Greed: The Heart RevealedErwin W. Lutzer | May 16, 1999
Selected highlights from this sermon
We are all born with a greedy heart. While greed and God promise the same things, only greed leads to more evils including covetousness and envy.
So how do we fight against greed? We must transfer our trust from money and things to God—we must invest in eternity. We need to confess our greediness, return to God, and give, because sacrificial giving shows our ultimate reliance upon God.
“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies. It cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, money, love and knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.” So said Michael Douglas in a movie video clip that some of us saw this past week.
Now listen to a different perspective: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The Pharisees who loved money heard all of this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”
So, who’s right? Michael Douglas or Jesus? Ivan Boesky or Jesus? You and I or Jesus?
Let me tell you the story of a young couple whom I shall call Paul and Judy. They married in their twenties and from all accounts, as Christians, were destined for a happy relationship. They lived in an apartment for about two years, and then afterwards they decided to get some equity into a home and so, based on a loan taken from Paul’s father, they bought a house.
But because their house was far from where they worked they needed another car, and rather than buy an old clunker which might have served their purposes, they decided to get a pretty good one because Paul was expected to receive a salary increase.
The problem is that their new house also needed furniture, and rather than look at the ads where they could have bought something cheap, they decided to buy something more expensive because the store from which they purchased it said that no payments were needed until next year.
But when Judy’s job terminated, they began to get into some financial arguments because they could not meet their bills, and when she became pregnant, by then they were already putting their groceries on a credit card. And unknown to Judy, Paul was secretly getting some loans to keep her from the weight and the burden of their financial squeeze. What she didn’t know is that in addition to getting some secret loans, he also began to do some gambling, particularly in the realm of sports, hoping that he would be able to get back some of the money that he desperately needed to pay all of the bills that were coming in. When all this came to the surface and was exposed, they had many, many arguments and Judy wondered whether she could ever trust her husband again.
What went wrong? Why is it that a marriage that was destined for happiness almost came to an end so tragically? Well, first of all, Judy and Paul, bless them, decided that they would not depend upon God to meet their needs, but rather they would borrow money for what they wanted rather than simply for what they needed. And so they said to themselves, “We’re going to borrow money rather than trust God’s provision.”
Years ago before credit was invented, and I don’t know at whose feet we should leave that particular invention, but years ago people had to actually trust God. And they would say to themselves, “We’re going to save money, and we’re going to pay for whatever it is that we have, and if we do not have enough money to buy it, we will simply assume that God does not want us to have it.” And the will of God was found by either the funds that were available or the funds that were not available. Oh, those days, of course, are gone. Few people pray about these things anymore because all that you need to do is to have a credit card, and you don’t have to ask God. You can have it today and pay for it tomorrow. In fact, all kinds of companies are glad to give you cards like that.
Now, of course, I think it is okay to borrow money for items that appreciate in value such as a home. If some of us didn’t borrow money, we never would live in a home. But when you borrow money for those depreciating items, oftentimes those bills at high rates of interest begin to come in so quickly, and almost always we underestimate our ability to pay them back.
My wife and I, especially when we were first married, discovered that there is such a thing that is a wise loan that is paid off in a timely fashion, and an unwise loan. There are those other kinds that all of us at times have taken.
Do you know what some of you need to do? Remember as children you always wanted to play doctor. I recommend that some of you do that. Maybe it’s getting in touch with your inner child, but play doctor. Take those credit cards and perform plastic surgery. (laughter and applause) Try it. You’ll like it. Cut them up into as many bits as those scissors allow. The curse of debt, the devil and dirt are all kissing cousins. That’s the first mistake they made.
The second mistake they made is that their greed led to other sins. Now, as we’ll explain in a few moments, this always happens. Greed is never unchaperoned. It always comes with other sins. It comes in clusters. In this case it came with dishonesty because Paul began to say some things that were not true in answer to questions that his wife was asking because he had all these hidden loans that were going on. And he began to gamble to make the matters worse, and also was what went wrong.
