Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Greed” John 12:1-8
Monsignor Charles Pope leads a weekly Bible Study at the White House for President Biden. In more than thirty years of parish ministry, Charles Pope has spent a lot of time in the confessional, hearing sins and prescribing penance. Father Pope says that greed is the most under-reported of sins. We tend to think that everyone else is greedy, but we never think that we make too much money or have too much stuff. Faith leaders in the Protestant tradition say the same thing. Rev. Tim Keller, the well-known author and longtime pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, relates that he once led a weekly Bible Study on the Seven Deadly Sins. The week that the study was least attended was the one when he taught about greed. Keller says, “Maybe the best sign of greed is that you aren’t willing to even admit the possibility that you are enslaved to it.”
Greed is the artificial, rapacious desire for and pursuit of wealth and possessions. Two of the Ten Commandments speak to greed: the prohibitions on stealing and covetousness. In the gospels, greed is the sin that Jesus most frequently spoke against, from his warning to tax collectors against collecting more than authorized (Lk 3:13) to his Parable of the Rich Fool, which reminds us that we can’t take it with us and we are truly fools if our worldly goods are more important than our relationship with God (Lk 12:13-21). Indeed, Jesus saw wealth as an idol, cautioning that we cannot serve God and Mammon.
Throughout the Christian tradition, we have been warned about the dangers of greed. Thomas Aquinas believed that greed is a three-fold sin. Greed is a sin against neighbor because one man’s riches cannot over-bound without another man being in need. Greed is a sin against the self because our “affections are disordered” by loving and delighting in material things. And greed is a sin against God because we scorn the eternal for our love of the temporal. Dante’s Inferno places greedy souls in the fourth Circle of Hell, where misers, hoarders, and spendthrifts eternally battle one another. Martin Luther was especially concerned with greed, calling those who are avaricious “money gluttons.” According to Luther, the greedy man “would have the whole world perish of hunger and thirst, misery and want, so far as in him lies, so that he may have all to himself, and everyone may receive from him as from God, and be his serfs forever.”
Our contemporary understanding of greed takes into account its destructive nature, as well as its acceptance. Psychologist Erich Fromm saw greed as “a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” We may be blind to our own greed and the greed of others, thanks to our cultural context. We are constantly barraged by marketing that tells us that love is revealed in the gift of a diamond that is forever or a brand-new car with a big bow on top delivered on Christmas morning. Who doesn’t want to be loving? Only 2% of Americans think we are wealthy “upper class” people, but on a world stage, we are wealthy beyond the imagining of most.
We also tend to confuse our wants with our needs, and so the more we earn, the more we spend. Not many of us are like billionaire Warren Buffet who still lives in the same home in Omaha that he bought in 1958. Instead, more money means more expense, whether we are socking it away in our retirement nest egg, driving a better car, or moving into that nicer neighborhood. Our growing affluence isn’t necessarily good for others. A shocking 2008 study discovered the radical generosity of the poor. Researchers found that 60% of Americans who live in poverty give their money and time to help others while only 32% of people who live above the poverty line are willing to share. Author, editor, and theologian Brad Littlejohn teaches that greed is spiritually dangerous because it leads to a false sense of security and an inward-focused self-absorption that allows us to ignore the needs of others.
Our biblical paradigm for greed is Judas. In today’s gospel reading, the Lord would soon be arrested, tortured, and executed. But that night, Mary of Bethany did something beautiful. She anointed Jesus with precious oil of nard, all the way from the Himalayas, purchased at great price. It was a decadent act of generous love. The indignant Judas denounced Mary before the disciples. Although he claimed he was advocating on behalf of the poor, Luke tells us that Judas was greedy. The money spent on that costly anointing could have lined his pockets. Within the week, Judas would betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. He is the poster child for greed, alienated from his better self, robbing the poor, rejecting the love of Christ, and denying the authority of God.
We’ll be relieved to hear that the remedy for greed is not poverty. It’s generosity, the virtue of being liberal in giving. Jesus expected his followers to be generous. He instructed them to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Lk 12:33-34). Aristotle taught that generosity is the noble and appropriate mean between two opposing extremes—stinginess and wastefulness. Aquinas saw generosity as a dimension of agape (charitas), the generous love that Jesus taught us, the love that always gives in the best interest of the other. Martin Luther encouraged generosity, saying, “Possessions belong in your hands, not in your heart.”
