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March 14, 2021 Sermon – “Return from the Wilderness: Greed”

March 14, 2021 Sermon
“Return from the Wilderness: Greed”

1st Scripture Reading – Proverbs 1:19, 28:25

1:19 Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain;
    it takes away the life of its possessors.

28:25 The greedy person stirs up strife,
    but whoever trusts in the Lord will be enriched.

2nd Scripture Reading – Luke 12:13-21

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

“Return from the Wilderness: Greed”

Do you remember the story God sent the prophet Nathan to tell King David after King David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and even worked to have Bathsheba’s husband killed?

Rather than paraphrase it for you, I’ll read it for you out of the NRSV translation of 2 Samuel 12:1-4

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.

That was quite a story – the kind of story that would prompt anyone – even David – to proclaim the INJUSTICE of desiring more for yourself to the extent that you would take from someone else, even someone who has very little.  Indeed, Nathan’s story provoked quite a response from David.  Hear the words of verses 5 and 6: 

“Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’”  

To which Nathan replied, “YOU are the man…!”

(PAUSE)

Today is the fourth Sunday during the season of Lent this year.  As I’ve mentioned the past three weeks,   Lent is a season during which we prepare for Holy Week and Easter by considering the ways we stray – and have strayed during the past year – from God’s desires for us.  It’s a time during which we carefully examine the ways in which we have turned away from God…and the extent to which we have strayed from God.

During our sermon series this Lenten season, we are examining some of the most egregious ways people turn away from God, the most egregious ways people sin.  These ways have been deemed “the seven deadly sins.”  If we are to begin turning away from sin and back toward God, these seven sins are a good place to start…not so much because any one sin is inherently worse than another but because these sins have been deemed by the Church to be the sins that lead to the commission of even MORE sins.  Which means, if we can turn away from these sins and back toward God, we might just be able to leave ALL sinfulness behind, we just might return from the wilderness of sin to a God-focused life. 

With each of the six sermons I preach during Lent, I will be considering one of the Seven Deadly Sins. 

Like I will do with each of these sins,  I’ll consider the sin of greed by defining the sin and then looking at some biblical examples of the sin in action.  From there, I’ll look at some modern examples of the sin in action, as well.  These biblical and contemporary examples will lead to a discussion of the consequences of the sin, and I will conclude by discussing how we can work to return from the wilderness of this sin.  This is the model I’ll use for each sin in this series. 

(PAUSE)

Ok.  Greed.  The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines greed as “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food”.

To some extent, this sounds like envy.  Envy involves a desire for something you don’t have, but, with envy, you desire something that someone ELSE has.   Even though greed can involve a desire for something someone else has, what really separates it from envy is that greed isn’t rooted in wanting something BECAUSE someone else has it; rather, greed is about wanting something out of an insatiable desire for MORE.  No matter how much you get or have, you want more.  

In fact, the New Testament Greek word that most directly translates to “greed” properly means “a desire to have more”.  And in Greek, the concept of Greed is closely tied to the concept of something called “mammon”.  You’ve probably heard this word before; it means “materials things” and “wealth”; it’s about wanting MORE…more money, more stuff.

In the Old Testament, the concept of greed is also very similar, even though it’s a bit trickier to track down.  It’s a bit tricky because passages like those we read from Proverbs this morning don’t actually have words that directly translate to “greed” or “greedy”; rather, they are part of phrases that indicate a desire for gain, a desire for more, even an arrogance suggesting you are DESERVING of more.

For example, the words in Proverbs 1:19 that get translated as “who are greedy for gain” more literally mean “who break off or cut off by unjust gain”.  And the words of this phrase imply violence: a violent taking to get more.

Take also the words in Proverbs 28:25 that get translated as “the greedy person”.  Most literally, the words here translate into “the arrogant person.”  Why did the NRSV translators translate a word that typically means “arrogant” as “greedy”?  I can’t answer that for certain, but, if I had to guess, they used context clues to discern that the type of “arrogance” referred to here is the arrogance that’s inherent in greed.  That’s right, arrogance is an inherent component of greed.  If you want ever more, you think you “deserve” more, and there is most certainly an arrogance in the notion that you are so deserving of more than what has been provided for you (by God, no less), that you are so deserving of more than what is defined by God as “enough”.

