The Christmas season is once again upon us and that means that we will again have the annual chance to view some of the old-time favorite holiday specials on TV. Whether one prefers “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “The Year without a Santa Claus,” these and other programs have become yearly symbols of the season.
Yet perhaps the most famous of these programs is the 1966 Dr. Seuss classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” The story is so familiar to us that we can perhaps recite the plot from memory and even quote verbatim some of the famous lines spoken by the narrator, the Grinch or Cindy Lou Who.
But as we think about this holiday season, we must be reminded that though the Grinch is a fictional character who could never really steal Christmas from the people of Whoville, there is another and indeed more subtle and more powerful enemy of the season of Christmas than the Grinch. It is greed, and it seems that it does not take a holiday from its power to create the desire for us to want more, to buy more and to neglect Jesus’ call to give up all we have and give to the poor.
Jesus had a great deal to say about wealth and possessions and our proper use of them. His message speaks clearly to us during this season of Black Fridays, crowded malls and overspending. Indeed, 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. At the heart of his message was a strong warning against greed.
Defining a term like greed can be somewhat difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy. So a clear definition of the term greed, apart from a dictionary meaning, is quite difficult to pin down. But I think we can at least come to some level of an understanding of the concept if we see greed along two intersecting planes: the vertical and the horizontal.
The vertical plane of greed is our greed in terms of our relationship to God. When we are greedy, 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 we serve mammon as our god. Santa and a cuddly baby Jesus become our gods, marginalizing the Jesus that warns us against the dangers of trying to serve both God and mammon. One will always come before the other in receiving our devotion.
It is this vertical plane of greed we may find convicting, but nonetheless manageable. The remedy we have for greed against God is just to 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 do not consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God when we do not see ourselves as wealthy?
Moreover, we quickly defend our innocence of 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, perhaps even more than 10 percent. Yes, many, if not all of us, would quickly say that we are not guilty of greed against God, for wealth is not our idol.
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The other intersecting plane, however, is what catches us. The horizontal plane is our greed in relation to our fellow human beings. Just as Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments to love both God and our neighbors are of equal value, so Scripture is also clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need.
Greed is caused by placing inappropriate value on possessions that lead us to rationalize why we need this new thing or that new thing. Once we begin to make such rationalizations, we become trapped in an uncontrollable sequence of desiring more, obtaining more and then desiring even more.
For sure, we give gifts to others at Christmas and many of us give things to those less fortunate than ourselves. But is this enough? Does this express the true meaning of the season we call Christmas, the time we reflect on the incarnation of God? Should not Christmas be the one time each year when we overturn the norms of our culture that beg us to buy more, so that we can imitate the authentic meaning of Jesus emptying himself?
If we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective and the use of our possessions can change. We can begin to see the essential worth of 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 this view of possessions and the proper use of them can also save us from the horizontal direction of greed. When we see the central value of possessions as meeting our basic needs, we can find the strength to repent of our lives of hoarding and self-indulgence and we can be free to practice lives of generosity through which we seek God’s justice for the poor.
A fictional character like the Grinch cannot steal the meaning of Christmas. But the very real force of greed can lay hold of us and cause us to lose sight of what this season really signifies, emptying ourselves of anything we cling to in order to be more faithful followers of Jesus and more generous sharers of God’s blessings.