Is Greed Idolatry?

Wall Street Greed

In the 1987 movie, Wall Street, Gordon Gekko declares, “Greed is good!” Thankfully, not many agree. However, more would say that ambition is good or acquisition is good. They defend wealth and riches, and these are certainly better than poverty.

I disagree that greed, ambition, and acquisition are good. Greed is commonly understood as placing money or something else in front of God. This is a direct affront to the God who has told us, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” – Exodus 20:3 NKJV.

There is nothing wrong with wanting adequate food, shelter, and clothing. God knows we need these things and promises to provide our needs. Of course, we tend to compare ourselves with others to define “adequate.” Is a two-bedroom home with only one bathroom adequate for a family of four? It would be in Haiti, but perhaps not in Canada.

Greed Violates the First Commandment

Greed is idolatry. This is the view that Paul expresses in at least two passages. The first is Ephesians 5: 5:

“For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person–such a person is an idolater–has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” – Ephesians 5:5 NIV, emphasis added. (Note: My preferred version, and the one I normally use, is the New King James Version. Instead of using the word “greedy,” it renders the word as “covetous.” I have used the New International Version here because I think “greedy” is a more precise interpretation. For the same reason, I used the NIV for Colossians 3:5, also.)

The second is Colossians 3: 5. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” – Colossians 3:5 NIV, emphasis added.

Idolatry is putting something else above God. You depend, rely on, love, and trust something other than God. The northern tribes of Israelites trusted gods made of stone, wood, and precious metals. The gods of the Canaanites were thought to bring a good harvest, make them fertile, or prosper them. Because of this, God allowed the Assyrians to conquer and scatter them. Only God does these things. We can recognize idolatry by the stress and anxiety in our lives. Stress and anxiety are symptoms of a sick culture. We are a sick society because of our idolatry.

Greed always wants more. A greedy person never says, “Stop. That’s enough.” The reason is that the object of your greed never satisfies. What we really want is God, but when we substitute money, or sex, or a foreign god for the True God, it doesn’t satisfy us. Millions of dollars can’t buy satisfaction. If we have five wives, we will lust for a sixth woman married to another man.

How exactly is greed idolatry? I believe there are at least four applicable ways.

1. Greed is the worship of wealth.

The greedy can become more fervent in their worship than Christians. If you don’t believe it, just attend a distributor meeting for an essential oils, food storage, insurance or vitamin company. These multi-level marketing firms will flash pictures of yachts, private jets, and luxury cars on the jumbo-trons while John Lee Hooker’s “I need some money” blasts from the background. The congregants are worked into a frenzy by the thoughts of the obscene riches they can make by building their downline.

Jesus knew that all the riches in the world did not compare to God. “Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.” ‘ “ – Matthew 4:8-10 NKJV.

2. Greed is service and obedience to wealth.

People will work themselves to death in the pursuit of money and wealth. They will forego vacations, ignore their family obligations, and attempt to sleep only four hours a night. While the burden of Jesus is easy and light, they trade it for the difficult burden of trying to accumulate more of the world’s materials. They trade the trappings of riches for eternal life. However, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Jesus tells there is only one master we can serve. “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” – Luke 16:13 NKJV.

3. Greed is an inordinate love of and devotion to money.

The greedy trade the unconditional love for God for the pleasure of wealth. John tells us the reason Jesus came was that God so loved the people of this world. As God loves us, we can return that love to him. The love of money, however, is not reciprocal. Money never loves us back.

As God loves us, we can return that love to him. The love of money, however, is not reciprocal. Money never loves us back. Click To Tweet

We are not to love the world’s system. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life–is not of the Father but is of the world.” – 1 John 2:15-16 NKJV.

4. Greed is trust and confidence in wealth.

And finally, we are warned against our reliance on money to protect us from trials and difficult circumstances. If we rely on our money, it will disappoint us. There is nothing wrong with receiving a material blessing with gratitude, as long as we continue to trust God and not our wealth. “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy.” – 1 Timothy 6:17 NKJV.

For an in-depth theological treatment of the relationship between greed and idolatry, read the excellent book by Brian S. Rosner, Greed as Idolatry.

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