Guard Against Every Kind of Greed!

"You cannot serve two masters!"

The crowd was so huge that a report states: "They were stepping upon one another there were so many thousands." Why were they gathered? Who had they come to see or hear? What did this Jewish Rabbi have to say that so many thousands would assemble? At first the speaker could not be heard because he spoke only to a close circle of friends.

Finally a lone individual in the crowd of thousands raised his voice against the throng: "Teacher, tell my brother to share his inheritance with me!" What an unusual thing to shout in the middle of such a multitude. His sincere request must have quieted the throng. They settle down to hear what the answer might be.

After a long pause to let the thousands to settle down, the one single person they came to hear, spoke so as to be heard by all: "Man, no one appointed me as your judge! However -- All of you here, watch out and be on guard against every kind of greed!" What an amazing response! Surely the man who asked for the favor, as well as all those around him, must have shrugged and questioned one another.

A doctor received the eyewitness report on what happened next. The physician recorded it in what is called the Gospel of Luke in chapter 12, verses 13-53 when he recounted the life of one Jesus of Nazareth. But, we, two thousand years later, are interested in the reason for the answer given. Can what follows help us today? Let us continue to read the good doctor's account. He has the Nazarene explaining: "Even when a person abounds in wealth True Life does not result from possessions." (Luke 12:16)

But, what does the Nazarene mean by this? Many then, and many today, would argue there is no life without possessions. Indeed the Capitalist West -- as well as most cultures -- are based on the drive for more in riches and possessions. Indeed, though three thousand years have passed the words of the ancient sage are still true: "A person who loves money will never be satisfied with money. Nor, will a person who loves affluence ever be satisfied with their earnings." (Ecclesiastes 5:10) In contrast, one famous line in a contemporary motion picture film has the protagonist stating: "GREED IS GOOD!"

Before we examine the Nazarene Rabbi's complete answer we pause to examine this word "greed." In Latin it is cupidatis after the lovely little angel Cupid. In Greek it is pleonexias. It is often translated "covetousness." The Greek word comes from two roots -- much + have. It means the desire to have more.

Now this is a common -- almost natural -- human characteristic -- the wish or desire to have more of something. The Ten Commandments warned about certain dangers with this desire when God Himself wrote the words of the last commandment (here presented according to the Jewish Greek version (LXX) --

"You should never overly-desire (epi-thymeseis) your neighbor's wife. You should never overly-desire (epi-thymeseis) your neighbor's house. Nor his field, nor his boy-servant, nor his girl-servant, nor his ox, nor any of his animals, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor."

So, the warning of Jesus is this: "Always remain alert and on guard against any desire for more. Because even after you possess an abundance of things your Real Life does not depend on these things."

Illustrating the Danger of Greed

The Nazarene Rabbi continues with a parable to illustrate his moral about greed. This is recorded for our own benefit so many centuries later in Luke 12:16-21. If we claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ we read these words with the greatest care, having already been warn to be alert and on guard. Jesus told the thousands, but must have looked directly at the one who raised the question in the first place:

A rich man's farm was very productive. However, he began to ask himself: "Now what am I going to do with all this produce?" So he concluded: "Here is what I will do -- I will tear down my granary silos and construct much bigger ones. Then I will have room to harvest all this crop as my possessions. Then I will tell myself: I have enough laid up for years. Now is the time to retire -- live a life of ease, eating and drinking well and completely enjoying myself."

We pause here because if we read this as a strict capitalists this parable makes good sense. Coming from the egotistic-empowered West we are missing a single word repeated several times. Can you find it? Note the personal pronouns "I" and "my" which occur about 8 times. Can you tell where this is leading? Can you tell what is fundamentally wrong? Now for the kicker:

However The God spoke to him, "You stupid man -- tonight you will die! Now who will have all these things you saved?" Now that is the situation of the person who saves for self but is not rich in God."

Now our rich farmer has left two things out of his self-satisfied equation: God and others. Not once has he mentioned God or how he might be of help to the needy. Thus, God calls him a fool or stupid for missing true realities --- God is his Maker and he is not alone on this planet.

Now there is a change of focus. We do not hear from the original voice who asked the question about his inheritance. Jesus turns from the crowd of thousands and again speaks directly to his own apostles. He tells them not to be overly-concerned about the needs of the human soul -- the physical body. He points to the birds and the flowers to demonstrate God's care for these temporary things. He tells them, "Surely you are more valuable than ravens?"<> Then the Nazarene concludes, speaking only to his disciples: "Continue seeking His Kingdom and all these necessities will be given to you." (Luke 12:22-31)

It is now the Nazarene rabbi says a shocking thing to these apostles made up of at least four fishermen and a tax-collector. It is to disturb Christians for two thousand years. Listen as they must have: "Do not be fearful, little flock, because your Father has thought well enough of you to give to you the Kingdom. You, sell everything you own, and give gifts of charity. ... Because whatever your treasure is --- there is where your heart will be." (Luke 12:32-34) It is not unfair to conclude that up to this moment Jesus' own disciples still owned their possessions. We are most curious as to what they will do.

