One of the more underreported sins is greed. Too easily do we conclude that greed is always about “that other person over there,” who appears to have a little more than I do. Yes, that rich guy over there, the one who earns a dollar more per hour than I do; he is greedy, but I’m not.
But honestly, for all of us, when do we ever come to a place in our life when we say, “I’m earning more than enough money, I’ll just give the rest away to the poor, or to some worthy cause.” Do most people ever come to that point? Not on your life! Consider a man who earns a million dollars a year. When does he ever say, “Honestly, I really only need about $200,000 a year to live very well; I think I’ll just give the other $800,000 away”?
Almost never would such a thought even occur to the average person. Instead, most of us just expand our lifestyle and go on complaining that we still don’t have enough. Yet somewhere along the line, we ought to admit that we do cross over into greed.
What is greed? Greed is the insatiable desire for more. It is a deep drive in us that, no matter how much we have, makes us think it’s not enough. We still want more. And then we get more and we still want more. And the cycle continues. This is the experience of greed.
But, familiar though this is, too few of us are willing to consider that greed is really a problem we can have. Greed is always something that other guy has.
Of course it doesn’t help that we live in a culture of consumption, which constantly tells us we don’t have enough. The car we’re driving isn’t as good as this other car we could be driving (according to the commercial). And so even though we have a perfectly good car: one that has four wheels, a working engine, and probably even air-conditioning, it still it isn’t good enough, and we are actually drawn to feeling deprived by the clever marketing experts of Madison Avenue. So it is with almost every other product or amenity that is sold to us on a daily basis. Therefore it almost never occurs to most of us that we may have crossed the line somewhere into greed. Despite having even six- and seven-figure incomes, many still feel deprived.
But this is all the more reason that we should spend some time reflecting on the nature of greed. Greed is a deep drive of sin, one of the deadly sins, and it brings with it a kind of blindness and illusion that causes us to mistake mere wants for true needs. And as we entertain the illusion that mere wants are actually serious needs, there’s very little to trigger in us the thought that we actually have more than enough. There is very little to cause me to say, “Gee, I’ve gotten greedy” or to work to curb the insatiable desire for more that we call greed.
Once again, it’s the other guy that’s greedy; I’m not. It’s a problem that those nasty rich and powerful people have. Never mind that I’m pretty darned rich myself, living in a home with running water, air conditioning, and amenities like granite countertops and widescreen TVs.
Frankly, when was the last time you heard a sermon on greed? And if you did, it was probably the priest talking about some abstract group of people (not present, of course) who probably also hold the “wrong” political opinions, etc. Yes, greed is always somebody else’s problem.
But when do I honestly look at myself and wonder if I am greedy? When do I ever conclude, on a very personal level, that I have more than enough and that I need to be a lot 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? And yes, I understand that it’s good to have something laid up for a rainy day. But when do I ever ask myself if I’m really trusting in God, or just trusting in my rainy day fund? When do I ever wonder if I’ve crossed the line?
I realize that some of you who read this post will find it disturbing. Let me assure you, so do I. These are uncomfortable questions.
Let me also assure you that I do not write this post from a political perspective. I do not want the government mandating how much I can or should earn, and how much I can or should give away. I speak here of a very 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 here again I must insist that somewhere we all ought to ask some personal questions about limits. We cannot simply conclude that greed is always the other guy’s problem.
Greed is one of the seven deadly sins, and so we ought to take it more seriously than many of us do. Yes, somewhere there’s room for most of us to reflect on one of the most underreported sins: greed.