Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.
Jesus, the poor and the greedy
Though it’s often missed by American Christians, confronting poverty was central to everything Jesus was about. Jesus didn’t just care about the poor. Though he was rich, he made himself poor (2 Cor. 8:9). He didn’t come to earth as a wealthy king; he came as a lowly peasant. For the last three years of his life Jesus was virtually homeless, living off the generosity of others. Most of his ministry was done among the poor. The first phrase in Jesus’ inaugural speech proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord was on him “to proclaim good news to the poor…” (LK 4:18). While God of course is impartial in his universal love for all people, Jesus’ special focus on the poor reveals that God identifies with the poor in a special way.
One of the most amazing passages in the Bible is when Jesus teaches that the “sheep” and the “goats” will be separated on the judgment day on the basis of whether or not they fed the hungry, housed the homeless, clothed the naked, befriended criminals and cared for the sick. Even more amazing is the fact Jesus says that insofar as we do these things, we do it to him. And insofar as we neglect doing these things, we neglect him (Mt 25: 31-46).
Think about that the next time you encounter a homeless person.
The flip side of Jesus’ solidarity with the poor is his revolt against greed. In Jesus’ day, greed (which is hoarding more resources than you need) along with gluttony (which is hoarding more food than you need) were rightly considered to be among the sins that grieved God the most. This attitude comes through in Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus lists greed as a sin right next to adultery (Mk 7:22). He criticized the religious heroes of his day for being preoccupied with maintaining a nice religious exterior while their hearts were full of “greed and self-indulgence “(Mt. 23:25; Lk 11:39). These people meticulously followed religious rules, but because they loved money (Lk 16:14) they “neglected the more important matters of the law” which include “justice” and “mercy” (Mt. 23:23). In other words, their religious appearance notwithstanding, these people hoarded resources and didn’t share with the poor. Clearly, in Jesus’ view this omission rendered the rest of their religious behavior irrelevant.
Along the same lines, when a man wanted Jesus to settle a legal dispute with his older brother over how much of the family inheritance he should receive, Jesus said, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you” (Lk 12:13-14). He was basically asking the man, “Do I look like your lawyer”? Jesus hadn’t come to settle anyone’s ethical, legal or political problems. He rather came to unleash a movement that puts God’s beauty on display while revolting against all that is ugly and contrary to his will in the world – including greed.
So rather than answering the man’s question, Jesus simply warned him, saying; “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (vs. 15).
“However you work out your legal, ethical and political issues,” Jesus was essentially saying, “do not let your motivation be one of greed.”
The Foolish Capitalist
Jesus then went on to drive the point home further when he told a parable about a rich farmer who “yielded an abundant harvest” (vs. 16). His crop was so plentiful he didn’t have a place to store it. After thinking about the matter, the farmer decided he’d simply tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store his surplus food. He could then “[t]ake life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (vss. 16-19). In other words, with his stored-up wealth he could retire and live “the good life.”
I suspect most of us Americans would have thought the same way. The man frankly seems like nothing worse than a good capitalist. You come upon some extra cash, so you enjoy life more, feel more secure and retire a little early. It’s called “the American dream.”
Yet, Jesus said that God called the man a “fool,” for it turned out that the man was going to die that very night. And then, most ominously, Jesus warned, “This is how it will be with those who store up things for themselves but are not rich toward God” (12:20-21).
The problem, clearly, was not that the man happened to get wealthy. Neither the Old nor the New Testament are against wealth itself. The problem, rather, was that this wealthy man was not “rich toward God.” He did not submit his wealth to God but instead considered only how he and his family could benefit from his fortunate harvest. The rich farmer took no thought for how God wanted him to use his (God-given) wealth to further his purposes in the world.
Had he done this, God may have allowed him to enjoy a portion of his wealth. But he would have also directed him to share some of his abundance with others in need.
On Not Possessing What You Own
Jesus took the matter a step further when he contrasted the attitude toward wealth that his disciples are to have with the attitude of the capitalistic-thinking farmer. We aren’t to worry about our life, our needs or our riches, he said. This is a pagan mindset that is contrary to God’s Kingdom. The one ambition of Kingdom people must rather be to advance the reign of God (“seek first the Kingdom”) as we simply trust God to meet our needs — the way animals and flowers do (vss. 22- 32).
