One of the more underreported sins is greed. It is easy to conclude that greed is something manifested by “that other person,” who has more than I do. Yes, that rich guy over there, the one who earns a dollar more per hour than I do; he’s greedy, but I’m not.
Honestly, does any one of us ever come to a point in our life when we say, “I earn more than enough money. I’ll just give the rest away”? Not on your life!
Almost never would such a thought even occur to the average person. Instead, most of us respond to a pay increase, for example, by expanding our lifestyle and continuing to complain that we don’t have enough. At some point, we ought to admit that we do cross over into greed.
What is greed? It is the insatiable desire for more. St Thomas says, Man seeks, according to a certain measure, to have external riches, in so far as they are necessary for him to live in keeping with his condition of life. Wherefore it will be a sin for him to exceed this measure, by wishing to acquire or keep them immoderately. This is what is meant by covetousness, which is defined as "immoderate love of possessing." (S.T. II, IIae, q. 118 art 1) It is a deep drive in us that, no matter how much we have, makes us think that it’s not enough. We still want more, and then if we get more we want more still.
Familiar though this sounds, too few of us are willing to consider that greed is really a problem for us. It’s the other guy who’s greedy.
Of course it doesn’t help that we live in a culture of consumption, which constantly tells us that we don’t have enough. Commercials tell us that the car we’re driving isn’t as good as this other one we could be driving. So even though we have a perfectly good car, one with four wheels, a working engine, and probably even air conditioning, it still it isn’t good enough. So it is with almost every other product or amenity that is sold to us on a daily basis. The clever marketing experts of Madison Avenue are great at making us feel deprived. As a result, it almost never occurs to most of us that we may have crossed the line into greed. Despite having even six- and seven-figure incomes, many still feel that they don’t have enough.
This is all the more reason that we should spend some time reflecting on the nature of greed. Greed is one of the deadly sins, and it brings with it a kind of blindness that causes us to mistake mere wants for needs. As we entertain this illusion, there’s very little to prompt us to consider that we actually have more than enough. There’s very little to cause me to say, “Gee, I've gotten greedy” or to work toward curbing this insatiable desire for more.
When do I honestly look at myself and wonder if I am greedy? When do I ever conclude that I have more than enough and need to be more generous with what has become excessive in my life? When do I ever apply the old precept that if I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor? It’s a good idea to have something saved up for a rainy day, but do I ever ask myself if I’m really trusting in God or just in my rainy-day fund? When do I ever wonder if I’ve crossed the line into greed?
Like all of the seven deadly or capital sins, greed sees many other sins flow from it. St. Thomas lists a number of these sins, which he calls the “daughters of greed.” They are: fraud, lying, perjury, dissatisfaction (restlessness), violence, and hardheartedness. (see, S.T. II, IIae, q. 118 art 8). For, as St Thomas says, greed can create in us a kind of insensibility to mercy. Since by greed we adopt a certain passion to acquire and possess, often rooted in a kind of fear. Thus we focus unreasonably on our needs and do not advert to the needs of others. Greed can therefore lead individuals and nations to a hardheartedness and cruelty or violence in order to possess what we do really even need. It can lead us to be will to lie, or commit fraud for financial gain. Finally, as Thomas notes, greed makes us restless and anxious since, whatever we have it is never enough. Further, despite its false promises, wealth does not bring peace, it increases our anxiety. As regards this, Scripture says, The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners. (Eccl 5:12-13)
Of the virtues that are medicine for greed surely generosity is the chief virtue, followed closely by gratitude. For indeed, we already have so much fro which to be grateful and when our focus is there a kind of joy permeates our soul that makes us more generous and kind to others. Another virtue that is key is trust and Faith in God. For, when we trust God through faith we are less concerned about the needs of tomorrow, Providence will provide. This is turn assists the fruitful virtue of peace. Mercy and love are also virtues that open us to the needs of others. And as always, prudence will assist us in knowing the measure of what we really need and what is excessive.
Let me assure you that I do not write this post from a political perspective. I do not want the government mandating how much I may or should earn nor how much I may or should give away. I am referring to a personal, moral assessment that we all should make.
I also do not write as an economist. I realize that market-based economies are complex and that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with meeting people’s needs with products and services. I am also aware that markets supply jobs, but still I must insist that we all ask ourselves some personal questions about limits. We cannot simply conclude that greed is the other guy’s problem.
Greed is one of the seven deadly sins; we ought to take it more seriously than many of us do. There’s room for most of us to reflect on one of the most underreported sins: greed.