The Sin of Greed

When We Worship the Golden God


I still remember my childhood picture Bible, which showed a shiny golden calf with people bowing down before it—a colorful depiction of the idolatry into which the ancient Israelites fell after Moses led them out of Egypt (Ex. 32). The story struck me as incredibly strange for two reasons. First, I wondered why anyone would be so ridiculous as to worship a golden calf. Obviously, the gold statue was not really a living god. Second, I wondered why God would care so much about what they did. They weren’t hurting anyone (were they?). It may be silly to worship a calf of gold, but why would God be concerned?

As an adult, I know from personal experience that the temptation to worship money rather than God is not limited to ancient Israel. People in our society are unlikely to bow down before a golden calf, but almost everyone in our society is tempted by greed in one of its forms. And, just as with ancient Israel, God cares about whether or not we are greedy.

Greed is the disordered love of riches. We should love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves, but we can begin to love money more than God and more than our neighbor. Greed (or avarice) is also one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Like pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, anger, and envy, greed is called a "deadly" or "capital" sin because it gives rise to other sins (see "Greed Leads to Other Sins," p. 24).

Today, greed often takes the form of consumerism and over-work. Consumerism is a view of the human person that reduces us to what we can buy and consume. It is captured by the motto: "He who dies with the most toys wins." The workaholic’s greed, on the other hand, is not in consuming but in producing. Both the ultra-consumer and the workaholic are, practically speaking, materialists: What really counts, the ultimate goal of life, is what can be bought and sold.

Although nearly every American lives a lifestyle more luxurious than any medieval king, we all want more. Advertisers spend billions of dollars a year feeding our appetites for things to buy. Most of these items we do not really need and would never have wanted at all were it not for the daily barrage of advertisements.

Why Should God Care?

Of course, money and material goods are not evil but good. Indeed, we really do need money—or at least what Thomas Aquinas called "natural wealth" such as food, clothing, and shelter—to survive. We use what he called "artificial wealth" such as cash, credit cards, or coins to purchase natural wealth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to secure the physical well-being of yourself and your loved ones through the use of money. In fact, that desire is good.

However, a healthy desire for natural wealth, and by extension artificial wealth, can grow into an unnatural and unhealthy desire for riches. But what exactly is wrong with desiring money too much? Put in the biblical context, what difference does it make to God if the ancient Israelites worship a golden calf? Why should God care if people love money more than God and neighbor?

God cares about these matters because God cares about us. Exaggerated love of money does not hurt God—it does not diminish God himself in the least if we do not worship him. No, excessive love of money hurts us.

First, it often leads to actions that are obviously sinful, such as stealing and cheating. But even if avarice did not lead to other sins, it would still be harmful to us. Simply put, if we love money more than God and more than other people, we make ourselves—usually sooner rather than later—miserable. Even if we had more money than Bill Gates, we still would not be happy without friendship with God and others. Philosophers such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas taught the insufficiency of money for happiness centuries ago: Contemporary research in the social sciences is reinforcing their conclusions. Money, even millions and millions of dollars, simply cannot make us happy.

You Can’t Buy Bliss

Psychologists have been studying what makes people happy for decades. They do this in various ways. One way is to have people wear beepers and then, at the prompting of the researchers during the course of the day, the research subjects write down the degree to which they are happy. Psychologists study rates of depression and cases of suicide and attempted suicide. They observe people and draw conclusions from their smiles and laughter or frowns and tears about whether they are happy. Over several decades, in thousands of studies across the world, they have gathered as much evidence as they can about the relationship between financial well-being and human happiness.

It turns out that more money can make you much happier—if you live in abject poverty. If you do not have clothes to keep you warm, if you have no food for your children, and no roof over your head at night, money for these basic provisions greatly improves reported happiness.

However, once you have enough money to provide food, clothing and shelter, increases in money are unrelated to stable increases in happiness. In other words, once a person has the basic necessities, more money does not lead to more happiness (see "Lottery Winners Come Down to Earth," p. 25).

Unlike natural wealth, such as clothes, there is no limit on artificial wealth. There are only so many hamburgers a person can eat or clothes that can be worn, but there is no limit whatsoever to the amount we can have in our bank account. For this reason, greed is a particularly dangerous kind of sin. The glutton eventually achieves complete fullness. The person committing a lustful act reaches a point of natural satiation. The angry person may explode in rage, thereby draining his fury. Even the drunk will reach a point where he passes out and can drink no more. But the greedy person never reaches an endpoint in the accumulation of riches.

Scholars who have studied happiness, such as Dr. David Myers, a psychologist who wrote The Pursuit of Happiness, which draws on hundreds of studies of happiness, note that the happiness attained by a purchase or a level of wealth soon wears off and people adapt to whatever level of wealth they have achieved, as the experience of lottery winners shows.

