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Affluenza: The Disease of Greed


What is affluenza? Affluenza is a nifty little word that a clever sociologist created by mixing two different words together. The word affluence means having a great deal of money. Influenza is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease. When you mash these two together, you get affluenza, which is a useful word for describing the problems generated by a rich consumer culture that has an endless hunger for more stuff. Affluenza is the disease of greed. It's the materialistic mindset that says getting more money and possessions is the ultimate aim of life. Affluenza is the spirit of our age, and it has infected all of us.

Today we're going to read one of the many places in Scripture where God addresses the problem of affluenza. It's interesting to note that 16 of the 38 parables of Jesus deal with money, possessions, their use, and their relationship to us. We're going to study one of these 16 parables.

Jesus never condemned wealth in and of itself, but he knows how easily our hearts can make money our god. Jesus knows, and he wants us to understand, that one of the greatest—if not the greatest—hindrances to spiritual life and spiritual growth is material wealth and the temptations that it brings with it.

In Luke 12 Jesus is teaching a crowd of thousands. While teaching, a man calls out to Jesus, saying, "Jesus, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." The interchange Jesus has with this man is an instructive one. It shows us that though Jesus is perfectly righteous, he's not a Pollyanna. He doesn't say, "Oh, your brother's not sharing the inheritance. I'm so sorry. Jedidiah, you share that inheritance." No—he says: Who made me the judge or arbitrator here? What are you coming to me with this for?

It's not that Jesus doesn't love this man. He does. He simply refuses to become a referee in this squabble over money. Jesus sees the real problem. He sees the real danger for this man's soul, the real danger for our souls. The man is coming to Jesus with a money problem, and his definition of a money problem is that he doesn't have enough money, or he's not getting the money that he thinks he should be getting—which is just like you and me. Whenever we think of a money problem, we think of being in need of money. Jesus says to all of us: You do have a money problem, but here's the real money problem—money has too much of your heart.

God wants us to see that, when it comes to money problems, our greatest concern should be avoiding the pitfalls of covetousness. Jesus seizes this opportunity to help us understand the deceptive work of greed, offering three important lessons.

We must understand the deceptive work of greed.

Number one: Greed lies to us. It tells us that what matters most in life is how much stuff we have. That is the essential lie of greed. Greed says that the quality of a person's life is measured in the size of their bank account and the quality and quantity of their possessions.

In verse 15 Jesus warns us not to fall prey to this mindset. He says: Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness. Watch out for it, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Don't believe the lie of greed, because if you do, you'll pass by what truly matters in life.

Number two: Greed blinds us. It blinds us to what is truly important in life; it blinds us to spiritual realities. Jesus illustrates this by telling us a story of a rich man who has believed the lie of greed.

It's important to note that Jesus doesn't say that having money or being skilled at making money is wrong. Many godly men and women in the Bible, as well as in church history, have been wealthy, have been entrepreneurs, have been skilled at making money. The issue is how we view and use the money that we have.

The rich man's problem is not that he's rich. His problem is that he's selfish—he hordes what he has, uses it for his own pleasure, and puts his trust in his wealth. Do you notice how everything the man thinks and does revolves around himself? He has the "I, I, I, my, my, my" syndrome.

Look at verse 17 again. The rich fool says: "What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?" He then says, "I will do this. I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods." He's totally blind to the needs of others. There's no mention of the poor, God and God's priorities, or even his own family. It's "I, I, I, my, my, my." That's what the lie of greed does. It blinds us to the needs of others.

We've all heard it hundreds of times: nobody on their deathbed ever wishes that they had spent more time at the office. Whenever we hear that, we nod our heads say, "Oh yes, that's true." But how many of us work in a way that contradicts that truth because we want just a little more? I've never met an adult who looked back on his or her childhood and wished that their parents had spent more time away from them so that they could have had more toys or money; but I do meet adults who wish their parents had been around more.

We can see the lie of greed much more easily when it's functioning in someone else, can't we? Maybe you can see it clearly in your parents, or in a relative or friend. But do we see it in ourselves? Do we see the subtle ways that it can shape our life? How many of the decisions and the actions that your family take are based on the lie of greed—that getting more stuff is going to make you happier, healthier, and a better person? All of us need to stop and ask the question: Where is greed blinding me? Am I passing up what is truly important for the sake of fleeting possessions?

Point number three: Greed ultimately destroys us. It might be tempting to think that the worst consequence of greed is a few too many days at the office. That doesn't sound that bad. For some, greed might seem like the one sin with variable consequences—you do those other sins, you get into trouble; but if you slip up when it comes to greed, you just wind up with cool stuff. But it's worse than that. Greed doesn't just lead to regret in this life; it ends in eternal loss at the end of life. Greed operates on the assumption that all that matters in this world are the rewards that money can give us. But in the story that Jesus tells, he shows us that this is not true. He gives us a glimpse into what comes after death, allowing us to see beyond the grave.

