I want to talk today about greed. Greed. Examples of it, how to recognize and why to avoid it is what all of the readings today touched on. And yet, there was no clear definition that would help us along in our own lives. And since it is sometimes helpful to look back on a word that is so common to us, to take a moment to think about what it actually means, this word that we all use, with greater or lesser frequency, let’s do that.
We hear a parent say to a child whose hand grabs for too many cookies, “don’t be greedy” and we know what that parent means – don’t take too much, don’t take more than your share, make sure everyone has a cookie before you take another, only take what you need, or in this case, the two cookie maximum that you know you’re allowed.
Don’t be greedy. In those three short words, that parent manages to pack a wealth of meaning that the child will only fully understand a bit later, though it’s never too soon to start.
There’s another way to think about greed, though – maybe more than one other way, but here’s one I’ve been thinking of. I find it helpful sometimes to think about the opposite of something, when I really want to get to understand it. And the opposite of greed could be… generosity. But I don’t think so. I think generosity is part of the opposite of greed, but I think it’s too specific. I think that the opposite of greed is really a way to live in the world we hold things lightly. Holding things lightly, meaning that we’re happy to have things (whatever those things are) come to us, and we’re happy to let them go. We literally, don’t hold on to them tightly. Our friends the Buddhists have a term for something like this, and it is non-attachment. And maybe that term, succinct as it is, will work for you, but I like the thought of holding things lightly.
And so, if holding things lightly is the opposite of greed, then that would make greed grabbing on tightly to those things that are yours and those things within your grasp. And not letting go. And by things, things in your grasp, am I just talking about money, about finances? No. Think, grabbing on tightly to possessions, to love, to attention, to power, to fame, to prestige… and sure, to wealth.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think, am I greedy? My instant answer is, ‘no, of course not.’ But if I rephrase the question, ‘do I grab on tightly to things in my life? Is there something, or some group of things that they would have to pry my cold, dead fingers off of to get it out of my possession?’ My answer to that is less bold and confidant. And yet, that is exactly what we’re talking about. It’s what the wisdom we heard read is talking about. Because what God teaches about greed is pretty clear.
God says don’t be greedy.
God says be generous.
God says greed is utterly pointless. Pointless. Because what you have doesn’t matter, it isn’t the point, even if what you’ve got is a lot – so getting more is besides the point. (And God help you if you get more at the expense of others who have less. None of the prophets have anything good to say about that.)
So, okay. Clearly we’re not to be greedy. We are to hold onto things lightly. But that, as perhaps you have noticed, certainly I have, is sometimes easier said than done. So, perhaps in trying to figure out how on earth we go about living out this teaching (which I think is an important part of any teaching – how we’re supposed to do it), it’s helpful to consider briefly what it is we might need this teaching to begin with.
Why are we greedy in the first place?
Now, there are several answers to this, I’m certain, and I’m equally certain that they’ve all got some measure of truth in them. But try this one on for size, and keep it if it seems to fit.
If you’ll think back with me through the bible, especially through those ancient Hebrew scriptures we call the old testament, there are a few resonating themes that, regardless of what story we’re in the middle of hearing, whether it’s about creation, or Noah and the ark, or Abraham and the promises of a great nation, or Moses and the delivering of that great nation, or Samuel, or David, or the judges, or the prophets – throughout all of it, there’s this theme, this refrain, echoing over and over again, and this theme says: God is enough. God is enough. God is enough.
And there are variations on that theme:
If you have God, you have enough.
If you trust in God, you don’t need to trust anything else.
…Now, there could be several understandings of this theme. Certianly, a popular, but I think, wrong interpretation of the idea that ‘God is enough’ is that all we have to do is ‘believe’, and nothing will ever go wrong, life will always be nice, we’ll never get sick, we’ll never be hungry, and nothing bad will ever happen. This is what is prayed for, and this is what we believe will really occur, if only we believe enough. And if it doesn’t occur, it’s because we didn’t believe enough. This, I think, is a rather simplistic view of the complex universe that God has created, and knowing that this is how some people, some Christians approach religion makes me understand what Marx said when he accused religion of being the opiate of the masses.
Because let’s face it, faithful people in ancient Israel knew full well that life wasn’t nice, lots of people got sick and died, or worse, got sick and continued to live on, sick and outcast from society, half-starved and reviled for the rest of their lives. People in ancient Israel knew that if you wanted to eat, hard work was required. And yet, their stories were filled with a theme that says, God is enough.
I think the theme ‘God is enough,’ while a simple phrase, is incredibly more complex than all of that. I think it has to do with abundance, priorities, and some of the inherent laws of the universe.
Or, we can think of it this way, since what we’re really trying to understand is greed, and how to avoid it. The only thing we should be holding tightly to is God. Cling to God. Think to yourself, you’ll have to pry my cold dead fingers out of God’s hand, because I’m not letting go.
And, just to be clear, I don’t mean an image of God. This is not license to go beat up someone else because we’re holding tightly to an image of God that someone else disagrees with, or understands differently, no, no, no.
But to hold tightly to God, rather than possessions, attention, power, fame, prestige, wealth, or even love, but to God… Knowing that these other things will come. These other things will come because the nature of the universe, one of the yet to be enunciated laws of the universe is abundance. Abundance, the concept that there is not just enough, but plenty for all – and greed disrupts the balance and flow of abundance. When we are not greedy, intentionally and however fully we can manage to be not greedy, we are then active participants in God’s abundance that flows to us, through us, and to other people. Now, we don’t get all the credit for that abundance to other people, because that wouldn’t be right and it’s not ours anyway, but we become part of the system that works, we become part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.
So there you have it – Greed. It’s like saying to God, “No, actually, I don’t trust you. I don’t believe you can provide enough when it’s necessary, so I’m going to grab on tight to everything I can reach, and to hell (maybe literally) with the consequences.”
And when we live without greed, it’s like living with an open hand that easily accepts and easily passes on, and hand that helps the flow of abundance come to us, and go beyond us.
It’s the work of a lifetime, perhaps, but I’ve always thought that it’s best to start those life lessons now.