Thirdly, they boxed themselves in in such a way that they could not give any more to the Lord’s work. There was no money. One day they came home and the lights were actually turned off. So there’s no money to the church! How do you give to the missionaries? How do you give to God’s work when you need every single dime with those creditors that are at your door, nipping at your heels? And your big question is, “How do I make it until the next month?” That’s the question.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, were Paul and Judy greedy, or were they just foolish?” I’d like to suggest that they were both—both greedy and foolish. Greed and foolishness are also cousins. They come together. The Bible says in Proverbs 15:27: “A greedy man brings trouble to his family.” If Paul and Judy had had that hanging above their kitchen table, they might have been spared some of the grief that came through their awesome debt.
We are raising a generation in which greed is at the heart of consumerism. Someone has said, “Huge shopping malls have become the cathedrals of our society for millions of worshipping shopaholics.” And as the bumper sticker says, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”
Now, of course, greed can express itself in other ways, too, can’t it? Greed expresses itself in the miser who keeps all of his money, and the man who will not give his wife money to spend, even though they have it. They are keeping it for some day that may never come, and they decide that they are going to pinch every single penny. You’ve met people like that, too, haven’t you? Some of you live with people like that. God help you! God help you!
Greed is a feeling of possessiveness and ownership, a sense of saying, “I need money, and I need things, and I need more money, and I need more things.” And then if you’re in America today there are people who will tell you that life owes you all of those things.
I told you that greed never comes unchaperoned. It’s always got some cousins that it brings to the picnic. Let me name two. One is covetousness. Covetousness! Now the Bible is very explicit that covetousness is idolatry. Here is a verse: “No immoral or impure or greedy person…” I might say that it begins with the words of Paul: “For of this you can be sure.” How many things can you be sure of in life? Well, here’s one of them. “No immoral, impure or greedy person (such man is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” But notice this: A greedy person is an idolater.
Oh, very important! If you wonder why the sin of greed is so great, in a few moments I’ll be explaining to you why it is a slap in God’s face. But notice it says, “He’s an idolater.” Now the last commandment is, “Thou shall not covet.” The first commandment is, “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” And Paul is saying something very interesting. He’s saying that the two commandments are identical, that if you covet, you are breaking the first commandment. You become an idolater. Covetousness—that desire to have what other people have… Eve coveted being like God and ate the forbidden fruit. Lot’s wife coveted Sodom and turned into a pillar or salt. David coveted his neighbor’s wife, and destroyed his family. Covetousness is part of that mix all the time.
Then there’s another cousin that shows up at the picnic. It’s envy. Envy is that sense of ill-will that we feel toward people who are doing better than we are. Envy is that feeling that we despise those people who are better looking than we are, and for some of us that’s a bunch. Envy is that feeling that we despise those who have more money, or those who are stronger, or those who are more successful in the very thing that we are doing. That’s envy.
Because of envy, you remember, Cain killed Abel. And Saul tried to kill David. And Jesus was crucified. Pilate, you remember, said that it was because of envy that they delivered Him.
Jewish folklore has a very interesting story about an angel who came to a man and said, “I want you to know that you can have anything that you want, but your rival over here, whom you envy, no matter what you have, your rival will receive double.” And without hesitation the man said, “Make me blind in one eye.” Envy says, “I will be blind in one eye if he can be blind in two.” Envy!
Do you realize, my friends, that we are born greedy? We’re born greedy. I was born greedy. You were born greedy. We have this monster that crouches, as it were, in the depths of our soul, and it will take over, and it will control, and it will mislead, and it will grow strong unless we do something with it very, very drastic! And at the end of this message we’ll be told exactly what we need to do with it.
As you know, this is a series of messages entitled Seven Snares of the Enemy. I begin with greed. Next time we will talk about gambling, which many people say is one of the worst possible things that has happened in society. It’s even worse than alcoholism the experts are telling us.
