The Greed Factor
Passage: Ecclesiastes 5:8–6:9
The Greed Factor
May 18th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. Riches and Rationales
"Joyce Meyer says God has made her rich."
"Everything she has came from Him: the $10 million corporate jet, her husband's $107,000 silver-gray Mercedes sedan, her $2 million home and houses worth another $2 million for her four children - all blessings, she says, straight from the hand of God."
"If you stay in your faith, you are going to get paid," Meyer told an audience in Detroit in September. "I'm living now in my reward."
Meyer says she should not have to defend how she spends the ministry's money. "We teach and preach and believe biblically that God wants to bless people who serve Him," Meyer said. "So there's no need for us to apologize for being blessed."
None of her critics seem to rile Meyer. She says her material success is a reflection of her commitment to God. As she puts it: "The whole Bible really has one message: ‘Obey me and do what I tell you to do, and...you'll...be...blessed.'"
That's an excerpt from a newspaper article and it is just one glimpse of a large movement in the Christian community today, a movement known by what it declares: the "prosperity gospel". This kind of thinking goes far beyond recognizing that God does bless some people with material wealth. It claims that every follower of Christ should be blessed financially if their faith is strong enough.
The size of your bank account is a reflection of the size of your faith.
But is this really what God wants to teach us about wealth? Is this really what the "whole message of the Bible" is about? Turn with me this morning to Ecclesiastes 5.
II. The Passage: The Pointlessness of Wealth
This morning we are going to continue our study through this unique book. And as we return to the Teacher's reflections here, we begin with what I would describe as a prelude of sorts, a prelude about greed. Look at what we read in verses 8 and 9:
A. A Prelude on Greed (5:8, 9)
8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.
Now these are difficult verses to translate from the Hebrew, and many English translations make it hard to understand the point of this passage. But I believe what the Teacher is explaining here is that the oppression of the poor is rooted in a top-down system of extortion that goes all the way up to the king. Verse 9 might be better translated, "The profit of the land is taken by all; even the king benefits from the land."
Now, still today, when we find people suffering in poverty and injustice, we also typically find corrupt officials. As the Teacher has already told us, "There is nothing new under the sun."
But this passage also serves to introduce the subject of greed. And as we're going to see this morning, that's the topic the Teacher spends the next 19 verses exploring.
Now before we do that, I want you to ask yourself a question. As we talk about greed and wealth, I don't want you to ask, "Am I greedy person?" No, the question I want you to ask yourself is, "Am I susceptible to the temptations of greed?"
I think if we're honest with ourselves, that's a question to which all of us have to answer "yes". All of us find ourselves wanting things we don't need. All of us look for a sense of completeness in our possessions. All of us fall prey to the lie that money will solve our problems.
And because that's true, all of us need to listen to the Teacher this morning. All of us need to hear his warnings.
Specifically, what we're going to see in the following verses is exactly what we have already seen from the Teacher. We are going to learn, once again, that from our human perspective, that everything is pointless.
So what find in this passage is the Teacher is continuing that theme by declaring that, "greed is always pointless" and in most cases, "wealth itself is pointless".
B. Five Reasons Why Greed/Wealth Are Pointless
Why are greed and wealth pointless? The Teacher gives us five reasons.
1. Greed/Wealth Cannot Satisfy
First, look at verse 10:
10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.
The first reason given here is really a good way to sum up everything that is to come. Greed and wealth cannot truly satisfy us.
When you love money and live to have more of it, it's like trying to live on a diet of cotton candy. It might taste sweet for a time, but it can never fill you up.
The same is true of greed and wealth. The more you get, the more you want. It is a slippery slope that never ends.
2. Greed/Wealth Attract Parasites
Second, look at verse 11:
11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?
I believe what the Teacher is telling us here is that when you wealth, you will also have lots and lots of people who come looking for a handout or a way to take advantage of you.
Listen to this excerpt from a Milwaukee Magazine story:
No sooner had Gerald Reif won the Wisconsin Lottery in 1990 than the pickpockets, as he calls them, descended upon him. Count-less companies called with offers to buy his annual lottery payments for a lump sum far less than the $4.8 million (minus taxes) he won. "I keep telling them ‘no,' they keep calling," he complains.
It's been 16 years since he won, but Reif says 14 different companies still call him monthly with their slippery deals. And they aren't the only ones who want to rip you off, he says. "This I've learned: Don't ever tell anyone you're a lottery winner."
If you're interested in having more, be prepared for more parasites as well, says the Teacher.
3. Greed/Wealth Inspire Anxiety
Third, move on with me to verse 12:
12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.
Look at how the Teacher describes what is really valuable here. He makes it clear that with great wealth comes great anxiety. And that concern about getting more money, the worry that comes from managing money, all of it robs a person of something far more precious: a good night's sleep, or we could say, peace of mind.
The laborer who works hard to meet his needs is far richer when it comes to peace than the richest man or woman.
How many voices today are actually telling us that having more will bring us peace of mind? According to the Teacher, just the opposite seems to be the case.
4. Greed/Wealth Provide False Security
Fourth, look at what we read in verses 13-17:
13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 As he came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.
Now the situation described in these verses is not exactly clear, but what is clear is that a certain man, driven by greed, harmed himself and his son when he lost everything he had through some sort of a risky investment or financial misfortune.
So now, he has nothing, and his child has nothing. He will now spend the rest of his days suffering under the burden of his foolish decisions, angry about what he could have done differently.
The lesson here is not, "invest your money wisely". The lesson is that wealth cannot provide real security because wealth can go much easier than it came. Wealth can be like sand. The harder we try to hold onto it, the more likely it is to slip through our fingers.
