In 1987, the movie "Wall Street" debuted, bringing American avarice to the front of our collective consciousness.
In it, Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) addressed his stockholders, saying, "Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works. …Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind."
His words articulated what has become part of the value system of our culture. It is widely believed that while personal greed is a fire best put out, our collective greed is the engine that drives our economy. Twenty-three years later, after Wall Street has played significantly in each of our personal woes, Gordon Gekko has returned in the sequel, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." I have not seen it yet, but I imagine it is much the same as the original. After all, the sequel to greed is always… more greed.
While it is normal to want things, greed is the inordinate desire for more than is needed. It usually takes the form of miserliness (hoarding without enjoying), or profligacy (wasteful consumption), both without sharing. A mysterious quality of greed is that it is more easily seen through the lens of our own experience than through a mirror trained back on ourselves. Whoever wants what I want is normal; but someone who already has more than me and wants still more is just plain greedy. While the movie helped us to see greed in action, it failed to help us see greed in ourselves. For that, we need Jesus.
Jesus understood that worry and lack of faith were at the heart of avarice. "Do not worry about your life or about your body. Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not much more clothe you? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Mathew 6:25). By this measure, who among us is not greedy?
Greed is a monster that breaks not only our finances, but our relationships and our spirits as well. Bill Hybels, in "Leadership" aptly describes Howard Hughes as the personification of avarice: "All he ever really wanted in life was more. He wanted more money, so he parlayed inherited wealth into a billion-dollar pile of assets. He wanted more fame, so he broke into the Hollywood scene and soon became a filmmaker and star. He wanted more sensual pleasures, so he paid handsome sums to indulge his every sexual urge. He wanted more thrills, so he designed, built, and piloted the fastest aircraft in the world. He wanted more power, so he secretly dealt political favors so skillfully that two U.S. presidents became his pawns. All he ever wanted was more. He was absolutely convinced that more would bring him true satisfaction. Unfortunately, history shows otherwise. He concluded his life emaciated; colorless; sunken chest; fingernails in grotesque, inches-long corkscrews; rotting, black teeth; tumors; innumerable needle marks from his drug addiction. Howard Hughes died believing the myth of more. He died a billionaire junkie, insane by all reasonable standards."
Generosity is the elixir that dissolves our avaricious nature into self-giving. It helps us to experience what E.C. Vacek calls "the joy that comes from magnanimity of the soul." When Jesus asks us to give, it is not for the poor alone; it is for the sake of our own impoverished souls.
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.