Greed: Where do you draw the line?

Deadly Sin Sermon Series, 5 out of 7 — 11/13/2010
Text: Mark 10:17-22

We all recognize greed, right? It usually involves a stout old man wearing a top hat and smoking a cigar. Or it’s the Grinch who stole Christmas. Or Mr. Burns. My favorite is this cartoon of a man stuffing his face with money itself. It’s pretty easy to determine who’s greedy: it’s anyone who has more than I do.

If I have a waterski boat, then I judge people with yachts for being greedy. If I have a cabin in the Shenandoah, then I judge people with cabins in Aspen. If I have a townhouse, then people with McMansions are greedy. If I have a McMansion, then people with McMansions who live in gated communities are greedy. And of course, to people in refugee camps, all of us are greedy.

But to confront the sin of greed in our own lives, we need to dig deeper. Having money is not a bad thing; true greed is an attitude of seeing the world as a hostile, brutally competitive place in which my only duty is to take care of myself and my family. This attitude is captured perfectly in the character of Gordon Gecko, the corporate raider who is the chief villain of the 1987 movie Wall Street.

Let’s look at what I would call the gospel of Gordon Gecko: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed… will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

Gordon Gecko’s gospel is basically a form of “survival of the fittest.” He believes in “the invisible hand of the market” – that the greed of investors like him provides for the common good through innovation that creates jobs and advances the species. The problem is that if the world is a greedy place in which you can’t trust anybody, there’s no reason to engage in trustworthy practices yourself. Gecko makes his millions not by coming up with new ideas that create jobs for people but through insider trading and hostile corporate takeovers where he sucks profits out of companies by selling off their assets and firing their employees.

If this cut-throat, dog-eat-dog culture is just the way the world is supposed to work, then Gecko’s gospel is right – greed is good. If there’s no benevolent God intervening graciously in human life at every step, opening doors for us and creating social harmony between us, then it’s appropriate to assume that nobody else will look out for me so I have to look out for myself and my family.

Thankfully there is an alternative to Gecko’s gospel. Jesus invites us to leave the dog-eat-dog world behind and enter into a kingdom of people who put their trust in Him. Jesus’ invitation is presented the most radically in his encounter with the rich young man in Mark 10:17-27. Read with me:

 “As Jesus he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

So who’s ready to go to the bank, liquidate your entire account in 10’s and 20’s, then go outside and throw them up in the air so you can make a cardboard sign that says “Following Jesus. Please help” and find a place to sit and beg? Well, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is asking us to do. It would be a lot easier if Jesus came in his tunic and sandals to save us from our cubicle prisons and take us to a hippie commune in the desert. But Jesus’ invitation to the rich man is not about flinging off the complexities and responsibilities of the modern world. Some are called to leave the world for a monastery, and we would all do well to downshift our lives for less money and more time for our families and God. But that’s not the fault line between the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of Gordon Gecko.

What makes us un-greedy is not how frugally we spend our money, how little fun we have, and how bland our food tastes. The opposite of being greedy is to put all of our trust in Jesus Christ and to give Him absolute Lordship over our lives, renouncing forever the pursuit of self-interest around which our society, the world of Gordon Gecko, is defined. The young rich man is willing to do what it takes to get the trophy of salvation. What he doesn’t understand is that salvation is not a trophy; it’s not a reward that God bestows on us for getting through confirmation class, saying all the right things and doing all the right things, or even praying Jesus into our hearts. Salvation is what happens when God rescues us from the race for trophies. And that can only happen when we put ourselves under the Lordship of Jesus, which is the one thing the rich young man was not willing to do.

It’s not that Jesus has a big ego and likes bossing other people around. Jesus wants us to make Him Lord over our lives because that’s the only way we will be rescued from the permanent nightmare of our greed. Without an all-loving Lord to serve, we have two choices: fight for the trophies of the world or get trampled by the surrounding mob of people who want them. If we give ourselves to Jesus and renounce the desperate battle of greed, we might get kicked around by the greed of others, but that will not be what defines us. Instead we will be able to name whatever suffering we face as something we have suffered with Christ, who was so the opposite of greedy that He let Himself get crucified so that we could form a body of people whose trust in Him has saved us from the hopeless race of greed.

Now that sounds fine and everything, but what does it mean in practical terms if you’re not a rich stockbroker but just a hard-working middle-class suburbanite in Northern Virginia? If you’ve been around church for a while, then you’re probably familiar with the word “stewardship.” Every church has an annual stewardship campaign in which we delicately remind people to put your money in the offering plate! But stewardship is about so much more than fundraising. Stewardship is the lifestyle of people who see the world not as the ferocious jungle that Gordon Gecko lives in, but as a harmonious kingdom in which all of our opportunities and resources have been given to us by a benevolent Creator for a purpose that can give our lives true meaning.

Stewardship means acknowledging that what we have is really not our property but God’s. If we recognize that God is the one who has worked through the people we’ve met and opportunities we’ve encountered to give us every blessing that we have, then we can do better than giving God one hour a week and putting our 10% in the offering plate. The rich young man was happy to give his tithe and do his weekly thing at the Temple; I’m sure he would have been happy to play “positive and encouraging family friendly Christian radio” as the soundtrack for his self-centered journey; what he was not willing to do was to order his whole life – money and time – according to God’s will. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once preached: “There is no employment of our time, no action or conversation that is purely indifferent. All is good or bad, because all our time, as everything we have, is not our own. All these are… the property… of God, our Creator…. [They] either are or are not employed according to his will.”

That may sound brutal and Puritan, but Jesus’ yoke is much lighter than the yoke of greed. I can be a much more ruthless slave-master for myself than Jesus ever would be if every waking moment of my life is devoted to making sure that I get my piece of the pie and sufficiently hyper-programming my kids to get theirs. Jesus is calling us away from the self-torturing, high-stress lifestyle that greed creates into a restful, peaceful life – a daily rhythm of worship in which we seek to belong more to God rather than focusing our energy on what belongs to us.

Freedom from greed comes through living in faithful stewardship of God’s blessings. When we’re deciding where to go for dinner, how many sports camps to sign up our kids for, or how much to spend for paintings to hang on our walls, the question we should be asking is how each thing that we do fits into God’s plan for our lives. Are we doing what we do to compete with other people and elbow our way to a slice of the American dream? Or is our resting, eating, exercising, playing, studying, worshiping, and praying all done out of faithful stewardship of God’s gifts for the purpose of making us the people who God created us to be? Leave the nightmare world of greed behind; come further in the kingdom of a God who loves you and who never will stop sharing all that He has with you.

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