Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
There was a man who lived a perfect life. For years he did his very best to maintain the commandments of God, love his family, tithe to his local United Methodist Church, serve on the Trustees Committee, and volunteer as a coach for local little league sports. Everyone knew him, and everyone liked him. He was charismatic and hardworking, personality traits that would come to reward him when he started his own business.
He was a shrewd business man who seemed to be able to predict the rise and fall of the stock market, quickly amassing a vast sum of money that he would then reinvest in the right companies. Yet, even with his vast wealth, he never overdid it with his community. He was humble and thrifty, fitting in with everyone else even though he was wealthier than anyone he knew.
As his life progressed he found success in nearly every direction. His company continued to expand and produce wealth, his family was the ideal example of love and compassion, and he had a strong relationship with his church. Near the end of his days God appeared to him one morning in his office. The Lord said, “Do not be afraid! You have lived a wonderful and virtuous life. I don’t usually do this, but I’m going to make an exception for you; when you die you can bring a briefcase of whatever you want to heaven. So think about it while you still can, and I’ll see you soon.”
During the final weeks of the man’s life he thought deeply about what to bring with him to heaven, and when the time came he was confident with his decision.
Standing on the clouds of heaven, right beside the pearly gates the man was thrilled to see St. Peter ready to greet him and let him into paradise. “Welcome” St. Peter began, “we have been waiting for you. But if I’m being honest I can’t wait to see what you brought to heaven! God doesn’t make a deal like that with just anyone and we have been so curious to see what you brought!” The man smiled and proudly passed his briefcase over to St. Peter. As he opened the case he discovered six perfectly polished gold bars that glowed in the light of heaven.
“Interesting choice,” St. Peter said, “but we’ve already got plenty of pavement here.”
Greed. Our current economic downturn is often attributed the vice of greed, having grown out of control. For many of us, we’re not exactly sure how this actually happened, but we are ready to believe that we are suffering because some became too greedy. Greed has no limits or shame; while CEOs make millions and millions in bonuses, regular people are stuck in debt, unsure of the future, starving for work, and afraid of the consequences of others’ greed.
Greed is seductive and always waiting in the recesses of our minds. It is something that tempts all of us, whether we like to admit it or not. Just like the hypothetical virtuous man who lived an incredible life, he failed to appreciate the goodness of God’s kingdom when he brought gold bars to heaven. We so desperately cling to the materialism of our world that we are unable to imagine a life without greed.
Have you ever heard a sermon about greed? The fact that we do not hear about this particular topic seems strange considering how prominent the temptation of greed is considered to be one of the greatest threats for Christians.
Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6.24). Paul suggests that the love of money is the root of all evil leading some to walk away from the faith (1 Timothy 6.10). James is very blunt about the folly of greed: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4.1-2)
Time and time again scripture frustrates our conceptions about the world: If we are Christian and wealthy or if we desire to have wealth, we have a problem.
Greed, however, is not limited to monetary gain alone. Greed sits at the root of most of our sins. We become greedy for wealth, power, position, place, people, and programs. We want more than our fair share. We desire the most for the least effort.
Jacob and Esau were born in conflict with one another.
The first born was red and covered with hair so they named him Esau, which means Red. The second born came out with his hand gripping Esau’s heel so they named him Jacob, which means heel-grabber. Esau would grow to become a mighty warrior, skillful hunter, and a man of the field whereas Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob.
So it came to pass one day that while Jacob was cooking a meal, Esau came in from the field completely famished. “Let me have some of that red stuff, because I am starving!” Esau said to Jacob. So Jacob replied, “Sure, I’d be happy to, but first sell me your birthright.” “Are you serious, I am about to die from hunger; what good is my birthright to me now?” “Swear to it” said Jacob. And so Esau swore to his younger brother and traded his birthright for some bread and lentil stew. When Esau finished eating he rose and went away and began to despise his birthright.
Who is the greedy one from our scripture?
Esau’s greed is evident and obvious. Rather than trust in the Lord’s provision, Esau’s vision was limited to the present and he wanted immediate gratification for his desires. In order to satisfy his appetite, Esau’s greed became so powerful that he was willing to give away his future for the present moment.
