On the Connection between Greed, Theft and Sexual Immorality

Over the years, as I have taught on the matter of sexual morality, to both young people and also couples getting ready for marriage, I have noticed a pattern in the Biblical texts: sexual immorality is quite often linked or closely associated with references to greed and theft. This link has become clearer and more understandable to me over the years. For, greed is excessive desire to possess wealth or goods, it is the insatiable desire for more. This is closely linked to lust which is an inordinate desire for the pleasures of the body.

Thus the lustful, the sexually immoral and unrepentant person says, in effect: I want sexual pleasure for myself. I do not not want to pay any “price” for it by seeing it in relationship to other goods and people. I do not want to see it in relationship to the institution of marriage, or the love of a spouse,  or family, or children. I do not want commitments or responsibilities. I merely indulge in sex because I want it. All that matters is that I want it.

Many go further to accept few limits on what they want, despising norms that in any way seek to limit their access to sex, or to place it in a wider and more responsible context.

For many today, sex is simply something they want. And merely the fact that they want it makes it right. Never mind that lust and sexual immorality have had devastating effects on marriage and family, that as promiscuity has soared so have divorce rates, abortion, single parent families, children without intact families, AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, broken hearts, and the like. Never mind all this. For many, the merely the fact that they want sex makes it right and excludes any one “telling them what to do.”

And this is greed, the insatiable desire for more, or the inordinate desire for things, such that they are considered apart from wider norms that limit desires with the boundaries of what is reasonable and in service of the common good. Greed cares little for the common good, for the needs and rights of others. Greed just wants what it wants. Lust is very close to greed in that it is also and inordinate desire for bodily pleasures apart from any consideration of the needs of others or of what it just, right and reasonable.

Let’s take a look at some of the texts wherein the Scriptures seemingly connect greed and sexual immorality. Commentary by me on each of them follows in red.

1. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people….For of this you can be sure: No sexually immoral, impure or greedy person….has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Eph 5:3,5)

The connection here between greed and fornication (porneia), translated here as sexual immorality,  is not spelled out. Reading the text by itself might permit the possibility that it is only coincidentally connected to sexual immorality. But as seen below there are a good number of texts that connect sexual immorality to similar notions of greed and covetousness. Hence we ought to note the connection. That the connection was not developed or explained my signal us that the early Christians saw the connection as more implicit and obvious that we moderns.

2. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5)

Here the list is broadened to include lust, and all evil desires. These are connected in the text to greed, and greed in turn is equated to idolatry.

Idolatry values something or someone in a way that hinders or surpasses the love, trust and obedience we owe to God. It wants the thing, rather than God who made the thing. Through greed we excessively desire things, such as sex, money, power, creature comforts, and they take on greater importance for us than God, or what God sets forth for us to obey. Through greed these things become idols since they surpass God in importance for us. We prefer them to God, we obey our desires more than God. God can take a number and wait, I want what I want, and that is all that matters.

And for many today, and apparently when these text were written, sex is more important than God. Hence the connection to greed.

3. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. (Ex 20:17)

The 6th Commandment had already forbidden the act of adultery. But note here, how this commandment goes deeper, indicating that we are not to covet. In speaking of what it means to covet the Catechism says: The sensitive appetite leads us to desire pleasant things we do not have…These desires are good in themselves; but often they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him. The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit…..When the Law says, “You shall not covet,” these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: “He who loves money never has money enough.” (CCC # 2535-2536).

Hence, to covet the wife of another includes both a sexual desire for her and a greed that wants to have her.

4. For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, (Mk 7:21)

Here again note that in a verse that includes fornication and adultery, is included the word theft, referring to the unjust possession of something. The fornicator and adulterer  steals what does not belong to them. Sexual intimacy belongs to the marriage bed alone. Hence the unmarried person and adulterer take what is not theirs. Clearly antecedent to most, if not all theft, is greed.

5. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man overreach and defraud his brother in this matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thes 4:3-8).

This text not only links sexual immorality to greed but also to theft, and in a wider sense injustice. For, to fail to live chastely both overreaches and defrauds.

The Greek word here translated as overreach is υπερβαινειν (huperbainein). This word means, “to go over,” to overpass certain limits, to transgress; to go too far, i. e., to go beyond what is right or due. Hence again, we can see how greed is tied into sexual immorality, for it is desire overreaching, going too far, beyond what is reasonable, due or right. The lustful person is greedy because they want what they want no matter if it is excessive or wrong. All that matters is that they want it. And this is greed.

The word translated here as “defraud” πλεονεκτει (pleonektei) is related to covetousness and greed since it emphasizes gain as the motive of fraud. Thus, the sexually immoral person defrauds others, the sexual partner, families and society as a whole. They do this by thinking more of what they want, than what is right or what it might negatively do to others. They act fraudulently for they act as though they were married when they are not, and they do this to steal the privileges of marriage.

6. Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

Again, simply note that sexually immoral persons are numbered among or along side thieves and swindlers. They are  akin to thieves for they take what does not belong to them, and they swindle because obtain through deceit. The deceit is that they implicitly claim the status of a married person by grasping its privileges and rights,  but they have not taken up the duties of marriage.

Hence the mention of thieves and swindlers along with the sexually immoral may not be coincidental, but may imply  “birds of a feather.”

7. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Let your manners be without covetousness, contented with such things as you have; for God has said: I will not leave you, neither will I forsake you. (Heb 13:4-5)

In other words, don’t be greedy and steal the privileges of marriage bed by adultery, premarital sex, or any indulgence of sexual pleasure outside marriage. If you are not married, it is not yours. If you are married, it is only yours with your spouse. Be content with what you have and stop being greedy or covetous.

Hence we see demonstrated a rather consistent scriptural connection between sexual immorality, greed and theft.

Sexual intimacy is a prerogative and privilege of marriage. It exists to build up marriage, to encourage recourse to marriage, and to help knit the spouses together in a fruitful love. To snatch sex away from its only proper place is to unjustly possess that which is not mine, it is theft. And scripture connects this stealing to greed and covetousness. Greed is the excessive desire to posses, beyond what is just or reasonable. If yielded to we take what is not ours, simply because we want it.

Many today claim they can do as they please in terms of sexuality and, many also boast of their sexual freedom and exploits. The entertainment media celebrates sexual freedom. But it would appear that scripture sees such sexual exploits not as liberation, but as theft and greed.

It is true some act in weakness, some fall, but are repentant. Surely God is rich in mercy for such souls as these.

But as for those who celebrate sexual immorality, they ought to consider that what they call good, God calls sin, God calls greed, God calls theft.

For those willing to see, God is waiting and God is willing. This video is a reminder of God’s saving mercy.

You Can’t Take It With You But You Can Send It On Ahead

The Gospel for today’s Mass contains some very clear instructions about Income that we do well to heed. Most of us think of money, income, and wealth as a great blessing. To be sure money is a necessary part of life. Without it our very life can be in danger for want of food, clothing and shelter. But the Lord also wants us to soberly understand the problems and perils that are caused by wealth. So, in today’s Gospel he sets forth five basic teachings on wealth that we do well to heed and that we ignore to our peril. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

1. The INSIDIOUSNESS of wealth Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”  Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”  – Notice here how the man thinks his problem is an unjust brother. But the Lord diagnoses his problem to be more personal and more serious. His problem is greed (also called avarice and depicted at the right). Now greed is the insatiable desire for more. Greed is considered one of the seven “cardinal” or “capital” sins in that it leads us many other sins. Greed works insidiously within us and causes us to act unjustly, spend more than we have, and despise or ignore the poor. It will often cause people to lie, cheat, or steal. Greed divides families, and may cause grave harm to children. Consider how many children are farmed out to day care because parents want to live a life style that requires double incomes and careers. Greed also causes stress since, by it, we indulge in the lie that wealth brings security. As shall be developed in a moment but we also know by experience, our many possessions and material wealth have led to a very stressful and anxious existence. We have lives with entirely too much clutter, too many options, too many expectations, too many demands and much of this is due to the extravagant and mobile lifestyle we insist upon living because of greed. Greed also leads to ingratitude since, due to greed we are never satisfied and thus not very grateful. Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is vanity.(Eccles 5:10)

This litany could go on, but the Lord is clear here that greed in any form must be guarded against. To say it must be “guarded against” means that it is a threat, an enemy, a destroyer, a thief. We must think of it this way and secure our lives against it. It is a deadly and serious adversary and grace is necessary for us to even consider defeating it. Scripture says But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  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. (1 Tim 6:9-10) Despite a strongly worded text like this, most of us still want to be rich. Even when the Lord warns how hard it is for the rich to enter heaven we still want to be rich! Greed is a very strong, unreasonable and insidious foe.

2.  The INCEPTION of WealthThere was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest – Notice that the subject of the verb “produced” is not the man but the Land. It was the land that produced the bountiful harvest, not the man. Scripture says, “What have you that you have not received? And if you have received, why do you boast as though you had not? (1 Cor 4:7) This man receives a bountiful harvest from the land and ultimately from God. For, as Scripture says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”  (Psalm 24:1) Scripture also says Every good and perfect gift comes from above, comes from the Father of lights (James 1:17). Hence it is God who grants increase. We also see by Psalm 24 just quoted that everything belongs to God. We are but stewards, not owners. And, as stewards, we must use the goods of creation in accord with the desires of the owner, God.

