The Gravity of Greed
The Gravity of Greed
Do you remember watching your very first NASA rocket launch? I remember as a boy sitting on the edge of the family room sofa and listening to the announcer say, "Five. Four. Three. Two. One." And then there was a rumble. There was this eruption at the base of the rocket, and it began to shake, and very slowly, almost imperceptibly, it lifted from the launch pad. Several minutes later it was soaring through space. And then something happened that I didn't expect, something that startled me: the bottom third of the rocket dropped off. Remember when you saw that for the first time and thought to yourself, Oh my goodness, the rocket broke. The rocket broke! Of course it didn't break. That was just the booster that was dropping away. The booster is necessary at the beginning of the launch, but once the rocket is in flight it's no longer needed. When the rocket sits on the launch pad, it's pulled by the earth's gravitational force, and it takes the booster to get it away from the gravity and into space where it can fly freely.
Last week we opened this series on generosity by talking about generosity's origin. It comes from God. Generosity is like a river, and the headwaters of the river are God, and he flows blessings and resources into our lives. He wants us to channel some of those resources and blessings downstream to other people. I said, "Be a river. Don't be a Dead Sea that has no outlet."
Today, instead of looking at generosity as a river, I want you to see it as a rocket. It's being held back by the world's G-force. Now in this case, G doesn't stand for gravity; G stands for greed, because anybody who sets their heart on becoming a generous person is going to have to escape the worldly pull of greed. Greed is that constant tug to accumulate more and more stuff for yourself. Greed keeps generosity from taking off in our lives.
There are two opposing forces at work on you. There is greed that is pulling you to get, get, get. And there is generosity that is pushing you to give, give, give. This is where the four steps I recommended at the end of last week come in. Those steps are boosters. They will enable the generosity rocket to escape the gravitation pull of greed and take off in your life.
Luke 12 is not a parable about rockets; it's a parable about greed. In this parable, Jesus exposes the subtle power of greed in our lives. He makes a compelling case for how destructive, even foolish, greed can be, because he wants us to escape greed's pull. He wants us to allow generosity to take flight in our lives.
Here are four truths about greed that everybody should be warned about.
Greed causes conflict
Jesus wants us to be free of the things that wreak havoc in our lives. Luke 12:13 begins the story: "Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.' Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?'"
This is the background to the parable Jesus is going to tell. There's an angry guy in the crowd, and it seems as if his parents have passed away and they've left an inheritance. His older brother is not willing to share the inheritance with him, so he's asking Jesus to settle this family dispute, this squabble. Now it may seem a bit odd to us in the twenty-first century. You might be thinking, Why does this guy in the middle of the crowd ask Jesus to get involved in his personal affairs? In the first century it was not uncommon to appeal to a rabbi, to a teacher: "Give me some counsel for my personal life." But in this situation the guy doesn't just seem to be asking; he seems to be telling. He's telling Jesus, "Make my brother give me some money." You can tell that Jesus isn't pleased with the request being phrased this way. Bible scholars tell us the very first word of Jesus' reply is a tipoff that he isn't about to be made into a Judge Judy or a Judge Wapner. He's not going to get involved in this family squabble.
In verse 14, Jesus replied, "Man …" When Jesus says "man," it's like our saying, "Hey, pal," or, "Listen, knucklehead." I don't think Jesus would have called him a knucklehead, but this is what the word leans toward. Jesus isn't about to get involved in a family conflict. Greed causes conflict in relationships.
In Dr. Kent Hughes' commentary on the Gospel of Luke, just before he comments on this parable, he tells a story that was related to him years ago by his English professor in college. She was one of six sisters. The other five sisters all decided to stay near home as they grew up, but she got married and moved several states away. One day she got a phone call, and her mom said her dad had passed away. So she and her husband got on a plane and flew home. They knocked on the front door and were greeted by the grieving mom and this gal's five sisters. But when they walked into the house, they were shocked by what they saw. Everything in the house was labeled by one of the five sisters. Somebody wanted the piano, and somebody wanted the bureau, and there was tension in the air. This is what greed does.