Whether we base our conclusion on self-reported happiness, rates of depression, or teen problems, our becoming much better-off [financially] over the last thirty years has not been accompanied by one iota of increased happiness and life satisfaction. It’s shocking because it contradicts our society’s materialistic assumptions, but how can we ignore the hard truth: Once beyond poverty, further economic growth does not appreciably improve human morale. Making more money—that aim of so many graduates and other American dreamers . . . does not breed bliss. (The Pursuit of Happiness, 44)

Indeed, at all levels of wealth, from modest to tremendously wealthy, people tend to compare themselves to those who are just ahead of them in riches. Parents making $40,000 a year tend not to say, "Wow, we are doing so much better than 95 percent of the entire world. We have one TV and one car. We have a computer. We’re doing amazingly well financially." Rather, they tend to look at those with two cars and three TVs, who in turn compare themselves to those with newer cars, bigger houses, and plasma-screen TVs, and so on.

Most people, when asked, will say that they need just a little bit more money to be comfortable, around 10 percent more. Whether people make $30,000 per year, $60,000 per year, $120,000 per year, or more than one million dollars per year, they tend to think that that 10 percent more will make a difference. When they do get that 10 percent, which typically happens over the course of a few years, they want just another 10 percent, and so on, ad infinitum.

Research reveals another startling result: If you compare a lottery winner and a paraplegic a year after the fateful events occurred, you would know virtually nothing about their levels of happiness. If you compare the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and the janitor who cleans his office, given this knowledge alone, we would have no way to know which person is happier.

This research done by contemporary psychologists is quite a relief. Our culture tends to equate the "good life," a happy life, with the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," a lifestyle well beyond the reach of most people. But most people in the Western world have attained the minimum level of socioeconomic well-being, beyond which money does not help.

What Really Matters

What does help people attain happiness, according to contemporary psychologists? Four things matter in particular: 1) good relationships with others, 2) strong religious ties, 3) meaningful activity, and 4) personal control. We can translate these into more traditional terms: 1) love of neighbor, 2) love of God, 3) corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and 4) exercising authentic freedom by doing good and avoiding evil.

God cares about greed because it undermines our true happiness. When we put making or spending money ahead of loving God, we lose out on an essential.aspect of our own happiness. When we pursue career in such as way that there is not sufficient time for meaningful relationships with God and neighbor, again we lose out, as do our families and our friends. When we love money so much that we will steal, lie, cheat, and fail to give to charity, we hurt not only others but also ourselves. Even though we rightly own our possessions, the use of everything we have, including our money, should be governed by love of God and neighbor.

Because God loves us deeply and wants us to be happy in this life and in the next, Jesus taught much about the disordered love of money: "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon" (Matt. 6:24). Mammon, the biblical false god of greed, drives people away from fellowship with each other and with God.

Jesus also spoke of the great difficulty that the rich have of entering heaven: "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:23-24). Commenting on this passage, St. John Chrysostom writes: "What he spoke was not condemning riches in themselves, but those who were enslaved by them" (Homilies on Matthew 63). It is easy to become a slave to money, to devote one’s life to the acquisition of material goods, but financial well-being is also a tool that can be used for good.

Give More, Be Happier

All Christians are called to a spirit of detachment from worldly goods and riches. Our financial bottom line should not be the bottom line of our lives, our sole guide to behavior. A "spirit of poverty" should be sought by all Christians whereby they use worldly goods, including money, as tools for serving their neighbors. As Pope Benedict XVI points out, "Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbor" (Deus Caritas Est 15).

Helping our neighbors with our material goods can challenge us in unexpected ways. When Jesus met a rich young man, the Lord invited him to make a radical choice: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Matt. 19.21). The rich man went away sad, but others take up Jesus’ invitation with joy. Following the lead of St. Francis of Assisi and many other saints, some people are called to a deep love of God and neighbor embodied by giving up all material possessions and taking a vow of poverty.

All Christians are called is to a less-radical means of eradicating greed and living the spirit of poverty: give money to worthy causes and alleviate spiritual or material poverty on a regular basis. Almost all of us could be more generous financially. I’ve known families with three or four children, making less than $15,000 a year, who give away 10 percent of their income. Perhaps not coincidentally, these families were some of the happiest I’ve ever known.

Can You Give Too Much?

Greed has an opposite vice: wastefulness or recklessness in giving (prodigality). Exercising practical wisdom, donors should give both generously and with an awareness of their other responsibilities. Studies indicate that most Catholics do not seem in danger of prodigality: On average, they donate a mere 1 percent of their income yearly (three dollars or less given to their parish each week). Catholics need to find the middle ground between the vices of greed on the one hand and wastefulness on the other—a healthy generosity with our material goods (See "The Angelic Doctor on the Virtue of Liberality," p. 26).