But I want you to take your Bibles for a moment and turn to Luke 12 where Jesus discusses the sin of greed head-on. In Luke 12 Christ is speaking to a crowd, and someone interrupts Him. And I suppose in those days, interrupting a speaker was considered to be acceptable if it was done while he was at least having a pause in his discussion, in his sermon. I prefer it not to happen today.
But in verse 13 of Luke 12 someone in the crowd said to Him: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Now, in those days if you had a problem like that within the family it was very natural to go to a rabbi and have him resolve it, and you get some wisdom. And here you have a family dispute. The parents have died and the kids are squabbling over the inheritance. Things haven’t changed too much, have they?
Some of us know an undertaker here in the city, and we’ve had funerals at his place. He’s a Christian man. He told me that on one occasion he was actually in the cemetery right after the coffin had been put into the ground, and already the guns were being drawn over the inheritance. Now you come from a family that is more sophisticated than that. You don’t draw guns. You just don’t talk to one another after what happened. And you know that it’s unjust and it’s not right. Apparently this man was not getting one-third of the inheritance, which the younger man… I’m guessing now that it’s probably right that the older man (those first-borns with all of their strength and with all of their choleric personalities) was taking the whole thing. So he comes to Jesus and says, “Tell my brother to do what is right to divide the inheritance.”
Very interesting! Jesus doesn’t get involved in this. He could have. He could have said, “Bring the guy here and we’ll have a discussion over it and I’ll make an adjudication.” But Jesus replies, “Man, who appointed me a judge or arbitrator between you?” And then Jesus says, “I don’t want to solve your legal problem. I want to solve a problem that is much deeper than that, and that is the problem of the heart.” He said (How often do you think Jesus said these words? Not often.), “[Watch out] Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” He is saying, “In the back of your question, which may have been quite right, and quite proper in a certain context, I detect here that you are covetous and there is some greed going on there, and you’re beginning to think that your life consists in the abundance of things that you possess. Watch out! That’s a mistake.”
And then, in order to get His point across, Jesus tells a story. By the way, have you ever known what it is like to have money waved in your face—the possibility of big money? You know that there are Christians who do all kinds of things you’d never think that they would do, simply because there are hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, or maybe even millions at stake. And suddenly they throw all caution to the winds.
Many years ago that New Era scheme, which was a fraud… Remember Christian organizations even gave money to New Era. And then New Era doubled it. And they doubled it based on the new people who were funneling new money into the scheme. And of course, eventually the tent had to come unglued and it all collapsed. But the Wall Street Journal had a very interesting article about these because it said that people were warning others. “Don’t get involved in this; it looks suspicious.” But those voices were drowned out by those who pointed to the indisputable fact that New Era had never failed to double the participants’ money. That was at the beginning of the scheme. And someone who urged his board to not get involved said his urging did not help because, he said, “They could just taste the money.” The weakness around the mouth, the desire in the eyes! I’ve always heard the expression that you see greed written, but now I’ve seen it in reality. Nothing mattered! Give us the money!
Jesus tells the story. It’s a parable. “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said (He was having a little news conference with himself here.), ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (And then Jesus adds) So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
This man made some major, major mistakes. Let me give you three of them.
First of all, he mistook his body for his soul. He mistook his body for his soul. The New American Standard translates psychē, from which we get psyche, which is the word that is used here, “I will say to my soul, I will say to my psyche or to myself, as this translation says, ‘I have much goods stored up for many years. Take your ease. Eat, drink and be merry.” He acted as if only his body mattered. His body was well fed. He was eating all of the health foods. He was into all the things that make one very (what shall we say?) pleasurable in this life, but his soul was being starved. He was paying more attention to his body than to his soul. No attention to his soul!
Come with me to Wall Street, or LaSalle Street, and see all the bankers. See all the people making the money. Go to the stock market where you have all these people shouting around in ways that only God can understand, and he’s not telling. You go there and you see the greed. You see the money. You see the market going up and you see the anxiety, and then you see the horror if somebody loses something. You see it all and you say, “Oh, wait a moment. Time out! How is it with our soul and your relationship with God?” (chuckles) You’d be laughed out. God doesn’t fit in this scheme. The soul is not important.