Maybe you can identify with this story. Maybe you're an adult sibling, and you've squabbled over an inheritance with brothers or sisters like this guy in Luke 12. Or maybe you're married, and you've argued about money this past week. They say that money is one of the biggest contributors to divorce. Maybe you argued about last week's sermon on generosity. So perhaps I'm the one who's at fault here! Maybe I'm causing the trouble in your marriage right now. One of you wants to give more, and the other wants to hold back, to keep the reins on things. That's not unusual in a marriage. Maybe you're mad at your mom and your dad because they haven't bought you something you wanted recently. They refuse to spend the money.
Greed causes conflict in business relationships. How many of you have been on the short end of this stick? You have a customer who expects you to give away the store. He's taking advantage of you. You have a partner who's cheated you in some fashion. Or you work for a multinational corporation, and the CEO of that corporation made millions of dollars last year, and you barely made a living wage.
Greed causes conflict among friends. It may be something as simple as divvying up the lunch bill at Chili's. Who's going to pay what? You may have tension in your relationship with your neighbor because you think he ought to offer you the use of his snow blower this winter, and he thinks it's too expensive a piece of machinery to put in your hands. It may be over wedding invitations and who you're going to invite to the reception because there's only so much money to pay for the meals. Somebody might get bent out of shape because they're not invited. Or maybe you think, Didn't we give them a $250 espresso maker for their wedding? And they only gave us a $35 toaster. Whenever we value money and stuff over people, it's bound to cause conflict in our relationships.
This is even true of our relationship with God. I'm keenly aware as I teach this generosity series that there will be some people who will argue internally with everything I say, even if I cite chapters and verses from the Bible to back it up. Because some of us would rather risk dissonance in our relationship with God by blowing off his directives for giving than make an honest effort to become more generous people. Please don't get upset when I tell you what God's Word says about giving, about tithing. Please don't find fault with every application I make.
Can I set you free right now? Repeat after me: Some of Jim's applications are going to be lame. Don't you feel better now? If this is the case, write them off. (That was one of the lame ones. Or, that one was intended for somebody else.) On the other hand, if it's not lame and it does apply to you, don't write it off, because your relationship with God is at stake. It's either going to flourish, or it's going to suffer, depending on what you do with his Word regarding generosity. Greed is going to hold you back in your relationship with God, and generosity is going to set you free to fly into orbit.
Greed comes in many forms
The second warning is this: greed comes in a wide variety of forms. In Luke 12, this guy has just raised an issue with Jesus, and Jesus tells him to chill. Then in verse 15, he turns from the guy to the crowd: "Then he said to them, 'Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.'" Did you notice how this verse begins with a double warning? "Watch out!" And in case you didn't hear him, "Be on your guard." That's pretty strong language, and it insinuates that there's something we're going to miss. Greed is a danger we won't see coming unless we're really vigilant. It's sneaky. It eludes our detection.
Do you see any traces of greed in your life? If you automatically answer, "Greed? Me? Of course not," or you're even a little bit upset that I would dare to ask that, greed may have deceptively crept into your life without your realizing it. You're no exception to the rule. Neither am I. Jesus is speaking to all of us when he says, "Watch out!" Greed is an insidious character flaw that creeps in without our notice.
Jesus says that greed comes in a wide variety of forms, underscoring the seriousness of his caution. In the middle of verse 8, Jesus refers to "all kinds of greed." In other words, just when you think you've become an expert at detecting greed in your life, it will morph into a different species of greed, and you won't spot it.
I was mulling this over last week, and I got out a clean sheet of paper and a pen and thought, I'm going to make a list of any kind of greed that comes to mind. I came up with seven kinds of greed. My list is in no way comprehensive. You may be able to think of greed types that I didn't. You may disagree with some of the types I've come up with. But that's okay, because some of my applications are lame and don't apply to you.
1. Fearful greed
You're hesitant to give money away because you're worried about meeting your own needs. You have to put food on the table. You have to make car payments. You have to cover the electric bill. You need money for the doctor. Occasionally somebody will say to me, "I can't afford to give. I can't afford to tithe." I hear that frequently. My standard response is this: "I have discovered in my own life I can't afford not to tithe."