This is why Jesus told His followers to invest in what is of eternal value, and "not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal". (Matthew 6:19)
There is no real security, no certainty in wealth.
5. Greed/Wealth Cannot Guarantee Joy
Fifth and finally, drop down to verse 1 of chapter 6:
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: 2 a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil. 3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life's good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. 5 Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. 6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good-do not all go to the one place?
What the writer is doing here is addressing all those who believe that having lots of money and lots of things is a sure formula for joy. But as we see here, there could be a man who has everything: "wealth, possessions, and honor", but God does not allow him to enjoy these things.
Unlike the man before who lost everything he hoarded, this man seem to still have these things, but for some reason, others are enjoying the things he has.
This man could know the blessing of having multiple offspring, even a hundred; he could live for many, many years, even two thousand (v. 6), but...
If he can find no joy in any of these blessings, then he is worse off than even the stillborn child who lives for only a short time and never knows what it's like to experience life in this world.
This man has experienced life, and even blessing, but he has no joy in any of it. In light of that kind of frustration and disappointment, the Teacher concludes it would be better if he never lived "under the sun".
You may acquire more and more, but what good are such things if you cannot truly enjoy them? Wealth does not always lead to joy.
C. Summing it Up (6:7-9)
When we get back to verses 7-9, we find a sort of summary that brings us back to the idea of satisfaction expressed in 5:10. The Teacher writes:
7 All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. 8 For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living?
Whether someone is wise and the foolish, we all suffer under the reality that we always seem to want more than we need. Even that poor man, maybe the one describe in the prelude of verses 8 and 9, even if he knows how to walk wisely, even though he might suffer under injustice because of someone else's greed, even he will suffer under the dissatisfaction that comes from his own greed.
After considering all of this, the Teacher concludes in verse 9: Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
What he's saying here is it's better to focus on what you have, what you can see with your eyes, than to be driven by blind greed that's always looking out there for more.
Like I mentioned earlier, the Teacher's assessment of this is clear: this also is vanity...this is pointless...it's like trying to chase and catch the wind. How many of us today would be saved from a lot of heartache and foolishness if we simply believed these things and listened to these warnings?
III. Faith to Accept Our Lot (5:18-20)
But there is something else here. There are verses we skipped over, aren't there? Look back with me to verses 18-20 of chapter 5. Look at what we learn in the middle of all this:
18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil-this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
Now, if you've been with us for some of our previous studies in Ecclesiastes, then this kind of advice should sound familiar. We heard something like this in 2:24-26, 3:12-14, and 3:22.
We could label what the Teacher is prescribing here as "the anti-greed perspective". Or we might more appropriately call it "the contentment factor".
What is good and fitting is to enjoy what you have, to enjoy what you do, and to enjoy the time you have on this earth. And such enjoyment only comes when we are satisfied with our lot. This is the opposite of greed.
As we see in verse 19, even someone who does have wealth and possessions, if they accept what God has given them with contentment and not greed, they will discover that the joy derived from that contentment is the greatest gift.
If this were a credit card commercial we might put it this way: Wealth? $5 million in the bank. Possessions? Net value of $13 million. Contentment? Priceless.
Even when the days of our life are filled with disappointment and despair, and many of them will be, our hearts can know joy because of the contentment that only God can give. It is His gift.
Everything about this entire passage on greed and wealth reminds me of another teacher who said this:
[There are] men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. 11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (I Timothy 6:6-11)
It sounds to me like the Apostle Paul was well versed in Ecclesiastes 5 and 6. He confirms so many of the same points we've already looked at. But what I want us to leave with today is what so many who preach a ‘prosperity gospel' have missed. They believe that godliness is a means to financial gain.
But as we've seen in Ecclesiastes, the real gain that God gives only comes with contentment. Some preach that God wants you to have more. But how many talk about when God calls us to have less? Some preach about being confident in God's rewards. But how many call us to be content in God's grace? But godliness with contentment is great gain.
But let's be honest here, how many of us consistently feel content? Would you be satisfied if, like Paul, you only had food and clothing? How can anyone say this, especially today in 21st century America?
Well, to understand the secret of contentment, we need to look at another letter from Paul. You see Ecclesiastes can tell us about the gift of contentment, but it can't tell us how to receive that gift. The Teacher can make no promises.
But listen to what Paul writes to followers of Jesus in the Macedonian town of Philippi:
12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12, 13)
Paul can say this in light of the promise that he confirms to them a few verses later:
And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)
None of us should walk away from Ecclesiastes 5 and 6 believing that wealth itself is evil or that enjoying our possessions is wrong. No. What I want you to leave with is the conviction that you will never be able to enjoy what God has given you, your family, your work, your stuff, anything, if you are not living in the strength that comes from knowing that all of your needs will be met in Jesus Christ.
And if all of your needs are met in him, it doesn't matter what you have or don't have; what you gain or what you lose. What matters is that Christ is yours by faith, and you can never lose that because he will never lose you.
In Jesus, we can believe that God gives us our "lot", to borrow a phrase from the Teacher, AND we can believe that "lot" is good. We can rest content in the sovereign wisdom of God.
I do believe that every follower of Jesus will be blessed with incredible riches. But those riches are the riches we find in knowing, loving, and serving Jesus Christ. They are of eternal value. And if we aren't wealthy in these things, all the money in the world will be to our hurt.
Where are you this morning? Are you content? Or is greed stirring your heart even now? Is it causing your appetite to wander? Is your life more influenced by the greed factor, or the contentment factor?
Let's ask God to turn our hearts, even now, to His true riches. Let's pray.