So, in contrast to the rich farmer who cashed in on his good fortune entirely for himself, Jesus told his disciples to “[s]ell your possessions and give to the poor.” In fact, Jesus elsewhere taught us that “those …who do not give up everything [they] have…cannot be my disciples” (Lk 14:33).
Giving up all our possessions is the condition for being a disciple of Jesus!
Now, Jesus never made it a rule that everyone had to literally sell all their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. There’s one example of Jesus requiring this of something (Lk.18:18-22), but he didn’t require this of everyone. When Zacchaeus told Jesus he gave half of all he owned to the poor, for example, Jesus didn’t rebuke him for keeping the other half (Lk 19:8). And there are many examples in the Gospels of Jesus benefiting from resources that his followers shared with him – which, of course, presupposes that they still had these possessions to share.
So, it’s clear Jesus was not laying down an absolute ethical rule in these passages. He was rather laying down an absolute Kingdom principle. Kingdom people are to not possess anything, even if they continue to legally own it. We are to give up all our possessions in the sense of considering them to belong to God, not ourselves. Hence, as God leads us, we must be willing to sell things and give the proceeds to the poor – or do whatever else God wants us to do with our possessions — which are, again, really his possessions.
We may or may not be rich with wealth. We may or may not legally own a good deal. But, in contrast to the capitalistic farmer, we must always be “rich toward God.” We’re to regard all we legally own as belonging to him and therefore must honestly seek to discern his will as to what he wants us to do with it.
The one thing that will prevent us from being “rich toward God” is greed.
The Danger of Riches
Warnings about greed and the need to care for the poor permeate Jesus’ teaching, as they do the whole of Scripture. For example, Jesus gave a parable about a rich man “who lived in luxury every day” and a beggar who waited at his gates for crumbs to fall from his table. While the main point of this passage is for people to respond to whatever revelation that’s been given to them (Lk 16: 27-31), it’s alarmingly clear that the rich man in the story went to Hades because of his callous treatment of the beggar (Lk 16:19-25). He did not obey God and share his resources with the poor.
So too, as I alluded to above, when a wealthy ruler who kept all the commandments asked Jesus what he needed to do to be saved, Jesus told him the “one thing” he yet lacked concerned his attachment to wealth. So Jesus commanded him to “[s]ell everything you have and give to the poor” so he would “have treasure in heaven.” (Lk.18:18-22). The man went away saddened, for he was unwilling to do this.
Jesus then commented to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” In fact, Jesus added, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (vss. 24-25). In other words, it’s utterly impossible – unless God transforms a rich person’s heart and frees them from their attachment to wealth ( vss. 26-27).
The fact is that there’s an addictive quality to wealth that tends to (thank God for the wonderful exceptions) make wealthy people hoard their resources and be apathetic about the poor. This is why Jesus, in keeping with the whole of Scripture, pronounces woes to the rich and blessings on the poor (Lk 6: 20-25) and why Elizabeth, Jesus’ aunt, rejoices that through Jesus God will fill “the hungry with good things” but will send “the rich away empty” (Lk 1:53). It’s also why Paul taught that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” and that having an undue desire to accumulate wealth constitutes a denial of the faith (1 Tim. 6:10).
Being greedy is a heresy!
It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically evil with wealth or virtuous with poverty. But the danger of wealth is that one can easily begin to get life from it, while the one advantage of being poor is that one is more easily freed from this idol and is thus more open to receiving true life that comes from God.
Only a person who gets their life from God can be freed from any attachment to wealth and possessions. And only a person who is freed from any attachment to wealth and possessions can genuinely seek God’s will as to how they should share these with people in need.
Meet “The Rich”
And now for the kicker: When I mentioned the tendency of wealthy people to hoard resources and be apathetic toward the poor, I’m guessing some readers were thinking; “Yeah, those nasty rich people are selfish!” Few people identify themselves as rich, let alone greedy. “The rich” are usually identified as those who have more money and possessions than we have.
By global and historical standards, however, the majority of us in America are extremely rich. To be sure, there are unfortunately an increasing number of poor and hungry people in our country. But only the very wealthiest people in history, and only the most fortunate of people in the world today (roughly the top 10%) have a standard of living that comes close to America’s middle class.