God's Word says that the first ten percent of my income belongs to him. Throughout the Bible I read that if I walk in obedience to God, he will bless my life, but when I disobey him, he withdraws his blessing. Therefore, I would rather give God his 10 percent and live off 90 percent, knowing that God's going to bless me, than keep 100 percent to myself and leave God on the sidelines. I can't afford not to give because I want God's blessing in my life.
Last week somebody came up to me after one of the services and said, "I'm unemployed. What do I do about giving?" Great question. I said, "I know how this could tempt you to be fearful and not give." You can't give if you don't get something. God's not expecting you to give from what you don't get. But if you get something, if it's an unemployment compensation check from the government or a severance check from the people you used to work for or someone has given you a financial gift to help you get through this time, give the Lord a percentage of it, because you can't afford to have God on the sidelines at this point in your life. You need God to be active and participative. So give.
Some of us don't really fear that our needs won't be met if we give. If we're honest, we fear that our wants won't be met. You might be thinking, If I give this money away, I won't have enough to buy a new sofa for the living room, or we won't be able to eat out as much as we like, or we won't be able to go to Disney World for spring break. We'll have to go to the Holiday Inn in Peoria, Illinois. My response to that is, "Yep." That may be the case. However, you're going to lead a God-blessed life if you become a giver. You will feel so much more purpose and so much more fulfillment than if you spend it all on yourself. So don't be a fearful person.
2. Covetous greed
You didn't want an iPhone until all your friends got iPhones, and now you realize you can't possibly live without an iPhone. We want their car or their jeans or their concert tickets or their sunroom or their weekend getaway or their nails and hair. Then the catalogues arrive in our mailboxes. We look through those catalogues and see all the stuff that we feel like we need. Or we go online and see the pop-up ads, or we walk through a store that we frequent far too often, and we see all the stuff that we could really use.
The easiest way to kill covetous greed is to starve it. Don't allow those catalogues to even make it into your house. Take them from the mailbox to the trashcan in the garage. That's where mine go. Find something recreational to do besides shopping. Don't let shopping be your default recreational activity.
3. Impulsive greed
For the first time this past week, I bought some music on iTunes. I can't believe it's taken me this long. For years I have just gotten my music one CD or two at a time—and I listen to a lot of music. I don't like listening through earbuds, so I buy CDs. They play well on my stereo. Well, I decided to go on iTunes and purchase something. I made my first purchase, an album of Bach oboe concertos. And I thought, Well that was easy. This is really wonderful because I could be at the doctor's office in the waiting room looking up music and listening. So I got my second album, Switchfoot's Hello Hurricane. I'm very eclectic in my tastes. Then I got my third one. If you like a bluesy singer, Amos Lee is incredible. I picked up Mission Bell. Then I got a fourth one and a fifth one and a sixth one! Now that I found iTunes, I'm out of control.
Do you make impulsive decisions to eat out or buy clothes or book a cruise? You see it. You want it. You get it. Credit cards make impulsive purchases so easy.
Let me suggest a short term and a long term solution to impulsive greed. In the short term, never buy on the spot something you didn't intend to buy. Give yourself at least a day—maybe a week—to see if the urge wears off or if you really need it. In the long term, go through Financial Peace University, a video course developed by Dave Ramsey that you can do in a small group setting, so you apply what you learn. We ask every staff member and elder at Christ Community to go through FPU. The material will give you the tools you need to fight impulsive greed in the long run.
4. Family greed
Have you ever seen a commercial for Michelin tires? Michelin is a very expensive tire, but the TV announcer does not say, "We sell expensive tires, but they're high quality so you should buy them." Instead they show you a young mom driving on a winding mountain road in a storm with two kids asleep in the backseat. The announcer says, "Don't you want the best tires on your car at a time like this?" So every dad and husband who's watching this thinks to himself, What was I thinking buying a less expensive set of tires for my family vehicle! My wife's and my kids' lives are at stake! Someone said that we have deified family in our culture, made family into a god. If you want an airtight argument for anything you'd like to do, say that you're doing it for your family. This will end the discussion.
