After preaching recently on greed from Matthew 6:19-24, I fielded this question from a church member wrestling with the issues and implications of the subject:
I am really interested in where the line is between greed and just wanting to have stuff…Is it possible to want to have things without being greedy? For example, if you are into fishing and you have the CL9000 fishing rod and they come out with a CL9001 fishing rod and you feel the need that you have to have that…Is that greed? Can you be content and still want for things like fishing rods, better cars, newer appliances? It seems to me that you are either content with everything, or you are greedy?
This is a great question, one that I’m glad to receive and think through. However, I can’t give an absolute yes or no on this one, simply because Scripture doesn’t give an absolute yes or no either. Especially when it comes to greed, money, and the love of material things, its easy to become legalistic – “this kind of car is okay to drive, but that kind is too luxurious.” But Jesus doesn’t want people who simply know and follow a list of rules; he wants people whose hearts delight in him and in doing his law. That’s why Jesus himself stays away from absolutes, instead speaking to our hearts. I think that’s also why he says so much about money in the first place, because he knows that’s a place where our hearts are so likely to be.
While Jesus doesn’t – and I can’t – say definitively yes or no to this question, I do think that Luke 12:13-21 is relevant here. Jesus teaches through a parable, and like many of his parables, that teaching is invited by a concern from the people around him:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13).
That context is important. Someone in the crowd – the dude asking this question – doesn’t think he has enough money. He wants more, and so he asks (demands, really) Jesus to fix things, to persuade his brother to split the cash from Dad’s estate.
Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:14-15).
Jesus doesn’t want any part of the inheritance squabble. But he does diagnose the heart issue that lies behind it – greed. And so he warns these two men, and us, “Be on guard against all kinds of greed.” Greed takes many forms, and we are to be wary of them all. Why? “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” In other words, that thing you’re looking for, that you hope half of your father’s estate (or that new fishing rod) will secure for you – that thing Jesus simply calls life, you can’t have it simply by owning a bunch of stuff.
Then, to make the point, Jesus illustrates with a parable:
The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 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 will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain 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?”
This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21).
The dangers of greed are front-and-center here. Rather than using resources to bless others, greed is self-centered: “I will store my surplus grain.” Greed breeds an ugly, selfish complacency: “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Greed promotes self-reliance, rather than dependence on God: “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years.” Most dangerously, greed roots our hearts in this temporary world, rather than in eternity: “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”
But how does all of this answer our original question? Where is the line between greed and desire? Again, there really isn’t a line – because Jesus never offers absolutes about these things. But in revealing these dangers that lurk behind our greedy impulses, he gives us some helpful tools for diagnosing our desires. I’d recommend asking yourself these questions any time you are considering accumulating more stuff:
1. Will this purchase or acquisition bless anyone other than me? What is the “reach” of that potential blessing? Greed is self-centered; beware if what you desire is all about you.
2. Will this purchase or acquisition help or hinder my efforts to honor God in other areas of my life? When we give in to greed, it produces ugly disobedience and sin elsewhere in our hearts. If what you desire will not lead you or allow you to honor and glorify God more, beware.
3. Will this purchase or acquisition make me feel less dependent on God? Will you be tempted to place your hope, joy, satisfaction, or security in what you are acquiring? Will it detract from a (right and good) sense of ongoing, complete and total dependence on God?
4. Christians are called to live for the world to come, not this world…will this purchase or acquisition help or hinder you to do this? Will this purchase or acquisition root you more deeply in eternity, or in this present evil age? The imagery of the parable is provocative on this point: The man planned to build bigger barns, and on that very night his life was demanded from him. How does such a reminder of your finitude – of the shortness of your life – affect your desire?
5. Will this purchase or acquisition lead me to treasure Jesus and the gospel more? Or less? If any purchase leads you to a false sense of joy or happiness that might compete – even for a short time – with the joy to be found in Christ, beware. Of course, nothing can truly compete with the joy we have in Jesus, but Satan is cunningly able to deceive us into being satisfied by lesser joys. Greed contributes to that.
None of these guidelines are absolute, nor is this list exhaustive. But it’s a place to start. Above all, when wrestling with any desire or impulse – be it a greedy one or otherwise – pray that God will show you that the riches we have already in Christ in the gospel are far greater than any wealth we can acquire or accumulate in this world.