Continuing our reflections on “greed” and “the greedy person” in Ephesians 5:1-6:
In not previously understanding the import of what Paul was writing, not only was I not challenged by this passage, but I did not challenge others when preaching and teaching Ephesians. In not understanding the distinction between covetousness as found in the Ten Commandments and covetousness (greed; the desire for more, and then more, and then more) as it is typically used in the New Testament, I failed to see the radical countercultural message that Paul was preaching – countercultural for his day, and radical in our day of consumerism. Yes, I knew that “covetousness” as used in the NT was broader than Exodus 20:17, but I hadn’t thought about the distinction critically and I hadn’t thought about the likelihood that many professing Christians have not been challenged by the thrust of what Paul is saying. Was it that I didn’t want to deal with it in my own life? Was it that I didn’t want to offend others?
I am deeply convicted that I missed this, avoided it, failed to study it, failed to think about it deeply, failed to present the text faithfully to others.
When Paul, in verse 6, writes, “Let no one deceive you with empty words…” I wonder if some of the empty words included, “Getting more, more, and then more doesn’t matter. It’s only stuff, only things, only recognition, only power, only position.” We would never think that today, but maybe in Paul’s day people thought that.
Paul writes that a greedy person is an idolater; that may have been true in Paul’s day but certainly it couldn’t be true today; or if so, it must only apply to those who go over the top in their pursuit of wealth, position, power and fame. Certainly as citizens of the United States we have a civic obligation to pursue (the good) life, liberty (do what we want), and happiness. Little wonder that most of the time we vote from the pocketbook.
Many of us think that not to have other gods “before Me” means that we make God number one, but that is not what Exodus 20:3 means. It means, “You shall have no other gods in My Presence,” and that means that we shall have no other gods…period, end of story. God is to have no competition in our lives – we are to love Him with all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul, and all of our strength (Mark 12:30). Of course our response is typically, “Yes…but”.
Jesus says in His first recorded extended teaching, “You cannot serve God and riches,” (Matthew 6:24); we read it and then we qualify it with, “Yes…but”.
In my preparation for the small group study of Ephesians 5:1 – 6 I was struck by the fact that greed was written about and discussed by ancient Greeks and Romans, including greed’s impact on the greater community; while ancient thinkers wrestled with “how much is too much?” and the care of the community as a whole – we seldom, if ever, discuss it – whether within or without the church. How often do we make greedy people American idols and cultural superstars? Doing so gives us permission to pursue our own game of more, then more, then more.
A friend of mine, after thinking about this subject, remarked in effect, “When I want more I call it ambition, when someone else wants more I call it greed.”
Where is the Cross of Christ in our desire for “more”? This thought has challenged me for years, both personally and in ministry to others. In my involvement in marketplace ministry, both in Virginia and Massachusetts, I have long thought that when we do not challenge marketplace leaders with how the Cross informs wealth and the acquisition of more and more that we do them a disservice. I have seen theologians and others quick to justify the American Dream and yet never raise the issue of the Cross of Christ and how the Cross should determine our economic and vocational thinking.
Whether the disciple is a laborer or the owner of a billion dollar business – a Christian’s vocation is to be a vocation centered on the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ. A dollar earned that is not laid at the Cross is a dollar ill-used.
“Make sure that your character is free form the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you, so that we may confidently say, The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5 – 6.
This passage in Hebrews has been a reminder to me over the years that learning contentment is a form of trust in God and a witness to the world and the unseen realm.
Our economic culture is built on creating discontent, if we are not discontented we will not purchase more, and more, and then more. We are so imbued with this ethos that we see no danger in it. We are ironic slaves; slaves to pleasure, slaves to acquisition, slaves to silence on these subjects – both in the world and in the church – whoever saw a society of slaves that had so much?
Thinking about writing about this is akin to a criminal writing his own indictment…not pleasant.