We assume that all expenditures are justified if they benefit the family: a bigger SUV, a private school education, a big screen TV for the family room, spring break vacation, traveling sports teams. Don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that any of these things are automatically bad. Sue and I have spent money on many of those things for our family in the past. But none of those things is automatically good just because they're for family. You will have to wrestle through expenditures like these. You will have to put a limit on what you spend for family, or you won't be able to meet the desperate needs of people who have enormous physical and spiritual needs. Even a good cause like family can become a source of greed in our lives.
5. Business greed
Some people spend money to look and act successful, everything from the car they drive—I have to drive this kind of car in the work that I do—to the clothes they wear, the entertainment they provide their customers, the places to which they travel for conferences, or the tech toys they purchase. Some of these purchases are legitimate, and some are over the top. If money is spent this way, it can't be given to those who truly need it.
6. Good-life greed
Do you have expensive tastes? Do you like the best of everything, whether it's the stereo system or the wine you drink or the seat in the stadium or the jeans you wear or your vacation spot or your breed of dog? Again, there is nothing wrong with an occasional "best." But sometimes you should settle with less for yourself so you'll have more to give to others.
7. Retirement greed
Perhaps the reason you can't be more generous is because you're saving as much money as possible for retirement. Saving for retirement is wise, but not without limits. In fact, one Bible scholar says, tongue in cheek, that there's only one place in the entire Bible that speaks about retirement: Luke 12, the parable we're about to look at, and it's not a favorable mention. These seven types of greed are just examples. Maybe you've thought of types that I didn't mention.
Greed gives a false sense of well-being
The third warning that Jesus gives about greed is that greed gives a false sense of well-being. Verse 16 says:
Then Jesus told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. So he thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink, and be merry."'
"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'"
It's not good when God calls you a fool. But God did not call this man a fool because he was successful at farming and made a lot of money. There is absolutely nothing wrong with running a profitable business. God did not call this farmer a fool because he sinned along the way. Nowhere is that indicated in Jesus' story. His success was not due to the fact that he charged inflated prices for his crops or that he abused his employees or engaged in hostile takeovers of other farms or lied to his banker. By all appearances this guy was hardworking and honest and had business savvy. If we knew a guy like this, we would probably admire him.
Why does God call him a fool? First, this foolish farmer failed to recognize the source of his wealth. He saw himself as a self-made man. He gave all the credit for his success to his hard work and business expertise. As you look at verses 16 through 20, you will see six "I" statements. "I this," "I that," he says. Four of them are "I will" statements, as if he's the master of his own destiny. You also will find in the text five "my" statements—"my crops," "my barns," "my grain," "my goods," "myself." God is conspicuously absent in this farmer's monologue. I would think farming is the one business where God's contribution is preeminently recognized. A farmer depends on God to provide the sunny days. God provides the right amount of moisture. Too much or too little could be ruinous. God provides protection from pests and from natural disasters. Without God there won't be a harvest. But the farmer is a fool because he fails to recognize God as the source of his wealth.
Do we recognize the fact that every dollar we have earned, every gift we have received, every dividend from a stock we have owned comes from God. Don't you think that gives God the right to have a significant say about how those dollars are spent or how they're given?
This farmer also failed to recognize the brevity of his life. In verse 19, the farmer says to himself, "You're going to have plenty of good things laid up for many years." But verse 20 says, "This very night." God says to him, "You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you." There's a contrast being drawn here. The farmer thinks his earthly existence is going to go on forever, but it's not. He's investing everything in transitory stuff. This is why God calls the man a "fool."
It doesn't matter whether you live for 70 or 80 years. Maybe you will live far shorter than that. If you're spending your money only on fleeting things, God will say the same thing to you. Greed will give you a false sense of well-being. But don't think it's all about the here and now. Don't spend your money just because it makes you happy today. Think about the future, God says.
Greed keeps us from being rich toward God
Greed deprives us of opportunities to be rich toward God. In verse 21, Jesus sums up the story: "This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." What happened to the foolish farmer could easily happen to you. God presents us with a clear choice in this verse. We can either store up things for ourselves—more clothes, more lattes, more square footage in our homes, more phone apps, more travel miles, more rounds of golf, more video games—or we can be rich toward God. Jesus infers that it's tough to do both simultaneously.
Why can't you do both?
