Avarice: The Disease and Its Cure
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Jesus issues a warning, a warning inspired by a squabble over inheritance, but one that all of us need to hear. He says: “Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness, for a man’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses.”
Clarence Jordan’s translation of this verse brings out its original earthiness. Here’s what Jesus says according to Jordan: “You all be careful and stay on your guard against all kinds of greediness. For a person’s life is not for the piling up of possessions.”
In these few words, Jesus rejects much of what keeps our society humming. He warns us against greed, avarice, the desire to possess more than we need, more than we can use, more than we want.
This sin is a popular one, and we prefer not to name it or recognize it. By not naming it, we may feel that we need not have to deal with it. Recovery groups talk about something similar regarding a person’s alcoholism. For the alcoholic’s family, the alcoholism can be like an elephant in the living room which everyone knows is there and which dominates family life, but nobody talks about. It may well be that avarice is the elephant in the living room of our culture.
For some of us even the term avarice may be unfamiliar. It may sound archaic, outdated. But avarice is as contemporary as the newest shopping mall. Avarice is the desire to possess something for the sake of possessing it, not for any enjoyment it brings or any purpose it serves. It is the vice which simply piles things up, whether we store those things in bigger barns like the rich fool in today’s parable, or in houses so large they dwarf the people living there.
Avarice is a sin that our culture encourages. Indeed, avarice is a sin that our culture enforces. Countless messages scream at us each day: Get more! Buy more! Have more!
This approach does not look on human beings as rational animals or children of God or citizens of the republic. Instead, it views people as consumers, beings that exist simply to consume, vast, open, hungry maws into which merchandise disappears. The uniform worn by the loyal consumer is a T shirt with the slogan – the comic, pathetic, and all too true slogan – BORN TO SHOP.
Visit the mall, and you find yourself on the holy ground of the Temple of Avarice. So much stuff! And much of it nobody needs! Yet the entire ambiance is cleverly arranged to invite you to buy, to acquire, whether you need to or not.
The merchandise is not what’s on center stage. It’s the experience of acquiring that’s most important. The shopping mall trip does not easily remain an expedition to get what you need. It becomes instead the action designed to fill some empty space inside you. Yet for all the promises made, strong and covert, we soon become hungry again and return repeatedly to the source, a source which cannot satisfy, a deity that does not keep promises.
I would like us to examine avarice from the perspective of what we gain from it. And what we gain from it is not so much the stuff with price tags, but two emotions, two experiences. One of them is dissatisfaction. The other one is distraction.
Avarice promises to satisfy us, but does so only momentarily. Acquisition for its own sake may satisfy us till we drag the booty home and it doesn’t look so sharp away from the flattering lights of the display room. The thrill does not last as long as the listing on our credit card statement.
When I was a kid, I was often ravaged by poison ivy. The key to poison ivy, once you have it, is not to scratch. Restraining yourself is hard, for your skin itches and you want relief. But scratching only makes poison ivy worse.
Avarice works the same way. We get infected, and we want to scratch, although we know we shouldn’t do so. Possessing more and more promises relief, but only makes the situation worse. We keep scratching, but it’s no solution.
In her book, The Overspent American, Juliet Schor offers some memorable survey results. A considerable portion of the population agree with these two statements: “I cannot afford to buy everything I really need” and “I spend all of my money on the basic necessities of life.” One would expect a large percentage of people on the lower end of the income scale to agree with these statements, and about two-thirds of those with an income less than $10,000 do agree. What’s remarkable is that over a third of the people in the $75,000-$100,000 income bracket also agree with these statements. Having a higher income doesn’t guarantee that you regard your income as adequate. You still itch, and you still want to scratch. (Juliet B. Schor, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (Basic Books, 1998), p. 7)
The other experience that results from avarice is distraction. Acquisition for its own sake distracts us from relationships. We want to hoard rather than share, and so our relationships with other people are disrupted. Avarice places an emphasis on the self and its satisfaction, to the neglect of others.
We are also distracted from relationship with God. When the desire which is avarice controls us, we cannot be grateful to God for the blessings we are given. Our hearts are not grateful for what we have, but desperate for what we crave.
Avarice also distracts us from an appropriate regard for creation. No longer does it have a meaning of its own, independent of our wants. Instead, we view creation as no more than material for our consumption.
Thus the person afflicted with avarice ends up disconnected from creation, God, and other people. Craving abundance, this person ends up desperately poor in all the ways that matter.
How can we counteract the pull toward avarice? Today’s Gospel helps in two ways.
First, the parable of the rich fool reminds us that death brings an end even to successful acquisition. We may get it, but we can’t take it with us. If we reduce our existence to accumulation, we miss out on a meaningful life.
Then too, the last words of this Gospel provide an alternative to avarice. Rather than simply store up treasures for their own sake, we can be “rich toward God.” Jesus calls us to look beyond the lust for possessions to perceive things as they truly are.
We can recognize God’s generosity, God’s unceasing hospitality to us, which continues regardless of what we do or fail to do. We can respond to this God with the trust characteristic of children who are confident of their parents’ love.
We can see other people not as rivals, obstacles to the satisfaction of our private desires, but instead as sisters and brothers who share this world with us and enrich our lives by their existence.
We can appreciate creation as belonging to God and entrusted to our care. This creation has an integrity, purpose, and dignity beyond the satisfaction of our desire. It is deserving of our admiration and respect.
Rather than live in dissatisfaction, we can exercise a sense of wonder. Rather than be distracted from relationships, we can savor them. Instead of storing away possessions, building up petty kingdoms, we can recognize that the broad and beautiful kingdom of God is ours to enjoy in part now, and completely hereafter.
The entire practice of the Christian life cleanses the doors of our perception. Prayer and worship, scripture and sacrament, service and witness – this whole package helps free us from avarice and enables us to see things aright. Once we see things as they are, we discover that avarice is not simply wrong, but irrelevant. We need grasp at nothing, for God has already made us rich.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2001 The Reverend Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.