So folks, you’re probably included in the class of “the rich” Jesus is talking about. You and I may be very average by American standards, but we’re far from average by global and historical standards.
If Jesus’ warnings about wealth and greed apply to anyone, they apply to most of us.
America, Greed and Gluttony
The tendency of wealth to entrap people in greed has been confirmed in numerous studies. Research has consistently shown that, generally speaking, the more people have, the less percentage of their income they tend to give away.
This is even reflected on a national level in the case of America. In 2000, the gap between the wealth of the average Americans and that of the poorest 25% of people on the planet was four times greater than what it had been in 1960. During this same period of time, the percentage of our country’s Gross National Product (GNP) that went to providing assistance to the poorest 25% of people on the planet decreased to about one tenth of what it had been in 1960! (See Ron Sider, Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger).
In other words, the richer we have gotten as a nation the more we have tended to keep for ourselves and the less we have given to help the poor.
“[W]oe to you who are rich…” (Lk 6:24). Most of us need to take this warning seriously.
We need to remember that the most frequently mentioned reason why God judged nations in the Old Testament was that they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49). In this light, consider that two thirds of Americans are now overweight – with close to one third being obese. Meanwhile, about half the world lives in poverty and close to a billion are malnourished. Upwards of 40,000 people die each day of issues related to poverty, disease and malnutrition.
This has got to make you wonder about the claim, frequently made by Christians, that America is a nation uniquely favored by God. If God was still operating as he sometimes did in the Old Testament, all indications are that America would be on his hit list!
Add to this the fact that we Americans constitute less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume over 25% of its resources. At the same time, measured by the percentage of our GNP that we invest in developing countries, we are the least generous of the developed countries. Consider also that in 2005 America spent twenty-seven times more on our military than we did on helping the poor, even in our own country. Along the same lines, Americans spend enough money on entertainment each year to feed all the hungry people on the planet for a year!
In this light, I don’t think I’m going out on limb too much by claiming that greed and gluttony are rampant in America.
Much more concerning to me, however, is that they are also rampant in the American church. The average American gives 2% of their income to helping people in need. Christians improve on this statistic by less than 1%.
Now, no one is in a position to judge other individuals in terms of how greedy or generous they are. But these statistics certainly tell us something important about Americans as a group – and American Christians as a group. We are guilty of grieving the heart of God by hoarding more resources and food than we need while multitudes of his children around the globe are dying because they have less than they need.
A nation uniquely favored by God? I don’t think so.
The Sin of Sodom
Yet, it’s hard for fish to notice the water they swim in. This perhaps explains why our largely over-fed American congregations rarely hear about the sins of greed, gluttony and apathy toward the poor from our pulpits — despite how emphatically they are mentioned in the Bible. It’s much more comfortable for us to focus on sins we’re not guilty of — like the all-time favorite scapegoat of western religions, homosexuality.
There’s something profoundly ironic in this. In Ezekiel 16:49, cited above, the specific nation Ezekiel is talking about is Sodom. Christians have traditionally assumed that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality (which is how homosexuality came to be referred to as “sodomy”). While it may have been guilty of this as well, the reason Ezekiel says it was judged was because it was “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” and “did not help the poor and needy.”
The irony is that we often hear conservative Christian leaders publicly crusading against the sin of Sodom. And we have to grant that, if ever a nation was guilty of the sin of Sodom, it is indeed America. Yet the sin of Sodom for which we are most guilty is not homosexuality; it is greed, gluttony and apathy toward the poor! And if there’s one ungodly aspect of American culture that the Church has succumbed to, it is this sin.
Yet, instead of confessing that we Christians tend to be guilty of the sin of Sodom, many leaders rather pin the label on homosexuals. They’re trying to take the “speck” of homosexuality out their neighbor’s eye and don’t notice the “plank” of greed, gluttony and apathy in their own (Mt 7:1-3).
What makes this particularly sinister is that, while Jesus repeatedly talked about the sin of greed and the need to care for the poor, he never mentioned homosexuality. The Bible has thousands of passages that warn against hording food and resources and that emphasize the need to care for the poor, while it mentions homosexuality, at most, six times. Moreover, only a small fraction of the population of America is gay, while greed, gluttony and apathy toward the poor permeate the very fabric of our society as well as the Church.