The rich man in the parable had a perfect plan. He was going to end his life being rich, fat, and happy, but then God demanded his soul. In an instant, all that he had amassed was worthless. Worst of all, God called him a fool. In the Bible the title "fool" is given to those who live their lives without reference to God—those who fail to fear God and his judgment.

What is God going to speak over your life when you die? The rich fool lived for money and ignored God. He overlooked the needs of others and lived for himself. He prepared the ultimate retirement, but he neglected to prepare for eternity. What a tragedy—and only death opens his eyes to the lies and the blindness brought about by greed. But it's too late for regret, too late for remorse. The rich fool had gained the whole world and lost his soul.

Jesus closes his teaching with the sobering words, "So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God." When we understand the eternal consequences of greed, it's little wonder that Jesus warned us so strongly to be on guard against greed.

What is it worth if you die, and the world looks at your life and says: "What a success—look at his barns; look at his grain; look at all that he gathered for himself?" If the world says that, and God looks at your life and says, "you fool," you will have lost eternally.

So how do we guard against greed? There are at least four ways that we should be vigilant against greed.

We must recognize our unique vulnerability.

Number one: We need to recognize our unique vulnerability. We live in the red zone of the affluenza pandemic.

In a book entitled Affluenza, the authors note that in 1986 there were more high schools than shopping centers in our country. Just 20 years later, there are twice as many shopping centers as there are high schools. We spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches than we do on higher education. When you think about how much higher education costs these days, that is a lot of jewelry, clothes, and watches. We just can't get enough. Americans have a billion credit cards, carrying over a trillion dollars in debt (not including mortgages and real estate). We want more, because there's all this great stuff to fill our big houses with.

If you live in California, you face the reality of earthquakes. You don't pretend them away. You plan for them; you know they're going to happen. If you live in south Florida, you do the same thing for hurricanes. You prepare. To ignore either is utter folly. In the same way, as Christians living in America at the start of the 21st century, we have to face the great spiritual danger of materialism and greed. It is the air that we breathe. It's obvious from Jesus' words in this parable and in other passages of the New Testament that greed is a serious spiritual problem for every Christian in every generation, but we need to recognize that it is uniquely our temptation.

If Jesus spoke this solemn warning to Jewish men and women in the first century, many of whom lived day to day, how much more strongly would he speak it to us as Americans living in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world? If we could look down at this planet from heaven's vantage point, going from continent to continent and country to country to identify the greatest spiritual peril that Christians in each of those areas are facing, is there any question that heaven would contend the greatest challenge we face as Christians in America is the danger of loving the things of this world more than God himself? Is there any question that our greatest peril is having the possessions and the wealth of this world cling to us in such a way that we take our eyes off the heavenly city that we're called to? We need to acknowledge our unique vulnerability to affluenza.

We must guard against all kinds of greed.

Point number two: We need to remember that there are all kinds of greed. The NIV translates Jesus' words in Luke 12:15 this way: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed." If Jesus had wanted to just say, "be on the lookout for greed and covetousness," he could have done that, but he goes out of his way to say, "all kinds of greed." He wants us to understand that greed takes many forms. We have to remember this, because I think our tendency is to create a caricature of greed. We draw this extreme picture of greed in our mind, and we say: Well, that doesn't look like me at all. But greed is not just an old miser counting coins in a basement. We can all say we've never done that. Greed takes many forms. You don't even have to be rich to be greedy. Sometimes people think: I'm not greedy; I don't have enough money to be that way. You can be broke and greedy. It's not as much fun, but you can do it.

Our problem is that we often focus on the greed that we see in others. We love to identify that place in our life where we're frugal, and we hold that thing up as the shiny example of what we're truly like—all the while ignoring the evidence of greed in our life.

I've never really cared that much about the car that I drive. I drive an okay car, but I could drive a much nicer car. Cars are not that important to me; I'm not materialistic when it comes to cars. I like to congratulate myself about that. I like to pat myself on the back and think, Josh, you're not materialistic. You don't care about cars. True—but I do own three iPods. That's ridiculous and completely unnecessary! But I don't drive around thinking, I own three iPods; I am a greedy person. No—I drive around thinking: I could drive a nicer car, but I don't. All the while I also think, I wonder which iPod I should listen to.

I have an iPod issue that I need to deal with. What is your issue? For one person, greed might take the form of wanting more stuff. You're always thinking about the next thing that you want to buy, the next thing you want to get. For another person, it might look different: you don't buy tons of stuff, but when you buy something, you have to have the absolute best, and you won't settle for anything less. For another person, greed is expressed not in a lavish lifestyle but in a craving to have a huge amount of savings that gives you a sense of security. Someone wouldn't look at your life and think: Oh, they must be greedy because they have all these possessions. But if they could look into your heart and soul, they would see that you put your faith in the money that you've put aside for your future—that you're trusting in money instead of God. For another person greed might be expressed in a lack of joy in sharing with others: you don't buy stuff for yourself, but you don't buy anything for anybody else, either. Greed takes many forms. That's why Jesus said: Watch out for the many different ways that greed will deceive you.