A few days later another situation develops which brings up this same subject. It is recorded in Luke 18:18-28. A Jewish elder of the people, evidently well-off, asked what was necessary to gain everlasting life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments but the elder said he had observed them all from his youth. What Jesus is to tell him probably would cause the same reaction today among multitudes of Christians. Note what the Nazarene says: "You only lack one single thing: Sell everything you have and give to the poor. Then you will have celestial treasure. After doing this -- then become my follower." We are told the man began to depart -- "very much grieved for he was very rich." (Luke 12:18-23)

However, that is not the end of the matter, for before departing Jesus looked at the devastated man: (We imagine Jesus' expression fixed on the man's eyes.)

"It is so very difficult for those with money to enter God's Kingdom! Really, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain entry in God's Kingdom!" Some of those listening asked: "Who can possibly be saved then?" Jesus told them: "With humans it is impossible. With God anything is possible." (Luke 18:24-27)

We are very much interested in the response of Jesus' own disciples. Peter speaks for all of them: "Look, we have left everything and followed you!" But there is a difference between "leaving" something and "selling" something. Thanks to the apostle John we see this after the resurrection of Jesus.

After several manifestations of the Lord he finds his apostles fishing in their boats. They have fished all night and caught nothing. At dawn a stranger calls from the shore, "Little boys, do you have anything to eat?" They yelled back across the water, "No!" Then the stranger suggests something very strange: "Cast your net on the right side of the boat and you will catch something!" For some reason these fisherman follow the ludicrous idea and to their amazement the latter count of the fish would be exactly 153! It is then they realize it is the risen Lord.

Gathered on the beach, probably with the pile of fish laid out on the sand, the miracle-working stranger provides them with breakfast. Jesus then asks Peter, likely gesturing toward the catch of fish, and maybe the boats and the nets: "Do you love me more than these?" (John 21:15) Though spoken to Peter it is possible the question is directed to all seven present.

This question has puzzled many Bible students. What is the possible meaning and the reason for the question. Is it possible these men, though having "left" their possessions to follow Jesus as Peter had earlier claimed, had not actually followed through upon Jesus' instructions to his "little flock"? Jesus had told them, "Sell your possessions and give charitable gifts to the poor." (Luke 12:33; 18:22, 28) Here, only a few days after his death, they have returned to their fishing business. The fact that they could may indicate they still had their boats and all the other fishing equipment needed. Thus, "Do you love me more than then these," pointing to the miraculous catch of fish and the fishing business.

Jesus and the disciples had come full circle. The Nazarene had begun his ministry when he told some of these same men: "You will become fishers of men." (Matthew 4:19) And here we find them cowering in fear, and not knowing what else to do, they return to their fishing business. The shame of such a thing must have dropped on them like a huge rock: there was their Lord on the beach with a little charcoal fire and breakfast enough for all.

We put ourselves in their place. We have been clearly instructed to "sell all" and share with the poor. We have seen another example of this need to unburden oneself and share with the poor in the case of the Jewish ruler. We have heard one of our number claim we had left everything. And, that was not completely accurate. We trusted in our own secular efforts and came up empty. And, here the poorest man to walk the earth is sharing his breakfast with us! Now, what will we do? (2 Corinthians 8:9)

The Apostolic Example

Fortunately for us the historical record has been preserved. We now know what these united apostles must have done shortly thereafter. We read the account in the Good Doctor's report:

And all the believers kept together, and had everything in common. They sold their lands and other property, and distributed the proceeds among all, according to every one's necessities. ... Among all those who had embraced the faith there was but one heart and soul, so that none of them claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything they had was common property; while the Apostles with great force of conviction delivered their testimony as to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus; and great grace was upon them all. And, in fact, there was not a needy man among them, for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the money which they realized, and gave it to the Apostles, and distribution was made to every one according to his wants. In this way Joseph, whom the Apostles gave the name of Bar-nabas--signifying Son of Encouragement -- a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a farm which he had, and brought the money and gave it to the Apostles. (Acts 2:44, 45; 4:32-37 Weymouth)

It seems fair to conclude that the Apostles had now set the example. They also had sold their possessions and now the matter of giving and sharing was demonstrated to the poorest group in Jerusalem: the Christians themselves. Truly they had listened to Jesus' warning: "Be alert and on guard against every kind of greed." But, what did the apostles do with the money?

