Some have said, "Greed is good!" Others protest "Wall Street greed." What does God's own character teach us about good business?
“Greed is good!” This famous phrase, spoken by movie character Gordon Gekko in the Academy Award-winning 1987 movie Wall Street, epitomized an era when conspicuous consumption was seen as a virtue. Though director Oliver Stone intended Gekko as an anti-hero, many took his words to heart as a positive statement of their values and priorities.
Today, a quarter-century later, things have changed. Real-life Gordon Gekkos have caused havoc in the world financial markets, sending economic shock waves across the United States and around the world. “Wall Street greed” has become a by-word in the media, and has even spawned a political movement, “Occupy Wall Street.”
Gekko’s famous line actually came in the context of a larger speech. He said, “The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, money, love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Certainly this captures well the world’s mindset of “get” rather than “give.” Over the years, many have conducted their lives by maxims such as Gekko’s. However, this mindset is in sharp contrast to a point of view presented in Scripture, by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Put simply, “God is love” (1 John 4:16), and His love is focused on giving.
The Bible contains many principles that can change our economic behavior for the better. Understanding those principles can improve our lives—individually and nationally. The Apostle Paul said, “I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35). Gordon Gekko would have been baffled by Jesus’ statement, but it holds the key to understanding God’s very nature and character—and what He intends for His creation.
The physical “Wall Street” is an eight-block-long stretch of road in the Lower Manhattan section of New York City. Because the New York Stock Exchange and some major financial institutions are based there, the term “Wall Street” has come to represent the financial sector of the U.S. economy, even though most of institutional Wall Street does not physically reside on that New York City boulevard.
How did Wall Street firms get themselves into so much trouble? Consider Lehman Brothers, for decades one of the nation’s largest and most respected investment banking and financial services firms. Alongside its core businesses, one Lehman Brothers division found a way to earn huge profits by using low-rate loans from other banks to purchase high-yielding subprime mortgages. Initially, Lehman had held the highest possible credit rating (“AAA”), which let the firm profit from the spread between its low cost of borrowing and the high yields from subprime mortgages. However, as the housing market declined, subprime mortgages became riskier and more prone to default. This caused Lehman’s credit rating to decline, and its lenders to demand paydowns of their loans. As losses mounted, the firm began selling its profitable investment banking and financial services divisions to cover the losses, but this was not enough to stanch the financial hemorrhaging, and the firm had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The shock waves from Lehman’s failure—and similar large implosions at other firms, such as American International Group (AIG)—reverberated through the economy. Government “bailouts” kept AIG and some other firms out of bankruptcy, but their stock prices plummeted and their finances were devastated.
Wall Street firms still conduct profitable investment banking activities that play a vital role in the U.S. and world economies. However, their excesses and dramatic fall from riches have made “Wall Street greed” an idea that is prominent in the public’s mind—and that will likely be a key issue in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
Wall Street has risen and fallen on the basis of economic principles. But what about the broader moral principles that guide society? When God established the ancient nation of Israel, He gave its people everything they needed, including wise statutes and judgments based on the Ten Commandments. Unger’s Bible Dictionary describes the Ten Commandments this way: “The foundation and source of the moral law is God’s character. ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’ is the way the Ten Commandments are introduced. The Heb. name here used (Everlasting Eternal Almighty) intimates that the principles of law have their standing in the character of God. ‘I am…thou shall.’ That is the connection. And that is what makes the moral law so [awesome] in its unchangeable majesty. It is law because God is. It cannot be changed without changing [God’s] character… Right is what it is, because God is what He is, and therefore it is as unchangeable as God” (p. 1256, “Ten Commandments”).
Charity is the antithesis of greed, and the God of Israel is a God of love and outgoing concern for others. Here is an example of a statute in ancient Israel that was designed not only to help the poor, but to help the prosperous as well: “When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19–21).
From an economic point of view, the function of this statute is especially interesting. A landowner who gleans his own field must go back after it has been harvested and expend a lot of labor to try to take every last grape, olive and stalk of grain. Yet the cost of the labor to complete this task thoroughly will eventually outweigh the profitability of collecting every bit of the harvest. But the landless poor had plenty of time available, and it made economic sense for them to spend it gleaning to obtain the food they needed.
It is obvious to see how this law helped the poor. By requiring them to exert labor to obtain the gleanings, it gave them food while also preserving their dignity. But, how did this statute benefit landowners? It prevented them from being so focused on gain that they would wring every last bit of production out of their fields and vineyards, denying it to others who could benefit the most from it. God’s law kept the landowners from greed, since they were required to “leave something on the table” for others.
In today’s business world, people often have a policy of “don’t leave anything on the table, not even the varnish!” They remind us of these words from Isaiah: “Yes, they are greedy dogs which never have enough. And they are shepherds who cannot understand; they all look to their own way, every one for his own gain, from his own territory” (Isaiah 56:11). Such aggressive businesspeople think they have not succeeded until the other party suffers. Their approach is to take as much as they can from others in every situation. Thankfully, this approach was discouraged—and so was the avaricious character it develops—by the legal system God set up for ancient Israel. Fairness and honesty—not greed—were built into the law God gave the Israelites.