We must get our financial house in order.

Point number three: Some of us need to get our financial house in order. It is not greed to carefully think about, manage, and budget your money. If you're not planning how you're going to save, what you're going to spend your money on, how you're going to give, then you are more—not less—susceptible to the impulses of greed. An important part of avoiding slavery to money is making sure that you are managing your money, and your money is not managing you.

To make sure we are not living for money and being driven by greed, we must make sure that our financial house is in order. We need to have a plan that in alignment with God's priorities, and we need to stick to it.

We must push back against materialism.

Point number four: We need to push back against materialism. In today's world we face a constant onslaught of advertisements, enticing us to believe the lie of greed. Our children are being targeted at younger and younger ages. From 1980—2004, the amount spent on children's advertising in America rose from $100 million dollars a year to $15 billion a year. We live in a culture that is sustained by greed. This culture has a vested interest in making sure that you and your family continue to be ruled by wanting more.

In light of this, we can't be passive. We can't just stand still and try to resist the pull. We need to push back. We need to examine our lives and our homes, and find ways to push back against the lie of materialism that is ever-present. Where can we make do with less? Where are we senselessly going along with the consumer, "more is better" mindset of our culture? Could we be more rich and generous toward God and others if we were willing to be more restrained in our spending habits?

Guarding against greed involves a tension between enjoying what God has given us—and God's Word tells us he gives all things for us to enjoy—but at the same time watching for the presence of affluenza. That takes work. We need to get used to that work; we need to get used to that ongoing tension. We are not safe from the greed of this world until we reach our eternal home. Until then, we can't let our guard down.

Parents, are you training your children to have discernment about greed in their own hearts? Are you helping them understand how this culture wants to manipulate them? I want to encourage you to sit down and talk about these issues as a family.

Do you operate with the mindset that you have to spend money to have a good time? Do you sometimes think that the only way to have a good time is to go somewhere and spend money for someone else to entertain you? How can you push back against that mindset?

Are your conversations filled with discussions of what you want to purchase? Focus on how you can be rich toward God. When you're driven by greed, you enjoy all the stuff you have less. When you turn your eyes to see God's generosity and begin to look for ways to express that same generosity, you're suddenly more aware of God's goodness and all the blessings that you have.

God is not trying to spoil our party. Do you think God is looking down and saying: "They've got too much stuff; I want to take it away from them; I want to make them unhappy?" God wants our eternal joy. That's why he calls us to push back against materialism.


In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis tells the story of the very selfish and obnoxious Eustace Clarence Scrubb, a boy ruined by greed. While in Narnia Eustace stumbles upon a dragon's lair that is filled with treasure. Eustace stuffs his pockets with jewels and diamonds and then falls asleep. When he wakes up, he is horrified to find that his greedy, dragonish desires have magically transformed him into a dragon. Later in the story, we learn that Eustace can only turn back into a boy with the help of Aslan, the great lion who represents Jesus Christ. Aslan tells Eustace that Eustace must remove his dragon skin. Eustace begins to tear layer after layer of the dragon skin from his body, but he can't change himself. He's still a dragon. He can't rid himself of his greed. Finally Aslan says, "You can't do it yourself; I will have to undress you." It's only when Eustace submits himself to the pain of having Aslan cut into his skin with his huge, sharp claws that Eustace is finally freed.

We are a lot like Eustace. We can only escape greed and every other sin by being rescued by Jesus Christ. He gave up his life on the cross as a substitute for our sin. He took the punishment for all of our sin, including the sin of greed and our idolatrous desires for possessions, upon himself. He died and he rose again, so that all who would believe in him—all who would believe that he is the greatest treasure that can be desired—would be freed to really live.

All of us need the Lord to slice through the layers of greed that we have taken on. We can't change by ourselves. We need to cry out to God to rescue us, to cut through the lies, to help us see that our resources are from him, that they belong to him, that their greatest good is not in hording them for ourselves but in giving them away to bless others and to fulfill his work in the world, to be rich toward God so that one day we will not hear the sentence spoken over our lives: "You fool. You lived for what didn't matter." Instead we might be welcomed into eternal, lasting riches and treasure—and welcomed into the very presence of God himself.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

Joshua Harris is senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and the author of Stop Dating the Church (Multnomah, 2004).

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Sermon Outline:


Affluenza is the disease of greed; it's the materialistic mindset that says getting more money and possessions is the ultimate aim of life.

I. We must understand the deceptive work of greed.

II. We must recognize our unique vulnerability.

III. We must guard against all kinds of greed.

IV. We must get our financial house in order.

V. We must push back against materialism.


All of us need the Lord to slice through the layers of greed that we have taken on, because we can't change by ourselves.