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06.05.11 Deadly Sin of Greed, Malachi 2:17-3:12 Sermon Summary

by on June 6, 2011

Summary Points

  • How Plato, Buddha, and a Monk talked about Greed
  • What Greed is, and how it is unique
  • Six ways we rationalize our Greed
  • How the church helps us overcome Greed
  • Hope for what appears to be impossible

Not that many people actually tithe, but those that do figure they would pass the “checkbook test,” an examination of one’s expenses as a way to determine whether Greed is a problem in one’s life. They would be wrong.

Greed isn’t a matter of how much one gives away to the principles of the Kingdom. It’s rather a behavior that betrays an attitude that may be present even if one actually tithes. Plato likened the human experience to driving a chariot pulled by two horses. One horse is noble and tends towards the divine. The other is base and tends towards the human. That downward tending horse typifies Greed. Buddhists talk about the suffering that results from our endless, craving, grasping attachments. That possessiveness hints towards Greed.

Greed is, simply put, unchecked acquiring-behavior. It’s different from Envy which is an introverted attitude. Greed is particularly extroverted—it’s public behavior designed to acquire more and more. It’s different from Gluttony in that Gluttony is momentary and can be satiated. Greed is a life-consuming strategy. Evagrius, the 4th century Abbot who first proposed the list of deadly thoughts, based Greed on fear and Pride; fear that we would outlive our resources, and Pride that prohibits us from receiving help from others.

From another perspective, Greed results when we seek our security and our identity from things rather than from the One who guarantees both. As such, it is a form of idolatry. Maybe, instead of examining our checkbook, we should examine our possessions: Why do we have them? What do they mean to us? Or perhaps in today’s world what we should examine is our debt: Why have we enslaved ourselves to these things?

In any case, many of us offer a ready defense to the examination for Greed in our lives. Following are six responses we commonly offer when asked to consider whether our behavior is Greedy, and how we may be deceiving us.

(1) “I don’t have to buy all this stuff. I can stop at any time.” This is the response of addicts when intervened upon regarding their behavior. The problem is, they don’t stop; because they can’t stop. Try this experiment: begin deliberately and systematically giving away your stuff. Whether it be material things you no longer need, or that someone else can make better use of, or setting an amount of money to give away on a regular basis. If Greed isn’t a problem for you, this won’t be a problem either.

This was Malachi’s solution—the tithe. He says the people of ancient Israel were “robbing God” by not fulfilling their ten-percent-of-their-income support of the ministry (not to mention the additional “offering” of which they were also robbing God). “Test me,” God says, “and see if I will not bless you when you repent of your idolatrous Greed.” Malachi is written first to the Priests of the Temple, which makes it implicit that everyone, no matter how religious you are, is vulnerable to Greed. “Who can stand at the day of God’s examination,” Malachi asks. No one. All of us have room for improvement.

(2) “Sure I have a lot of things, but I’m a grateful person. I acknowledge God.” Malachi’s audience is a religious people. They observed rites, but they neglected social justice. The measure of their faithfulness, and ours, isn’t how grateful we are, isn’t how we baptize our lifestyles with Christian language. God measures faithfulness by how we treat the underprivileged. Gratitude is a good start, but biblical gratitude is more than thanksgiving. It is obligation also. We celebrate Communion (Greek, eucharist = thanksgiving) not only to give thanks for what God has done for us in Christ, but also to be empowered to become more like God in our own giving.

(3) “All I’m trying to do is to provide for my kids, for my family, or for others.” There’s nothing wrong with fulfilling our responsibilities to provide for others. The challenge comes in allowing our providence to take the place of trusting God’s providence. Jesus tells a parable about a man whose bumper crop required him to build more storage barns. Once done, once the man’s future was securely provided for, Jesus says he relaxes only to learn that that very night his life would be demanded of him. Where, now will all his surplus go? The point: don’t neglect the good we can do now because we’re hoarding for our future. There are no guarantees—but we can trust God to provide.

As we think back upon our lives, all of us can identify periods we thought we might not survive. But we did. We are our own living proof that God provides. Jesus simply calls us to live in that faith, doing good right now with what God’s already provided, and trusting God’s continued faithfulness.

And God’s faithfulness does not fail. Even when we believe we deserve to be abandoned, God provides. Malachi 3:6 says it is because of God’s unchangeableness—God’s faithfulness—that Malachi’s audience is still alive. God did not forsake them though they deserved it. My grandmother used to say, “God has not failed me yet,” and God never will. But Greed tempts us to think and act otherwise.

(4) “Obviously I’m not Greedy; I don’t have as much as others.” All of us can point to someone who is better off. But that doesn’t prove that Greed isn’t a problem. Jesus told a parable about three servants being entrusted with their master’s estate while he was away. One servant was given less than the other two, but was still held to the same standard—do something with this, try to make more from it. He failed to do so, instead he buried his treasure. That servant failed not because he didn’t have as much as the other two, but because he was afraid of losing what he had. He was paralyzed by Greed.

The question isn’t how much we have. The question is what are we doing with what we’ve been given.

(5) “I’m not Greedy; I just want to be comfortable.” Being comfortable has never been easier than today. It’s also never been more expensive. That’s because we are continually finding ways to be made even more comfortable. The problem is discerning how much is enough? After we buy the most expensive bed, we need the more expensive frame. Then the more expensive matching bedside tables. Then an appropriate comforter. We will never be satisfied with the standard of “comfortable,” because as soon as we achieve it, something else comes along that promises even more comfort. And that’s how Greed kills us, promising satisfaction just around the next purchase.

(6) “We can’t be too hard on Greed. Our economy needs it! Like Gordon Gekko said, ‘Greed is good.’” Methodist Bishop William Willimon observes, “We live in a society that has long since moved beyond the satisfaction of basic human needs to the gratification of all our wants and desires, and the expectation that it is my God given right to have those wants satisfied. Those who put it politely, by saying we have moved into a ‘consumer economy’ or a ‘service economy’ are simply noting that those activities and commodities that were once regarded as superfluous and unnecessary have now become the very basis of our economy.” (Sinning Like a Christian, p. 107)

Not only does this put our nation on a shaky financial foundation, it makes it really hard NOT to be Greedy. Advertising creates in us the perception that we need more and more. It used to be that advertising simply informed us about a product. We knew, and could only afford, what we needed. Advertising merely informed us where we could get those things. But now advertising actually forms our identity by defining our desires. Our consuming has become unconscious—we mindlessly buy the next new thing because we uncritically believe we need it.

The only antidote to this, I believe, is the church. The church has the responsibility to form us also—not as mind-numbed consumers, but as children of God, children recreated in the mold of the Son of God. The church has at its disposal God in Christ and the guidance of the Spirit. We have the testimony of Scripture to guide our discernment of God’s will. And, quite distinct from the principles underlying contemporary advertising, we have a community and a social standard. We realize our purchases may perpetuate child labor in Indonesia, and so we choose to purchase things that not only meet our needs and make our lives more comfortable, they help others all along the production cycle. Or at least we should promote and practice these standards.

Jesus once called a person with means to divest himself of his entanglements and follow him on the path to life. The man couldn’t do it. The disciples were sympathetic; asking how is it could be possible to enter the Kingdom if this man couldn’t do it. Jesus answered that with God all things are possible.

It may be very hard to accept that the deadly sin of Greed resides in our lives. It may be near impossible to rid ourselves of it. But with God, all things are possible—even the salvation of the rich man. We can start by reading and following the prophet Malachi. And God will be faithful to provide the next steps after that.

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