Avoiding the Path of Greed

Proverbs 1:17-19 says,

How useless to spread a net where every bird can see it! These men lie in wait for their own blood; they ambush only themselves! Such are the paths of all who go after ill-gotten gain; it takes away the life of those who get it. [1]

The New International Version of the bible records the above passage regarding the consequences awaiting people who are enticed into joining with others in sin, particularly that which is actively harmful to other people.[2]

In this translation the focus of the text is clearly on the end of those who have consciously attempted to waylay others, to steal from and do violence towards other people. This is an accurate translation, however it is not very relevant to those who have never set out to waylay and ambush someone. Don’t be fooled however into thinking that this verse doesn’t apply to the average person!

The King James Version of the bible also tells of the nasty end in store for those who take this path. However it is not so restrictive in who it applies it too. Verse 19 is translated like so:

So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain; which taketh away the life of the owners thereof.[3]

This second translation seems to have relevance to a wider audience. It goes beyond applying the verse just to people who have actively pursued a path of negative behaviour. It suggests this scripture also applies to anyone who has ever found themselves challenged to pursue something simply for the want of more. More money, more pleasure, more power, in fact anything that represents more gain for a person as an individual, or perhaps even as a group.

Some will argue that this is taking the verse out of context of the rest of the passage. This is not the case though. The purpose of the first chapter of Proverbs is to both introduce the book to the reader and define the differences between the paths of those who will become wise and those who will become foolish. This is a purpose targeted at every person, not just at those at risk of becoming murderous thugs.

The difference between the path to wisdom and the path to foolishness is not great at the start of the passage. It is simply a picture of two people who decide to walk on different paths, paths which cross over and intersect more times that we would like to admit to ourselves.

What is it that entices people to choose the path that eventually leads to foolishness? Well it seems that for many the path of the fool starts out with the desire to have more, to get something greater than they currently have. Something that either is, more than they need,[4] not good for them or is simply not theirs in the first place.

There is not one specific place in someone’s life where they will encounter the start of this path, instead there are many intersections where a person may choose to take this path. However they come to it, choosing this path means leaving the path to wisdom, although it may not be clear at the time that the person is doing this.

How does a person identify when they are about to walk on this path, or more specifically, when they are about to leave path of wisdom and risk walking a path which will ultimately end in destruction and misery, unless God intervenes on their behalf.[5] It is not a matter of choosing the safest path, as many of those called to the mission field can attest to. It is also not a matter of choosing the less wealthy path, as many of those who fund the work of the Lord around the world can attest to. Instead it is something harder to define, something that the above passages refer to as, “greed”.

So what is greed? Greed is the motivation to get more for one’s self or for one’s own group. It very often involves the getting of more at the detriment of others, but does not always, and even when it does the greedy person may not be aware this is the case. It is very focused on self and what is best for the person affected by it. Greed may be driven by a fear of lacking, of not having what one needs, but it is also just as likely to driven by a desire to be seen as successful or a desire to provide for loved ones. Whatever the case or the desire it seems apparent that greed involves a lack of trust in God, the world and in organisations or people.

It can be hard for a person to identify if they are greedy. Often this is because it is hidden behind more acceptable motivations such as the need to provide for a family, the need to make money so a person can quit their job and serve God. At the end of the day though greed can be identified if a person takes the time to do so. Greed is identified by the fact that the need to gain has begun to consume a person’s time, thoughts, actions, sleep and ultimately health.[6] In its most extreme form it becomes an obsession.

Sometimes greed is the basic motivation for a path that is chosen at an early level. For example choosing to pursue a profession because it is the highest paid on their career advisor’s list. Sometimes though greed takes hold further down the path. The IT Contractor originally so focused on their desire to build innovative machines got to the top of their game and started receiving unbelievably large renumeration for contracts. Then their focus shifted, without them even realising it, from choosing the work they love to looking for the best paid projects. Innovation rarely pays out quickly, so they find themselves the IT maintainer for a large company and barely getting time to do any of the inventive, creative, grass roots technological development they are so passionate about.[7]

How does a person avoid getting lost in the interconnecting pathways of wisdom and foolishness? After all often when a person follows the prompting of greed to walk down a path, they do so because the path looks so easy to travel, so wide that they reason God must have put the path there specifically for them. Only later do they realise their mistake. One clue that the author of Proverbs gives lies in verse 16 of the same chapter:

…for their feet rush into evil, they are swift to shed blood.

There is the sense that those who are led by greed or, perhaps more accurately, are ultimately overtaken by greed, are those who rushed. Those who didn’t think the options through carefully and most importantly didn’t take the time to search out God and his wisdom.

The process of finding wisdom along a set of interconnecting paths, where foolishness attempts to merge into wisdom, takes time. It takes careful searching as Chapter 2 of Proverbs illustrates:

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding – indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.

It is encouraging to know that God is not only prepared, but desires to assist people on this journey. He has the ultimate destination ready for those who are making their way towards it and he actively seeks to give direction to those who need it.

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.

In fact it is this searching for God, this desire to connect to him, and to walk in his wisdom, that allows people to be open to him and so receive understanding. Understanding that will allow people to avoid the temptations of greed and the paths of foolishness.

Then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path.

References

Alexander, D. & Alexander, P. (Eds.), (1984). The Lion Handbook to the Bible. Herts, England: Lion Publishing.

Barker, K. (Ed.), (1995). The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.

Brand,  C., Draper, C., & England, A. (Eds). (2003) Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Reference.

Davis, J.D. (1977), Davis Dictionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Goodrick, E. W., & Kohlenberger, J. R. (2012). The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

Thompson, F.C. (Ed.), (1988). The Thomson Chain-Reference Bible: Fifth Improved Edition. Indiana, USA: B. B. Kirkbride Bible Co., Inc.

Zondervan. (2010, November 1). Updated NIV Bible Text. Retrieved from http://www.biblica.com

Footnotes

[1] All scripture references are taken from the New International Version of the Bible, unless otherwise stated.
[2] It is arguable that all sin is harmful to other people, however here there are direct references to actions which are harmful to others and specially targeted at others.
[3] This is the translation of the verse most appropriate to our discussion.
[4] This is not a comment about fruitfulness giving you more than your need, for in fact Godly blessing often results in excess, as we see in the miracles of Jesus. It is the desire and the purpose behind the getting that is more likely to be a problem.
[5] God does intervene on people’s behalf, it is often only his grace that saves from the biggest disasters that would normally follow our rash decision making.
[6] This is a progression, at first the pursuit of fulfillment simply takes up time, then it becomes a pre-occupation (thoughts), all a person’s actions and endeavors begin to aim towards it and a person loses sleep over not doing enough to achieve it or how to get past obstacles, to the point where eventually one’s health begins to be affected.
[7] I have used an IT Contractor as an example only, this can happen in any career.

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