I welcome the opportunity to preach on greed – or what the Authorised Version of the Bible and the BCP call ‘covetousness’. I confess that I have never coveted my neighbour’s ass, for the record; but I have had my eye on his Aston Martin DB7 – a very desirable car, by any measure. Greed: that word which describes insatiate longing; covetousness and avarice; desire that possesses us so that we can longer see or think straight. Rapacious appetites that will not be satisfied until the hunger is fully sated. Voracious, intense, ravenous – whenever we think of the word, we think of excess; desire unbounded.
It would, of course, be a bit of a cheap jibe to say that much of consumer-based culture is desire-driven to the point where greed is what we feed. Many of us are more than aware of this. Greed is something that has possession of us. The object we seek is, in fact, the object that has us; we can be imprisoned by desire. Like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, we do not understand that excessive desire can actually destroy us. Or consider the studied characters in the recent film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – superbly hammed-up by Johnny Depp playing Willy Wonka. In Dahl’s moral fable, we meet the virtuous Charlie Bucket, a poor but kind-hearted child who is the antithesis of greed; he is open-hearted, generous and self-sacrificing.
But in some ways the real grit of the tale lies in the write-ups the other characters receive. Augustus Gloop, a gluttonous kid who stuffs his face with sweets; Violet Beuragarde, a champion trophy gum chewer; Veruca Salt, a spoiled rich girl; and Mike Teavee, a kid who spends more time watching TV and playing video games than anything else. Each of them is a study of greed and possession. Rather like the novel of the same name (i.e., Possession) by Patrick Suskind, desire has long ago turned to all-consuming greed, which distorts and dominates all the relationships it touches.
Make no mistake: greed is a subtle, insidious sin. In questioning it, we are required to go deep into our hearts and minds, and to challenge our own motivations and desires. What really drives us? Why do we really want this or that for ourselves, or for another? We are called to a life a discernment – to split the atom, which is a fusion of selfless love and deep desire. Our English word ‘greed’ comes from a fairly innocent source. You can trace the use of the word back to early Saxon times, and find the root of the word amongst the Germanic tribes that one dominated Northern Europe. All the word means is ‘desire’ or ‘hunger’ – but disproportionate. The word suggests that the very things we long to consume, may instead, consume us.
This is, after all, the genesis of those early folk fables – like that of Midas, who longs for wealth beyond compare, such that all he touches will turn to gold. But such stories easily translate. The company or corporation that longs for global dominion. The university department that longs for the top international accolade. The person that longs for a position or recognition. Such things can be fine. But in excess, the greed for reward that they produce corrupts all other relationships, and distorts our humanity and sociality.
So like Midas, we must be careful what you wish for – which is the moral of the tale – for what you most desire to possess actually may become your possessor. We can be trapped by unconstrained desire; by hunger that has no discipline. It imprisons us. Sp just in case you are starting to feel a little smug, let me remind you that there can be such a thing as spiritual greed, or even a kind of distorted Christian greed – a desire for perfection and knowledge that leads to false elevation, and draws us away from wisdom. A longing and a lust to be ‘more-holier-than-thou’ which distorts the very object of desire, and clouds the judgment of the person pursuing the path of righteousness.
Indeed, many apparently laudable desires can turn into a kind of distorted greed. I remember working in an organisation some years ago that longed to repeat its award for achievement – it had achieved two awards for international excellence, and badly wanted the hat-trick. But this desire to reach this goal was also corrupting. People who contributed to that goal differently, or less single-mindedly, were quickly marginalised. That which the organisation longed to possess, in truth, already possessed that organisation.
Small wonder, then, that the first time Jesus appears, in the first gospel, the first instruction he gives is ‘Repent’. He asks us to self-examine; to turn around; to forsake. To not get consumed by our desires. The very things we want to consume can end up by consuming us. So Jesus warns: ‘repent’.
Interestingly, many Christians think that repentance is about a kind of ‘kill-joy’ severity; a life-sentence of abstinence. But in fact, most of the early Christian literature on repentance is about the rightful control of desires, and about setting the heart aright. It is not about setting aside desire, but about desires being redeemed. Woody Allen has a nice line on this. Question: How do you make God laugh? Answer: Tell him your future plans. It is not that the plans themselves are bad, per se. It is, rather, that the desires we have for our lives always need redeeming, and placing in line with God’s higher purposes. Life is not about ‘my career’, ‘my goals’ or ‘my fulfilment’; it is about service, which is perfect freedom. And in such a context, greed has no place, because is the language of excess and self-absorption, not of self-emptying love and service.
Our first step, then, is to decide where we want to go. If we are resolved to move daily further into union with Christ, we must be ready to face the very conditions that enslave us; the things that hold us back, and to let God begin to heal them. Repentance is the way back to the Father. It is both the door and the path to a new life. It is the door to a new freedom.
So, greed has to go. But it’s more insidious nature needs to be recognised as well. Challenging the greed inside us is, in the end, about recognising that all the glitters is not gold. And to have the heart set on God is to choose wisdom, and to follow him who calls us. Not to a life where desires are fulfilled, but to one where the restless heart is finally set at ease and at peace. R.S. Thomas, in his poem ‘The Bright Field’, puts it well:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I have to posses it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Desire then, is good. But can we learn to turn aside from the object of desire itself, and examine our motives. They will, invariably, be mixed. That is alright, however, for we are all human. But faith asks us to probe deeper, and examine real motives for real ends, and perhaps ask that most awkward of question, which faces everyone – the priest, the academic, the lover, the worker and even the student. Does our hunger for glittering prizes sometimes consume us, such that we are possessed? Can we see something deeper in our desires that needs examination? And perhaps repentance?
Remember what Jesus says: ‘for where you treasure is, so will your heart be’.
The Rev’d Canon Prof. Martyn Percy, Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon
26th February 2006