byFaith | September 2014
By Alan Dowd

We’ve heard a lot about “Wall Street greed” the past several years—and understandably so. The get-richer mentality fueled speculation and created gigantic bubbles in the housing and stock markets that burst in 2008.

The long-and-short of the market meltdown, as Princeton University economics professor Burton Malkiel explains, is that government lenders “securitized home loans and encouraged originators to make credit available to borrowers who could not afford to make substantial down payments.” Since these loans had implicit government backing, investment houses began to buy up scores of prime and subprime mortgages, bundle them together and then “produced very highly rated securities…even though the underlying mortgages might be of relatively low quality or subprime.”[i]

When the bubble burst, the housing market lost $9 trillion[ii]of its peak value, and $16 trillion[iii]in household wealth was erased.

To many Americans, “Wall Street greed” was the culprit. The president, for example, inveighed against “greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street” and the “breathtaking greed” of “banks and investors.”

Leading newspapers like the New York Times, USA Todayand Washington Post peppered their pages with the phrase “Wall Street greed.”

Headlines such as “Greed on Wall Street Prevents Good from Happening,” “On Wall Street, a Culture of Greed Won’t Let Go” and “Wall Street’s Greed Is Fueled by Fear” dominate search returns. And underneath those headlines are scathing attacks on Wall Street’s banks, investment houses and financiers. “Something beyond reason and beyond ordinary ambition has been feeding this runaway avarice,” explains one reporter. According to another, the financial system was “brought to the precipice by Wall Street’s greed and irresponsible risk-taking.” And in perhaps the most pointed attack on Wall Street’s “one-percenters,” a pair of Cal-Berkeley scholars bluntly concludes, “Unethical behaviors among the wealthy are as timeless and pervasive as the ethical principles that try to rein them in.”

These diagnoses and commentaries are all true, but they don’t represent the whole truth.

Poisoned Fruit

Contrary to the Gordon Gekko character in the 1987 film Wall Street, followers of Christ know that greed is anything but good. It’s a sin—plain and simple. We should also know that Wall Street doesn’t have a monopoly on greed—and the poor and middle class don’t have a monopoly on virtue. As Francis Schaeffer observed, “We are not automatically spiritual if we despise money”—or, for that matter, if we don’t have much of it.[iv]

In fact, “Main Street greed” is arguably just as culpable for our national problems as the preferred scapegoat of “Wall Street greed.”

After all, what motivated most of us on the Main Street end of the economic spectrum during the housing boom—the working poor who simply were not yet ready to become homeowners, the average homeowners who built “McMansions” they could not afford, the house-flippers who bought with the sole intent of selling for a hefty profit, the millions of middle-class Americans who used their mushrooming home equity as collateral to open huge lines of credit, buy lots of stuff and take on lots of debt?

The answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.

Why do we Americans owe $845 billion in credit-card debt, and why is total consumer debt in America—mortgages, car loans, credit cards and student loans—$11.4 trillion?[v] To be sure, there are lots of understandable and even good reasons people go into debt: medical issues, education, launching or growing a business. But there also are lots of bad reasons people rack up debt. Greed is a major contributing factor—greed for something newer or bigger or better or faster or sleeker or shinier—and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.

Why do we want just a little more free time, just a little less work, the last word or the last slice of pizza? The answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.

Why do so many of us say we oppose big government, but then support candidates who promise “free” health care, “free” prescription medicines, “free” phones, “free” college education, “free” this, “free” that? And why do politicians make such promises?

The answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street.

Why are we so angry when it seems the wealthy don’t “pay their fair share” and yet happily take every deduction, every break, every refund the tax code offers us?

The answer is greed—perhaps mixed with a little envy—and it has nothing to do with Wall Street. By the way, those wealthy “one-percenters” on Wall Street actually pay more than their fair share of the tax bill: The top 1 percent of taxpayers pays 35 percent of federal income taxes; the top 5 percent pays 57 percent of federal income taxes.[vi]

And why have we seen a 25-percent increase in the number of Social Security disability claims since the start of the Great Recession?[vii]

The answer is greed, and it has nothing to do with Wall Street. Make no mistake: The Social Security disability program serves an important and necessary purpose, namely, helping those who are unable to earn a living due to major health problems get the basic necessities of life. In a rich country like ours, there is a place for such a program. Indeed, this is the very reason for a safety net—to provide some measure of security when circumstances overwhelm us.

