Back in 1987 a blockbuster Hollywood movie hit the theatres. Wall Street starred Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, a corporate big shot who was willing to stoop to any level to make a buck. Mr. Gekko was the point man for corporate takeovers, insider trading, and every devious business practice that one can imagine. Gordon took a promising, young leader and enticed him to compromise his ethics in return for big pay offs. This past week, as I was studying our Scripture for today, I was reminded of a speech Mr. Gekko gave to a group of stockholders. In the speech Gordon Gekko says, The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed cuts through, clarifies, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. (Gordon Gekko, Wall Street.)
‘Greed is good.’ I don’t know many people who would agree with Gordon Gekko out loud, but if you follow the lives of those who live in our country today then you can easily come to the conclusion that Gordon Gekko is alive and well in the United States today. Let me share with you some of the evidence I have gathered over the past few days to support my statement.
In an article from USA Today, former Enron Chairman, Kenneth Lay, the architect of the largest corporate collapse in America’s history (until WorldCom came along) is making out like a bandit. Linda Lay, Kenneth’s wife, has appeared on television tearfully telling America that the couple is fighting bankruptcy. “There’s nothing left,” Linda Lay said of the family fortune in her Today Show segment. “Everything we had was mostly in Enron stock.” The Lay’s are doing pretty well for somebody who has lost everything. Just a few months ago the Lay’s sold one of their Aspen, Colorado homes for $10 million. They also sold a nearby lot for $2.15 million. They are still trying to sell two nearby homes in Aspen listed for $6.1 million each. However, the Lays are keeping a cottage in Aspen that is valued at $4.1 million, property records say. The couple still owns stocks and properties worth millions even after thousands of Enron employees have truly lost it all. While greed was maneuvering Ken Lay and other Enron executives to take short cuts and try and dupe stockholders, Ken Lay and his wife were selling 1.8 million shares of Enron stock, reaping more than $101 million, from 1999 through 2001.
Today, after the collapse of Enron and the supposed ruin of Ken and Linda Lay, you might think that the couple is living in the equivalent of the Jesus House in Houston, Texas. Wrong. The Lays live on a floor of Houston’s super-luxurious Huntingdon condominium high-rise. The floor below theirs is being offered for sale at $7.8 million. There were others who were working alongside of Ken Lay who didn’t fare so well. A story in USA Today, dated February 7, 2002, reported that former Enron Corporation executive, J. Clifford Baxter, was very distraught over leaks that all was not well at the Houston based corporation. The 43-year-old former vice chairman was quoted as saying “They are calling us child molesters. That will never wash off.” Jeff Skilling, who quit as Enron’s chief executive before the company’s implosion, testified before a House subcommittee that Baxter thought the fallout from the Enron collapse had devastated his reputation. Skilling also said Baxter was angry that lawyers representing investors and shareholders were “coming after him.” Baxter and other Enron executives were under investigation and named in multiple lawsuits seeking proceeds they gained from selling stock in the months and years before the company collapsed. J. Clifford Baxter sold $35 million in stock before he became so distraught and eaten up with what could happen that he took a .38 caliber revolver and ended his life. Police found his body in his shiny new Mercedes Benz. (USA Today, ‘Late Enron official took sleeping aid, other drugs.’ February 7, 2002.)
It seems like everyday there is a new revelation of corporate greed that emerges from the pages of newspapers and on television screens. One of the most high profile stories that is circulating now is the timely stock sale by Martha Stewart. Fortune Magazine writes, As the entire world now knows, the chief, cook, and bottle collector of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia sold 3,928 shares of ImClone stock on Dec. 27, pocketing $227,824, a day before the company announced that the government had denied approval for its drug Erbitux. ImClone stock promptly dropped about $12 a share. It has since fallen much lower, but on Dec. 31, Stewart could have sold her stock and collected $180,000 without anyone batting a legal eyelash. That’s just 48 grand less than she got. As it is, the aroma from Stewart’s fortuitously timed trade resembles something that comes from a room other than the kitchen. That’s because she is a good friend of the then-CEO of ImClone, Sam Waksal, who has since been charged with insider trading. On July 1, Marth Stewart Living Omnimedia closed at $11.50, down from its high for the year, $20.01. According to the proxy statement, Stewart owns almost 31 million shares of Martha Steward Living Omnimedia. If we can ascribe all of the stock’s loss to her malodorous misadventures, Stewart’s $48,000 gain has already cost her $261,371,672 (plus legal fees). (Thomas A. Stewart, ‘Martha Stewart’s Recipe for Disaster,’ Fortune Magazine, July 3, 2002)
Stop and think about it for a minute. If Martha had sold the stock the day the announcement was made that the drug was going to be rejected she would have lost $48,000 of her investment. As a result of the negative media attention and the investigation that has resulted because of her alleged insider trading she has watched her own companies stock plunge. As a result, Martha Stewart has lost over $261 million. Greed is good?