So…what does this all mean for a definition of “greed” as one fo the Seven Deadly sins?  Actually, I’d suggest our English definition is a pretty good definition: the inclusion of selfishness is very similar to the Hebrew understanding of arrogance.  And the intense desire could easily lead to the kind of violence suggestive of the Hebrew understanding of greed.

Which brings us to the biblical example of greed with which I started the sermon.  There was a rich man who desired “more” so much that, when a traveler came to the rich man and the rich man was obligated to show hospitality to the traveler, the rich man refused to use his own resources to show that hospitality but instead took a lamb from a poor man.  Remember, this story is INTENDED to highlight the sin of King David, who’s greed led him to take the wife of another man.  (I know, we don’t like the notion of a woman being a kind of possession that can be taken, but this was another time, another land, and another culture, and David was the king.)  And in David’s story, David’s greed led to MORE than just the taking of Bathsheba; it led to violence.  Assuming Bathsheba was not complicit, there was the violence of rape.  And, of course, David effectively ordered the killing of Uriah, Batheba’s husband, as part of his greed.  Like the others of the deadly sins we’ve discussed so far, greed can lead to some pretty dark places.

But, you’re likely not at all like David.  You likely don’t have that kind of power and so might not think this greed thing applies to you so much.  Chances are, you don’t even have “enough” of anything to imagine you’ve been spending your life in acquisition mode, so it might be unfathomable to you that you could have ever committed or be committing now this deadly sin.  So…let’s consider some modern examples.  I looked online for examples of greed in the modern world and found many examples.  Among them were these:

  • A person who takes all (or most) of the cookies – or really any food or beverage – in the house, leaving little to none for the other household members, commits the sin of greed.  Yes, you can be greedy for food.
  • A person at work who takes credit for the work of others commits the sin of greed.  Yes, you can be greedy for praise and credit.
  • A person who signs up for government benefits the person doesn’t deserve and didn’t earn is guilty of greed.  By the way, we’ve seen this quite a lot throughout the Coronavirus pandemic.  I know I’ve read about many stories of wealthy people receiving COVID benefits for which they were not eligible.
  • A person who steals Christmas decorations from a neighbor instead of buying the decorations is guilty of greed.
  • People who try to “game the system”, who try to utilize loopholes to benefit themselves, are guilty of greed.  It’s a way of getting ahead without risking or using or otherwise diminishing any of their own resources.
  • People who expend more resources than they have available and then expect others to bail them out when they run out of resources are guilty of greed.  They are taking from people who didn’t overextend their resources, which means they are getting MORE resources than they have earned or deserve.

Like I said, there are many modern examples.  And there are so many more.

Maybe you’re wondering what’s wrong with this way of being, this way of living.  It sounds like the people who do these things typically end up doing ok for themselves.  I even remember a mentor of mine from many years ago telling me – on a great many occasions – that the way to get ahead in this world is to take as much as you can (whether what you take is truly yours to take or not) and expend as little as possible (especially with regards to expending to help others.)  It’s a relatively common attitude I’ve encountered in my life and ministry.  How could this go wrong?

For starters, I hope you GET that it’s completely against God’s desires for people.  Remember what I’ve told you many times…because it’s mentioned so frequently in the scriptures…the point of every resource that has been entrusted to us by God (whether it be a monetary resource, a material resource, a Spiritual gift, a relationship, or anything else), the point of every resource is to build up the common good in ways that will also usher in the kingdom of God.  Greed is selfish, so greed does little to nothing to benefit the common good, and greed most certainly doesn’t build up the kingdom of God.  In fact, if you live greedily, you will be living outside the kingdom of God, which means outside the best life possible.  This ought to be enough of a negative consequence of greed to turn you in another direction.  But, there are more.

