Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
wonder how many in our country, as well as around the world, make the connection between one of the seven capital passions or sins, greed, also known as avarice, and many of the economic and social problems we see around us? As I mentioned in last month's column, there is a vice that precedes and nourishes greed. Spiritually, it is called pride; psychologically, it may be identified as narcissism, which is inordinate self-love. One of the first and major effects of pride is greed, or avarice. Some may consider themselves so important that they can entertain an unreasonable and unfair desire to acquire or possess more money or material goods than they need. Unfortunately, the consequences of such an attitude can be devastating to those around them.
In March of this year, a popular Sunday evening news program profiled the economic state of families in which the former breadwinner was unemployed. Many had had their homes foreclosed despite great motivation and desire on the part of the breadwinner to work, but who now had no prospect of finding gainful employment. The real tragedy was brought home by scenes of a school bus dropping off children at a sleazy motel wherein whole families slept in one room. One would have to have almost frozen blood in their veins not to weep for the children of these unfortunate families who desperately want just a chance to provide and care for themselves.
Yet, this is not how it is supposed to be. Moses tells us "And if your brother becomes poor, and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall maintain him . . . ." (Lev 25: 35). Moses’ words continue: "If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him..." (Dt 15: 7-8). St. Paul (Col 3:5), summarizing Christ's teaching, likens greed to idol worship: "Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: . . .covetousness, [greed, avarice] which is idolatry." He states this because Jesus taught that what we value the most, what we truly worship, springs from the depth of our hearts. Jesus’ teaching is, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Mt. 6: 21).
As I have noted in previous articles, care for those who cannot help themselves is not just a Judeo-Christian teaching. The Bhagavad-Gita notes: “Hell has three gates: lust, anger, and greed.” This echoes Buddha's saying: “There is no fire like passion, there is no shark like hatred, there is no snare like folly, there is no torrent like greed.”
Our Eastern Church Spiritual Father Evagrios the Solitary warns us of the complexity of this passion. For example, it is possible that someone " pretends to be steward and a lover of the poor," but in their heart entertains "avaricious thoughts" and inflated "self-esteem." (Philokalia I). This spiritual perception underscores the need for all to be aware of the deep motives of their actions, even of those that appear to be under the guise of the virtue of generosity. As St. Isaac the Syrian (Wensinck, 1923) informs us, "...without the prudence of the heart...the godly man cannot refrain from showing his love, in the performance of manifest deeds."
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.
Wensinck, A. J. (ed., trans.) (1923). Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh. Amsterdam, Holland: Koninklijke Akademie Van Wetenschappen.