Greed as a false religion

Posted on September 12 2013

This article receieved BEST THEOLOGICAL ARTICLE SILVER
AUSTRALASIAN RELIGIOUS PRESS ASSOCIATION AWARDS

"A timely and well written theological reflection on one of the greatest challenges of our time: greed and wealth. The author highlights money as a false idol and with Australia's abundant wealth, even within the Christian community, personal reflection is encouraged. A wide ranging article drawing on diverse biblical traditions and early church teachings as well as on contemporary social and economic commentary. Brian’s communicative style is clear and his discussion logically organised and easy to follow."

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.  Elizabeth Farrelly wrote that over several decades “Western happiness has declined precisely in tandem with the rise of affluence.”  Similarly, Ross Gittins claims that there is actually “evidence that those who strive most for wealth tend to live with lower wellbeing.”

Why then do material ambitions still dominate so many of us?  Affluenza, a book by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, compares materialism to a disease.  In their view the Western world is in the grip of a consumption binge that is unique in human history.  We are addicted to excessive consumption.  This plausible diagnosis is one that Christians have in fact made for centuries.

In the Middle Ages theologians regarded greed not only as a deadly sin but also as a deadly disease.  Greed was commonly thought to be the spiritual equivalent of dropsy, a malady that provoked an insatiable thirst for water even though the body was already filled with fluid.  The more the sick person tried to satisfy their thirst, the more it was stimulated until finally death ensued.  The comparison with the negative impact of greed is apt.

Other 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”).  When high profile stockbroker Rene Rivkin died one published obituary spoke of his “once-loyal entourage of supporters who worshipped their high priest at the altar of wealth.”  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.  The New Testament warns not infrequently of the religious power of money.  Jesus charged that people either serve God or Mammon (i.e., possessions; Matthew 6:24 / Luke 16:13). The apostle Paul believed that some people’s god is their belly (Rom. 16:18 / Phil. 3:19) and he condemned greed as a form of idol worship (Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:5).

The Bible’s condemnation of greed as a religion

What are we to make of the comparison of greed with religion?  Are the New Testament denunciations of greed in terms of idolatry just arresting hyperbole?  Can such extreme rhetoric help us in the fight against greed today?

The first thing to notice is that Jesus’ and Paul’s comparisons of greed with religion were more innovative in form or expression than in content.  The Old Testament paves the way for them with its strong association between wealth and apostasy.  In the OT it’s not that the rich inevitably abandon God, but becoming wealthy raises the possibility.  With riches comes the temptation to trust in oneself rather than God.  The rich sometimes feel that they have no need of God; they have made other arrangements. 

Material things as a threat to devotion to God is underscored, for example, in Deuteronomy 8:12-14, which warns those entering the Promised Land not to allow their prosperity lead them to abandon the Lord: “when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

The same lesson is reinforced in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32, where newly acquired wealth is said to lead the people into apostasy: “Jeshurun [i.e., the nation Israel] grew fat … and abandoned the God who made him” (v. 15).   

Comparable warnings appear across the Old and New Testaments.  For example, the sage prays that God will not give him riches, lest he “may have too much … disown [God] and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” (Prov. 30:7-9).  Job explains that, “if I have put my trust in gold or said to pure gold, ‘You are my security’ … I would have been unfaithful to God on high” (Job 31:24-28).   In Luke’s Gospel, with reference to the teaching of Jesus, the dangers riches pose to entering the kingdom of God are evident in the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21), the encounter with the rich ruler (18:18-30) and in the calls to renounce possessions and give to the poor in order to enter the kingdom of God (14:33; 18:22). 

Indeed, the concept of greed as a religion has deep roots in the Bible.  What are we to make of Paul’s explicit comparisons of greed with idol worship in Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5?  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. 

The mammon saying in Matthew and Luke confirms this troubling teaching.  Jesus warns about excessive love of wealth and a forbidden service of wealth: “No one can be a loyal servant to two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot faithfully serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24). In the following context Jesus points to the way God cares for the birds and the lilies in order to inspire trust in God’s providential care and to calm anxiety about material things that provokes us to seek them obsessively and put our trust in them: “the pagans (those who do not know God) run after all these things, and your heavenly father knows that you need them” (v. 32). 

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. 

If once our most vivid experiences were religious, today they involve money rituals.  For example, the modern day equivalent of the city cathedral is the shopping complex.  On her Up! album, Shania Twain sings:  “We’ve created us a credit card mess. We spend the money that we don’t possess.  Our religion is to go and blow it all.  So it’s shoppin’ every Sunday at the mall.”

As we already noted, the very things Christianity claims God expects of believers, namely love, trust and service, may well characterize 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’ 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” (Matt. 6:32-33). 

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. 

Rev Dr Brian Rosner is the Principal of Ridley Melbourne and is the author of Beyond Greed and Greed as Idolatry. This article was first published in The Melbourne Anglican, December 2012


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