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May 24, 2009

Greed motivates but can cost us our soul

By Joe Paprocki


In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman, expresses his desire for a little bit of wealth: “Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either. So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?”

It’s this same desire that drives many people today to purchase lottery tickets, hoping to cash in on a small (or maybe not-sosmall) fortune.

So, what’s wrong with hoping for a small fortune? Nothing, really. It’s when that desire takes over the steering wheel of our lives that we venture into the realm of sin. Greed, also known as avarice, is one of the seven deadly sins and is characterized by an excessive desire for wealth and abundance.

This excessive desire was epitomized by Michael Douglas’ character, ruthless executive Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street” when, in a memorable scene, he tells shareholders in his corporation that, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” On that last point, he is correct: Greed does work. Much can be accomplished and obtained through greed. Unfortunately, what is obtained is at the cost of one’s soul.

The excesses of the 1980s that were portrayed in “Wall Street” have returned with a vengeance in recent times, epitomized by the debacles of Enron and AIG, to name a few examples. By its very nature, capitalism, which is fueled by competition, exists in tension with the Catholic principle of solidarity which calls us to recognize that we live in an interdependent world and that we all have a responsibility to care for one another and to share the abundance of God’s creation.

Forfeiting life?

Jesus addressed the issue of greed when he asked the question, “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:36) Jesus made it clear that abundance of wealth is actually a hindrance to entering the kingdom of God: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt 19:24). Why? Because we

alth deludes us into thinking that we are selfsufficient. It is for this reason that Jesus taught in the Beatitudes that it is blessed to be poor: It is the poor who know firsthand that they rely on God’s grace to survive.

We live in a country that thrives on the notion of independence and self-sufficiency. Our country was founded upon a Declaration of Independence. We celebrate Independence Day on the fourth of July. We strive as individuals to become independent from our parents and families and make it on our own. Perhaps we hope to become independently wealthy.

This drive for independence is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. As parents, we teach our children how to become independent. When the desire for independence becomes fueled by greed, however, we find ourselves venturing into the realm of sin.

Depend on sacraments

Greed, coupled with the desire for independence, can seep into our spiritual lives — leading us to conclude that through our own independent efforts, we can earn salvation. Luckily, the sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation and Eucharist — are our own personal “Declarations of De-pendence.” In and through these sacraments, we come to recognize that we are totally reliant upon God’s grace for our salvation: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word and I shall be healed.”

This recognition of total dependence upon God is summed up in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done; Give us this day our daily bread; Forgive us our trespasses; Lead us not into temptation; Deliver us from evil.

Each time we pray this prayer, we are admitting that we are unable to achieve any of the above on our own. Self-sufficiency, on the spiritual level is an illusion. Greed is the poison that clouds our thinking and deludes us into embracing self-sufficiency.

Counter with generosity

On a personal level, greed can lead us to delude ourselves into thinking that happiness can be obtained through material possessions. No doubt, the goods of this earth can and do bring us great joy. However, it is only when we view these goods as gifts from God for which we are called to be stewards that we can truly find joy.

In order to counteract the temptation of greed, we must practice the virtue of generosity. When we recognize that God’s abundant creation is intended for all, we can come to share rather than to hoard.

A spirit of stewardship calls us to remember that everything we have is due to God’s generosity. As stewards of those gifts, we reflect God’s image most perfectly when we in turn share with others in a generous manner, giving of our time, our talent, and our treasure, none of which belongs to us and none of which we earned.

To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, “Generosity is good. Generosity is right. Generosity works.” It works in creating a world in which we come to recognize our need for God and our need and responsibility for one another.

Paprocki is the national consultant for faith formation at Loyola Press in Chicago and author “A Well-Built Faith.”