by Daniel Harrell
You may remember me telling you the Southern preacher story about a well-known, wealthy good ol’ feller calling up a church office one day and hollering at the secretary: “Is the head hog at the trough?” The secretary, familiar with such pork-laden colloquialisms, politely responded, “Sir, we refer to our Senior Pastor as Reverend, not head hog.” “Sorry ‘bout that missy,” the rich man barked back, “I was just calling about making a big ol’ fat contribution to the building fund.” “Oh, just a minute,” the secretary replied as she caught the pastor’s arrival out of the corner of her eye, “Here comes that fat pig now!”
We laugh at this due to our familiarity with money’s power to adversely twist human demeanor. Some suggest our demeanors are preconditioned, that we humans have been trained to salivate at any cha-ching like so many Pavlovian dogs. Others argue for an innate predisposition, evidenced in the toddler’s primal cry of mine! usually spoken after the first exclamation of No! Still others blame human will. G. K. Chesterton once quipped, “To be clever enough to get a great deal of money, one must be stupid enough to want it.” It is this passion to possess—be it ingrained or inborn or deliberate—that moral traditions of all stripes have relegated to the category of cardinal vice. Of the 500 plus references to evil in the Bible, none explicitly mention its origin save one. 1 Timothy 6:10: “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Greed is a deadly sin.
We’re looking at the Deadly Sins this Lent— all seven: gluttony, lust, greed, anger, sloth, envy and pride—perversions recognized by early Christians as cancers on the soul. They bend love meant for God and our neighbor back onto our selves. Martin Luther called the disease incurvatus in se—the self curved inward—self-focused, self-centered, self-indulged, self-absorbed, self-esteemed and self-worshiped. Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the term “buffered self,” shut off and independent, not needing or wanting to need anybody else. Psychologist Richard Beck cites our obsession with “boundaries”—a therapeutic practice for extreme situations we’ve extrapolated to everyday life. Economic analogies take hold: “you have to make sure your love bank gets enough deposits to offset the relational investments we make in others.” Such love bears no resemblance to anything we read championed in Scripture. Sin derives its energy from the good things it perverts.
The Bible is emphatic in its caution against greed. As you heard read from Ecclesiastes a few minutes ago: “The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain.” The Psalmist adds: “This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they increase in wealth.” And then from James: “Listen, you rich, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire.” And from Paul: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” And of course from Jesus: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. …Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. …You cannot serve both God and money. …It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
This last line, you’ll recall, Jesus spoke after an encounter with a wealthy good ol’ feller. Asked whether he kept God’s commandments, the rich feller happily hollered, you betcha, ever since I was a boy! And Jesus loved him for his enthusiasm. “Just one thing you lack,” Jesus said. “Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.” The rich man walked away sad. I mean, c’mon, you gotta be realistic.
Jesus shocked his disciples, “It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” he said. The disciples figured that piety plus possessions was a sign of God’s blessing. Having a lot meant God liked you a lot. But Jesus turned that notion on its head. And just so he wouldn’t be misunderstood, he added for emphasis: “It is easier to thread a needle with a camel than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” Shock descended into despondency. The disciples looked at each other and bemoaned: “Well then who the heck can be saved? If a pious rich guy is out, what chance do poor sinners have?” Jesus then served up the punch line: “All things are possible with God.”
Some take this to mean God can save even the greedy. And they are right. But salvation of the greedy always entails salvation from greediness. You can do nothing to earn your grace, but you have to do something to show you’ve received it. Simplicity, contentment and generosity all count as fruit of the Spirit-filled life. And Jesus said you can tell a tree by its fruit. Grace in our hearts receives whatever we enjoy as goodness from God. As soon as you think something is your possession, you start to think you control it. But receiving everything as gift loosens your grip, allowing possessions held tightly to be treated as goods we share. Grace allows a happy life within your means instead of within your imagination. You’ve don’t have to pretend to be somebody you’re not. The curved self fools itself. Any sense of self-importance always relies upon self-delusion.
Among the best parts of March Madness—aside from your alma mater having a shot at winning the tournament (Go Tar Heels)—is watching the games on the biggest screen you can own. When my embarrassingly tiny 47 incher finally and thankfully went dark a few seasons back, I was elated. Time for a new TV! I responsibly checked our budget and determined what we could afford and found an excellent, and slightly larger, option online. In this vein of good stewardship, rather than paying to have it delivered (and having to wait one more minute), I decided to drive to Best Buy and pick it up.
A television that looks adequate in the two-dimensional isolation of a website appears downright contemptible in the store. I stood still and was awed by aisles and aisles of state-of-the-art technological masterpieces with their shiny, high-def pictures and crisp sounds surrounding me. I suffered plasma envy. What seemed a satisfactory purchase a mere hour prior now felt downright immoral.
The sales rep, trained to sniff out consumer insecurity and greed, smelled me. He could tell, he said, that I was a man of discriminating taste with refined viewing needs. “Whatever size you think you need,” he said, “you really need something bigger.” “Yeah,” I replied, mesmerized. I mentioned I didn’t budget for really huge and awesome, but he told me that by taking advantage of their limited-time no-interest for 90 days instant credit, I could actually save $500.00 by spending $1000.00 more than I’d planned. It would be a wise move, plus, he added with a wink, think of how envious you’ll make all your buddies down at the bar! I told him I was a minister—but church folk can get pretty envious too! Wink!
