I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a Christian’s proper relationship to material wealth – especially in terms of what’s appropriate for us to desire and what’s not. The difficulty comes in trying to draw lines. When do our desires become excessive? How do we know when we’re pursuing the things of this world above the kingdom of God? Where does ambition stop and greed begin?
Greed – that’s what I want to talk about today. But not so much talk about as discuss with you. What I want to know is how you define greed. What is greed? How do you know when you’re being greedy? How can Christians protect themselves from becoming greedy?
Let’s look at a few definitions of greed, and then I’ll show you why I think it’s such an important concept to understand. The Bible says quite a bit about those who are greedy, and it’s not good…
Definitions of Greed
Dictionary.com states that greed is “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions”. In other words, greed is when you’d extort, rip off, and even steal to get more money. Obviously, that would violate Scripture and Jesus’ command to love our neighbors.
On the other hand, WordNet, a project at Princeton University, defines greed as an “excessive desire to acquire or possess more (especially more material wealth) than one needs or deserves”. That’s a much more difficult definition to wrestle with, isn’t it? Where do we set our level of “need” or of what we “deserve”? And when does a desire to acquire more than that level become “excessive”?
I’ve talked before about needs versus wants. We act like many things are needs when they’re actually just wants. Our needs are very few: food and water, clothing, and shelter and warmth depending on your local climate. In the strictest sense, that’s all we truly need.
And within each of those categories there’s a level beyond which the need becomes a want. We only need food that’s edible and enough to keep us going. We only need clean water. We only need enough shelter and warmth to protect us from the elements and provide a place to rest. And even that one is debatable to some extent.
I don’t say these things to make myself or you feel greedy if we want anything beyond the most basic of necessities. I say it to point out how difficult it is to get a grasp on what greed really means. Most Americans would not think me greedy if I wanted a modest 1,000 square foot home. But even the smallest of homes in the U.S. are luxurious by most world standards simply because they don’t have a dirt floor!
In the same way, it’s easy for me to look at Dave Ramsey’s new house and say “That’s too much!”, but I’m sure my friends in Haiti would consider me quite wealthy to be able to rent the small house I’m in now. I think they’d say the same of Dave Ramsey, but it does cause me to step back and examine myself a bit more closely.
What do you think? Is greed more of the stop-at-nothing-to-get-more definition, or is it closer to the “excessive”-desire-for-more-than-you-need definition? Let me know what you think in the comments at the bottom of the page, but let’s take a look at greed in the Bible.
Greed in the Bible
Checking the dictionary is all fine and well, but I think it’s more helpful to see what the Bible says about greed if we’re trying to look at this from a Christian perspective. Most of what I read online tends to point at the Christian definition of greed as the stop-at-nothing-to-get-more style. I certainly think that’s included, but I wonder if we’re not held to that higher standard.
So I’ve found several verses that discuss greed. Coveting is another way the Bible talks about greed, so I’ve included verses that use either word or concept (like “love of money”). Let’s look at them and see if we can draw a conclusion about the Bible’s definition of greed. I’ll list the verses below and include any additional verses needed to get the context. All verses are from the World English Bible (WEB) version, but if you click the link on the reference you can get just about any version you want.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.
Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
You shall burn the engraved images of their gods with fire. You shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it for yourself, lest you be snared in it; for it is an abomination to Yahweh your God.
20 Achan answered Joshua, and said, “I have truly sinned against Yahweh, the God of Israel, and this is what I have done. 21 When I saw among the spoil a beautiful Babylonian robe, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels, then I coveted them and took them. Behold, they are hidden in the ground in the middle of my tent, with the silver under it.”
2 In arrogance, the wicked hunt down the weak. They are caught in the schemes that they devise. 3 For the wicked boasts of his heart’s cravings. He blesses the greedy, and condemns Yahweh.
17 For in vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird: 18 but these lay wait for their own blood. They lurk secretly for their own lives. 19 So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain. It takes away the life of its owners.
He who is greedy for gain troubles his own house, but he who hates bribes will live.
There are those who covet greedily all day long; but the righteous give and don’t withhold.
One who is greedy stirs up strife; but one who trusts in Yahweh will prosper.
Yes, the dogs are greedy, they can never have enough; and these are shepherds who can’t understand: they have all turned to their own way, each one to his gain, from every quarter.
But your eyes and your heart are not but for your covetousness, and for shedding innocent blood, and for oppression, and for violence, to do it.
In you have they taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest and increase, and you have greedily gained of your neighbors by oppression, and have forgotten me, says the Lord Yahweh.
They covet fields, and seize them; and houses, and take them away: and they oppress a man and his house, even a man and his heritage.
21 For from within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, 22 covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness.
He said to them, “Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness, for a man’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses.”
33 I coveted no one’s silver, or gold, or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands served my necessities, and those who were with me.
For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not give false testimony,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
9 I wrote to you in my letter to have no company with sexual sinners; 10 yet not at all meaning with the sexual sinners of this world, or with the covetous and extortioners, or with idolaters; for then you would have to leave the world. 11 But as it is, I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who is called a brother who is a sexual sinner, or covetous, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner. Don’t even eat with such a person.
1 Corinthians 5:9-11
17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardening of their hearts; 19 who having become callous gave themselves up to lust, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
3 But sexual immorality, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not even be mentioned among you, as becomes saints; 4 nor filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not appropriate; but rather giving of thanks. 5 Know this for sure, that no sexually immoral person, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God.
1 If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory. 5 Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry; 6 for which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience.
3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine, and doesn’t consent to sound words, the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, 4 he is conceited, knowing nothing, but obsessed with arguments, disputes, and word battles, from which come envy, strife, insulting, evil suspicions, 5 constant friction of people of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. Withdraw yourself from such. 6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we certainly can’t carry anything out. 8 But having food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 But those who are determined to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
1 Timothy 6:3-10
For the overseer must be blameless, as God’s steward; not self-pleasing, not easily angered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for dishonest gain;
Be free from the love of money, content with such things as you have, for he has said, “I will in no way leave you, neither will I in any way forsake you.”
1 Where do wars and fightings among you come from? Don’t they come from your pleasures that war in your members? 2 You lust, and don’t have. You kill, covet, and can’t obtain. You fight and make war. You don’t have, because you don’t ask. 3 You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.
In covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words: whose sentence now from of old doesn’t linger, and their destruction will not slumber.
2 Peter 2:3
There’s no doubt that the majority of those verses cover the stop-at-nothing-to-get-more definition of greed. But several of the verses point toward greed as the “excessive”-desire-for-more-than-you-need idea. In particular, Proverbs 21:26, Luke 12:15, and 1 Timothy 6:3-10 all seem to describe greed as being selfish, not being content, and desiring things for the sake of having more (often, more than your neighbor). That certainly fits in with the broader definition – greed as excessively desiring more than you need.
Personally, I think the Gospel of Jesus Christ eliminates any semblance of greed as an option for Christians. If we’re to be focused on loving others and helping the poor, how can we spend our time daydreaming about bigger houses, nicer cars, more exotic vacations, and lazy retirements? That certainly wouldn’t fit the instructions of Colossians 3:1-6.
But I want to know what you think. What is greed? What does it mean to be greedy? Is greed limited to the stop-at-nothing-to-get-more definition? Or is it more broad as in the “excessive”-desire-for-more-than-you-need definition? And in that same line of thought, when does a desire for more than you need become excessive and when does it remain acceptable? (That’s a question worthy of it’s own post!)
Let me know what you think in the comments below, and we’ll work through this issue together.
(photo credit: See-ming Lee)
This post was included in the Carnival of Personal Finance.