"Greed is good," declared Michael Douglas in the movie Wall Street. "Greed works." It was a shock when I first heard those chilling words spoken with such forthright and unashamed simplicity. To this day it's hard to shake free of them. Hollywood is well known for its determination to mock, deny, or otherwise undermine Christian values, and these stunning words by Gordon Gecko, the character played by Douglas, are a vivid case in point.
As Christians we face countless enemies to the welfare of our souls, be it pride or lust or bitterness or envy. But few are as powerful and relentless as greed. There's one good thing about greed: no one need define it. We know what it is. We're all familiar with the power it exerts on our hearts and the struggle each of us has to break free of its dominion.
That's where 2 Corinthians 8:6-11, and especially v. 9, come in. It's not certain that greed was the primary reason the Corinthians had stopped short of consummating their contribution to the poverty-stricken saints in Jerusalem, but it must have played a part. Some have argued that Paul's opponents in Corinth were responsible, having suggested that the apostle was deceiving the Corinthians while planning to keep the money (or a portion of it) for himself.
In any case, Paul's appeal in vv. 6-11 is simple: finish what you started; excel as much in generous giving as you do in other spiritual arenas; let everyone know of the sincerity and earnestness of your love for the brethren. As you have been blessed in other graces, now overflow in generosity to those in need. He writes:
"Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything - in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you - see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have" (2 Cor. 8:6-11).
So how does one deal with greed? What is the most effective counter-attack to this insidious force? As I said above, v. 9 is the key. There Paul directs our attention to the one truth that has the power to liberate our hearts from the grip of greed and release in us the joy of generous giving: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (v. 9).
Three questions need to be answered.
First, in what sense was Christ "rich"? The first thing that comes to mind is the incalculable "wealth" of his eternal glory. The sacrifice of the Son will have its sanctifying effect on us only to the extent that we are in touch with the immeasurable splendor and limitless majesty of his pre-existent glory in fellowship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Isaiah did his best to convey the magnitude of this glory by providing this description of his experience:
"In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!' And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke" (Isa. 6:1-4).
This is but one portrait of what Jesus had in mind when he spoke to his Father of "the glory that I had with you before the world existed" (John 17:5). Paul described it as being "in the form of God" and experiencing eternal "equality with God" (Phil. 2:6).
But it was more than splendor, more than radiant beauty, more than the unending adoration of angelic hosts. It was joy! The "riches" of Christ that he so lovingly forsook entailed the mutual and immeasurable delight of the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father and the Spirit in the Father and the Father in the Spirit and the Son in the Spirit and the Spirit in the Son. Each beholding the beauty of the other. Each exulting in the excellence of the other. Their eternal and energetic love for one another is beyond our capacity to grasp.
So, secondly, in what sense did Christ become "poor"? Perhaps we should again let Isaiah make the point. Hear him prophesy of the humiliation of holiness: for "he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not" (Isa. 53:2-3).
Wait! No! Surely there's been a mistake. Are you suggesting, Paul, that the one at whom the seraphim dared not look (Isa. 6:2), whose glory filled the earth (Isa. 6:3), is also the one who "has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows," a man "stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted" (Isa. 53:4)? Are you suggesting, Paul, that the one who sat enthroned in power and glory (Isa. 6:1-2) was somehow "wounded for our transgressions" and "crushed for our iniquities" (Isa. 53:5)? How can it be that "the King, the Lord of hosts" (Isa. 6:5) "was oppressed" and "afflicted" like "a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent" (Isa. 53:7)?
Such was the breathtaking height of his riches and the heartbreaking depth of his poverty. What words remain to explain such "grace"? He joyfully surrendered "all the insignia of divine majesty," writes Harris, "and assumed all the frailty and vicissitudes of the human condition" (579).
And this . . . "for your sake", said Paul to the Corinthians. Yes, and for our sake as well, that you and I "by his poverty might become rich" (v. 9).
"Rich"? In what sense have we become wealthy through his poverty? Refuse to tolerate the spiritually sick and perverted claims of the prosperity "gospel"(?) that would find here a reference to material gain. Our riches and wealth are the sort that cannot be earned by effort or secured at a sale. They are the gift of sovereign grace.
Where does one begin to enumerate them? Election before the foundation of the world? Yes! Forgiveness of sins? Yes! Adoption into the family of God? Yes! Justification by faith alone? Yes! Union with Christ? Yes! The permanent indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit? Yes! Did not Paul assure the Ephesians that God has "blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (Eph. 1:4)? Yes!
And above all else, the richest and most precious blessing of all . . . is God himself! He is our inestimable treasure. Beholding his beauty is our inheritance. Enjoying his excellency is our wealth.
But to what end does Paul speak in this way? For what purpose? To stir up lethargic and presumptuous souls to give with exceeding generosity! Said Tasker:
"If this love of Christ, so magnanimous in its motive and so self-sacrificing in its execution, is an active force in the believer's heart, how unnecessary, the apostle implies, any command to practice giving ought to be. What, without that love, might seem a cold moral duty has been transformed by it into a joyous privilege" (116).
Greed is not good. Greed does not work. It cripples and paralyzes and anesthetizes our souls to the needs of others. Worse yet, it ignores the magnanimous mercy and grace of Christ and the sacrifice he made so that we, through his poverty, might become truly rich.