The Eighth Commandment states, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). In addition to forbidding theft, this commandment acknowledges that people may own private property. Yet Scripture also counsels respect for others’ property, and points out the wrong motives that can produce theft, covetousness and greed. The Apostle James wrote, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have” (James 4:1–3).
To combat the wrong impulses of human nature, God built honesty and integrity into His statutes. Here is a good example: “You shall do no injustice in judgment, in measurement of length, weight, or volume. You shall have honest scales, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:35–36).
In ancient Israel, an ephah was a dry measure of about a bushel, often used to measure grains. A hin was a liquid measure of about two gallons. Applying the principle today would go beyond simply measuring out quantities of groceries or gasoline. One modern application of the just or unjust ephah can involve how we measure out our labor. If we are on the job for eight hours, do we give our employers the eight hours of work they are paying for—not six hours’ worth? God’s way teaches us to give people the full value we have promised them. This is godly and good business!
God plainly forbids the personal corruption that greed will foster. He did this because greed is alien to His character. However, He does not forbid His people from bargaining for a fair price or making a profit. There is no biblical admonition against working for gain or engaging in productive enterprise to create wealth. In fact, there are dozens of biblical admonitions—in both the Old Testament and New Testament—about how to gain wealth and to conduct commercial relationships in ways that help people become better employees and businessmen. Remember, having God’s blessing is crucial to any enterprise. “And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18).
Many people mistakenly think that the Bible calls money “the root of all evil”—but that is not in Scripture. Rather, it is the love of money that is the problem. Consider the actual scripture that the Apostle Paul wrote to the evangelist Timothy: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). God wants us to prosper and to enjoy life in the right way. The Apostle John wished good things for his congregations. “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (3 John 2).
Sadly, for many, the pursuit of wealth brings evil rather than good, and stress rather than enjoyment. Greed is insatiable—there is always a hunger for more—and it makes the greedy into slaves of their wealth, rather than masters. “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
By contrast, those who work hard and prosper in their labor in a right and balanced way can be blessed in doing so. “As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor—this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19). As a good Father, God wants blessings for His children, and those blessings do not exclude prosperity.
Oxford Dictionaries Online defines greed as an “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.” Greed is an inordinate desire for gain that is motivated by covetousness—a violation of the Tenth Commandment—and, as such, it is sin. The Apostle Paul wrote that no covetous person will inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:10). The reason is that a covetous person is focused on self and “get” whereas God is love and outgoing concern for others. “Give” is inherent in God’s character, and it will be so in the children of God in His Kingdom.
Jesus warned us against covetousness. “And He said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses’” (Luke 12:15). Similarly, the Apostle Paul taught that covetousness—greed—should not be found in a Christian. “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints” (Ephesians 5:3). He explained that a covetous, greedy person will not be in the Kingdom of God (v. 5). Greed is not to be found in those ordained to Christian service; Paul wrote to Timothy that elders and deacons must be “not greedy for money” (1 Timothy 3:3, 8).
We are currently seeing the phenomenon of extremely wealthy people making arrangements to “give something back.” Billionaires such as Microsoft’s Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. are pledging hundreds of millions of dollars for charitable purposes. It seems that in the end, people’s sense of self-worth is determined by what they gave in life, not by what they got. Mankind’s way is get. God’s way is give. “Give” is better!
In the movie Wall Street, Gordon Gekko went to jail because greed fueled his desire to take excessive risks and ultimately to break the law. Although Gekko was a fictional character, he was based on a real-life financier, Ivan Boesky, with a similar history. Boesky was convicted in 1986 for insider trading—some of it brazen and blatant, such as buying large blocks of stock in a company only days before its corporate takeover was announced. He was fined $100 million and sent to federal prison.
Just months before he confessed to his greed-fueled misdeeds, Boesky gave a commencement speech to MBA students at the University of California, Berkeley. He told them: “Greed is alright, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
The jails hold many greedy, covetous people, and the mighty have often fallen because of their greed. On a positive note, after his prison term, Boesky was reported to have embraced the religion of his upbringing and focused on living a more moral life than before.
Although there are many who have not learned the lesson, successful businessmen recognize that greed is not “good” or “healthy,” and that it does not make you “feel good about yourself.” Rather, greed makes you incompetent!An excessive desire for gain causes a person to take unreasonable risks for the available rewards. As a result, greedy people are often unbalanced in business, and they tend to make bad decisions, motivated by a desire to get rich quickly, without exerting the effort required for honest gain. “The desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor. He covets greedily all day long, but the righteous gives and does not spare” (Proverbs 21:25–26).
The Bible states, “Buy the truth, and do not sell it” (Proverbs 23:23). Following that admonition, the Tomorrow’s World magazine, the TomorrowsWorld.org Web site, our telecast and our literature are all offered free to the public—they are not sold. You will never be asked to pay for the materials. They are made possible by the tithes and offerings of those who have voluntarily chosen to become donors and co-workers in proclaiming to all nations Christ’s true Gospel of the coming Kingdom of God.
“God is love,” and giving is inherent in His character. So, His Church too is focused on giving, not getting. To learn more about that Church, read our informative booklets, Where Is God’s True Church Today? and Restoring Original Christianity. You can read them online or request free printed copies at TomorrowsWorld.org, or send your request in writing to the Regional Office nearest you (listed on page 30 of this magazine). What you learn could change your life forever!