The Subtlety of Greed
Dennis the Menace was looking through a toy catalogue at Christmas time and made this comment: “Boy, I didn’t know there were so many toys that I wanted!” In our culture it is normal to think about giving and receiving gifts at Christmas time. In fact, it is a tremendous blessing to see the smiles a thoughtful gift brings to someone we care about. But if we think about how our culture has abused this tradition with the emphasis on merchandising and profit and Black Friday, it is not a stretch to conclude that this tradition might be fuel that feeds the sin of greed. (Actually most sin is in some way an abuse of something that began as good.) I suggest the following definition of greed: Greed is an eager (present) unrestrained ( no discipline) insatiable (never satisfied) longing expressed in the accumulation of wealth or possessions for the purpose of self-advancement. Now, to think that the average church-going believer might be greedy is quite a personal accusation. But if simply leafing through a catalogue fuels the longing for toys that previously were unknown, one conclusion is that Dennis the Menace had a problem with greed. Are we all that different? I want to consider a familiar passage of Scripture from Mark 10 to discuss this possibility.
Jesus tells the story of a young man who came to him and asked a simple question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” From outward appearances this young man was an upright and righteous person, just like most church-going Christians. Here is a man who (apparently) was humble enough to realize that he had a way to go in his life of righteousness, so he came to Jesus and asked what he could do to take the next step. This question seems like a perfectly appropriate one to pose to Jesus. But Jesus’ conversation with him demonstrated otherwise. (I am grateful to Timothy Keller whose sermon on Greed percolated many of these ideas.) Here is how Jesus heard this question. “Jesus, I know you are good and I’m also pretty good. We are ahead of most people aren’t we? But Jesus, help me out. What must I do so I can become “more good”, and make some progress – maybe even become as good as you?” Jesus went for the jugular. “There is no one good but God alone so there is absolutely no way you can ever be good. You can keep the commandments and even admit that you are not perfect, but that won’t make you good.” With that comment Jesus teaches this young man and all who are listening, that eternal life cannot be earned by doing anything. Christianity is not something we do! It is totally what Jesus has done. Neither is eternal life something we add on to an already together earthly life. This young man had his religious discipline set, since his youth, and now he wanted to add the last piece of his spiritual puzzle by coming to Jesus. However, Jesus will not be an “add on!” No one comes to the Father but by him, and him alone! So, to get to the bottom of the issue, Jesus desired to convince this young man that he had a sin problem, which was an act of love (Vs. 21). Sin separates us from God and only when our sin is forgiven can we inherit eternal life. Unless we realize that we have a sin problem, and confess that sin, and receive forgiveness that is totally based on the grace of God demonstrated by the cross, our efforts to inherit eternal life will fall woefully short. This particular man had a sin problem with greed, and to prove it, Jesus asked him to sell all of his possessions, give them to the poor and follow him. However, he went away sorrowful. How sad. Jesus brought him to the place where he could have received salvation, but his greed stood in the way.
Those who were listening to this conversation were shocked with Jesus. Vs. 26, “Then who can be saved?” If this guy cannot be saved, there is no hope for anybody. Jesus’ response is like this: “You are correct. There is no hope for anybody if they think they can do something or add Jesus to their already together life to make them pleasing to God. Salvation comes only by God’s grace.” (Vs. 27)
This particular situation was about sin that kept a young man from salvation. But how does this principle apply to those already saved? The idea is so subtle we might miss it. We come to Jesus with the same misunderstanding as this young man. We think we are good based on our good works. We think we are pleasing to God because we make sure Jesus is a part of our daily lives. But it is not about what we do nor is it about adding Jesus to an already together life. If we think it is, we are being misled and this covers up sin in our lives that keeps us from God’s best. This story reminds us that greed is one of those sins. Here is a simple question to ask that might help us discover if we have a problem with greed. I preface it by suggesting that God does not ask all believers to sell all of their possessions and give them to the poor. But here is the question – if he did, would you do it? Could you do it? If you hesitate, consider that you may have the same problem this young man had.
Greed is a bondage that grips us and has the potential to ruin us. Listen to the Apostle Paul:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1Ti 6:9-10 ESV)
This is serious stuff. American Christians fall into this trap so easily. The sin of greed is so subtle. We are more like the young man in Mark 10 than we care to admit, thinking that we are pretty humble to admit we might need to grow and that adding a little more of Jesus might actually help us be more pleasing to God. But underneath this appearance of righteousness, there lurks the ugliness of sin – and to apply Mark 10, it may be the sin of greed. How about you? Can you even consider that you might be a greedy person? But freedom from greed does not come from what we do, or from what we might add to our already together life. It comes only when we consider the cross, the ultimate solution to all sin, including greed, and that will be the subject of my next post.