First, money is a limited commodity. The more we spend on ourselves, the less we have to invest in the work of Christ's kingdom. It's a matter of arithmetic. This last week as my men's community group was doing the generosity study, we came across this question: "Describe a time in your past when you were generous. How did you feel about it?" One man said, "Last year I went on a trip to the Czech Republic. When my wife and I made the decision to go, we knew it was going to be costly. Most people raised support through their family and friends, but most of our family and friends are not Christ followers. The money had to come from us, and I'm self-employed. When I cut out two weeks of work, I lose two weeks of income. But we decided to do it." He said, "The work that God did through us in the lives of Czech people was awesome."
I thought to myself, I wonder how many times in the course of a year that guy had to say "no" to personal spending so he could say "yes" to paying for this trip? Most of us don't have enough money to do everything we'd like to do.
So if you've seen ads for an organization like Compassion International and said, I'd love to feed a starving child in Haiti every month, you've probably come to realize that you can't do that and eat out regularly. You can feed that starving orphan or you can feed yourself with expensive food, but you probably can't do both. Maybe you're thinking to yourself, I would love to begin tithing to the church's ministry, but I have a huge car payment. You will have to choose either payments on a new car or buying a used car with cash so you can tithe the way you'd like, because you probably can't do both. Or maybe you think, I'd love to get an audio Bible into the hands of people in West Africa who've never heard about Jesus. That would be tremendous, but I'd like to upgrade my stereo system at home. Or, I'd love to go on a trip to Brazil, but I can't do that and go skiing in Colorado this year. Money is a limited commodity, so you might not be able to do everything you'd like. Sometimes personal expenditures are pitted against being rich toward God.
Second, many of the things on which we spend our money require time and attention that gets diverted from God-honoring pursuits. According to Gordon MacDonald,
In ancient days when the king of Siam had an enemy he wanted to torment and destroy, he would send that enemy a unique gift, a white elephant, a live, albino elephant. These animals were considered sacred in the culture of that day. So the recipient of that elephant had no choice but to intentionally care for the gift. This elephant would take an inordinate amount of the enemy's time, resources, energy, emotions, and finances. Over time the enemy would destroy himself because of the extremely burdensome process of caring for the gift.
Our spiritual enemy uses the same strategy on us. He'd love to thwart us. He'd love to keep us from engaging in God-honoring pursuits. And so he leads us to spend our money on things that take a lot of time, a lot of energy, away from these God-honoring pursuits.
Let's say you buy season tickets to the Bulls, but because you still have a lot of games to go to, you no longer have time to serve in some area of ministry. Or let's say you buy a sailboat or a summer cottage, but now you miss most weekend worship services between the beginning of May and the end of September. Or let's say you buy a health club membership to get in shape. You used to get up early in the morning to read your Bible and pray, but now you don't have time because you're working out before you go to work. Or let's say you buy a spot for one of your kids on a traveling sports team, but now Saturdays are taken up with ballgames. When the church says, "Next Saturday join our community impact ministry as we serve the poor," you can't make it.
Are there white elephants in your life? Are you spending money on things that take your time away from God? The money isn't the problem, but it may be distracting you from God-honoring pursuits.
If you want to escape the world's gravitational pull of greed—the greed that causes conflict in relationships, the greed that comes in a wide variety of forms, the greed that will give you a false sense of well-being, the greed that will deprive you of opportunities to be rich toward God—then fire up the boosters. These boosters are deliberate acts of giving:
- Make a significant gift to the Lord's work.
- Between now and Easter, become a regular giver on every check you receive.
- Become a tither.
- Become an extravagant giver. Give over and above. Do something crazy.
These are the boosters that take you into an orbit of generosity.
You might think this is too negative a message on greed. The Bible is sometimes negative because it wants to free us from things that will destroy us and hold us back from a fulfilling relationship with God. Jesus encountered a negative guy. He gave a negative command: watch out; be careful. And he told a negative story about a guy who invested all his money in bigger barns, so that he could tell us, "Don't let greed hold you back."
With the strength, with the power, with the wisdom that only God can give, become a giver. Become generous.
Jim Nicodem is founder and pastor of Christ Community Church in St. Charles, Illinois.