We are a generation of busy people, consistently fighting a battle to determine what to give up and what to continue. When our plates become too full with responsibilities we plan to remove that which is unnecessary and no longer life-giving. So many people give up the important things of life to pursue something that is meaningless because we are consumed by our present needs rather than steadfast in our trust of the Lord. Many of us are tempted to ignore our baptismal identifies when we see someone in need, we are tempted to disown our family, friends, and children when they do something wrong. We are often tempted to sell out for something less than what we are truly worth.
Esau’s greed is obvious because it is so similar with our greed. Forgetting the long-term cost, we are quick to serve our sinful desires and natures right here and right now. What do I have to do to make more money as soon as possible? What do I have to do to get that girl at school to like me? We are captivated by the fast sprint rather than the patient marathon.
Pastors love to chastise Esau for so quickly releasing his birthright, and use him as an example for what not to do. But what about Jacob? Jacob who used crooked and deceitful ways to steal his brother’s birthright. He was no doubt the promised one, but that doesn’t necessarily forgive him for taking advantage of his brother’s need.
Jacob’s greed is subtle and relentless. Instead of offering his brother some food out of kindness he is always looking out for number one. Later in the story, after Esau threatens to kill his brother, Jacob is willing to give away all his animals, wives, and children just so that he might save his own neck. Jacob was blinded by the greed of power, to draw to himself everything he could by whatever means necessary, even letting his brother starve.
We are a generation of individualists who are taught from infancy the importance of a capitalistic world view. When we see ourselves at the bottom of the food chain we are willing to do whatever it takes to amass power. So many people will go against their values, morals, and ethics in an instant, purely to make our lives a little better. Many of us are tempted to forget who we are and whose we are because we have forgotten the true meaning behind “the first will be last and the last will be first.”
Jacob’s greed is apparent when we realize how similar it is with our own. Consumed with our lives alone, we ignore the needs of others when they prevent us from getting what we want. Why would I give my money to the church when I am the one who earned it? Why should I be responsible for helping to poor when they should be the ones helping themselves? We are captivated by our solitary vision of the world rather than seeing the world through the eyes of Christ.
Years ago I was preparing to help lead a team of youth on a mission trip to Guatemala. We would be serving the needs of the indigenous Mayans in the highlands for a week by building stones, playing with children, and planting trees. In order to go on the trip, as a youth, you had to regularly participate in youth group and fundraising. Throughout the year there were numerous opportunities to plug into the regular programming and this requirement helped to foster strong bonds and fellowship before we left the country.
There was a man at the church whose daughter wanted to attend the trip but had not participated in any of the youth activities, nor was she part of the fundraising. Her father believed that these requirements were frivolous and he was going to beat the system.
One morning he arrived at church and walked straight to the pastor’s office with a smile on his face. He held up a substantial check that he was willing to give to the church with the following stipulations: I will give this money if it directly goes to the mission trip to Guatemala, and if it guarantees my daughter a space on the trip.
Greed. I’m sure that the man felt he was doing a great thing for the church and indeed for the kingdom of God, after all here he was willing to give of his own money to help others in need. Yet, don’t you see how similar he was to Jacob and Esau? Rather than encouraging his daughter to give of her time through participation in youth group and fundraising he, like Esau, wanted immediate results for the minimal effort. Yet at the same time he was willing to challenge the church and, like Jacob, was willing to have his needs met at any cost while foregoing the need of others.
Greed is mighty and powerful. It seduces us and tells us that we are the most important beings in the universe. It fuels our desire for gratification in ways that are even beyond our imaginations.
Yesterday I arrived at our church to do some pre-marital counseling only to discover the church had been broken into and my office door had been kicked in. With a knot in my stomach I walked into my office: all of the drawers had been opened, most of my paperwork examined and scattered. Thankfully nothing seemed to be missing which furthered the mystery of the break-in. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know what they were looking for. But I’m sure that they were fueled by greed.
Jesus, thanks be to God, calls us to a different life. Less is more. We are not the center of the universe, God is. We have more than we will ever need because God’s love and grace abound and our cups runneth over.
In order to break free from the slavery of greed we begin by acknowledging it in our lives, in whatever forms it presents itself. It’s easy to point out the greed in others, but now we have the challenge of looking inward at our greed. We may succeed in our fight against greed only when we learn to trust God for our needs, when we see the world the way that God sees us, and when we are prepared to give our lives for others because Christ gave his for us.