And, on top of all this, hoarding food and resources instead of sharing them demonstrably kills millions. If we wanted to, we could feed the entire world. By contrast, it’s hard to argue homosexuality kills anyone.
How tragic, then, that conservative Christians are known more for their public stances against homosexuality than for the personal sacrifices they make to address poverty and revolt against greed.
All this simply testifies to how easy it is notice the speck of dust you don’t happen to have than it is to notice the log you do have (Mt. 7:1-3). It’s always in the interest of fallen religion to play this judgment game. It’s the easiest way for humans to feel righteous and special before God – in contrast to “those” sinners.
But many prophetic voices are now calling on followers of Jesus to humble ourselves and wake up to our own logs! And there is no log bigger than the way we have allowed ourselves to be co-opted by the sin of Sodom. We hoard more than we need while others go without basic necessities. We have succumbed to the hoarding-god rather than surrendering to the God of outrageous generosity.
God is calling us out of our bondage to wealth. He’s calling us back to our Kingdom duty to imitate Jesus, abandon all possessions and sacrificially serve the poor.
Living with Outrageous Generosity
The call of the Kingdom is to swim upstream against the strong self-centered current that largely defines life in bondage to the hoarding-god. So, when you throw a banquet, Jesus teaches, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Then “you will be blessed,” he says, for these people “cannot repay you” — but God most certainly will (Lk 14:13-14).
This of course doesn’t mean we can’t share meals and have parties with friends and family. Jesus did that – a lot. But it does mean we must be intentional about sharing our resources with the poor and otherwise disadvantaged.
Reflecting the same generous mindset, Jesus and the rest of the New Testament teach us we are to lend to the poor, expecting nothing in return (Lk 6:30, 34,35). If we come upon anyone in need, we’re to offer what we have to help them (Lk 10:29-37). According to the New Testament, we can’t even claim to love God if we ignore the basic needs of people around us (Matt 25:31-46; 1 Jn 3:16-17; Ja.2:14-17).
This is what it looks like for people to submit to the reign of the self-sacrificial God and to hold onto nothing as though they owned it. This is what it looks like to imitate Jesus and to be Good News to the poor.
Discovering Real Life
If you’ve been conditioned by the typical American mindset, the example of Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament regarding our responsibility to serve the poor may feel impossibly onerous. This undoubtedly is one of the reasons they are often minimized, if not completely ignored, by American Christians.
Our culture conditions us to think that living in maximal comfort, convenience and prestige – attaining “the American dream” — is what life is all about. Whatever we may theoretically believe about God, Jesus and the true source of happiness, we’re conditioned by society to instinctively try to find our happiness, worth and security in things.
Not only this, but we’re conditioned by our consumeristic culture to feel like we never have enough. Just about every commercial we see is designed to convince us that we need what they have to offer. For all of its economic advantages, capitalism runs on people remaining hungry for more. If the American population on a whole ever adhered to Paul’s instruction to be content with what we have (1 Tim. 6:8), our economy would collapse!
And so, like the pagans of old that Jesus talked about – but undoubtedly with a much greater consumeristic vengeance – we tend to addictively chase after things (Mt 6: 31-32). Held in bondage to our systematic conditioning, following Jesus’ teaching that calls on us to own nothing and to sacrificially give to the poor may feel like absolute torture.
In point of fact, however, the Kingdom call to live with outrageous generosity is a call to freedom! While our culture along with the prince of lies who rules it conditions us into thinking and feeling that possessing things gives us life, the truth is that whatever we think we possess actually possesses us. Owning things doesn’t give life: it sucks life out of us. The perpetually hungry life of pursuing wealth and possessions is a form of diabolic slavery.
In contrast to this, Jesus’ call to manifest the beauty of God’s self-sacrificial Kingdom is a call to experience abundant life (Jn 10:10). Yes, we must die to the self-centered part of us that is in bondage to the hoarding-god. But if we will crucify that old enslaved self, Jesus promises we will find true life.
This is what the Kingdom is all about. We die to ourselves, our culture, our possessions, our greed, and thus begin to live. And as we manifest the true life of the Kingdom, it spreads — to the poor, the hungry and the oppressed.
Be free. Revolt against greed. Share your wealth with the poor.