However, we know there wasn’t some sudden epidemic that left millions of Americans stricken with career-ending disabilities at the outset of the Great Recession. The hard truth is that some number of people who are not disabled chose to access the disability system because they concluded it would be easier than the alternative. This kind of greed is every bit as “unethical” and “breathtaking” as what happened on Wall Street before the mortgage meltdown. And the fact that government is sanctioning this kind of Main Street greed only serves to underscore the similarities with Wall Street greed: In both instances, government is rewarding bad behavior by bailing out those who engage in it. The difference comes down to the number of zeroes on the check. Before scoffing at this—before using scripture’s injunctions about social justice to explain away this strain of Main Street greed—remember that justice works in all directions, that scripture condemns laziness as well as acquisitiveness, that the Lord sees one man’s envy and another’s greed as two halves of the same poisoned fruit.

Cause and Consequence
In short, greed is a humanity-wide affliction. “From the least to the greatest,” the Lord declares in Jeremiah 6, “all are greedy for gain.”

It may afflict some of us more often and more obviously than others. But just because a sin is more obvious in one person than in another doesn’t make it more wrong.

For example, the rich young ruler had a greed problem—Jesus exposed it to him and to the world—but so did Judas, who was anything but rich. Like the other apostles, Judas “left everything” to follow Jesus, had no home and had no income.[viii]Yet what the world didn’t see, Jesus knew and John later revealed: The penniless Judas was devoured by greed. All along, John explains, Judas was more interested in money than the Messiah. “As keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”[ix]Judas was poor and greedy, and he compounded the sin of greed by maintaining a pretense of piety to make himself look better than everybody else.

In today’s parlance, the rich young ruler succumbed to Wall Street greed and Judas to Main Street greed.

Regardless of the address, the cause and the consequence of greed are the same. The cause is selfishness, and the consequence is separation from our Father and from our fellowman, as scripture reminds us from the very beginning.

The Father told Adam and Eve, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”[x]

This one tree was not theirs to have, not theirs to take or pick or harvest. But in Genesis 3, Eve saw that the fruit of this tree was “good for food” and “pleasing to the eye.”[xi] Interestingly, Genesis 2 uses the very same language to describe other things the Lord had created for Adam and Eve: “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” However, those trees were not this tree; those trees were not Adam and Eve’s; those trees were no longer “desirable” to them.

Driven by selfish desire, they took what was not theirs, severing their connection to the Father—and to one other. Note how Adam blamed “the woman you put here with me”[xii]when confronted by the Father. There was no “we” in Adam’s defense. So much for the “flesh of my flesh.”

This curse of greed would be passed down like a genetic deformity. It was greed that spawned Cain’s jealous, violent rage. The Bible takes care to report that Abel sacrificed from the “firstborn” of his flock, while Cain merely brought “some of the fruits of the soil” as his offering.[xiii]The implication is that Abel offered more of a sacrifice. As one scholar observes, “The contrast is not between an offering of plant life and an offering of animal life, but between a careless, thoughtless offering and a choice, generous offering.”[xiv]In other words, Cain was greedy. Indeed, in Hebrew, Cain is derived from the same word as “acquire” and “possess.”[xv]As Rabbi David Fohrman, a professor of biblical studies at Johns Hopkins University, has observed, “Cain the ‘acquirer’ seeks to ground himself in possessions.”[xvi]

After Cain and Abel, the poison spread throughout God’s story: Jacob was greedy for Esau’s birthright; Esau was greedy for Jacob’s stew. Their covenant of greed fractured their relationship and devastated their dad. David was greedy for Uriah’s wife, and it destroyed at least four lives. Judas was greedy for power and money, and it led to betrayal and brokenness. Ananias and Sapphira were greedy for place and prestige, and it literally killed them. Perhaps with their story in mind, Peter warned that even church leaders must guard against being “greedy for money.”[xvii]

In the Ten Commandments, the Lord tells us not to covet anything that belongs to our neighbor. In Ecclesiastes, He declares, “Whoever loves money never has enough.” In Jeremiah, He preaches against “dishonest gain.”[xviii] In Ezekiel, He condemns those who are “greedy for unjust gain.”[xix] And in Luke 12, He warns us, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed”—not just Wall Street greed, not just the greed of the rich man to acquire, not just the most obvious expressions of greed, but any desire for more of something than is needed, any desire for another person’s wealth or property or possessions.

