“Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry” – such is St Paul’s advice to the believers in Colossae. (Colossians 3:5) There is a part of me that always wants to hear that proclaimed in rhythms and tones of the Southern tent revival preacher. I want to hear the fire and brimstone and feel the steely-eyed glare that I know is aimed at my heart, ready to reveal to all the world that I am but another idolater whose hidden life is contemptible and condemnable. It’s an acquired taste. …not one to likely carry the day at our Mass this morning. As I said: an acquired taste, but there are nonetheless the deadly sins that need to be put to death lest they lead to our eternal death.
In our gospel we have the one known as the rich fool held up to us for our consideration. Jesus’ central warning is: “Take care to guard against all greed for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” (Luke 12:15) Jesus does not condemn the complex realities of aspiration, wealth, growth, inheritance, success, profit, but warns these are potential portals for greed to plant itself in the human heart. The author of our first reading understood that as he wrote: “The covetous are never satisfied with money, nor lovers of wealth with their gain; so this too is vanity” (Ecc 5:9). Such is the bitter irony of greed: it can’t deliver what it promises. As the monk John Cassian noted in the 4th century: “When money increases, the frenzy of covetousness intensifies.” Greed is insatiable. It always wants more. How much more? As John D. Rockefeller admitted, the seductive “just a little bit more.”
Greed is the desire to possess more than we need. We normally associate greed with money, but we can be greedy for many things — for food, fame, sex, or power. Christians have always identified greed or avarice as one of the seven deadly sins. New Testament Greek scholar William Barclay describes greed as an “accursed love of having,” which “will pursue its own interests with complete disregard for the rights of others, and even for the considerations of common humanity.” He labels it an aggressive vice that operates in three spheres of life:
- In the material sphere it involves “grasping at money and goods, regardless of honor and honesty.”
- In the ethical sphere it is “the ambition which tramples on others to gain something which is not properly meant for it.”
- In the moral sphere, it is “the unbridled lust which takes its pleasure where it has no right to take.”
Greed. Avarice. It is out there. No one is immune to its grasp. And still we are left to grapple with the complex realities of aspiration, wealth, growth, inheritance, success, and profit – all of which can be good – and in their right proportion have been praised by popes in their social justice encyclicals. But greed persists – and it has its consequences.
The wages of the deadly sin of greed is death as the rich fool will find out that very evening. “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
What might be the counterpoint, a vaccination against greed? I am not a big fan of “Lord please help me to not be greedy.” The problem might be that it only leaves a void – and nature abhors a void. That void will fill up with something,
I wish today’s second reading had included the next two verses where St. Paul answers the gospel question of what matters to God:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” (Col 3:12-14)
These are the riches that matter to God. If we make our heart a storehouse of this treasure, then we will be truly rich not only in this life, but in the life to come.
In prayer ask God to send the Spirit of holy reminders to begin each day with, “Lord, on this day, help me to recognize the moments when I can be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, patient, and forgiving – even if I am not necessarily feeling those virtues.” Being mindful allows you to practice the virtues anway. Practice becomes the way you think, the way you act, the words you use, the character you develop and the person you become.
It fills up your spiritual storehouse with what matters to God – and then you are truly rich.
Image: “The First Circle of Hell: Greed” by Great Beyond is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.