15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed.”
The problem with using the word greed in the translation of this verse is that none of us think we are greedy. Greed is a negative thing, whereas enjoying the finer things in life is a sign of culture and status. We don’t imagine ourselves to be gluttons; we have a discerning palate or a hearty appetite. We don’t lust; we admire the beauty of the male or female form. And since we live around people like ourselves – and there is always someone with more money than we have – it is not hard to persuade ourselves our possessions are ‘normal’.
The same thing is true if translate this verse with the word ‘covetousness’ or ‘acquisitiveness.’ We quickly and easily distance ourselves from those qualities. We are slippery devils, always dodging or domesticating the words of Jesus.
But we can translate Jesus’ comment much more neutrally: “Watch out. Guard against the desire to gain more than your share.” Such a translation is harder to dodge.
Like most households, we had a rule growing up that if my brother or I cut the cake in two, the other got to choose his piece first. That desire for the larger slice, the better parking spot, the nicer car, the larger house, the richer fields, the bigger paycheck, lies naturally within us all – but this is dangerous spiritual ground. It is the realm of “me first,” though we have been called into the realm of a God who came to serve not to be served and who lays down his life for the sake of the world.
Research shows that those who get the bigger piece believe they deserve it. Even when they know the game is rigged, they attribute their success to their own merits. Again, this is dangerous spiritual ground, leading us away from God’s vision for human life, for we therefore tend to protect our privilege rather than the poor when God declares he is concerned for the opposite.
Jesus lived in a different economy than ours, but he lived with the same human heart. So his first word is a warning against traveling that seductive and instinctive path that differs from the one to which God calls us. Beware of wanting more. Beware of the big piece. Beware of the clever deal. Beware of the shrewd move. Beware of the inside trade. Beware of taking advantage of another. Beware of that desire to win. The one with the most toys doesn’t.
My big brother always wanted to trade Halloween or Easter candy with me. I learned pretty quickly that I was going to lose in that deal. He had the bug, the desire for more, the hope of advantage, the goal of prospering at other’s expense. I learned the hard way, and it made me mad, but it didn’t stop me from trying the same thing with my younger brother.
“Beware of the desire for more.”
Consider God’s will as it was revealed to Israel: the many commands not to use faulty weights in measuring out the grain you sell or buy, not to harvest to the edge of your property but to leave the margins for those without land to come and harvest, not to glean your fields but to leave it to the poor, not to go back should a sheaf of wheat fall off the wagon but to leave it for the poor, not to show preference to the wealthy in the courts. Consider the prohibition from selling land – for the land is a gift from God to be divided to all in Israel – the provision for the regular release from debts, the command that when someone is forced to become a slave/servant they can serve only seven years and then you must send them out with enough resources to get on their own feet again, the obligation to give a tithe for the poor.
God moves in the direction of providing for all. The manna from heaven went to all, and those who tried to gather more got only what they needed, and those who tried to hoard it for the future found it full of worms the next day.
God moves in the direction of providing for all. To travel in the direction of gaining more than others leads us away from the kingdom of God. Jesus has much more to say about wealth, but he starts with this simple warning: “Beware the desire for more.”
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PS Isn’t it interesting that the medieval image for greed was an ape – a creature like humans, but lacking humanity.