The Pain of Greed

There is a text in the Office of Readings that speaks to the connection between greed, affluence and dissatisfaction.

The foreign elements among them were so greedy for meat that even the Israelites lamented again, “Would that we had meat for food! We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now we are famished; we see nothing before us but this manna.” … [The LORD replied,] “To the people, you shall say: Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow, when you shall have meat to eat. For in the hearing of the Lord you have cried, ‘Would that we had meat for food! Oh, how well off we were in Egypt!’ Therefore, the Lord will give you meat for food, and you will eat it, not for one day, or two days, or five, or ten, or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your very nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have spurned the Lord who is in your midst, and in his presence you have wailed, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’” (Numbers 11:4-6, 18-30)

I have written before about the Israelites preferring slavery in Egypt, with its melons, leeks, and cucumbers (here), but in today’s reflection I would like to emphasize how what we desire can eventually become loathsome to us. The Lord says that not only would He give them the meat they asked for, but that He would do so until it comes out of your very nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. In this way, He reminds us that our greed for earthly things will eventually bring us consequences that disgust us.

What is greed? It is the insatiable desire for more. By it, we desire far more than we need; in fact, we can never be satisfied.

  1. Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is emptiness (Eccles 5:10).
  2. All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied (Ecclesiastes 6:7).
  3. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing (Eccles 1:7-8).
  4. Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, nor are the eyes of man ever satisfied (Proverbs 27:20).

In the passage from Numbers, God fed the people with the miraculous manna from Heaven. However, even food from the very hand of God is not enough for the faithless and the greedy.

The sinful drive of greed will always protest unless we, by God’s grace, learn to curb it. Greed will always make us think that we need more; that we need what we want, in the way that we want it, and exactly when we want it. And if we get all that, we are still not satisfied; we simply become more particular, fussy, and demanding. Indeed, we have never had so many consumer options, comforts, and conveniences; and yet I would say that on the whole we have never been more unhappy. In this age of comfort and convenience, psychotherapy and psychotropic medications are big businesses. Misery indexes, consumer confidence surveys, and opinion polls often show high levels of fear, dissatisfaction, and anger. It is the same with our health. We have never lived so long and been so healthy, yet we have never worried more about our health.

Yes, no matter how much we have, it is never enough; and we are all afflicted with greed to some extent.

Greed is one of the under-confessed sins of our time. It is always the other guy who is greedy, the one who earns more than I do; he is the greedy one.

No, greed is common a human problem, and it takes a heavy toll on us all by robbing us of gratitude, satisfaction, and joy with what we have. Greed robs us of the ability to enjoy life and to savor what is before us.

Even more, God teaches that greed punishes us with the very excess it drives us to desire. God says of this greed that it will sicken us with its excess: until it comes out of your very nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.

What does our present age with its unprecedented comforts and conveniences actually afford us? Stress, overwork, and worry seem to be our common lot. We are all in a big hurry to get somewhere, to get on to the next thing.

Consider a simple thing like a car or a cell phone—great conveniences, right? Yet they seem to bring more stress. Our cars raise the expectation that we should reasonably be all over God’s green acre with little care for the actual human cost of making the trip and sitting in traffic. Our cell phones make us available at any time of the day or night; there is little or no quiet in our lives; relationships are more often virtual than real.

At some point it all starts to seem loathsome to us. We have more and more, the latest and greatest, the most recent upgrade—more and more until it comes out of our nostrils. We start to long for simplicity and for a time before we ever knew we “needed” all this stuff. Yet we cannot imagine how to pull free from so much of it. Life without a cellphone? Life without Facebook? Are you kidding? All of our gadgets and advanced technology have not freed us; they have ensnared us. And still our greed drives us to want more.

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 (Eccles 5:12). And this is largely true. Despite all our labor-saving devices we are busier and more restless than ever.

Yes, God’s word is true. Greed ignites an insatiable desire for more. At some point, God’s remedy is to permit us to obtain so much that it becomes downright loathsome to us; through this we discover that less is more.

Simplicity may be difficult to achieve in times like these. Living in an Amish village is not an option for most of us, but deciding what is important and then focusing on it is a step in the right direction. To an age that cries out” “You can have it all,” we must learn to respond, “No, I can’t. We have to accept that “all” is too much and that less is more.

Affluence and abundance usually seem unambiguously good to us, but they are not; they bring human costs that we too seldom weigh. Scripture says, The rich may be able pay a ransom for their lives, but the poor won’t even get threatened (Prov 13:8). In other words, in our abundance we have too much to lose and so are easily threatened. There is a paradoxical kind of freedom that comes from having and needing less.

God’s Word is true. The text from Numbers above provides wisdom, as does this teaching from the Holy Spirit through St. Paul:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Tim 6:6-10).

This song in the video below says, “It’ll wear you out, dealin’ with too much stuff.”

3 Replies to “The Pain of Greed”

  1. Sr Ann Shields recommended your blog during her ‘Food for the Journey” radio program and I cannot thank her enough. Your meditations are always inspiring and being an “Blessed Cardiologist” in Houston Texas with a lovely wife, 9 children and successful practice, this meditation on Greed was very humbling.
    May you one day become the First American Pope.

  2. When I was young, I read the story by DH Lawrence called the “Rocking Horse Winner”. Nothing was ever going to be enough. I think it played a part in my developing an anti-materialism ‘be satisfied’ mentality in my life.

  3. In a beautiful novena in preparation for consecration to St. Joseph, there is this:

    “Saint Joseph, with you as my spiritual father, I will do my best not to give in to useless anxiety about my job, money, or material things. I believe you will always make sure I have what I NEED (caps mine), and as a good father, I ask that you indulge me a bit by even providing for my material wants, provided they don’t take me away from Jesus.”

    Most of us have all of our needs met these days. For this we should be immensely grateful!

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