You go to those health fad places and you see people working out, pumping this, and riding this. I look at that.
You know, have you ever noticed? None of those people are smiling. I mean, none of them. (laughter) And they’re doing all these things as if only their body matters. You go up to somebody and you say, “Now are you paying as much attention to your soul as you are your body?”
And then you think of all the people who are into nutrition, and here I’m going to tread very carefully because I live with a nutritionist, so I hope this is going to come out okay. Help me, Lord! (laughter) It’s fine, of course, to look after your body, to do exercise. I play tennis. And nutrition is good and right. But what a terrible thing to emphasize the body and to ignore the soul.
This man said, “I’ve got enough to feed me, and I’m going to look good, and I’m going to be able to act good because I have all that I need,” and he was not rich toward God. He was only rich toward himself. What a major mistake!
Let me give you a second mistake. Secondly, he mistook himself for God. He mistook his body for his soul. He mistook himself for God. Now we have to look at the text again because something will jump out at you. Six times he uses that little word “I” and if you add the times when he uses the pronoun “my” or “myself” I think you get eleven. I counted it at one time and it was eleven, and another time it was twelve. This is a man who is narcissistic. I mean, he’s got it all revolving around him. Let me read it to you, emphasizing that.
Verse 17: “He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops. This is what I will do. I will tear down my barns and build greater ones. There I will store all my grain, my goods. And I will say to myself, “You (I’m talking about me here.) have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Oh my, take life easy. Eat, drink and be merry.” He mistook himself for God.
Listen to me. What’s all this business of “my” crops? Was he the one who created those little kernels of grain, and then programmed them so that if they were put into soil they would grow? Is he honestly the one who gave the sunshine? Is he the one who gave himself life, and is it he who kept his heart going so that he could harvest it? What about this business of me, my and I?
Didn’t he understand that this was only loaned to him? Didn’t he understand that it was God who gave the rain? Didn’t he understand that God programmed these little seeds to grow in ways that we cannot even today understand? What’s this business of me? He’s God, he thinks.
And so I say to you. What’s this business of saying “my” retirement account, “my” mutual funds, “my” bonds, “my” stocks? Wait a moment. Who gave you life? Who gave you a mind so that you could even understand anything? Who is it that blessed you and abundantly and mercifully gave you more than you deserve? Who is that? That’s God! (applause)
So here he is! He has taken the place of God, and he does what God really hates. Now we’re getting to it. What God really hates is he takes and he transfers his affection to the money, to the grain and to the barns. And he transfers his dependence too because, you see, he thinks he’s got a long future. “I have the many years stored up,” he says. So he, in effect, becomes his own God.
Let me give you a third mistake. He mistook his body for his soul, he mistook himself for God. And he mistook time for eternity. He said, “I have much goods laid up for many years.” Who is he to say that? You see, he’s acting as if his future is in his hands. And it isn’t. He thought that if he got his retirement program all worked out and that the barn was very plentiful that he would be in control. But he wasn’t because that very night (You know what the text says.) God said, “Your soul is demanded from you.” Excellent translation!
Do you know what the Greek word is? It’s actually like when you demand a note or a loan and it has matured, and so you demand it. God said, “I gave all of this to you. It was supposed to be used to bless me so that you would give to others and so that you would be generous, and here you hoarded it for yourself, and I’m demanding now it all back, and I am demanding that you pay up and give me an account for the way in which you spent it. Tonight is the night that it is demanded.” Wow!
Could you imagine the funeral? Can’t you just imagine how they gathered together? And they say, “Oh, he was just a wise farmer. He figured out all of these new ways that might be necessary to grow a good crop. And he was such a wonderful… He never harmed anybody. He never did any harm.”
