At Work & Economics 101 & Theology 101

What Is Greed?

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Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street.” Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge – has marked the upward surge of mankind.

– Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)

Gordon Gekko’s rant on the virtues of greed in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street has become an iconic touchstone in our cultural image of business.

Over the last 30 years, the media has done much to promote the idea that the essential qualities of the free market system are to promote greed and give unscrupulous businessmen a vehicle to line their pockets at the expense of others.

Certainly there have been many non-fictional events to help support this stereotype:

  • Stock trader Michel Milken‘s indictment and conviction on 98 counts of racketeering and securities fraud in 1989.
  • The bankruptcy and scandal surrounding energy giant Enron Corporation in 2001.
  • The U.S. subprime mortgage crisis which led to the late-2000’s financial crisis.

Contrary to Gordon Gekko, greed is not good. It is extremely destructive.

Before we dive into the question of greed and the market, it’s first important to define greed.

Common Definitions of Greed

Webster’s Dictionary defines greed as a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed. WordNet, a project at Princeton University, defines greed as an “excessive desire to acquire or possess more than one needs or deserves.”

Although most people, including many Christians, embrace this definition, where do we draw the line regarding “more of something than is needed” or what do I “deserve”? Is it greedy to drive a Mercedes when a less expensive automobile could get me to my destination just as well?

This type of thinking has led some Christian scholars to suggest that the top one percent of wealthy individuals in the United States are all greedy, because by almost anyone’s definition they have more of everything than is needed.

This is a relativistic definition of greed. Who decides not only what is needed, but when someone has more than enough? How do we know when too much is too much? Who decides what one needs and deserves? These definitions aren’t clear on these questions.

Fortunately, we as Christians have a better source than Webster’s Dictionary to help us understand the problem of greed.

The Bible has a lot to say about greed, and its definition is different than the one that is in use by most of our culture today.

Towards A Biblical Definition of Greed

The Greek word pleonexia, originating from the Greek πλεονεξια, is the word that is most commonly translated as greed or covetousness in the New Testament (see Colossians 3:1–11Luke 12:13–21; 1 Thessalonians 2:5; 2 Peter 2:3).

Biblical commentator John Ritenbaugh describes it as a “ruthless self-seeking, and an arrogant assumption that others and things exist for one’s own benefit.” This word is also found in the writing of both Plato and Aristotle, and is strictly defined as “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.”

New Testament Greek scholar William Barclay describes pleonexia as an “accursed love of having,” which “will pursue its own interests with complete disregard for the rights of others, and even for the considerations of common humanity.” He labels it an aggressive vice that operates in three spheres of life:

  • In the material sphere it involves “grasping at money and goods, regardless of honor and honesty.”
  • In the ethical sphere it is “the ambition which tramples on others to gain something which is not properly meant for it.”
  • In the moral sphere, it is “the unbridled lust which takes its pleasure where it has no right to take.”

The Missing Component

There is an important thread that runs through these biblical definitions that is strongly missing from the typical definitions of greed. It is the idea that greed fosters the taking of something that is not rightfully ours. Our culture’s current relativistic definition of greed does not address this component.

In our postmodern culture where the concepts of right, wrong, and absolute truth have fallen on hard times, it is easy to see why even in Christian circles we have inappropriately morphed the definition of greed to eliminate anything to do with objective moral truth.

Yet, as Christians we are called to a much higher standard. Through the scripture we have been given a moral code, which we have been called to live by in all areas of our lives.

There is much misunderstanding regarding the concept of greed, business and the role we have been called to play as Christians in the workplace. We will have more to say about this subject in future posts.

What do you think? What is the definition of greed? Leave your comments here

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