Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
Is Paul’s condemnation of greed as idolatry just exaggeration for effect?
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 1 Timothy 6:6-10
Doubts about Western materialism
In recent years a number of academics and social commentators have questioned the rampant materialism of the Western world. They argue that if people are trying to get rich in order to be happy, it isn’t working. Studies show that Western happiness has declined precisely in tandem with the rise of affluence. Apparently, those who strive most for wealth tend to live with lower wellbeing. What, then, drives our desire for more material possessions?
Some critics of greed have compared it to a religion. One newspaper article carried the title, ‘In greed we trust’ (instead of ‘in God we trust’). A review of Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad commented that it ‘isn’t just a wealth creation manual, it’s a religious tract.’ As it turns out, the comparison of greed with a religion is hardly original. Along with Paul’s condemnation of greed as a form of idol worship in Colossians 3:5 (and Ephesians 5:5), Jesus charged that people either serve God or Mammon (i.e., possessions; Matthew 6:24/Luke 16:13).
The Bible’s condemnation of greed as a religion
What are we to make of the comparison of greed to a false religion? Can such extreme rhetoric help us in the fight against greed today?
In what ways are greed and idolatry alike? Over the centuries three answers to this question have been suggested. Whereas most twentieth-century interpreters see love as the point of similarity, the Reformer Martin Luther identified trust, and the Church Father Chrysostom, service. Do the greedy person and the idolater love, trust, and serve their money and their idols respectively? All three are in fact correct.
The Bible underscores love, trust, and service as three core responses of the believer in relation to God, and faults both the idolater and the greedy person for foolishly misdirecting these same three. Both idolaters and the greedy ‘set their hearts’ on inappropriate objects. Both ‘rely on,’ ‘trust in’, and ‘look to’ their ‘treasures’ for protection and blessing. Both ‘serve’ and ‘submit to’ things that demean rather than ennoble the worshipper. Greed is idolatry in that, like the literal worship of idols, it represents an attack on God’s exclusive rights to human love, trust ,and service. Material things can replace God in the human heart and set us on a course that is opposed to him, even arousing his jealousy.
The contemporary relevance of greed as idolatry
Is greed a religion today? It does seem that for many people material things hold a place in their lives that was once occupied by belief in God. The economy has achieved what might be described as a sacred status. Like God, the economy, is capable of supplying our needs without limit. Also, like God, the economy is mysterious, dangerous and intransigent, despite the best managerial efforts of its associated clergy.
In our day, the very things Christianity claims God expects of believers, namely love, trust, and service, can easily characterise our relationship with money. A glance at the palpable glee on the faces of game show contestants confirms our love of money. You can literally buy ‘securities’ and ‘futures.’ Most disturbingly, as the French ethicist Jacques Ellul put it, ‘We can use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims.’
The ultimate solution to the insatiable grasping for, and obsessive hoarding of, material things that marks our age is not simply to say no to something of limited value, but to say yes to something better. Jesus’s concluding exhortation on the subject of greed in the Sermon on the Mount amounts to such a redirection of desire: ‘The pagans run after such things… But you instead should seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness’ (Matthew 6:32-33). The best defence against the love of money and the desire to get really rich, is to love God and long to be rich towards him.
Economists may recommend greed, politicians rely on it, and celebrities flaunt it, but in the end like all idols, money fails to deliver on its promises. If the root cause of materialism is misdirected religious impulses, then the ultimate solution is still faith in the true and living God, who alone gives the security and satisfaction that each of us craves.
Questions for Reflection
1. Are you tempted to love, trust, or serve money? Which one is a problem for you?
2. What about God and the plan of salvation might help you to be more content with your lot in life?
3. What about God and the plan of salvation might help you to be more generous in sharing your possessions?
who richly supplies us with everything for our enjoyment:
help those of us who are rich in this present world to be generous and willing to share
and to flee the love of money,
that we may take hold of the life that is truly life,
until the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,
in whose name we pray,