Christianity and the credit crunch

For our regular blast from the past this week, I couldn’t go past the words of Brian Rosner in his book Beyond Greed (also printed in Briefing #250).

Christians have not always regarded greed so lightly. In fact, according to the New Testament, greed qualifies as one of the most serious of sins. The earliest Christians were told not just to avoid greed, but to watch out for it (Luke 12:15), to flee from it (1 Tim 6:10–11) or to kill it (Col 3:5). Greed is described in most unflattering terms. It is “a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim 6:10), one of the twelve things which come out of individuals and defile them (Mark 7:20–22), and evidence of a darkened understanding or a depraved mind (Eph 4:18–19; Rom 1:28–29). Worst of all, greed is said to be a form of idolatry. Jesus went as far as to tell a parable which is directed specifically against greed, in which God chastises the protagonist with the word, “Fool!” (Luke 12:16–20). Furthermore, greed is thought to lead to other sins, including theft, pride and sexual immorality. (p. 23)

He goes on to say:

If you were to ask the apostle Paul or someone else in the early church to construct a profile of your average pagan, someone who does not know the true and living God, you would probably have got a three-point sermon in response. Early Jews and Christians alike condemned the Gentiles first of all for their idolatry, then for their sexual immorality and finally for their greed. In Luke 12:22–30, for example, the Gentiles are described as those whose lifestyle is characterized by a relentless seeking after material things. In the letter of Polycarp, written soon after the close of the New Testament, greed is specifically distinguished as being a mark of the heathen (11:2).

On only two occasions in Acts is the opposition to the early church specifically non-Jewish. In both cases financial considerations caused the problems. When Paul, in Philippi, cast the demon of divination out of the slave girl (16:16–18), her owners, who were incensed over their loss of income (v. 19), brought him before the magistrates to be flogged and imprisoned (vv. 20–24). Later, Paul’s stand against idolatry led to a riot instigated by the silversmiths, who made the shrines to the goddess Artemis and regarded the apostle as a threat to their livelihood (19:23–41).

To put the matter the other way around, greed not only suits a pagan’s lifestyle, it is also not a fitting behaviour for someone who knows God. In Colossians 3, Paul encourages the church not to be greedy because such behaviour is incompatible with a genuinely Christian lifestyle. Likewise, according to 1 Corinthians 5:11, people who claim to be Christians and are nevertheless greedy do not belong in the church and should be excluded.

Christendom before the modern period took greed just as seriously. In the fourth century, Zeno of Verona declared simply: “God is right to hate greed”.13 The greedy are as insatiable as hell, according to Basil the Great: “Hell never says enough is enough; neither does greed ever say enough”. Ambrose thought greed so central that he spoke of the primal sin, that of Adam in the garden, not as original sin, but as ‘original greed’.

In the Middle Ages, an important vehicle for moral teaching was the list of so-called seven deadly sins: pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, anger, envy and greed. Although Gregory the Great placed pride ahead of greed at the top of the list, in the numerous expositions in the centuries following him greed usually took pride of place. Medical metaphors were often used to describe the effects greed can have on people. Greed was not only a deadly sin, but a deadly disease. Greed was commonly thought to be the spiritual equivalent of dropsy, which involves an insatiable thirst for water even though the body is already filled with fluid. The more the addicted person tries to satisfy the thirst, the more it is stimulated. So it was thought to be the case with greed.

In the Protestant Reformation, greed maintained its bad reputation. According to Martin Luther, for instance, greed causes unbelief, and unbelief causes greed. Luther took the fourth request of the Lord’s prayer, “Give us today our daily bread”, as a call to shun greed. He also urged every Christian to undertake regular and earnest prayer against this dangerous vice.

Over the ages, greed has been recognized for what it is—destructive, deceitful and contrary to God. It is truly a deadly sin. Yet it is the sin we have forgotten. (pp. 24-26)

Perhaps it’s time to pray, lest the market crash become the least of our problems!

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