In addition to donating money, another way of curbing greed is to curb consumption. Why not undertake a Lenten penance of buying nothing new that can be bought secondhand? Items such as food, gas, and light bulbs must be bought new, but clothes, books, and many other items can be bought used. How about abstaining from television and avoiding all those commercials? When shopping, we can delay making expensive purchases without due consideration or perhaps not buy the "top of the line" product.

One final remedy for greed: Turn down opportunities for more money. Perhaps this means one less business trip a year. Perhaps it means coming home for dinner almost every night or leaving work an hour early to help make dinner. Of course, we all need money, but most likely we could get by with less money and become richer in other things—time with family, time with God.

"Greed is good," said Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street. Good for whom? we might ask. Is it good for children who seldom see their father? Is it good for spouses? Is it good for those taken advantage of by financial misdeeds? We may not worship a gold statue in the desert, but most of us have to struggle against avarice, a grave impediment to our own happiness and the happiness of others. We tend to forget that God loves us not only more than we love anyone else, but more than we love ourselves. Because of his great love for us, God urges us, from Old Testament times until today, to avoid the worship of golden gods.

SIDEBARS

Greed Leads to Other Sins

When love of riches grows too strong, other sins typically follow: neglecting family to pursue career; donating little or nothing to charity; leaving inappropriately meager tips for help staff; cheating on tax returns; leaving no information after damaging a parked car; becoming unreasonably angry when money is lost or stolen; devoting unreasonable time and attention to financial matters; outright stealing; lying to get more money; taking financial advantage of people; falsifying insurance claims; and looking down on people who are poor.

Lottery Winners Come Down to Earth

As it turns out, lottery winners—after the initial shock has worn off—are no more happy than they were before winning the lottery. Indeed, some seem less happy. In his book Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity, John Stossel interviews Curtis Sharpe, lottery winner of five million dollars, and Sherry Gagliardi, winner of 26 million dollars:

Curtis Sharpe: For a time, it seemed like I was in a dream world, you know?
Stossel: Did you come down to earth?
Curtis Sharpe: Oh, yes. I came down, you know. I came down to earth. I got divorced from my first wife and married my second wife, and I spent a lot of money on the wedding, you know.
Stossel: A hundred thousand dollars on a grand wedding.
Curtis Sharpe: Yes, that didn’t last five years. You know what I’m saying?
Sherry Gagliardi: I was numb for three years.
Stossel: But you must have been happy.
Sherry Gagliardi: Yes and no. I got a divorce two years after we had won. People have a misconception about having money. You go out and you go, "Oh, that’s what I want, I’ll buy it." Well, a couple weeks later, its like, you know, that emptiness comes back. Then what?
Curtis Sharpe: I mean, how many suits can I wear? How many hats can I wear? You know what I am saying?

The Angelic Doctor on the Virtue of Liberality

[I]t belongs to the liberal man to part with things. Hence liberality is also called open-handedness (largitas), because that which is open does not withhold things but parts of them. The term "liberality" seems also to allude to this, since when a man quits hold of a thing he frees it (liberat), so to speak, from his keeping and ownership, and shows his mind to be free of attachment thereto. Now those things which are the subject of a man’s free-handedness towards others are the goods he possesses, which are denoted by the term "money." Therefore the proper matter of liberality is money.

Liberality depends not on the quantity given, but on the heart of the giver. Now the heart of the giver is disposed according to the passions of love and desire, and consequently those of pleasure and sorrow, towards the things given. Hence the interior passions are the immediate matter of liberality, while exterior money is the object of those same passions. . . .

Now the use of money consists in parting with it. For the acquisition of money is like generation rather than use: while the keeping of money, in so far as it is directed to facilitate the use of money, is like a habit. Now in parting with a thing—for instance, when we throw something—the farther we put it away the greater the force (virtus) employed. Hence parting with money by giving it to others proceeds from a greater virtue than when we spend it on ourselves. But it is proper to a virtue as such to tend to what is more perfect, since "virtue is a kind of perfection." Therefore a liberal man is praised chiefly for giving.

—St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II:2:117

Further Reading

  • The Catholic Answers Guide To Family Finances by Philip Lenahan (available from Catholic Answers)
  • Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom by Fr. Thomas Dubay (Ignatius)
  • Small is Still Beautiful: Economics as if Families Mattered by Joseph Pearce (Ignatius)

 


Raised in Seattle, Christopher Kaczor graduated from the Honors Program of Boston College (1992) and holds an M.M.S. (1994) and a Ph.D. (1996) from the University of Notre Dame. He did post-doctoral work in Germany at the Universität zu Köln as an Alexander von Humbolt...

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 3.