Rev. Joseph Keating
26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
For the last two weeks, we have been reflecting on the seven deadly sins. We have covered pride, which is a sin against temperance; and envy, which is a sin against charity; and this week’s second reading gives us an opportunity to focus in on the sin of greed, also called avarice, which is a sin against justice.
We turn once again to St. Thomas Aquinas, who defines greed in two ways:
1. Hoarding too many possessions or money
2. Loving one’s possessions or money immoderately
Now, in the second reading today, St. James gives us an example of both of these types of greed.
In the first case, i.e. hoarding, James writes, “Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded” (James 5:3). This is the state of things that have not been used. Too much uneaten food will rot. Too many unworn clothes will get eaten by insects and mice. And metal objects will rust if they are not used and maintained. This is what happens when we hoard possessions—we fail to make good use of them, and we end up losing them anyway.
Another problem with hoarding is that it can deprive others of resources. Now, I don’t think that this is often the case, because we live in a very abundant society. But I think a worse problem in our American society is that hoarding trains us to be selfish. By contrast, liberality, i.e. using our possessions well, trains us in generosity and temperance.
I think most of us, if not all of us, could think of something in our lives that we tend to hoard. Maybe it’s clothing. Just to use myself as an example, I probably have half a dozen shirts in my closet that I have worn once in the last year, or maybe not at all. Granted, as a priest, I have a pretty standard wardrobe chosen for me, but I still have some clothes that I could donate. A good rule I once made for myself is that if I bought a new shirt, I had to donate one. I put away all my excess clothes hangers, and it forced me to keep from hoarding clothes that I didn’t even wear. Here’s a rule that I still try to live by: if I haven’t used it in one whole year, clothing or otherwise, I don’t really need it. Time to give it away.
In the second case of greed, i.e. immoderate love of possessions, James writes, “You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter” (James 5:5). This kind of greed is especially deadly because it mixes up the means and the ends of our lives. The true goal of our life is to become a saint. That is, to achieve holiness on earth, that we may enjoy life with God for eternity.
Now, in order to live on this earth, we have to do a great many things: go to school, learn a trade, go to work, etc. And in order to do these things, we have to have resources—food, tools, books, a vehicle, etc. All these things are means to an end. They are not ends in themselves. We shouldn’t see our possessions as status symbols or collectibles. Rather, we own our possessions temporarily because they help us to achieve our goal: to become a saint. If our possessions are leading us in the opposite direction, that is, into vice and sin, then it’s time to get rid of them! In our Lord’s words, “If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off! If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out!” Whatever it is in our lives that we love more than sainthood, we must get rid of it. If we don’t, we will have missed the whole point of life. Owning more stuff is not the goal of life. After all, as they say, “you can’t take it with you.”
Now, a word about wealth in general. Let us not confuse greed with simply being wealthy. It is not sinful to be wealthy; but wealth rather amplifies our vices or virtues. You see, wealth is like the volume knob on your stereo. If the stereo is playing good music, then turning up the volume allows more people to enjoy it. But if the stereo is playing bad music, turning up the volume doesn’t change it into good music—it just annoys everyone.
The same goes for wealth. A wealthy person can more easily become a magnanimous person, since he/she can be more generous with his/her wealth. But on the other hand, being wealthy can be a barrier to the attaining the Kingdom of Heaven, as our Lord warned when he said, “It is easier for a camel to pass thru the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). The reason it is more difficult for the rich is because earthly wealth can so easily become the center of our lives. Sadly, the quest for money and possessions is the only meaning of life for so many of our neighbors. Indeed, wealth is perhaps the most worshiped idol of our American society. And this, properly speaking, is greed.
When wealth becomes the end in itself, and not the means to holiness, the wealthy begin to take advantage of the poor. In any society, the poor are at risk of being dispossessed of the common goods of that society. The poor often lack a voice; they lack advocacy. It is the role of the Church, all of us, to be that advocate, to stand up for the weakest in our society, so that they will not be dispossessed by the greed of the rich. As St. James writes, “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4). This is the end result of greed—injustice against entire groups of people. As Christians, we also must work for justice for working citizens wherever injustices arise.
In any case, there is a remedy for greed. Since greed is a sin against justice, the remedy is to practice justice. And, since our particularly American vice is the inordinate worship of the idol money, then we must place the true God in the place where the idol sits. That is, in exchange for the vice of greed, we must place the virtue of religion. Religion is a virtue that belong under the cardinal virtue of justice. Why? Well, justice, simply put, is to give someone what is due to him. Then what is due to God? Worship. Piety. Respect. Obedience. These things, we summarize in a word—religion. The virtue of true religion is a guard against greed. It keeps our priorities in order. Namely, that union with God is the goal, and all the other stuff of this world just helps us get there.
So, it seems that we’ve all got our homework for this week—what is it in my life that leads me into temptation? What in my life promotes vice and not virtue? What do I hoard for myself, and who might benefit from having it? Who needs me to stand up for them at work?
The grace of Jesus Christ frees us from sin, and makes it possible to grow in virtue. Armed with the virtues of religion and justice, let us journey onward to the Kingdom of Happiness.