Our culture worships "success", often defined in avaricious terms. If gluttony is a socially acceptable sin, greed or avarice seems to be socially required.
WICHITA, Kansas (Catholic Online) - Our letter box is usually full -- full of catalogs, that is. My husband threatens to tip the mail carrier to deliver them right to the dumpster. My mother and I used to jokingly call them lust-a-logs, because they excite what St. John called the lust of the eyes and the desire to possess (1Jn 2:16).
Greed or Avarice brings to mind many portraits from literature: Silas Marner hiding his beloved gold coins in the floor of his cottage or Ebenezer Scrooge whose business occupied him constantly. Avarice, however, fuels not only the miser's stinginess, but prodigal spending as well.
Magazines make us discontent with what we have and entice us to want more than we can afford. Driven by advertising, we are anxious to possess and to hold onto our possessions once we have them. Anyone in the grip of avarice becomes a slave to the maintenance, organization, storage, care and keeping of the quantities of things they own.
Our culture worships "success," often defined in avaricious terms. If gluttony is a socially acceptable sin, avarice seems to be socially required. It is the engine of our consumptive society. We work long hours, sacrificing family and friends, in order to achieve the level of salary and ownership we believe will satisfy this idol, but the rat race distracts us from the most important things in life, leaving us alone and empty. When the economy collapses and our rewards are not forthcoming, we are outraged.
Possessions give the illusion of self-sufficiency, but the more we reach for security, the further off it slips. In fact, we are absolutely dependent on God for our very being and for everything we have. Jesus gave us a stark choice. We can love either God or Mammon, but not both (Mt 7:24). Indeed, he said, it is "easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God" (Mt 19.24).
Is Jesus saying that everyone should be dirt poor, not knowing if they will be able to feed their children the next day? No. The problem is not with the possessions per se, but with the preoccupation with those possessions, with trusting our bank accounts instead of trusting God. Avarice is the inordinate love of temporal things, not things themselves. The proper response to avarice is a balanced use of the good things God has given us.
Like all the deadly sins, avarice is a temptation for every person, not just the wealthy. It is possible for the poor to be slaves of avarice, if they are filled with a grasping desire for money or if they store up possessions (however inexpensive) beyond their actual need.
Jesus offers liberation from this vice. The Good News is that our worth is conferred by God, not by our achievements or possessions. This is a balm to the hearts of all who are riddled with anxiety about their place in the world. Jesus specifically tells us not to be anxious about our lives, because God knows and will provide what we need (perhaps less than we want) for ourselves and our family (Mt 7:25-33).
These blessings come with a responsibility to share with those who are in need. The avaricious heart is often hardened against the needs of the poor, even the poor in their own family.
I recently read in the Wall Street Journal a story about the elderly thrust back into the work place at 80 or 90 years old, including mothers who had raised large families. I couldn't help but wonder - where are their children? Why are these women left to fend for themselves? What selfishness could allow this? If families won't help each other, who will they help?
There are ways to soften this hard heartedness and break the power of avarice. Almsgiving, which should be a regular practice, is given greater emphasis during Lent. We are asked not only to eat less (fasting) but to consume less in general and then to share the extra with those in need. Like the rich man, we are called to share with Lazarus, wherever we find him.
A second practice, one we might not think of immediately, is to keep holy the Lord's Day. Keeping this day as a day apart, reminds us on a weekly basis that, like the manna in the desert, all that we are and all that we have comes from God. As a day of rest from the business of gathering what we need to live, we step off the merry-go-round and remember that "In vain is your earlier rising and going later to your sleep, when He showers down his blessings on his beloved while he sleeps" (Ps 127, Grail).
The Lord's Day, properly observed, breaks the hold of avarice as we turn our minds from preoccupation with material things, to the Lord who is the author of our being, and as we gratefully share ourselves, our love, our time and our blessings with others.
Jeri Holladay writes from Wichita, Kansas, where she has been Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center of the Diocese of Wichita, Associate Professor of Theology, Chairman of the Theology Department and founding Director of the Bishop Eugene Gerber Institute of Catholic Studies at Newman University. She teaches moral theology and church history and is a contributing writer for Catholic Online.
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