbook registers, tax returns, cash flow), but they knew nothing else about you.  What sort of judgments could they make about your character, about what you love the most?  Because our patterns of spending money will reveal our hearts’ deepest priorities.



Getting Free from the Grip of Greed


So, whether we realize it or not, greed has a hold on most of us.  The question is, how do we break free?  First of all, by being aware of our weakness.   I would like to suggest that you do something starting this week that will help you more than you can imagine.  This Wednesday begins a new month.  Starting Wednesday, I challenge you to keep track in the coming month of how you spend your money.  Every time you spend something, write it down or put it in a spreadsheet.


Then, at the end of February, put all of your expenses in different categories (food, entertainment, home repairs, car expenses, giving to those in need, etc.).   Then, as you look over that list, ask yourself the question, is there anything here that you could have done without?  Are there any purchases that you consider to be unnecessary?  Do you find that you are more focused on yourself than you are on the needs of others?  This may well be the most valuable thing you can possibly do this coming month to develop your relationship with God.


Another suggestion is this – for one month, consciously take a break from consumerism.  Don’t go to the mall, don’t look through catalogs or magazines, don’t watch QVC, don’t get on Amazon to browse, don’t stroll around Wal-Mart just to see what you can find.  Limit your exposure to advertising as much as possible, including television.  I think you would be shocked to realize just how jaded we have become to the daily assault of marketing which is designed to increase our desire to possess stuff that we don’t really need.


But perhaps the best advice I can give to combat greed is this — give.  I’m not talking about giving away everything you have.  But I am talking about making a more conscious effort to give more – giving at church, giving to those in need around us.  The more we let go of our money, the less it can take control of us.


Get out of the habit of spending everything you want on yourself, then giving what’s left over away.  When we look for ways to give to others first, we are forced to acknowledge that everything I own is God’s anyway for him to use as he wishes.  And it is a way of trusting that God will continue to provide for my needs.


The point of giving is not to rigidly conform to a code of behavior, but to re-form our hearts so that we learn to give, not because we ought to, but out of gratitude and joy and love.


So this week, may your prayer be – “Search me, O Lord, and see if there is any greed in my heart.”


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