On Covetousness or Avarice

On Covetousness or Avarice March 14, 2019
Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Vices – Avarice / WikimediaCommons

And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk. 12:15 RSV).

Covetousness, the desire to possess the world and dominate it, forcing it to be a slave to one’s own desires instead of seeing it as a gift of God to be shared by all, is one of the great sins which we must overcome. It leads us far away from God, generating, in its acceptance, more and more sin, more and more distance between us and God. Its gravity is great, allowing those who knowingly accept its directions to fall into mortal sin.

Jesus was clear, we must avoid undue attachments to earthly goods, especially when such attachments takes away from the those in need.  This is why St. Cyril of Alexandria could say that “… it is not the habit of the saints to rejoice over worldly riches.”[1]

Those who are close to Jesus, those who follow him, will follow him in justice, seeking the just distribution of goods instead of inordinate attachment to goods which others need. The desire for what is beyond necessity, indeed, for what is beyond moderate excess, but for absolute abundance leads us to take what should not be taken, to fight against those who are in need so that we can try to satisfy our inordinate desire (a desire which will never be satisfied).

We might think our desires are modest, that we do not suffer from the sin of covetousness, otherwise known as avarice. But the saints warn us to know ourselves and to see if this is really true.  Scripture tells us clearly that the love of money leads us away from the faith: “For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1Tim. 6:10 RSV). Indeed, covetousness, manifested especially in the love of money, is idolatrous, making money (and the possessions indicated by such wealth) the center of our heart, closing us from Christ. As Nikitas Stithatos wrote, the love of Christ cannot be sustained in the heart trapped by the love for money:

If you love money you do not love Christ; if you do not love Christ, but love money, think to whose likeness that tyrant will reduce you: it will make you like the disciple who was unfaithful, who appeared to be a friend but was a traitor, who acted viciously towards the Master of All, and who fell miserably from both faith and love, plunging into the depths of despair. Fear his example and listen to my counsel: spurn money and love for money, so that you may gain the love of Christ. If not, you know the place prepared for those who have fallen.[2]

Many of us think we are far from the taint of avarice. Yet, how true is it? St. Maximos the Confessor tells us that if we take from others with joy but find it difficult to give without sorrow, we are fettered by avarice: “The passion of avarice is discovered when a man receives with joy but gives away with sorrow.”[3] Likewise, the more we possess, the more we take for ourselves, halting the free distribution of goods, the more we show ourselves far from justice and therefore far from grace as we take unjustly from those in need. “For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.”[4] It is those in need who suffer the most from the greed of others.  The saying goes: it takes money to make money, but those in need do not have money and those who have it, will use it to generate more money by taking away from the resources of the needy. Greed is destructive as those who seek the abundance of earthly goods will never be satisfied with what they have, and so they will constantly take and take and take from those poorer than they, fighting over the resources, making sure none can overtake them so as not to suffer their own goods being taken away. Thus, those in need will suffer more want, including the loss of life. Great imbalances of wealth lead to death because those who seek wealth will do whatever they can to satisfy their greed. The death of others will not be a concern for those trapped by avarice, which is why St. Peter Damien called the greedy no better than murderers:

For if there is nothing more abominable or more wicked than a greedy man, he is therefore no better than a murderer, he is not preferred to those who practice incest, he is on par with heretics, and is put in the same class with idolaters. And so the Apostle says, “Greed is nothing less than idolatry.” Therefore, even though a man be pure and temperate, involved in feeding the poor, and dedicated to practicing hospitality; even though he may fast, meditate long hours, and chant the psalms day and night: if he is an avaricious person, he loses all this, so that among all criminals no one worse than him can be found. And so it was said above. “Nothing is more abominable than a greedy man, there is nothing more wicked than the love of money.” Hence, what good is it not to commit murder or adultery, not to steal or perjure oneself, and to be wholly on guard against every crime? For, so long as you do not rid yourself of avarice, there is nothing more abominable, nothing worse than you.[5]

Avarice will blind those who follow its pursuits. They will try to justify themselves. Many will think that if they do nothing directly against the poor and needy, they are not responsible for what happens. And yet, they are, for the means by which they get their wealth creates economic structures which hinder the poor from gaining economic freedom.