Now it is a plain fact that, through innumerable scriptural texts God has told us that he expects us to be generous to the poor and less fortunate. This universal teaching of scripture is well summed up in the Catechism under the concept of the “Universal Destination of Goods.” This principle states that God gave all the good of the earth for all the people of the earth. This means that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human raceIn his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (Catechism 2402, 2404).

3. The INCONVENIENCE of wealth He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ – It is a true fact that wealth brings certain blessings but we must also be sober about the fact that it also brings burdens. Consider that we human beings have never been so wealthy as we in the West are. And yet consider again how stressful and distracted our lives are. Consider how burdening many people consider the pace of their lives. Wealth seems great but then come locks, insurance, keys, alarms, insurance, lawyers, repairs, maintenance, upgrades, lawsuits, disputes over inheritance, addiction to credit, and lack of self control. Conveniences soon become necessities and necessities, not resisted, become slavery. Scripture says, The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (Eccles 5:12). Or again,  Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and trouble with it. (Prov 15:16)

Hence we see this man with an abundance. But, because he is not generous with it, he is burdened by it. A quick way to store excess food is to store it in the stomachs of the poor, but now he has to hire an architect and get a building permit, and go to zoning court to get a variance, and lay in supplies etc. It is a true fact that one way the rich can help the poor is to use wealth to stimulate industry. Hence it might not be required that he simply give it away, he may use his increase it in a mutually beneficial way so as to create opportunities for others and also to see further increase for himself. But the main focus of this man is to store  up his wealth only for himself. As we shall see the Lord calls this sort of person a fool.

4. The INUSFFICIENCY of Wealth And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones.  There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?– In the end wealth is still poverty for it cannot solve our biggest problem which is our sin and the death it brings. A mere 80 years and the party is over. You can work all your life to be powerful, wealthy, feared and respected. And maybe you’re successful! Then you die. End of story. The world makes promises it cannot keep. And, in the end it is NOT the end, for a destiny looms after judgement. No amount of money can buy us out of this. Wealth tends to create the illusion of self-sufficiency, but that is all it is, an illusion. Consider some of the following Scriptures:

  • There are men who trust in their wealth and boast of the vastness of their riches. But no man can buy his own ransom, or pay a price to God for his life. The ransom of his soul is beyond him. He cannot buy life without end nor avoid coming to the grave. He knows that wise men and fools must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes for ever, their dwelling place from age to age though their names spread wide through the land. In his riches man lacks wisdom, he is like the beast that perish.(Ps 49).
  • Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Tim 6:17)
  • Whoever trusts in his riches will fall  (Prov 11:28)
  • For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (James 1:11)
  • Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Prov 30:8)

5. The INSTRUCTION for the Wealthy Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God. – We admire wealth and power. Things like this matter to us. But they do not matter to God. What matters to God is that we are rich in justice, mercy, holiness, love and truth. God is not impressed by my money and economic power. In fact, he warns insistently about it, that wealth will make us hard to save, haughty, proud, arrogant, self-sufficient, compromised, lacking in saving trust and faith, worldly and just plain stupid.

God’s only advice for those who are “cursed” with wealth is that they be generous with it. Perhaps it can be given away, perhaps it can serve as a source of industry and jobs for others, perhaps it can supply low interest loans, perhaps it can be used in countless ways to bless others. The Lord tells us not to store up treasure on earth but to store up treasure in heaven. And how do we store up treasure in heaven? Do we put our gold in a balloon or rocket ship and send it up? Surely not. The way to store up our treasure in heaven is to put it in the hands of the poor and needy. To use it to bless others through wise investment so that it grows and can be a source of industry and capital, so that it can grow the economy and others can benefit from it, to donate to worthy causes and so forth. This is how we store up treasure in heaven.

You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead – There is an old saying, “You can’t take it with you.”  But that is not exactly true. The truer scriptural answer is that “You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead!” Through the  right use of our wealth, and talents God tells us we are storing up treasure for ourselves in heaven. Hence to be generous is a form of investment, a heavenly 401K.  Scripture says, Cast your bread on the water. It will come back to you after many days. (Eccl 11:1) or again, Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back (Luke 6:38).

Finally, consider these Scriptures that teach how the Lord teaches that through our generous use of worldly wealth, it is possible to store up heavenly treasure:

  • Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. Mat 6:19
  • I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Luke 16:9
  • Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17-19)

So then, here are five instructions on wealth from the Lord. Be very careful about greed. Be sober about wealth too. We so easily bow before it, but it is a snare. And we in the affluent West have to be VERY sober about this because we are all wealthy by any standard. Even our poor live mighty fine compared to the poor elsewhere. The only way we are going to stand a chance is to guard against all forms of greed and be generous. Without this, we will be numbered among the rich of whom the Lord said, “How hard it is for the rich to inherit eternal life!” (Lk 18:24) Only grace and mercy, operative through the sacraments and faith can save us from our greed.