Our biblical example of generosity is the poor widow. You may remember that during Holy Week, Jesus took a seat in the Temple to watch folks deposit their offering in the treasury. Many costly gifts were given, yet the gift that excited Jesus the most was two small coins (copper mites or leptons), given by an impoverished widow. The Lord praised her generosity, because it was an offering of all she had and all she was—her whole self (Lk 21:1-4). We remember that Jesus was likewise unfailingly generous, sharing freely of himself to heal, help, and feed his neighbors. Truly, Holy Week reminds us that Jesus made the greatest gift of all, laying down his life in the ultimate object lesson of God’s generous love for us.
The bad news is that Americans are not as generous as we like to think. 2/3 of us believe that it is important to be generous, yet about half of us give nothing at all to charity. Only 17% of Americans give habitually, building it into their budget. Only 16% of Americans make generosity part of their long-term plans, like estate planning and legacy gifts. The definitive survey on Christian giving by sociologists Smith, Emerson, and Herzog learned that adults who do not witness generosity as children, do not practice generosity as grown-ups. They also found that if American Christians gave in keeping with their income, they would give between $46-85 billion more each year—a generosity that could forever change our communities, where churches remain at the heart of helping vulnerable neighbors and transforming lives.
The good news is that generosity can be learned, cultivated, and grown. Sociologists point out that being consistently generous involves planning. It’s a habit that we can intentionally build into busy lives. This could involve making a formal financial pledge to the charitable concerns that we wish to support, or it could also look like putting dates for volunteering on the calendar. Studies have found that giving, both in treasure and time, grows when it is routinized and becomes a habit.
The social scientists say that we are in the right place to become more generous: church. Local churches are consistent “climates of giving,” places where financial gifts meet known community needs. We get personally involved in ministries, missions, and volunteer opportunities that reinforce the “virtuous cycle” of generosity. We find that being generous is rewarding because we see the difference that we make in the world, and we become part of a supportive, giving-oriented web of relationships that grows with time. Within churches, our teamwork builds caring, friendship, and generosity.
Generosity is also grown when we practice it in families and teach it to our children and grandchildren. Generous parents make for generous kids. The family that talks about the importance of generosity and practices it together by using those fish banks for OGHS or participating in the Souper Bowl of Caring or walking together in the CROP Walk, these families create a home environment where generosity becomes part of our mental make-up. Those generous kids grow up to believe that they can and will make a caring difference that can transform the world through their personal generosity.
When we get the better of our greed by growing our generosity, not only does the world become a better and more equitable place, we also return to right relationship with God and with neighbor. Prof. Will Mari of Louisiana State University, reminds us that it’s not just our stuff that is not our own, it’s our whole lives. Truly, all we have and all we are is God’s gracious gift. We find ultimate meaning when we devote ourselves to a generosity and service that is “good, godly, and healthy.” Generosity poises us to live the life that God would have us live — open to what may come. C.S. Lewis in a letter to his dear friend Arthur Greeves in Dec. 1943 wrote, “The great thing about life is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things [that come along] as interruptions of life. The truth is that what I call interruptions are real life—the life God is sending me day by day.” What is the life that God is sending to us?
God is so generous to us, my friends. May we live with open hands, open hearts, and open hours, sharing generously of ourselves to the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor.
Will Mari. “The Only Bright Spot in American Giving” in Christianity Today, Nov. 30, 2017. Accessed online at christianitytoday.com.
Marika Suval. “Just How Generous Are Americans Really?” on Wisconsin Public Radio, March 9, 2016. Accessed online at www.wpr.org/listen/892341
W. Bradford Littlejohn. “The 7 Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 3. Greed” in Reformation 21, Nov. 24, 2014. Accessed online at www.reformation21.org.
Charles Pope. “The Seven Deadly Sins: Greed” in Community in Mission, April 2, 2019. Accessed online at blog.adw.org
Doug Ponder. “Seven Deadly Sins: Greed,” Jan. 14, 2016. Accessed online at www.remnantresource.org.
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”