We have no need to worry or be skeptically critical. For a couple of reasons: first, we find in chapter 6 of Acts that, despite some initial problems, the weakest among them, the widows, were being cared for. (Acts 6:1-7; James 1:27) Second, the most zealous Christian missionary of all is to write later: "God, it seems to me, has exhibited us Apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; for we have come to be a spectacle to all creation--alike to angels and to men. We, for Christ's sake, are labeled as foolish. ...To this very moment we endure both hunger and thirst, with scanty clothing and many a blow. Homes we have none. Wearily we toil, working with our own hands." (1 Corinthians 4:9-12 Weymouth)

The Seriousness of Greed

Paul gives several commands and warnings about greedy or covetous Christians. Note this in the following:

"In my earlier epistle to you I wrote you to stop socializing with any Christian who is ... a greedy person who covets more ... not even sharing a meal with such a person. ... 'Remove the wicked person from among yourselves.'" (1 Corinthians 5:9-13; Deuteronomy 17:7) "Or do you not realize that unrighteous persons will never share a lot in the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. ... Greedy Christians who covet more ... will never share a lot in the Kingdom of God." (1 Corinthians 6:9, 10) "Do not even discuss or mention (for such talk is disgraceful) ... greediness ... For you are completely aware that no ... idolatrous greedy person will ever inherit the royal government of Christ and God." (Ephesians 5:3-5 NR; compare Phillips Modern English: " ... the itch to get your hands on what belongs to other people.")

It is clear that the desire to have more possessions is something the Christian needs to be on guard against as our Lord warned. The person in the Nazarene's audience who requested Jesus settle his problem with his brother may well have had a sincere and genuine request. He may have had a proper right to his share of the inheritance. However, even given this, Jesus cautions us regarding greed, covetousness or the desire to possess more. It is not necessarily wrong in itself. Rather, the danger lies in the wicked doors which are opened by the love of money or the possession of things.

Paul tells Timothy to charge the rich, not to divest themselves of their wealth, but in essence, to "be on guard against every kind of greed." Note how Paul words this:

"But those Christians who wish to have the surplus of the rich stumble into a tempting snare, leading to many stupid and painful envies, sinking into the dark depths of bankruptcy and destruction. Because a fondness for silver is at the root of all kinds of misfortune. Those Christians who have tried to grab more silver have many self-inflicted wounds. But, you (Timothy), O man of God, flee from these things. ... Lay this charge on those Christians rich in this current period: Do not be arrogant or self-absorbed. Rather put their hope and trust -- not in illusory wealth -- but in the One who provides us abundantly everything we need to satisfy us, God. (Charge the rich) to continue working at goodness, to be rich in good works, to be charitable, ready to share in common, putting into their savings an excellent foundation for the future so that they may receive the Real Life." (1 Timothy 6:9-11, 17-19)

Modern Warnings Against Greed

Peter and other inspired disciples foretold an apostasy from the original teachings of the Nazarene: greed would be one identifying characteristic. "Now just as there were false prophets among the people of Israel, just so there will also appear among you false teachers confidentially introducing destructive heresies. They will dispute the very teachings of the Master who purchased them. Thus, they will bring a quick and unexpected annihilation on themselves. Now many will join them and leave your number to follow their impure and destructive teachings. Because of this the real way of Truth will be spoken against with abuse. These false teachers will take advantage of you with words molded by greed. However, that ancient judgment is not without purpose and their destruction is not slumbering." [2 Peter 2:1ff]

Just so there have come to be "prosperity preachers" proclaiming to Gospel of Success. They have rejected the teachings of the Savior above, rationalized and justified their rich life-style (so in contrast to Jesus and Paul) as evidence of God's blessing. They preach that Christians should "sow their seed" by giving to them so that they will in turn be blessed by God. These greedy preachers, Christian publishers, tele-evangelists, and others, enjoy life-styles in total contradiction to their supposed Lord, Jesus Christ. They have become like the angelic presbyter in ancient Laodicea of Revelation 3:16, 17: "Because you claim: 'I am rich and have become wealthy. I have no need for anything!' --- I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!" Surely it is possible that such modern prosperity evangelists -- with their Leer jets, luxury automobiles, prestige residences, expensive watches and diamond rings -- are in danger of being vomited out of the mouth of the Lamb.

Failure to be "on guard and alert to every kind of greed" can reduce a person to the level of an animal. This may be illustrated in a famous photograph of a starving Ethiopian child: too weak to move, his empty palm outstretched, after a rich man who grabbed the child's food, and left without a backward glance. We would not know this story unless the photojournalist had not witnessed this horrible display of greed. How will this rich man endure on Judgment Day?

Let every Christian pray to be "on guard against every kind of greed"!

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Nazarene Commentary 2000© by Mark Heber Miller

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