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The sin of greed

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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In the Bible, “greed” is choosing to sin for material gain: “A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live” (Proverbs 15:27). Note the Hebrew parallelism: greed = bribery. We are greedy when we will commit illegal or immoral acts to get more.

Jeremiah adds: “Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay is the man who gains riches by unjust means” (Jeremiah 17:11a). Greed is at the heart of every sin for material gain. Remember the Enron scandal, government corruption, and marketplace imbezzlement in recent news stories. Each is motivated by material greed.

It comes from needing more than we need: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 5:10)

What is wrong with greed?

In Scripture, there are at least six reasons why greed is a sin.

It harms the innocent: “A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live” (Proverbs 15:27).

•”When the owners of the slave girl [in Philippi] realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities” (Acts 16:19).

•”At the same time [Felix] was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him” (Acts 24:26). Thus Paul was kept in prison in Caesarea for two years.

It harms the greedy: “We will get all sorts of valuable things and fill our houses with plunder” (Proverbs 1:13). But with this result: “their feet rush into sin, they are swift to shed blood. How useless to spread a net in full view of all the birds! These men lie in wait for their own blood; they waylay only themselves! Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the lives of those who get it” (vs. 16-19). James warns us: “Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days” (James 5:3).

We can never have enough: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10). One of the Rockefellers was asked how much money is enough. He smiled and replied, “Just a little more.”

Wealth alone will fail us: “When [a greedy man’s] life is half gone, [riches] will desert him, and in the end he will prove to be a fool” (Jeremiah 17.11b).

Greed will lead us from the faith: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10).

•Judas asked, “‘What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?’ So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over” (Matthew 26:15-16).

•”They have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Balaam son of Beor, who loved the wages of wickedness” (2 Peter 2:15).

Greed will bring the judgment of God: Remember the sin of Achan: “When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath” (Joshua 7:21).

With this result: “Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned [his family], they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor ever since” (vs. 25-26). This was one of the sins of the Jews, for which they were brought to disaster by God: “They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:7).

Who is susceptible to greed?

Religious leaders: “Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are mute dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. They are dogs with mighty appetites; they never have enough. They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, each seeks his own gain. ‘Come,’ each one cries, ‘let me get wine! Let us drink our fill of beer! And tomorrow will be like today, or even far better'” (Isaiah 56:10-12); “[Israel’s] leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money” (Micah 3:11).

Religious children: “[Samuel’s] sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3).

The wealthy: A study of 26 Wall Street account executives reports that NYC stockbrokers pulling down the biggest paychecks were also those suffering higher levels of depression, burnout and other afflictions. “In essence, these . . . brokers appear to be paying for financial success with their mental health and quality of life,” report the researchers (Casualties of Wall Street: An Assessment of the Walking Wounded by Alden M. Cass, John Lewis and Ed Simco).

The poor: Wanting what we don’t have can lead to sin as easily as wanting more of it. Thus we see looting in Iraq, corruption in Russia, crime in American ghettoes.

The cure for greed

Don’t confuse wealth with worth (1 Timothy 6:6)

Money must be combined with godliness, to be gain with God. Wealth doesn’t disqualify us from godliness. Many wealthy men in the Bible were also used greatly by the Lord:

•”Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold” (Genesis 13:2).

•”Isaac planted crops in that land and the same year reaped a hundredfold, because the Lord blessed him. The man became very rich, and his wealth continued to grow until he became very wealthy” (Genesis 26:12-13).

•”[Jacob] grew exceedingly prosperous and came to his own large flocks, and maidservants and manservants, and camels and donkeys” (Gen. 30:43).

•”[David] died at a good old age, having enjoyed long life, wealth and honor” (1 Chronicles 29:28).

•”[Solomon] made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills” (2 Chronicles 1:15); “King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth” (2 Chrronicles 9:22).

•”[Job] owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen and 500 donkeys, and a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East” (Job 1:3).

•”As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock” (Matthew 27:57-60).

But wealth doesn’t guarantee worth, either. The old Jewish theology held that wealth proves righteousness. God always rewards the righteous with prosperity and punishes the wicked with poverty. If you’re wealthy, you must be right with God. If you’re poor, you’re being punished.

If this is true, why did Jesus have no place to lay his head? Why were his disciples itinerant in their ministries? Why were most of the early church the common people, many of them slaves in the Empire? Because there is no direct correlation between wealth and godliness.

Don’t let your possessions make you spiritual complacent. And don’t identify your worth with your wealth, or you’ll always need more. You’ll sin for material gain, and need more than you need.

Trust God, not gain

Money is always an unstable foundation for life. You can take nothing with you when you die. So don’t build on this foundation. Don’t trust gain but God. Money is unstable.

Have you heard of “The Seven Ages of Man”?

•First age: the child sees the earth.

•Second age: he wants it.

•Third age: he hustles to get it.

•Fourth age: he decides to be satisfied with half of it.

•Fifth age: he’s satisfied with less than half of it.

•Sixth age: he’s content to possess a six-by-two foot section of it.

•Seventh age: he gets it.

Proverbs 27:24 is clear: “Riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.” I’ve never seen a U-haul attached to a hearse. The Spanish have a proverb: a burial shroud has no pockets. When we bury our deceased, we put nothing in their pockets.

An American tourist was visiting a Jewish rabbi in Israel. The rabbi’s home was very simple: a bed, a change of clothes, a towel and blanket. No television, radio, or computer. “Why do you live so simply?” the tourist asked. “Well, you have only enough things to fill a suitcase. Why do you live so simply?” the rabbi replied. “But I’m just a tourist. I’m only passing through,” the man responded. “So am I,” smiled the rabbi.

We are tempted to greed when we think that gain is a solid foundation for life. Thus we sin for material gain, and need more than we need. But having things today is no guarantee that we will have them tomorrow.

Refuse the love of money

God’s word does not condemn money as evil, but it does condemn the “love of money.” When our work for material provision leads us to sin, it is greed. And this is a deadly sin, indeed. Here are some reasons why.

When we love money, we compromise our integrity: “One eager to get rich will not go unpunished. To show partiality is not good—yet a man will do wrong for a piece of bread. A stingy man is eager to get rich and is unaware that poverty awaits him” (Proverbs 28:20-22). When we love money, we’ll use people to get it. We’ll compromise our integrity and character. We can have wealth and integrity—but we cannot love both. One will always serve the other.

When we love money, it’s hard to love God: “The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). When we’re serving money, it’s hard to serve God: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

When we love money, it’s easy to forget God: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).

Make the prayer of Proverbs yours: “Two things I ask of you, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?'” (Proverbs 30:7-9). When we love money we become self-sufficient rather than Christ-dependent.

So refuse the love of money, or it will lead you to the deadly sin of greed. Remember: the most important things in life are not things.

Use your means for the Master

Put your hope in God. Use your money for the kingdom. Invest in eternity. And you will receive the joy and eternal reward only he can bestow.