I could go on and on and tell stories about John Henry Williams taking advantage of his father, Ted Williams. While Ted was deathly ill during the 90′s, his son had him signing baseball bats until he was exhausted so that he would make money off his dad’s name and fame when his dad was gone. I could tell stories about Gary Winnick, past Chairman of Global Crossing who cashed in $735 million in stock while driving his company into bankruptcy. Fortune Magazine labeled him as the ‘Emperor of Greed’ in its June 24th issue this year.
I could tell unfolding stories about Bernie Ebbers and others who sold WorldCom down the river so they could benefit from taking advantage of their company and stockholders.
Not many of us can identify with those stories, but many of us who are seated here this morning know the debt that we carry on our credit cards. Because we want what we cannot afford we use plastic to go ahead and get it anyway”never giving a thought to how we will pay for it when the bill comes due. On the cardweb.com website I read this week that the average American had $8367.00 on their credit cards. They also reported that 1.3 million cardholders declared bankruptcy this past year. The Myvesta.org website, a credit counseling organization, reported that the average credit card debt of its most seriously compromised clients ballooned from $17,800 in 2000 to $48,200 in 2001. “You see fewer people carrying balances,” explains CUNA spokesman Mark Wolff. “But of those who do, they tend to be larger.” (USA Weekend, December 23, 2001) These are not the CEO’s of WorldCom, Enron, or Global Crossings -these are folks like you and me who refuse to control their spending, who have gotten in way over their heads, and who will be visiting bankruptcy sometime in the near future.
Before we move to our Scripture for today I want to draw an even more encompassing circle around the topic of greed. Greed is not the sole property, the potentially perilous pitfall of the middle class or the rich -greed transcends all economic, racial, and educational barriers and seeks to ruin its victims. There are those who visit the King’s Kloset who will take the donations of others and try to sell them at their own garage sales. There are those who have visited the Britvil Food Pantry who will try and misrepresent themselves so that they can get more food than they need. You may say, ‘Mike, that’s harsh. Those are needy people who may very well be taking advantage of the kindness of others, but look what they have to work with.’ I understand all of that, but it is the same principle. I believe that if I am greedy with the little that I have, then I will be greedy even if much comes my way. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today. Turn to Hebrews 13:5-
6 and let’s begin.
5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ 6 So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’ (Hebrews 13:5-6 NIV)
Our Scripture for today holds for us some of the most relevant teaching you can receive on how to avoid the destruction that is sure to follow anyone who is greedy rather than generous. The great preacher, C. H. Spurgeon said, I’ve been in a lot of testimony meetings, and I’ve heard a lot of people share how they’ve sinned, and I’ve had people come to me and make confession of sin. But in all my life I’ve never had one person confess the sin of covetousness to me.
Why has the sin of ‘coveting’ been so overlooked by the Church? Isn’t it good to want more and more? Isn’t that the American spirit, the American way of doing things? It may very well be the American way, but it certainly isn’t God’s way. The lesson for today is not a lesson on the evils of money or a call to poverty – the Bible doesn’t make either of those statements. Our lesson for today is about trusting God, about being grateful for what the Lord has provided for us, about finding contentment where we are, and rejecting the passionate pursuit of more and more from a heart of greed. Let’s take a look at verse 5.
5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have”
The writer of Hebrews urges us to keep our lives free from the love of money. This urgent plea is really rooted in Exodus 20:17, where, in the Ten Commandments we are told, 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17 NIV)
The last of the Ten Commandments is one of the most overlooked and yet one of the most problematic for people today. The Hebrew word that is translated, ‘covet’ is the word, ‘khamad.’ The word means, ‘to desire, covet, take pleasure in, or delight in.’ The same word is used in Deuteronomy 7:25 where God is telling His people what will take place when He moves them into the land He has promised to them. God urges them to trust in Him, to refuse to set their sights on the opulence of the inhabitants of the land, and to trust Him to provide the victory even though they will be outnumbered and outgunned. In verse 25, God says, The images of their gods you are to burn in the fire. Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves, or you will be ensnared by it, for it is detestable to the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 7:25 NIV)
Isn’t it interesting how God warns the people? ‘Do not covet the silver and gold on them, and do not take it for yourselves, or you will be ensnared by it.’ My how nothing changes – everything remains the same. Today there are countless people ensnared by what they don’t have, by what their friends have that they wished they had, and it is robbing them of life, of really living life like God desires for us to live.
