Selfishness, Despite Claims To Justify It, Is Not Virtuous

Selfishness, Despite Claims To Justify It, Is Not Virtuous March 10, 2012

We often do things for ourselves and justify it by some sort of “trickle down” theory of goods. If we get what we want, we will be able to help others. If we get what we want, then what we get beyond our desire can be put to use for others. Though this intention can be the foundation for real charity, because it shows someone beginning to think of others, it is not in itself charity. Charity gives of the self to others; this takes for the self, distributing the scraps, justifying the selfishness through a false sense of benevolence. The sin of avarice remains so long as such self-seeking lies behind one’s so-called charity, and indeed, can be served by it:

“The pretext of almsgiving is the start of avarice, and the finish is detestation of the poor. The collector is stirred by charity, but, when the money is in, the grip tightens.”[1]

A prime example of this is found in the book of Job. At first, they appear as if they have come to Job to render to him the charity he needs:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to condole with him and comfort him.  And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven.  And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great (Job 2:11- 13 RSV).

Once Job speaks and complains about the suffering he has suffered, that charity is lost as they seek to defend their own status and justify Job’s sufferings. They act as if they are wise teachers come to reprove him: this is their charity, to tell him what to do in order to get into the good graces of God. Job, like so many of the poor, only has himself to blame. They have come not to help him with what they have, but to tell him how to fix the situation himself. This is exactly the attitude of so many today: they are willing to tell people what to do, and assume that how things worked for them is exactly how things work in the world. The righteous, the worthy, will work hard and find themselves rich; those who are poor are poor because they are lazy sinners. “The core of this teaching, which Eliphaz and his companions expound with unshakeable conviction, is that God punishes the wicked and rewards the upright.” [2] Thus, “Riches and health on the one side, poverty and sickness on the other, are what God decrees, respectively, for those who live virtuously or unvirtuously.”[3] We hear this theme from Job’s friends: Job had to have done something wrong, so he should take their kind advice and repent.  But this does not make sense: if people are poor because of their own wrongdoing, why is there is obligation for the poor, why has God himself shown himself on the side of the poor?  Why is giving to the poor a sign of justice? Job defends himself on the grounds of the compassion he gave to the poor, showing his own sense of obligation to them (cf. Job 29:12 – 17). “The obligation to care for the poor means that the poor are not persons being punished by God (as the doctrine of temporal retribution implicitly asserts), but rather God’s friends.”[4] Avarice teaches us that we are being rewarded for our small good, and thus argues against charity until it teaches us to despise the poor as those who are cursed by God. It rejects God’s obligation to us. Avarice makes us issue a judgment upon others and condemn ourselves because of it.

This is not to say the poor are necessarily righteous. To confuse poverty as righteousness is to follow the same error which sees it as indicative of sin. One who is rich or poor can be filled with avarice. One who has no riches might not be able to manifest their avarice, but once they get it, they practice the same kind of injustice as they once faced when they were impoverished. What is necessary is a heart open for others, a desire to make sure everyone is well off, to seek to fix systems where injustice reigns. We must stop seeking only for ourselves. We must stop reinforcing systems which benefit us if we see so many people are hurt by them. We must stop justifying selfishness by saying others will benefit from it. Only then can we put away avarice and find ourselves turning away from the love of money, the root of all evil.

[1] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 187.

[2] Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, NY: ORBIS Books, 2000), 21.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 40.

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