Where was he? He was in Hades. That’s where Jesus said the other rich man went. His name was Lazarus (Do you remember?), not to be confused with the Lazarus who was raised from the dead. He went into Hades, the rich man, and there he is and he’s in torment, and everybody gathering at the funeral is saying all of these nice platitudes, and everybody is talking about this wonderful rich farmer who thought that greed was good. As Boesky said many years ago when preaching to a graduation service, “You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
Now, folks, where is Wall Street ending anyway? Let me give you a description. Your hope is in money. Listen to this: “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore, cargoes of gold and silver and precious stones, and pearls, fine linens, purple silk, scarlet cloth, every sort of scented wood and articles of every kind, made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon, spice, incense, frankincense, wine, olive oil, of all fine flour, wheat, cattle, sheep, houses, carriages and bodies and souls of men. And they will say, ‘The fruit you longed for is gone from you. All your riches and splendor have vanished, never to be recovered.’ The merchants who sold these things and gained their wealth from her will stand afar off, terrified at her torment. And they will weep and mourn and cry, and say, ‘Woe, woe to the great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet and glittering with gold and precious stones and pearls. In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin.’”
And this night your soul is demanded from you, and you stand before God. It’s awesome.
What do we do with the greed that lives within our hearts—within my heart, within your heart, within all of our hearts? First of all, we have to admit it’s there. Okay? Would you just admit it? Would you just say, “Yeah, I’m greedy?” Are you willing to say, “Yeah, I’m greedy?” Not many takers! (laughter)
You see, we don’t think we are because we’ve rationalized this so much. We say, “Well, you know those stories of the miser.” I remember as a young preacher I loved stories like that. You remember the story of the guy who dies of starvation, though he’s surrounded by hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. And it’s a lovely story and it made me feel so good because I knew that I wasn’t like that.
And so what we do is we say, “Well, it’s the truly wealthy. You see, they’re greedy. It’s the Boesky’s of this world.”
When we read the verse that says the love of money is a root of all evil, well you know it’s only the love of it. I don’t love it. I date it. (laughter) I cuddle it. We smooch a little bit, but I don’t love it.
I really do believe, folks, I cannot make you see the greed in your heart. I can’t. Only God can. Only God can do that for me because it is so deeply entwined with who we are, our basic love of money and things and the security that you derive from it. But that’s number one. That’s number one! We have to admit that it is there.
Secondly, and by the way in Mark 4 Jesus said an interesting thing. He said, “You know the grain that was sown?” He said, “Some of it fell among the thorns and then,” he says, “the thorns grew up and choked it.” In interpreting the parable, He says, “The thorns that choked it are the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches.” Why the deceitfulness of riches? It’s because you need money in order to live, you see. So there’s a legitimate use of money, but it’s deceitful because we think that everything we do is legitimate. “And the love of other things,” He says, “chokes the Word and it becomes unfruitful.” And we don’t understand that when we think of the stock market more often than we think of the Scriptures, we are indeed greedy.
Number one, we have to admit it. Number two, we have to exchange gods. Do you know why God is so upset about covetousness? Do you know what bothers Him so much about greed? Do you know why it is that Jesus said, “Watch out?” I’ll tell you why. It’s because both greed and God promise the same thing. You see, greed says, “Look, if you get enough money, you’re going to be happy.” God says, “You follow Me and you’re going to have life more abundantly.” Same promise!
Money says, “I’m going to be with you until you die. If you get enough of it, it will always be there no matter how many health problems you have, no matter what happens to the economy. You can be absolutely certain that I will be with you to the end.” That’s exactly what God promises, that He’s with us through the hard times. But money makes the very same promise.
So you see what happens is we begin to transfer our trust from God to money, and therefore in that transfer of trust we are really figuratively slapping God across the face. And you see, greed then becomes a part of all that we are. Of course, there’s a legitimate use for money. There’s purchasing houses, and there’s places to live. And there’s groceries, and all of those things. But oh, how all of that attaches so easily to our hearts. We have to come back and simply say, “God, I’m going to be satisfied with You.”
