Greed, by Jonathan Storment

Greed, by Jonathan Storment November 25, 2015

It doesn’t feel like Christmas until someone gets pepper sprayed at Target. -Jon Stewart

I am tired of the War on Christmas.  It is my least favorite holiday tradition.  I think it has become one of the more polarizing parts of our culture and, frankly, not that helpful for anyone.  So I have a modest proposal – instead of fighting to keep Christ in Christmas what if we fought to keep the Friday in Black Friday?

I remember when the day before Black Friday was the only day that our culture had set aside to actually be aware of what we already have, instead of focusing on what we don’t.  I remember when they used to call the day before Black Friday, Thanksgiving.  But each year it seems like the monster of materialism is inching closer and closer, destroying our gratitude by increasing our greed.  And greed is something that Christianity has a lot to say about.

Jesus talks more about our money than any other topic other than the Kingdom of God.  But you wouldn’t know that from the shallow forms of Christian discipleship we see today.  You would have thought that Jesus’ main lectures were on sexuality and Starbucks cups, but it is not.

And since we care so much about keeping Christ in Christmas, I would like to give a little historical perspective on what that might really look like this advent season. I have been going through a series on the seven deadly sins, and I intentionally chose this vice for this week.  I think this week is one of the most spiritually dangerous weeks of the year especially when it comes to this particular sin.

In James Bryan Smith’s great book The Good and Beautiful Life he points out that when neurologists have studied the brain they have discovered that a certain area of the brain lights up when religious people experience a transcendent moment.  They would scan their brain while asking them to recall a time when they have felt God’s presence most intimately.  They would put in front of them stimuli like stained glass, incense, or religious imagery.  What they discovered was that the Caudate Nucleus, an area of the brain, responded when those people felt close to God.  The neurologist tested another group of people.  This time they didn’t use any religious stimuli, but showed this new group of people images of consumer goods connected to very popular brands.  Again, the Caudate Nucleus lit up and it was then that they discovered that consumers who buy certain well-marketed items have something a bit like a religious experience.

There is a reason that the New Testament often links greed with idolatry, and it is important to remember that the first banks were built as temples.  That sounds strange to us today, but only because we have forgotten how Jesus talks about money.  Money is not just some neutral commodity.  Money is a spiritual power that competes for our hearts.  This is not just a metaphor.  And sadly, it seems money is winning the competition.

Because, chances are, I am writing to people who have enough of just about everything, but we don’t know it.  That is a symptom of this vice of greed.  Here is how Rebecca DeYoung says it:

The trouble with prideful possession is that when greed takes over, we find that we don’t know what enough means anymore, and that greed undercuts our ability to see the true value of things.

It is hard to see greed in the mirror.  I have never had someone confess this. Greedy people say things like, I’m careful, I’m a good saver, or I’m a good shopper.  Nobody sees themselves as greedy, most of us probably even see ourselves as generous, even though this is probably the most quantifiable vice there is.

After all, you can’t really chart vainglory or wrath or lust, and as we saw last week, gluttony is about more than what your scales say.  But greed is hard to hide. So often following Jesus is abstract.  But you can look at your bank account and see where you stand on this.  And if you can’t see it, someone else can.

Think about it, have you ever noticed that sense of shyness that comes when you have to show someone else what you do with your money?  There is a sense of vulnerability that comes when someone else sees our financial records and our spending habits, because even if they know nothing else about us, they know quite a bit about us.  A good discipline to prepare for this spiritually intense season is to ask ourselves what would someone when looking at our finances be able to judge about our character, our loves, our excesses and our deficiencies?

It is because of this lack of self-awareness that Stanley Hauwerwaus actually says that whenever we join a local church, we ought to be asked these four questions:

1. Who is your Lord and Savior?

2. Do you trust in him and seek to be his disciple?

3. Will you be a faithful member of this congregation?

4. And finally: What is your annual income?

I know that sounds odd, but I think we desperately need some radical accountability with each other to avoid this vice in a culture where it is seen as a virtue, especially at this time of year, because we need someone to remind us what enough is, and to help us see that, chances are, we already have it.

A long time ago, Thomas Aquinas made a distinction between natural wealth and artificial wealth.  Natural wealth, he says, is what we need to satisfy our natural desires for genuine human goods, things like food and shelter and clothing.

But artificial wealth is what we need to satisfy desires that are artificially created and inflated.

Remember, Aquinas lives centuries before the advertising industry, but it is hard to imagine a better, more prophetic word about it.  And Aquinas says that the reason that artificial needs are bad is because the more we possess the more we begin to despise them and seek more, because we realize their insufficiency.

Aquinas seems to think that greed is to joy what salt water is to a man dying of thirst.

There was a time when the Apostle Paul was writing a letter from prison.  He is writing to the church in Philippi, and he writes some words that I have read a thousand times, but never like this.  Here is what he says:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,

I know what it is to have plenty.  What a gift that would be.  The purpose of most of the advertisements we are going to see this next month will be to stir up greed and discontent.  And if they work we will accumulate more and more, but enjoy it less and less, all because we don’t know what it is to have plenty.

If we really want to keep Christ in Christmas then I think this is where Christians must start, by battling greed and learning contentment.  I will warn that in my experience this kind of spiritual discipline is a real war.

But at least it is the right one.

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  • Peter Wolfe

    No comments? A low comment time in the US I know but still … Jonathan, your words grabbed me. What would someone say looking at my (our) income and spending habits? Our whole economic system counts on more (growth). How to live the Jesus way. Lots to examine for me.