Help us, save us,  O Lord, have mercy one us and keep us by your grace!

 Here is an audio version of this sermon (sorry for the poor sound quality): http://frpope.com/audio/Instructions%20On%20Income.mp3

The Forgotten Principle of Social Justice

In many discussions of Catholic Social Justice Teaching, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are often prominent. Solidarity is the principle wherein I am my brother’s keeper and I cannot simply ignore the needs of others or injustices experienced by them. When others suffer I suffer too. When others are treated unjustly so am I. Hence I am compelled to act on behalf of others who suffer actual injustice or who experience poverty. Subsidiarity is the principle wherein we ought to solve these social ills and injustices at the lowest level possible. Making everything a “federal case” is not wise and can lead to worse injustices and to a loss of legitimate freedom. Further “biggie-wow”  solutions are often impersonal and often ill suited to the particular needs of a given community. Some problems do require federal Government solutions but others are better suited to state, local, church or family based solutions.

But a third principle in the Catechism is almost never mentioned and that is the principle of the “Universal Desintation of Goods.”  The Catechism treats of this principle under its analysis of the 7th Commandment not to steal. Here is what it has to say:

In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. … The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men. [But] the right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise. [Hence] in his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.”The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (CCC # 2402-2404)

So in effect, all the goods of this earth belong to all the people of this earth. We need to uphold the concept of private property which is an efficient way to deploy the goods of this earth and link them to to an enlightened self-interest. But we cannot allow private property to overrule the more basic truth that everything belongs to God and it is his will that his property benefit all. Hence, whatever I have I ought to use to benefit others, beginning with my family but not ending there. Maybe it is raw capital or entrepreneurial opportunities that I can turn into job opportunities for others. Maybe it is savings that I consistently set aside for my kids college one day, maybe it is simply the fact that I have money to spend which then enters the economy and creates markets which create jobs and incomes for others. But the bottom line is that my money is not simply my money. My talents are not simply my talents. My gifts are not simply mine. All these are given to me not only for me but for others. If I have two coats, perhaps one belongs to the poor. If I have excess money perhaps it can benefit others. This need not be in a simplistic sort of way which merely gives it away indiscriminately. Perhaps I can invest in way that helps it grow so that, down the line even more can benefit. But the bottom line is that I should be thinking that this money, or these talents, or these things are not just mine. How can I use them to benefit others and to create greater opportunities?

Now here comes the tough point. To fail significantly in any of these regards is a form of theft! First of all we rob God. All the things we have really belong to him. Now if I use his stuff in ways that he doesn’t approve, in ways that are against his will, I am stealing from him. Suppose you loan me your car to go to the store nearby. Fine, no theft there. But now suppose I took your car and started drag racing with it. Or suppose I decided to use it to go off to California for a trip. Now this would be theft since you did not give me your car to use with any of this in mind. To use your things against your will is a form of theft. Well, if God gives us his creation to use then it is clear if I start hoarding it, or refuse to use it for the good of others in some way then it is clear I am using his things against his will. I am stealing.

Further, I am stealing from the poor who have a rightful claim to some of what I have. Wait a minute you say, they didn’t earn it! Well, what the Catechism says is that it belongs to them in the first place since God gave all the good of the earth for all the people of the earth. It is true that we should be able to benefit from the work we do and that there is such a thing as earning and enjoying the fruits of our labor. This is just but it cannot ultimately cancel the fact that everything I have belongs to God and that he intends for everyone to enjoy the fruits of this world. If I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor and I ought to generously return it to its owner.

Please understand neither I nor the Catechism is denying personal property rights. But what the principle of the universal destination of all goods does is to balance, not cancel, personal property rights. No one, especially the government,  ought to be able to come and merely take your stuff. It’s yours viz a viz them. However, we ought to be more mindful that what I have is not absolutely mine. It is all God’s and he intends for the poor and needy to be blessed as well.

So, when was the last time you thought that everything you “have” really belongs to God. When have you thought to ponder what God might have you do with all “your stuff?” When was the last time you looked into your closet and thought, “A lot of this stuff really belongs to the poor?”

Think about it. Remember its about balance. It’s not communism, or socialism or that the State should control things. It’s NOT about there being no such thing as private property. There is private property. But it is about balance, like most things orthodox. Its about remembering to balance the concept of “my stuff” with the concept that it’s really God’s stuff and that some of it belongs to the poor by God’s will who gave everything for all.

Fr. Barron does a pretty good job of sorting all this out as he reviews the latest (crazy) Michael Moore movie.