You know, in my short life, and it is getting longer though I still call it short, I’ve met some people with grave poverty, but they are content. And you remember what Paul says: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. Great gain!” Michael Douglas was wrong.
Let me say also that then what we need to do is we just need to give. You give it away every time you write out a check every Sunday, like all of you do. Right? You give greed away. You simply say that “God has given me the privilege of giving,” and you give and you give and you give, because the only way that you can really extract this from your heart is to give.
We did a survey recently and discovered that actually the giving at Moody Church per member is not that high at all. And do you know what the tragedy is? It’s not just that we could have more money to do things and support our missionaries, and we may be on the verge of a large capital fund campaign so that we can expand. That’s a possibility. It’s being talked about. And the real goal though is not to get more money. That would be a mistake to say that what we need is more money and therefore we want people to give. No, no, no! What we want is more character. What we want is more generosity. What we want is more Christlikeness, more giving of ourselves away, you see, because that’s really where it’s at.
One day Jesus was talking to a young ruler who came to Him. And he said, “How may I inherit eternal life?” It’s an awesome question. If he ran into some of our Evangelism Explosion people they would say, “Well, I want you to sit down because I want to explain some good news to you.” And that would be a proper thing to do. But Jesus handled it differently.
First of all, the young man said, you know, “Good Master, what shall I do?” And Jesus said, “Why are you calling Me good? Only God is good.” (chuckles) There’s a lot of irony there because what He was trying to do was to test this guy to see whether or not he realized that Jesus was, in fact, God.
But Jesus said, “You know, you do have the commandments, don’t you?” He said, “How do you read them?” He said, “Well, you know, you don’t commit adultery, you don’t steal, you don’t lie, you honor your father and mother, and I’ve been doing all these things since my youth.” And Jesus turned to him and said, “Oh, well that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. You know, what you need to do really is to sell everything then and follow me. If you’re following the commandments, the Bible says that you should not covet, so just give it all away and follow me.”
And then the guy began to realize that that was not the answer that he wanted. It’s not where it’s at. He felt a little bit like the teenager who thinks he’s got a ton of money until he has to buy car insurance. He’s not nearly as rich as he thought he was. And he realized that he had broken the law, but the Bible says he turned around and then he went away because he had many possessions.
Don’t misunderstand. Jesus wasn’t saying that the way to heaven is to give your way to heaven. We can’t do that. Salvation is a gift of God’s grace, but what Jesus wanted to do was to show this young man that he had a serious problem with sin, this little self-righteous man who was traipsing around saying, “I’ve kept all the commandments. Look at how good I am.” Jesus was proving to him, “I want you to know today that you’ve got a sin problem that’s really, really deep.”
And today God is saying two things to us. First of all, for those of you who do not know Christ as Savior, what He’s saying is, “Look, Jesus died that you might be forgiven, and His death was a substitute for you.” That’s what He’s saying to those of you who don’t know Christ. But to those of us who know Him, Christ is saying, “Look, how deep a commitment does greed have in your life? Are you willing to be generous? Are you willing to follow Me? Are you willing to give it away, like the missionaries do?” (And how we thank God for them.) Are you willing to simply say, “God, here it is?” because the Scriptures say very clearly that that which is admired and loved among men, as I read earlier, is detestable to God. It’s in all of our hearts, folks. It’s there. It’s in my heart. It’s in your heart. The question is how do we deal with it that we might honor God with what He’s given?
Our Father, we do want to thank You today for Your Word. And Father, we humbly acknowledge our own sinfulness, our own love of things, our love of money which worms its way into our hearts. Father, today we ask that You will help us not to substitute that for our love for God. And we pray that those that really do need deliverance might experience the deliverance of Christ from that which captivates and binds and demeans. Set Your people free today, we ask.
And now before I close this prayer I want you to pray, and you tell God whatever you have to tell Him.
Father, today, with the hymn writer we say,
Take the world but give me Jesus.
All its joys are but a name;
But His love abideth ever,
Through eternal years the same.
Lord, we can’t do it. You do it in us we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.