The author of Proverbs provided a negative consequence of greed that sounds different than the first…but is actually very similar.  According to the author of Proverbs 1:19, greed “takes away the life of its possessors.”  In other words, DEATH “is the end of all who are greedy for gain.”  Death is pretty bad.  And the author means both a literal death – maybe here and now, maybe eternally – and a figurative death.  God repeatedly reminds us through the scriptures that selfishness leads to metaphorical death, the worst way of living.

And then there’s the consequence mentioned in Jesus’ parable in our reading from Luke’s gospel: greed leads to the pursuit of things that do not matter.  While the man in the parable was planning and working greedily for the future, he was missing out on life in the present…and it turns out he had no future; he would never live into the time for which he was living, the time for which he was storing up.  And that’s a huge problem with greed; it gets us focused on things that don’t matter, things that are worthless in God’s eyes…which, by the way, makes greed sound an awful lot like last week’s topic of gluttony.

(PAUSE)

So…greed is a thing, not just in the ancient world but even here and now, and greed leads to some terrible consequences, including death and worthless living.  But, what can we do about it?

In providing the parable of the rich man, Jesus provided the answer.  It’s an answer that sounds a lot like last week’s solution to gluttony: pursue things that DO matter instead of things that DON’T matter.  Since greed is a little more specific than gluttony, we can narrow things down just a bit more.  Pursue things that lead to richness toward God.  What do I mean by this:

  • For starters, stop thinking about any material stuff beyond what you absolutely, positively need, as being worth your time to acquire.  Like the rich man in Jesus’ parable, you just don’t know if you will ever NEED those things.  Much like what I encouraged with the sin of envy, I encourage you to ask for strength from God to be content with what you have – to be content such that you stop wanting more.
  • Further, with regard to all the time that you had been giving to acquiring stuff and thinking and planning about acquiring stuff (or whatever it is for which you have a desire for MORE – it doesn’t have to be stuff: it can be power, acclaim, position, relational status, anything), give that time and attention over to things that DO matter:
    • Take a week or a month to prayerfully make a survey of your life.  Ask God what the important things and people and relationships are.  Ask God to show you.  Write them down.
    • After you’ve identified the things and relationships God says are important, that God says are worthwhile, make a plan for giving more of your time and attention to those things and relationships.  When you give time and attention to worthwhile and life-giving things, you will have less time and attention for the rest.  Even better, giving time and attention to worthwhile things will become your new HABIT, and your desires for more of relatively worthless things will fade away.
    • Then, follow through on your plan.  Look at it regularly to make sure you’re following it.
  • A final thing you can do is to take a periodic retreat in which you intentionally look for new ways you are desiring MORE.  It’s an unfortunate reality for so many of us that we get rid of one addiction or obsession or greedy desire and replace it with another.  For example, you might do a great job of reducing your desire for more money by the steps outlined above by spending more time cultivating relationships, but, in the process, you might replace a desire for more money and stuff with a desire for more relational position and power.   In other words, you might replace one kind of greed with another.  Take intentional time to reflect – with God’s help – so you can avoid this potential trap.

(PAUSE)

I started the sermon by sharing the parable God told David through the prophet Nathan, the parable of a rich man who was so greedy he took the lamb of a poor man to satisfy his obligation for hospitality under the religious law.

It’s an interesting story of greed for a reason I haven’t even mentioned yet.  That rich man, he must have thought of himself as quite righteous.  Otherwise, he would have felt no desire, no need, to fulfill the rules concerning hospitality.

Y’all, greed is like that.  It can blind us to the ways we are living in the wilderness instead of living into the kingdom of God.  I think it blinds us with selfishness, getting us to think that God is all about US, all about ME.  After all, if God is about ME, greed isn’t bad at all because, of course, God would want ME to succeed, would want ME to have more.

So, please, be careful.  Remember that, while God loves you, God ALSO loves everyone else.  While God loves you, God doesn’t want you, and you alone, to have it all.  When you GET that, when you get past the selfish desires of greed, you will live into a way that benefits YOU even MORE than your greed, and you will live in a way that benefits everyone around you.  In other words, you will replace the ways of death with the ways of life…for you and for everyone else.

Amen!