A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough. But if it’s only money these leaders are after, they’ll self-destruct in no time. Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after (I Timothy 6:6-10, The Message).
These were the words of Paul to a young man. Greed begins early, and seldom takes its foot off the pedal until we are in the grave.
The Commercialism of Christmas
Somewhere in the world right now, advertisers are in the middle of their Christmas assault. They no longer wait until the Thanksgiving table is cleared. Around Labor Day they begin telling us to get a jump on the Christmas shopping. I must confess some sarcasm about the commercialism of Christmas.
I believe in going to the mall once a year, for about 15 minutes. If I were the American prototype, the country would be in a serious recession. Merchants would be closing their stores in droves. I hate to shop. And walking the mall to look at what’s there is my idea of torture. My wife, on the other hand, is the patron saint of merchants. And I find the gift-giving scene on Christmas morning a joyous occasion, due largely to her shopping excursions on behalf of our whole family. If it’s April, she already has her eye on December 25.
My earliest recollection of Christmas wishing revolves around the thick Sears and Roebuck catalog. Dad worked for Sears. We got a good discount on everything Sears sold. He would bring copies of the catalog home in the fall and we three kids felt like we three kings as we sat drooling over the pages. We had to decide what we wanted and prioritize it by placing a number beside the item. My most difficult year was age 13. I was aging into the big ticket years when things like guitars, miniature race car tracks, hunting equipment, and stereos were enticing me to pick them. My parents were wise to limit my choices. I wanted them all. I wanted them bad. I wanted them now.
The lure book is no longer a catalog. It is commercials on the cartoons our kids watch while we are busy doing other things. It is advertising that sneaks past our watchful sentry and entices our child with irresistible merchandise. I call this the mauling of young souls. And they don’t even have to go to the mall to be mauled.
Do I begrudge children their toys? Are you kidding? I have grandchildren now, and I want to be the one to race to the store and get them what they want—because their grandmother is fast.
Do I begrudge stores their sales? As a pastor for most of my life, my salary has come from good business people who made profit and dropped a tithe in the offering plate. To wish them not to profit would be my own demise.
How Greed Begins and Grows
But this rush to extravagance is where “gotta have it” and “can’t live without it” begins. This is where greed is a seed planted deep in the innocent soul of a child. If a child is schooled in whining, pouting, and getting, greed is well on the way to doing its deadly work.
During the teen years, the game gets nastier. Theirs is a cruel world of judgment based on brand and taste. Are your tennis shoes the right ones? Do you have the latest CD and the right technology to play it on? Can you amuse yourself with portable devices? Are you wearing the right things and are you wearing them the right way? The fragile esteem of a teen hangs on gaining acceptance in a world of peers that often destroys. Many teens are not capable of withstanding the assault and their greed is attached to survival in the junior high jungle. They don’t have the capacity to figure this game out. The deadly sin is subtly at work making promises about popularity.
Greed at college? Freshmen get credit card applications in the mail. I’ve seen the splashy brochures. The messages suggest that their life is being minimized by lack of goods and that college is about living life to the max. No need to wait; you can have it now. Enjoy your college years. You have a lifetime to pay it back. Be the person on campus you want to be. Join the human race. Get a credit card! Not one brochure mentions that educational debt is piling up, and government loans will one day be due, and at the present moment THEY DON’T HAVE A JOB. Can you hear my decibel increase?
The possession of a credit card is now the equivalent of having a driver’s license. It is the right of every American! (Sarcasm again. Sorry.) Like Adam and Eve reached for the forbidden fruit, we grab the card and consume our hearts desires. We are the MASTER in CHARGE. We are AMERICANs who know how to EXPRESS ourselves. We can DISCOVER who we are. We are the heirs of Caesar who stated, “veni, visi, VISA,” “I came, I saw, I charged.”
Denise and I have done our share of pre-marital counseling. Call us old-fashioned, but we have encouraged couples to begin their married life without a credit card. We espouse the envelope system. Cash your check and place a set amount of budgeted money in an envelope for groceries, gas, entertainment, clothes, haircuts, vacation, etc. Pay the mail bills by check, but everything else by cash. Inconvenient? Certainly. But the value is in learning to live on what you make, and saving ahead for things like vacations and major purchases. If the envelope is empty the answer is “no.” We did this for years. It forms a principle of careful stewardship instead of indulging the appetite.
It takes years to make a person deeply greedy. By the time they are formed, they do not realize the shaping work done by a deadly sin. It seems natural to them and the world cheers them on, and sends another credit card application in the mail. The conscience is easily conformed to greed in a consuming society. Greed seems to be about more and bigger but it actually delivers less and smaller. Greed makes us small.
Small like Ebenezer Scrooge. He has become the personification of greed in A Christmas Carol. While Tiny Tim is blessing everyone, Scrooge is bilking everyone. This master of miser is not only greedy; but he has also lost his capacity to behold the humans that frequent his life every day. Greed blinds before it kills. Scrooge reminds us of the one called “fool” in the parable of Luke 12:16-21:
Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’ “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.” (The Message)
This man was an early forerunner of Ebenezer. Both believed in storing up for self. Both believed that life consists in possessing.
Both were unconcerned for the neighbor. Both were stingy. Yet God intersects old Scrooge with angels of mercy who show him the past which shaped him. He goes back in time to see what he had done to people along the way, people who had tried to love him. He goes forward in time to see the consequences of his character.
And he is given eyes to see the present moment in the Cratchit home, and the chair that would soon be empty. And he is changed. He does not change because he figures things out, though. He changes because he sees a preferable future.