We are in the middle of a very serious epidemic in this country. No, the Center for Disease Control has not issued any warnings, and doctors and health care professionals have not reported any outbreak of disease or plague. But the epidemic we face is real, powerful, and very dangerous. It is an Affluenza epidemic.
Affluenza is the desire to possess more and more stuff, and the affluenza epidemic is the spreading of this wanting throughout our culture. And unfortunately, though Christians follow a man of poverty, we too have fallen victim to affluenza.
Jesus had a great deal to say about wealth and possessions and our proper response to them. Indeed, Jesus constantly provoked his hearers with radical ideas about wealth and possessions; ideas so radical that we still attempt to explain them away or ignore them altogether. At the heart of his message was a strong warning against affluenza, or to use a more offensive term, greed.
Defining a term like greed can be somewhat difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy. So, a clear definition of the term greed, apart from a dictionary meaning, is quite difficult to pin down.
But I think we can at least come to some level of an understanding of the concept of greed from a discipleship viewpoint. To do so, we need to see greed along two intersecting planes: The vertical and the horizontal.
The vertical plane of greed is our greed in terms of our relationship to God. When we are greedy, that is when we desire more and more wealth and possessions, we put these things in the place of God. We make wealth an idol and we serve mammon as our god. This is what Jesus warns us against when he states that we cannot serve both God and mammon, for one will always come before the other in receiving our devotion.
It is this vertical plane of greed we find convicting, but manageable. The remedy we have for greed against God is just to say to ourselves, and to God, that we do not put wealth and possessions in place of God; mammon is not our idol. After all, many of us do not consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God when we do not see ourselves as wealthy?
Moreover, we quickly defend our innocence of vertical greed by saying that we always put God first. We pray, we attend worship, we do good things, and here is the big one, we tithe, perhaps even more than 10%. Yes, many, if not all of us, would quickly say that we are not guilty of greed against God, for wealth is not our idol.
The other intersecting plane, however, is what catches us. The horizontal plane is our greed in relation to our fellow human beings. Just as Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments, to love both God and our neighbors, are of equal value, so Scripture is also clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need. As John rightly asks, “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” John’s rhetorical question implies that one cannot logically say they love God and also withhold aid from those in need.
So, although we can rationalize that we are not greedy because we do not put possessions in the place reserved for God, our hoarding and not sharing with others reveals our true spirit of greed toward others and toward God.
Greed is caused by placing inappropriate value on possessions that lead us to rationalize why we need this new thing or that new thing. Once we begin to make such rationalizations, we become trapped in an uncontrollable sequence of desiring more, obtaining more, and then desiring more. We fall victim to the affluenza epidemic.
But if we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective and the use of our possessions can change. We can begin to see the essential worth of possessions primarily as God’s gracious gifts given to meet our basic needs, and not as things we cling to. Such a perspective sets us free from the need to want more, and we can reject wealth as an idol in order to serve God fully.
Moreover this view of possessions and the proper use of them can also save us from the horizontal direction of greed. When we see the central value of possessions as meeting our basic needs, we can find the strength to repent of our lives of hoarding and self-indulgence and we can be free to practice lives of generosity through which we seek God’s justice for the poor.