Dear James (F)–Greed, Which is Idolatry

Dear James,

I agree that the more we look at sin, and look into sin—especially that sin which sits lurking in the quiet unexamined spaces of our hearts—the more we look the more we’ll see. It’s almost neurotic, like the student of pathology or psychology who finds, through study, that she bears the symptoms of every disease and disorder she encounters! But where with the student such a thing is a necessary phase, one out of which she ought rightly to grow, the analysis of sin for us is both accurate and unending. It is also a worse experience. Sin is not limited to its bodily effects, it is also psychological, and indeed goes beyond the psychological to touch the very soul. The pathology runs throughout the entirety of the human person. It’s a scary business, looking into your own heart.

I trust, despite your note of alarm, that throughout this season our exercise together hasn’t slipped into despair. We’ve tried to balance the grim with the good, and while I admit that I haven’t made much of forgiveness, it’s worth remembering that our salvation from sin hasn’t really been the point so far. In Christ we’re both saved already, are we not? What we want for is an act of transformation in the inner man to root out the twisted evil of our hearts. To get at that, we’ve got to commit to the long, hard look inward.

It’s possible that one of the hardest places to look today is at Greed, if only because our political and economic systems are crafted to sanction and shape human Greed. Acquisition is at the heart of capitalism, and the system claims to free men by freeing their capacity for acquisition. It is interesting to remember that the Hebrews had strict injunctions against charging interest, if only because application of those same laws today would destroy our economies. In this way, and others, Greed is hard to look at; we can’t imagine living without it.

Greed has to do with stuff, and with the desire for stuff, but of course it goes much deeper than that. At its root, it’s about the danger of stuff to stand between us and God. When Jesus talks about Mammon in the Sermon on the Mount he’s speaking about a deity—the god of things—which wars with God for our allegiance. Greed’s power is to help us to think that our things will save us, that acquisition really is the meaning of life. It lends power to the belief that a sufficient buffer of money, power, and influence will be what I need to protect me against the day of trouble. “You fool!” Christ says, “This very night your life will be required of you.” In these ways, Greed keeps us from trusting in God.

But Greed also flattens our human relationships. Rather than seeing my fellow man as someone made in God’s image and likeness, a brother or sister in need, I see dollar signs. I see someone who can be used to make money, or someone whose needs will cost money. Greed reduces persons to things, and relationships to economics. (Which suggests, ironically, that Marxism’s materialism actually generates a politics to rival capitalism’s Greed.) In the end, the old phrase becomes true—rather than using things and loving people, in Greed I use people and love things.

And this, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of Greed, that it wars against Charity. Here the word Charity is important in both of its senses—that of giving alms, and that of the love that is proper to Christians. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to be truly Charitable when I am in the grip of Greed—not only because I believe that these things are mine, and therefore not fit for another, but also because I have permitted the weight of my stuff to stifle the right response of my heart. Properly Christian love sacrifices itself for the benefit of another. Greed throws checks in this process, and by so doing perhaps fundamentally inhibits our growth in grace.

All of this is part of that hard, inward look, and yet it seems to me that we as the Church haven’t got the best track record for this process. Far too many people still seem to think that—or at least act as if—“accepting Jesus” were the end of the story. Not only do we appear to have an aversion to the hard work of faith, we categorically dislike being forced to look into the mirror of God’s truth. I wonder if Greed might actually play an important part in this aversion. Greed, as it manifests itself in a belief that I deserve something, that I am owed certain things in life, extends outward to mean that I am owed a good life (from God), and owed an easy faith journey, and owed peace, and security, and happiness. When I don’t get those things, I feel at liberty to make them happen by my own power. With Greed in control, I get to be my own master. With God in control, I don’t. This indeed is the Greed, in Paul’s words, “which is idolatry.”

I think there might be two clear answers to Greed in the human heart. The first, of course, is Charity itself, in the sense of sacrificial giving. We ought to be giving away from what God has given us. And I don’t think we ought only to be giving to the Church, but we ought also to review those charitable options available to us and allow ourselves to be moved by the other kind of Charity. Where our heart is touched, we ought to give. The other answer is to commit to the work at your local church, and to allow your heart to be touched by the needs you see there. Where you see needs, attempt to meet them. Above all, both these activities ought to generate in us a sense that we are seeing people and using things.

All the best to you as you prepare your heart for Holy Week.

Jeremy Rios