Greed and Avarice
Written by Al Baker
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Reformed Practice - Finance/Money

Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, until there is no more room . . . In my ears the Lord of hosts has sworn, 'Surely, many houses shall become desolate, even great and fine ones, without occupants.' Isaiah 5:8-9

DSC 0437By now we all know what happened with the housing bubble when it finally burst in the fall of 2008. Can there be a more graphic illustration of greed and avarice! The mortgage broker showed greed by convincing unqualified house buyers that they could own a house, taking his commission by folding it into the loan package. The lender showed greed by facilitating a bad loan even though there was government pressure to do so on the mortgage loan business. The government showed greed because they were looking for votes. Big banks like Citigroup and Lehman Brothers through their investment banking arms showed greed by purchasing the subprime loans and rolling them into packaged securities along with good, solid mortgage loans. The loans were guaranteed by quasi-governmental backed agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and when not covered by them they often were insured by the likes of AIG. The investment banks made huge fees for creating and underwriting these asset backed securities. Everyone was fat, dumb and happy.

Isaiah the prophet, in this context preaching to the fat, dumb, happy, and wealthy people of Israel and Judah pronounces a woe, a strong word of judgment, upon them. In an agrarian society land was a status symbol and the rich in Israel were buying up all the land they could. Don't think this is an indictment on you buying a vacation home at the beach or in the mountains. Land in Israel had been divided among the twelve tribes when they drove out God's enemies (Josh. 13ff) and the land was handed down from generation to generation. The problem in Isaiah's day was that the wealthy were committing usury, loaning money at exorbitant interest rates, and confiscating property when the people could not service the debt (Mic. 2:1-2, Hab. 2:9-10). They also wished to live alone in the land! They were all about isolation. They wanted to separate themselves from the 'little people.' They did not want to be bothered by the ordinary problems of ordinary people. They loved their comfort and security. Yahweh, however, has different plans for them. Their homes will become desolate, even great and fine homes. Sound familiar? And part of his judgment on them is that their land will yield a pittance - ten acres of a vineyard will yield only six gallons of wine, six bushels of seed sown in the field only yields one-half bushel of food. Hyper-inflation, or perhaps deflation, would strip them bare. Isaiah pronounces another woe on them in verse 11, 'Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may pursue strong drink, who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them.' He goes on to say that they are living large in their parties but pay no attention to the Lord. Therefore Sheol, or death, will come upon them suddenly. All, rich and poor, those with or without status, will be abased, brought low. But Yahweh will be exalted in judgment.

Isaiah is not against wealth per se. The people of God are often blessed materially, especially as they seek him, as they keep covenant with him (Deut. 28:1ff). But he is concerned about the same thing as Jesus who said that we ought to be on guard, never thinking our lives consist of our possessions (Luke 12:15). Paul said something similar, warning of the danger of seeking wealth (1 Tim. 6:9-10), also of trusting in wealth (1 Tim. 6:17). Solomon, who certainly was rich himself, warned of the same thing (Prov. 23:4). In fact, Paul said that because life is short, because this world is passing away quickly, we ought to buy as though we do not possess anything, we ought to use the world as though we do not make full use of it (1 Cor. 7:30-31).

Why is this warning of judgment so vital for us? Will you not agree that our wealth, the affliction of our affluence, the distress of our distractions can bring pride and presumption! It is so easy to focus our attention on what we see - the temporal and material - while failing to consider the unseen, the eternal and spiritual. I always think of Tom Brady, the Quarterback for the New England Patriots, in this regard. Talk about having it made from a worldly perspective! He is a famous football player, making millions of dollars annually. He has a model for a wife, a couple of children, fame, good looks. So Tom Brady could easily say, 'I suppose I should acknowledge all this is from God. He has greatly blessed me. And because he has done so, then surely I have his favour. I must be in right relationship with him.' Actually the goodness of God is meant to draw Brady to repentance and faith but he avoids God (as far as I know); and because of his own stubbornness and unrepentant heart, he is storing up wrath for himself in the day of the wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God who will render to every man according to his deeds (Rom. 2:4-6).

So God is serious about greed and avarice, which begs a few questions, doesn't it? Are these two sins dominating your life? How can you know one way or the other? Consider this - you are consumed with greed and avarice when you acquire more and more stuff (fill in the blank, it can be anything) while neglecting your own soul (Luke 12:15ff). Are you allowing work and money to encroach on your personal time with God each day? If you are too busy for God then you are too busy! You are greedy if you pursue wealth or fame while neglecting your spouse, children, church, or ministry responsibilities. You are greedy if you are jealous of those who have more than you, if you speak against them (James 4:11-12), if you complain against them (James 5:9). Do you speak negatively of other people? Why? Are you jealous of them?

What, then, should you do? Taking a vow of poverty is not necessary. Nowhere in the Bible is this commanded of us. Nor does this mean we are to embrace socialism and cave into the federal government's unabated tyranny of exacting more and more of our wealth through taxation. It does mean that we are to work honestly, sincerely, giving our very best in our work, seeking to make our employer profitable (Eph. 6:5-8). It also means we are to show compassion on the poor and needy in our world. While we rightfully resent the government taking our hard-earned money through exorbitant taxation, at the same time we are to hold our possessions loosely and give to worthy causes. The financial and time commitment of hundreds of people in Birmingham, Alabama to fund an annual budget of $1.3 million at Restoration Academy, an inner city school in Fairfield, AL which is giving poor children an outstanding Christian education, is a fine case in point. It also means we ought to show restraint. Just because you can, does not mean you should. When making any relatively significant purchase, learn to ask yourself, 'Why am I buying this? Do I really need it? Is this the best use of the money God has given me?' And finally, it means we are to preach the folly of greed and avarice, not only to ourselves but to other Christians and to those in the world. Many people have ship-wrecked on the rocks of greed and avarice. Such a temptation! Such a snare! But only Jesus can satisfy the longing of your heart. A new house, car, or suit of clothes will not do it.

Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. He planted (2003) and served as Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in Hartford, Connecticut, until December 2011.