Not all forms of such greed are the same. There are many levels of greed, as St. Anthony of Padua explained:

And note that avaricious greed is of three kinds. Some bite in such a way as to take just a part, not the whole. Others are like the canine teeth: lawyers and legal experts who for a fee will bark like dogs in any cause. Others are like morals, the powerful and usurers who grind the poor.[6]

The more we let ourselves be taken in by greed, the worse our greed will be. When we begin by “taking just a part,” we seek to justify ourselves, saying we have not done much wrong because we have left our victims with some of their goods and resources. But just as those who begin to eat in excess will find themselves eating more and more if they do not stop their gluttonous activities, so those who begin to unjustly take from the needs of others to satisfy their desire for an abundance of goods will find themselves slowly becoming worse and worse, until they become rich and powerful, grinding away and destroying the needy. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian warned:

Let us not struggle to amass and hoard fortunes while others struggle in poverty, lest from one direction the divine Amos reproach us with these harsh and ominous words, Come now, you who say, When will the new moon be over, that we may sell, and the Sabbath, that we may open our treasures? along with the words that follow, which hold the threat of God’s wrath over the heads of those who possess a large and small weight…[7]

What God is said to hate (understanding, of course, the term hate is metaphoric, for God does not possess any unwholesome passions), is injustice. In Proverbs, we are told to avoid all forms of injustice, equating them with abominations:

There are six things which the LORD hates, seven which are an abomination to him:  haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and a man who sows discord among brothers.  My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching (Prov. 6:16-20 RSV).

Avarice turns us away from the charity which we should have for others. Without such charity, we will lose the desire to treat others justly. Our eyes will be haughty, looking for things to dominate or possess, whether or not it is good and just for us to have them. We will shed innocent blood for what we want, either directly if we think we can get away with it and our conscience has been so deadened that we feel no remorse, or indirectly, as we let the structures of society allow the people we unjustly take from waste away from the lack of goods and services which they need. We will devise many ways to attain more and more goods, ignoring that the excess we have is not really ours, but unjustly taken from others. So long as we let the sin of avarice remain within us, we risk following its directives, turning us away from all justice as it burns away our humanity:

Passion for gold seethes more ardently in the human heart than furnaces burn with all their fire; and it dissolves the human being from within more fiercely than it melts in the heat of flames. The master of cruelty, a savage enemy, wounds by loving, makes naked by enriching; even a mere glance at it holds one captive, breaks faith, does violence to affection, wounds charity, disturbs the peace, carries of innocence, teaches theft, prompts trickery, and commands robbery.[8]

We must, therefore, fight covetousness. To do this, we must focus on love, both for God and for our neighbor, seeking to give instead of to receive. This is not easy. But we can begin simply by giving alms. Fasting is not enough. If we fast without charity, it will be useless; but if we begin to give alms, if we begin to give, we will begin the process of transforming ourselves and through such a transformation, we will want to work for justice and do what we can for its establishment. That is, covetousness is able to be overcome by the virtue of charity; if we do not want to risk the consequences of avarice, we must establish a generous, loving spirit. If we abide in love, we will have life; otherwise, we will find ourselves spiritually dead, corrupted by the power of mammon.


[1] St. Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on the Pentateuch. Volume I: Genesis. Trans. Nicholas P. Lunn (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018), 126.

[2] Nikitas Stithatos, “On the Inner Nature of Things,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Four. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al. (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 122-3.

[3] St. Maximus the Confessor, “Four Centuries on Charity” in St. Maximus. Trans. Polycarp Sherwood O.S.B., S.T.D. (New York: Newman Press, 1955), 187,

[4] St. Basil the Great, “To the Rich” in On Social Justice. trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2009), 43.

[5] St Peter Damien, The Letters of Peter Damian 91-120. trans. Owen J. Blum, O.F.M. (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1998), 72-3.

[6] St. Anthony of Padua, Sermons for Sundays and Festivals. Volume II. trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padova: Edizioni Messaggero Padova, 2007), 296-7.

[7] St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Select Orations. Trans. Martha Vinson (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 57.

[8] St. Peter Chrysologus. Selected Sermons, Volume 2. trans. William B. Palardy (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2004). 120-121.

 

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