The adjectives are irrelevant to God because the cause and the consequence of this sin are the same, whether we live on Main Street or Wall Street or Easy Street.

Good Fruit

If the cause and consequence of greed are the same, so is the antidote.

Because he knew “what it is to be in need” and “what it is to have plenty,” Paul spoke with some authority on the subject of wealth, and he let us in on the secret to being content: Whether we live “in plenty or in want”—and relative to the rest of history and the rest of humanity, even the poorest Americans live in plenty—we should live for and in and through Christ.[xx] Importantly, Paul offered this advice not while studying in the comfort of Gamaliel’s classroom, but while he was in prison.

So how might we apply Paul’s advice in our daily lives?

We should remember our savior is both the King of Kings and the Suffering Servant. He was a refugee child who possessed unimaginable riches; He traded a crown and streets of gold for a stable and filthy feet. In other words, how we think of Him will affect how we think of wealth, how we think of those living in poverty and how we think of those living in plenty—and how we treat wealth, how we treat those living in poverty and how we treat those living in plenty.

We should work, and we should do our best at work. “Whatever you do,” as Paul exhorts, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”[xxi]

We should spend less than we earn. Applying this simple rule of economics to our personal—and national—finances would save us much grief and worry. “The borrower is slave to the lender,” as Proverbs 22 warns.

We should understand that anytime we allow our stomach—the hungry, un-satiable self—to guide our thoughts, purchases, decisions or bank accounts, we are succumbing to a kind of greed and replacing God with something else.[xxii] The antidote is the good and satisfying fruit of the Spirit. This fruit, however, doesn’t blossom overnight.

We should keep in mind Christ’s admonition that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Interestingly, He doesn’t define what “much” is. And equally interesting, He issues this warning in response to a question from Peter, in the context of a “servant who knows the master’s will.”[xxiii] A servant.

And with that admonition on our hearts, we should store up treasure in heaven by sharing what we have. That’s true of the poor widow and her tiny temple tithe, the wealthy Zacchaeus and his ill-gotten riches, and all of us in between—on Wall Street and Main Street—struggling with our own varieties of greed.

[i] Malkiel, “Market Risk-Taking Must Be Restrained,” BusinessWeek, December 12, 2009, http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2009-12-31/malkiel-market-risk-taking-must-be-restrainedbusinessweek-business-news-stock-market-and-financial-advice

[ii] Ilyce Glink, “Home value loss reaches $9 trillion,” CBS News, April 26, 2011.

[iii] Peter Weber, “Great Recession hangover: what happened to America’s lost wealth,” The Week, May 31, 2013.

[iv] Schaeffer, No Little People, p.236.


[vi] Tax Foundation, Summary of Latest Federal Income Tax Data, December 18, 2013.

[vii] See http://www.aei.org/article/economics/americas-growing-social-security-disability-problem/ and

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/house-probe-cries-foul-on-social-security-disability-claims/ .

[viii] Mark 10, Matthew 19.

[ix] John 12.

[x] Genesis 2.

[xi] Genesis 3:6.

[xii] Genesis 3:12.

[xiii] Genesis 4.

[xiv] Text Notes, NIV Study Bible, 1995 Edition, p.11.

[xv] David Fohrman, “The World’s First Murder: A Closer Look at Cain and Abel,” Jewish World Review, June 2005.

[xvi] Fohrman.

[xvii] I Peter 5:1-3

[xviii]Jeremiah 22.

[xix]Ezekiel 33.

[xx]Philippians 4.

[xxi] Colossians 3.

[xxii]Philippians 3.

[xxiii] Luke 12:35-48.