As of 2016, each American averages about $6000 in monthly credit card debt. Payments on debt account for nearly 92% of disposable income. Think you’re too smart for such silliness? According to one Harvard study, “…people with the highest [educations] are the ones most susceptible to paying extra for designer names, status, and prestige.” You know, like going to Harvard. Some say debt makes for good economics. But good economics can be lousy spirituality. Jesus said you can’t serve both God and money.
Mercifully, I came to my senses. Dawn made me take the big TV back. Turned out the trouble with ours was just a blown out capacitor. Cost me 75 bucks and a screwdriver to fix myself.
Greed does deceive. It justifies, and greases our inward curve; greed ruins relationships, distorts priorities, saps joy from our work, monopolizes our time, buries us in debt, bankrupts our future, enslaves us to our self-image and hardens our hearts to the needs of the poor. Our value and worth as humans becomes determined by our value and worth. We pay high prices for ephemera such as fancy TVs or jewelry or clothes or cars: symbols of prosperity that are coveted because they are costly. We spend a great deal of money for the advantage of being seen as having spent a great deal of money. This status easily evaporates, however, vaporized by the winds of fashion, dried out and rendered commonplace or passé—leading Jesus to offer his own investment advice: store your treasure in heaven instead where neither moth nor rust nor changing style can diminish it.
This is a good place to stop and make a church stewardship pitch. Not that giving to the church is storing up treasure in heaven per se, but it is better than hoarding all your money for yourself. Tithing, like fasting, is the habitual, spiritual discipline of loosening our attachment to money—an attachment that builds and tightens before we are even aware. Besides, Jesus commands us to do it. Not that we have to sell all we have. A tithe is just ten percent. Moreover, prosperity is not a Biblical vice. Diligence at work, a good education, faithful relationships—these are all Christian virtues that can result in financial gain. And financial gain always comes with the expectation of financial generosity. “From everyone to whom much is given, much will be required,” Jesus said. The concern is not prosperity, but what prosperity can do to us.
The Proverbs speak of prosperity as the “reward of the righteous,” which is why, like the disciples, many tend to equate financial gain with divine favor. But Biblical prosperity denotes a contentedness independent of one’s bank balance. The most prosperous people in the Bible are often the most monetarily impoverished. As we read the apostle Paul express it to the Philippians apropos to gluttony, “I have learned the secret of being content whatever the circumstances, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” The verse applies to greed too. Jesus’ invitation to the rich man to sell whatever he had was not a call to poverty, but a call to genuine faith and trust in the Lord.
Years ago I spent an evening with a group of business school students who struggled with what it meant to be a “successful Christian” at work. As far as they could tell, exemplars of “Christian success”—when measured by achievement, credentials, notoriety, profit and numerical superiority—derived their status from the same human proclivity toward avarice and ambition as it did for those who didn’t follow Jesus. Where were the Christians who refused inordinate salaries or lucrative contracts because “the love of money is the root of all evil”? Where were the Christians whose careers were reordered for service and the common good instead of shareholder profit so as to more fully “love their neighbor”? Where were the Christians who shunned lavish lifestyles because “the Son of Man had no place to lay his head”? Where were the Christians who promoted others up company org charts before themselves because Jesus said, “the first must be the very last and servant of all”? Where were the Christians who eschewed fame and fortune so not to “blow any trumpets before people” like Jesus said? Where were the Christians who refrained from overworking in order to get ahead because, “people who want to get rich fall into a trap”? Wouldn’t this be success in Jesus’ eyes? I’m sure such Christians exist, but we just don’t hear about them, since, like Jesus said, they don’t live out their faith for people to praise. They do their good deeds in secret, and their Father, who sees in secret, rewards their righteousness.
We’re on the cusp of calling a new Minister to Students and Mission from one of the most successful churches in America. 1000 students show up on Wednesday nights. 300 kids are in their Confirmation Class. 20,000 people attend every Easter. Who cuts up the communion bread for all those people? And why would you ever want to work here? During our interviews I asked this question a hundred times. The answer I keep getting is that following Jesus and serving the Lord is not about how many people but about how much love. Love, true community, deep relationship: these are virtues metrics don’t account for and big numbers obscure. Jesus extols the shepherd who leaves a huge flock of sheep to go after just one. This is what God is like.
Not that Jesus never talked big numbers. “There is no one who has left what they have for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times as much treasure now” he promised, “along with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.” Some wonder why Jesus had to include persecutions. Truth is, we will suffer for our faith whenever we behave like what we say we believe. As to the hundredfold treasure, I mentioned last Sunday and other Sundays before how it’s not about the money, but about being faithful friends for each other, brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we walk through every aspect of life, joy and sorrow, rich and poor, better or worse, constant and loyal and beautiful and more than enough. Christian love is by definition communal and self-giving; just like God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We cling to our things because we’re scared and anxious about tomorrow. Greed plays to our fears. It whispers sweet nothings, tempting you to believe God won’t take care of you—at least not the way you want to be cared for. Instead of contentment with whatever God gives—a security money can’t buy—greed makes us worry that we won’t have enough. Let loose and let God and you might lose some money. You’ll find yourself in deeper relationships and experiencing real love: messy and uncomfortable and time consuming. You might end up needing people. You may have to pray more. You’ll have to trust Jesus as he really exists rather than the delusion you’ve made up in your mind. But having truly trusted Jesus, you will find that not only can God thread needles with camels, but he can stitch you into the fabric of his Kingdom, clothe you with good life and finally free you from want.