According to Church teachings, there are seven deadly sins. Do you remember them? They are anger, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth and greed. These sins are deadly because they can lead us into even greater sins.
I think this is especially true of greed. How many news stories do we read about lives destroyed because of a person’s greed for money, or power or possessions? Their greed leads them to theft, extortion and even murder.
The seriousness of greed may also explain why the tenth commandment is so wordy compared to the other five commandments that address interpersonal relationships. The others are written in simple language: You shall honor your father and your mother; you shall not kill, steal, commit adultery or bear false witness against your neighbor.
But the tenth commandment goes into much greater detail. In Exodus it says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male or female slave, nor his ox or ass, nor anything else that belongs to him.” That doesn’t leave much room for personal interpretation, does it?
The seriousness of greed moved Jesus to warn the crowd in today’s gospel: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Unfortunately, that message conflicts with most of the messages of our modern society. In the 1987 movie “Wall Street”, the character played by Michael Douglas delivered a speech that has become legend. He said, “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 its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, [for] knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed, you mark my words, will save…that…malfunctioning corporation called the U.S.A.” So, is greed “deadly”, or is greed good?
Last Monday, I celebrated my 57th birthday. The days of my youth are long gone, and I hope to retire in eight to ten years. The prospect of retirement is a little scary economically, so as my birthday approached, I took a good look at my pension plan and 401K accounts. I couldn’t help but think about how much more money I should have in the account to be financially independent in retirement, and how I might go about saving more for those years ahead. I also thought about the money I should have invested but used for other things that now seem less important. I no longer have another twenty or thirty years to save for retirement. I need to find a way to get more money, or securities or real estate so that I can be more financially secure in my retirement. Is that greed?
Does that sound like the man in today’s gospel? I think this fellow may get a bad rap from the evangelists. He’s called “The Rich Fool”, but I think he’s a lot like most of us. He’s planning for his future. Sure he’s going to have to tear down old barns and build bigger ones, but so what? Is that any different from me planning for my retirement? Don’t we all have hopes that we will be able to rest, eat, drink and be merry for many years? So what’s wrong with this guy? Is he really a fool? Or is he just a prudent planner, and what’s the difference between the two?
Part of the difference is underscored in the way greed is addressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It says that greed is “An inordinate attachment to the goods of creation.”
The important word is “attachment”. Having a nice home, a nice car or a great wardrobe is not necessarily a problem. Owning securities or a vacation home in the mountains is not inherently bad. The problem comes when we no longer own these things, but instead, they own us. If we become so caught up in acquiring and owning things, the proper place of “things” in our lives becomes distorted. I think that’s why the rich man in the gospel is called a fool. If we look closely at the language he uses, it reveals who is at the center of his universe. It’s him.
In three sentences, the Rich Fool uses words of personal reference, like “I”, “my”, or “myself” 15 times! Listen to it again: “He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”
The rich man had no sense that everything he had was a gift from God. In Bishop Robert Morneau’s article, “Theology of Stewardship”, he wrote, “All is gift for those who see life with the eyes of faith. God gives us our existence and talents, our time and our treasure, our family and friends.” That illuminates the big lie of the “greed is good” philosophy. That philosophy tells us that our hard work and dedication to the attainment of “things” determines what we will acquire and those “things” will lead to happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. If it were simply hard work that dictated ones personal wealth, migrant farm workers would own the biggest houses on the block.
As a child I worked in the cherry orchards of Northern Michigan alongside migrant workers, and I’ve never seen anyone work harder than they did. Their material blessings were few, but most were kind people who always wore a smile. Entire families worked together, and their love for one another was obvious. Perhaps they had a better sense of perspective, an understanding of what was really important in their lives. I can’t help believe that they wanted more, but they didn’t seem to be attached to material things. At most Sunday masses, the migrants would swell the population of our church. In spite of the language barrier, most came to mass. God was very much a part of their lives. If they coveted any of their neighbor’s possessions, it was not apparent.
So let’s agree that greed is not good, no matter how handsome or persuasive Michael Douglas was in the movie “Wall Street”. Frederick Koenig, the inventor of the high speed printing press said, “ We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” How true! Let’s understand that greed is truly a deadly sin that we need to reject in our thoughts and lives. It’s hard work, but with God’s help, we can live lives of grateful generosity.
With that in mind, I want to share with you a Native American proverb that addresses greed.
A Native American grandfather talking to his young grandson tells the boy he has two wolves inside of him struggling with each other. The first is the wolf of peace, love and kindness. The other wolf is fear, greed and hatred. "Which wolf will win, grandfather?" asks the young boy. "Whichever one I feed," is the reply.
So which inner wolf will we feed? Will we feed our attachment to things or our gratitude for all we have? Will we feed the pursuit of things we’re told we need, or will we bless others by sharing what we have? In the end, we get to choose which wolf wins. If the wolf of greed wins, we lose. If the wolf of love and generosity wins, all of us together will experience a little bit of heaven on earth.