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Greek Word Study - Greed

Socrates and Glaucon, the brothers of Plato, were arguing whether it was natural or unnatural for people to do the right thing. Glaucon took the position that even good men would act in their own selfish interest if they thought they could get away with it. To prove his case, he recalled the legend of a shepherd who found a golden ring that could make him invisible. When the shepherd was invisible, he seduced the king’s wife and stole the king’s wealth.

“Now what if there were two such rings?” suggested Glaucon. If a just man wore one ring and an unjust man wore the other, neither would be able to resist stealing in the public market. Every man, argued Glaucon, has a “desire for more” and only strict laws keep the just from behaving exactly like the unjust. It is only natural, he said, for men to be guided by their greed.

The Greek word that means “desire for more” or “greed” is pleonexia (pleh oh nex EE ah). It is made up of three parts: pleon (“more”), ex (“have”), and ia (ness). A super literal translation of the word would be “have-more-ness.” In other words, whatever I have now, I want more. Whatever you have, I want more than that, too. And when I get all that, I still want more!

The New Testament twice warns that pleonexia is idolatry (Col 3:5; Eph 5:5). William Barclay says pleonexia was actually the reason the average person in ancient times practiced idolatry. “A man sets up an idol and worships it because he desires to get something out of God. To put it bluntly, he believes that by his sacrifices and his gifts and his worship, he can persuade, or even bribe God into giving him what he desires.”

In our times pleonexia is the engine that drives modern materialism. It is the underlying sin of rampant consumerism. For many, it is the American way of life. But Jesus wisely warns us to resist falling into this kind of greediness: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of pleonexia; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).