Any casual reader of the Gospels knows that Jesus said a great deal about wealth and possessions. In fact, he said more about money and care for the poor than any other subject.
Jesus constantly provoked his hearers with radical ideas about wealth and possessions – ideas so radical that we still attempt to explain them away or ignore them altogether.
But at the heart of his message was a strong warning against greed.
Defining “greed” can be difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy.
But to see greed from Jesus’ point of view, we need to see it along two intersecting planes: the vertical and horizontal.
The vertical plane of greed reveals our relationship to God. When we are greedy toward God, that is, when we desire more and more wealth and possessions, we put these things in the place of God.
We make wealth an idol and mammon our god. As Jesus said, we cannot serve both God and mammon, for one will always come before the other in receiving our devotion.
It is this kind of greed that most Christians associate with sin; greed is putting material things before God.
This vertical plane of greed may convict us, but we also believe we can manage it.
We just say to ourselves, and to God, that we do not put wealth and possessions in place of God; mammon is not our idol.
After all, many of us don’t consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God?
And those Christians who are wealthy simply argue that they have been blessed by God with their wealth.
Moreover, we quickly defend any vertical greed by saying that we always put God first. We pray, we attend worship, we do good things and – here is the big one – we tithe.
The other plane, however, is what catches us. And this is perhaps why Jesus has more to say about our holding possessions in light of the plight of the poor.
The horizontal plane reveals our relationship to our fellow human beings.
Scripture is clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also, and perhaps an even greater sin, because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need.
As John rightly asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
John’s rhetorical question implies that one cannot logically say they love God and also withhold aid from those in need.
We can rationalize that we are not greedy because we don’t put possessions in the place reserved for God, but our selfishness reveals our true spirit of greed toward others and God.
When we hoard wealth and possessions, however large or small, we neglect those in great need. Doing this is the telltale sign of where our hearts really are.
But if we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective on and the use of our possessions can change.
We can begin to see possessions primarily as God’s gracious gifts given to meet our basic needs, and not as things we cling to.
Such a perspective sets us free from the need to want more, and we can reject wealth as an idol in order to serve God fully.
Moreover, if we change our perspective of possessions to be the things that meet our basic needs, we can also act more generously toward those who are in much greater need than we are.
We can share our money and possessions with the hurting in our neighborhoods, our communities and indeed across the globe.
Jesus calls us to reverse our gaze, turning from our desire to have what others have and to notice and serve those who have less.
In doing so, we will not only find healing from greed, we will also become more generous and find the community of Jesus.