“Let no one overreach or defraud others in this matter.” A Meditation on the Scriptural Connection between Sexual Immorality, Greed, and Theft.
Over the years, as I have taught on the matter of sexual morality to both young people and couples preparing for marriage, I have noticed a pattern in the Biblical texts: sexual immorality is quite often linked to or closely associated with greed and theft. This link has become clearer and more understandable to me over the years.
Greed is the excessive desire to possess wealth or goods; it is the insatiable desire for more. This is closely linked to lust, which is an inordinate desire for the pleasures of the body.
Thus, the lustful, sexually immoral, unrepentant person says, in effect, “I want sexual pleasure for myself. I do not want to pay any ‘price’ for it by having to see it in relationship to other goods and people. I do not want to see it in relationship to the institution of marriage, or to the love of a spouse, or to family, or to children. I do not want commitments or responsibilities. I want to indulge in sex because I want it. All that matters is that I want it.”
Many go further in accepting few, if any limits on what they want, despising norms that in any way seek to limit their access to sex, or to place it in a wider, more responsible context.
For many today, sex is simply something they want. And the mere fact that they want it makes it right. Never mind that lust and sexual immorality have had devastating effects on marriage and family, that as promiscuity has soared so have divorce rates, abortion, single parent families, children without intact families, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, broken hearts, and the like. Never mind all this. For many, wanting sex makes it right, and precludes anyone from “telling them what to do.”
And this is greed, the insatiable desire for more, or the inordinate desire for things such that they are considered apart from wider norms that limit desires within the boundaries of what is reasonable and in service of the common good. Greed cares little for the common good, for the needs and rights of others. Greed just wants what it wants. Lust is very close to greed in that it is also an inordinate desire, one for bodily pleasures apart from any consideration of the needs of others or of what it just, right, and reasonable.
Let’s take a look at some of the texts wherein the Scriptures seem to connect greed and sexual immorality. Commentary by me on each of them follows in red.
1. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people….For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person….has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Eph 5:3,5)
The connection here between greed and fornication (porneia), translated here as sexual immorality, is not spelled out. Reading the text by itself might permit the possibility that it is only coincidentally connected to sexual immorality. But as seen below there are a good number of other texts that connect sexual immorality to similar notions of greed and covetousness. Hence, we ought to note the connection. That the connection was not developed or explained may signal to us that the early Christians saw the connection as more implicit and obvious than we moderns do.
2. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)
Here the list is broadened to include lust and all evil desires. These are connected in the text to greed, and greed in turn is equated with idolatry.
Idolatry values someone or something in a way that hinders or surpasses the love, trust, and obedience we owe to God. It wants the thing, rather than God who made the thing. Through greed, we excessively desire things, such as sex, money, power, and creature comforts, and they take on greater importance to us than God, or what God sets forth for us to obey. Through greed, these things become idols, since they surpass God in importance to us. We prefer them to God; we obey our desires more than God. God can take a number and wait, I want what I want, and that is all that matters.
For many today, and apparently for many back in the time when these texts were written, sex is more important than God, hence the connection to greed.
3. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. (Ex 20:17)
The 6th Commandment had already forbidden the act of adultery. But note here, how this commandment goes deeper, indicating that we are not to covet. In speaking of what it means to covet the Catechism says: The sensitive appetite leads us to desire pleasant things we do not have…These desires are good in themselves; but often they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him. The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit…..When the Law says, “You shall not covet,” these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: “He who loves money never has money enough.” (CCC # 2535-2536).
Hence, to covet the wife of another includes both a sexual desire for her and a greed that wants to have her.
4. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, (Mk 7:21)
Here again, note that in a verse that includes fornication and adultery, is also included the word theft, referring to the unjust possession of something. The fornicator and the adulterer both steal what does not belong to them. Sexual intimacy belongs to the marriage bed alone. Hence, the unmarried person and the adulterer both take what is not theirs. Clearly, antecedent to most, if not all theft, is greed.
5. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man overreach and defraud his brother in this matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thes 4:3-8).
This text not only links sexual immorality to greed, but also to theft, and in a wider sense injustice. For, to fail to live chastely both overreaches and defrauds.
The Greek word here translated as overreach is υπερβαινειν (huperbainein). This word means, “to go over,” to overpass certain limits, to transgress, to go too far, to go beyond what is right or due. Hence again we can see how greed is tied into sexual immorality; for it is desire overreaching, going too far, beyond what is reasonable, due, or right. The lustful person is greedy because he wants what he wants no matter if it is excessive or wrong. All that matters is that he wants it. And this is greed.
The word translated here as “defraud” πλεονεκτει (pleonektei) is related to covetousness and greed since it emphasizes gain as the motive of fraud. Thus, sexually immoral persons defraud others: the sexual partner, families, and society as a whole. They do this by thinking more of what they want than of what is right, or of how it might harm others. They act fraudulently, for they act as though they are married when they are not, and they do this in order to steal the privileges of marriage.
6. Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)
Again, simply note that sexually immoral persons are numbered among or alongside thieves and swindlers. They are akin to thieves for they take what does not belong to them, and they swindle because they obtain through deceit. The deceit is that they implicitly claim the status of married persons by seizing the privileges and rights of marriage without taking up its duties.
Hence, the mention of thieves and swindlers along with the sexually immoral may not be coincidental, but may imply “birds of a feather.”
7. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Let your manners be without covetousness, contented with such things as you have; for God has said: I will not leave you, neither will I forsake you. (Heb 13:4-5)
In other words, don’t be greedy and steal the privileges of the marriage bed through adultery, premarital sex, or any indulgence of sexual pleasure outside marriage. If you are not married, it is not yours. If you are married, it is yours only with your spouse. Be content with what you have and stop being greedy or covetous.
Hence, we see demonstrated a rather consistent scriptural connection between sexual immorality, greed and theft.
Sexual intimacy is a prerogative and privilege of marriage. It exists to build up marriage, to encourage recourse to marriage, and to help knit husband and wife together in a fruitful love. To snatch sex away from its only proper place is to possess unjustly that which is not yours; it is theft. And scripture connects this stealing with greed and covetousness. Greed is the excessive desire to possess, beyond what is just or reasonable. If this desire is yielded to, we take what is not ours simply because we want it.
Many today claim that they can do as they please in terms of sexuality and many even boast of their sexual freedom and exploits. The entertainment media celebrate sexual freedom. But it would appear that Scripture sees such sexual exploits not as liberation, but rather as theft and greed.
It is true that some act in weakness. Some fall, but are repentant. Surely, God is rich in mercy for such souls as these.
But as for those who celebrate sexual immorality, they ought to consider that what they call good, God calls sin, God calls greed, God calls theft.
For those willing to see, God is waiting and God is willing.