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 the point of view of Jesus. 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 toward God, 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 kind of greed that most Christians associate with sin; greed is putting material things before God.
But, although we might find this vertical plane of greed convicting, we also believe it to be manageable. We believe this kind of greed is more easily overcome through our words that convince us that we are not guilty of the sin of greed. 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? And those Christians who are wealthy simply argue that they have been blessed by God with their wealth.
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. And this is perhaps why Jesus has more to say about our holding possessions in light of the plight of the poor. 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, and perhaps an even greater sin, 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. When we hoard our wealth and possessions, however large or small that amount is, we neglect the needs of those who are in great need. Doing this is the tell-tale sign of where our hearts really are.
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.
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, if we change our perspective of possessions to be the things that meet our basic needs, we can also act more generously toward those who are in much greater need than we are. We can share our money and possessions with the hurting in our neighborhoods, our communities, and indeed across the globe.
I recently preached at a church in which the following served as the Prayer of Confession:
O God, Source of all that makes life possible, Giver of all that makes life good, we gather to give you our thanks. Yet we confess that we have often failed to live thankful lives: What we have we take for granted, and we grumble about what we lack. We have squandered your bounty with little thought for those who will come after us. We are more troubled by the few who have more than we do, than by the many who have so much less.
What struck me the most about this prayer was the last sentence: “We are more troubled by the few who have more than we do, than by the many who have so much less.” Unfortunately, in the current economic state of our nation, the latter group is growing larger and is increasingly being neglected.
Greed is a desire to have what others have. When we cannot, we become jealous of their riches. But Jesus calls us to reverse our gaze by turning from our desire to have what others have, to notice and serve those who have less. In doing so, we will not only find healing from greed; we will also become more generous towards and find community with the people with whom Jesus found community.