As I mentioned earlier this truth in Hebrews 13:5 is rooted in Exodus 20:17. The Greek word that is translated ‘love of money’ is the word, ‘aphilarguros’ and it means ‘not loving money, not greedy for money, or a lack of covetousness.’ There is a basic thread that runs throughout all of humanity when we are talking about our sin nature and it is greed. We want what we do not have and we will manipulate, misrepresent, and maneuver to get it. The denunciation of greed, or covetousness, runs throughout God’s Word. Let me give you a sampling. When Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus, he is very clear in his instruction on how to live the Christian life. Paul writes,
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. (Ephesians 5:3 NIV)
In another of Paul’s letters, his second letter to Timothy, Paul predicted the content of people’s hearts during the last days. Paul writes,
1 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-
control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them. (2 Timothy 3:1-5 NIV)
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he told Timothy that because of the love of the money some people have even wandered away from the faith – they have left their first love. Look at 1 Timothy 6:10 with me.
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. (1 Timothy 6:10 NIV)
Paul wasn’t the only one to speak about the evils of greed. Jesus was busy teaching one day when someone in the crowd spoke up about a civil dispute he was having with his brother. Turn to Luke 12 and read along with me as Jesus gives the man advice. 13 Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ 14 Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’ 15 Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ (Luke 12:13-15 NIV)
Christian leaders are called to be people who are free from the love of money. During the past twenty years we have witnessed what can happen when this exhortation from God’s Word is not followed. Peter writes about those who are shepherds of God’s flock.
2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5:2-4 NIV)
In Hebrews 13:5 we are not only called to live lives free from the love of money, but we are called to be content with what we have. If you want to know the key to living a life free from the love of money then you have found it be content. Paul wrote to the Philippians and said,
10I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I 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. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13 NIV)
If contentment is the key to not becoming overwhelmed with greed and a life that is characterized by a love for money, then what is the key to contentment? Great question. Paul said in Philippians I have learned the key to contentment ‘I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.’ The key to contentment is trusting God. If you will read our Scripture again you will see what I am talking about.
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ 6 So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’ (Hebrews 13:5-6 NIV)
What is really interesting is that we are told to be content because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ This was first spoken through Moses to the people of Israel as they were preparing to move into the Promised Land. Everything but one thing is passing away my friend and that is the presence of Almighty God. It doesn’t matter whether you have a lot or a little or absolutely nothing when it comes to the material things of this world you and I can always be assured of God’s presence and His provision for you and me if we will trust Him.
The very next verse echoes this sentiment as we read, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’ This verse is a quote from Psalm 118:6-7. Even though the Psalmist doesn’t have his daily material needs in mind at all when he speaks these words the truth is far reaching for those who will trust in God. For so many people today money is a buffer, a comfort, a source of security that supposedly can shield us from life’s burdens and provide for us like nothing else. This is absolutely false. We need to be grateful for the material blessings that God has showered upon our lives, but we need to recognize where those blessings originated and the purpose that they serve in our lives. For those here this morning who are scraping to just get by, you need to know that God desires that you trust Him for this day and what you need for today. You need to know that throughout God’s Word there is a common thread of promises that God will provide for those who are poor, for those who are scraping to just get by. God constantly makes provision for those in need. When Jesus stood in the synagogue and read Scripture for the first time He chose this passage.
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)
For those here this morning who have been blessed with much in the area of material resources you need to know that God has not blessed you with much so that you can feel secure in your material wealth, but so that you can be grateful to the Father for His blessings and seek His will for what He has entrusted to you. When we recognize who it is who has provided whatever we possess then it is more difficult for us to become prideful over what we have accumulated. As we close today let me give you a great example of how the attitudes of the heart effect how we see God’s blessings. Let’s look at three people: Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, and Ananias and Sapphira. Read with me from Acts 4. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:33-39 NIV)
From reading the Scripture you might come to the conclusion that there was no greed present in the early Church. When people had needs those who had plenty sold their possessions to provide for those in need what a wonderful church was the early church. Don’t draw your conclusions too quickly. In the very next chapter of Acts we read about Ananias and his wife, Sapphira. Read along with me.
1 Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. 3 Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.’ 5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. (Acts 5:1-6 NIV)
Greed has always been a problem, a potential pitfall for all people, including God’s people. There is hope for you and me if we will recognize who has blessed us with what we have and that it is God whom we trust and not what we have.
I want to invite you this morning to allow the Lord to search your heart and reveal to you where your trust is resting this morning. If you have never accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior won’t you put your trust in Him this morning? He alone can soothe your troubled soul like no shopping trip you’ve ever experienced. He alone can supply your deepest needs. He alone can give you the discipline you need to be content with what you have as you recognize who He is.