Some Generous Thoughts on Greed

By Lawrence S. Cunningham | Summer 2010

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Last in a series of reflections on the seven deadly sins


The good Anglo-Saxon word “greed” was almost a synonym for hunger when it was first used. By extension, it became a word that described excessive hunger for food or an inordinate desire for drink. In our modern vocabulary, it is most commonly used to characterize an excessive desire for material goods in general and money in particular. “Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street, because “it works,” and in his judgment, “raises all boats.” That Oliver Stone wrote the script should lead us to the conclusion that the film did not agree with that famous line. Greed is not good.

Greed is listed as one of the seven deadly sins, where it was known by the Latinate word avarice, which always meant an excessive impulse to hoard money or the goods money affords. The miser, of course, is greed’s stereotypic character and rare is the occasion when anyone portrays a sympathetic miser. Indeed, as the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol demonstrates so famously, it is the repentance of the miser that is most frequently held up as an ideal.

However, equating avarice with the miser would miss the point. Becoming a miser is only the extreme outcome of avarice. The Christian moralists have always seen avarice, like gluttony and lust, as sins of excess. The person who is avaricious turns a good thing—the need for goods to sustain one’s self—into a drive to possess more and more for no other end than to possess. In that sense, avarice is a constant bending inward toward the self. It is no wonder, then, that the opposite of avarice, in our traditional catechism, is generosity—the virtue by which we give rather than receive or acquire. After all, St. Paul does not say that money is “the root of all evil;” it is the love of money (I Timothy 6:10) that causes people to stray from the faith.

In Canto VII of the Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil come to the circle where the Prodigal and the Avaricious roll great boulders in a never-ending circle. Dante is quick to note that among the greedy are many who wear the tonsure of clerics, as well as a goodly number of high prelates, including cardinals and popes. Dante’s linking of the sin of avarice with the clergy is a very old trope in Christian literature going back into antiquity. The Church has always been plagued by people who take advantage of their exalted roles for self-aggrandizement in the form of riches.

St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the precise sinfulness of avarice consists in the judgment of someone who considers the acquisition of temporal goods to be preferable to eternal goods. Implicit in that insight is the very testable proposition that temporal goods are, by definition, temporal. Folk wisdom understands that truth in its insistence that “you cannot take it with you.”

Death is the definitive cure for avarice. Jesus tells a very powerful story illustrating the point. He imagines a very rich man who had the good fortune of bringing in (or more precisely, having his slaves bring in) a fabulous harvest. The sheer abundance of the harvest drove him to tear down his granaries and barns to build larger ones for storage. So pleased with himself, he thinks that he is so secure in his accumulated goods that he can “take his ease” and “eat, drink and be merry.” The story ends with these words: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus then drives home the point by saying, “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

Jesus introduces that well-known parable in the Gospel of Luke with the unadorned warning: “Take heed and beware of all covetousness, for a human life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) When greed is considered at its most extreme, what Jesus said is empirically true. We have noted already that the miser is always thought of as miserable.

However, how are we to understand the truth of what Jesus says when we think about a culture in which hedonism and material display are held up as something to which we should aspire? Is it true, as the bumper sticker says, that he who has the most toys, wins? When we live in a society where the basic necessities of shelter, material sustenance, health care and education are assumed (shelter your eyes from the homeless in your town as you read!), when do the markers of success or “the good life” become excessive? Or is it the case if you are a materialist, that slackness in the acquisition of “more” is a fault or a sign of a lack of get-up-and-go?

Our tendency is to think of avarice as a temptation for the individual, but greed can also be a communal fault. We may not think of it as a sin, but we can let ourselves be so concerned with our own well-being that we implicitly become greedy for me or us at the expense of the other. We have already noted that it is the turning in on the self that gives precise character to the so-called deadly sins.

When greed is understood more communally, we can quiz ourselves both as individuals and communities with questions like these: Am I so greedy for powerful cars that I blissfully consume fossil fuels without a thought about the natural world in which I live? Am I so accustomed to cheap fruits and vegetables that I am indifferent to the stooped labor that produces our abundance? Will I cooperate in the devouring of farmland in order to live in a McMansion? Does my self-esteem demand that, debt be damned, my entertainment center be bigger; my vacations be more exotic; my clothing comes only in designer brands; that my portfolio includes dubious holdings?

It is when we begin to ask questions like these that the once-avaricious individual grubbing for money turns complicit, thus becoming an issue of social justice. Behind the pleas of the Church in its social encyclicals for a more equitable sharing of goods with the world, careful readers will detect the sin of avarice.

What is the remedy for avarice? St. Thomas Aquinas says that its opposite virtue is generosity, which he calls liberalitas. At the heart of that Latin word is the idea of freedom. In other words, the generous person is not bound to his or her goods. The traditional expression of liberalitas is almsgiving, but we could easily extend it to mean care of our material goods for the common good; generosity with time for the sake of the other; a certain asceticism with respect to luxury; a keen sense of our debt to those who are poor; enough wisdom to distinguish “enough” from “too much.”

When considering the weight of the sin of greed, it is worthwhile remembering what a careful reading of the Bible shows. Contrary to what we may think, the Scripture writers spend far less time discussing the sins of sex and much more time writing on the dangers of money.