Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was permanently unsatisfied with his lot. He wanted more of everything. One day he received a novel offer. For 1000 rubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day. The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown.
Early the following day, he started out walking at a fast pace. By midday, he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground. Well into the afternoon, he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point. He quickened his pace, and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run, knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown, he would lose the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder.
As the sun began to sink below the horizon, he came within sight of the finish line. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared. He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth. In a few minutes, he was dead.
Afterward, his servants dug a grave. It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide (Bits & Pieces, November 1991).
The apostle Judas found a similar reward as the peasant farmer, as does everyone else who commits the deadly sin of avarice. But what is it?
What is Avarice?
Avarice is the self-serving and excessive love of and desire for money, wealth, power, food, or other possessions. This results in a constant craving for things—a covetousness or greed—that makes us want to own and hoard things and further results in an attachment to them that causes us immense grief when having to be parted from them.
Matthew tells of a young man who had such a problem. This man once asked Jesus what he needed to do to gain eternal life. "Well," Jesus answered. "You know the law. 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.' Do these things and you got it made."
"I do all these things," the young man said, rather self-righteously. "What else do I need to do?" I imagine Jesus giving him a long, searching look before answering, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
When the young man heard this, he went away sad because he had great wealth and couldn't bear to give it up.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich 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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23-24).
Would we be able to be parted from our wealth? Or the other things we are attached to? Avarice is extremely possessive. It takes our basic need for security and ownership to perverse levels, making us work for them rather than have them work for us. We end up craving for things, often belonging to others, accumulating them, and then refusing to part with them, becoming immensely attached to them.
What do you own that you cannot be parted from? Is it your collection of books or movies? Do you find it difficult to lend them? And if you do, can you rest easy until they are returned? How about the trinkets that adorn your showcase? What if one of them breaks? Does your heart break with it? What about a treasured item of jewelry? If it goes missing, do you turn your house upside down trying to find it, getting increasingly desperate with every moment? What about your house itself? If you had to leave it one day suddenly, how difficult would it be for you to walk away and not look back?
Lot's wife found it extremely difficult (see Genesis 19:1-29). Before he destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God sent an angel down to tell Lot to get out with his family because he was found righteous in the sight of God. When they had come out of the city, the angel told the company of people: "Flee for your lives! Don't look back, and don't stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!" Lot's wife, however, couldn't resist looking back at the city of pleasure she was leaving behind, and all the possessions she had in it—and instantly became a pillar of salt.
There is a solid moral to this story. Inordinate attachment to material things can lead to a perversion of the soul. Greed makes one mean-spirited and obnoxious, and our literature is replete with stories of men like that: Scrooge, King Midas, Silas Marner, and the Grinch. We find ourselves detesting these men and rejoicing when they change, often not realizing how much we mirror them.
The first of the Ten Commandments given to Moses says: I am the LORD your God. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2).
"Other gods" include anything we set up in our hearts before God, including all these things we spoke about. Jesus tells us: "No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money" (Matthew 6:24). The Revised Standard Version uses the word "mammon" instead of "money," which Merriam-Webster defines as "material wealth or possessions especially as having a debasing influence."
When we set up other gods in our lives, they begin to demand sacrifice, and it takes a lot to satisfy them. We end up lying, cheating, stealing, and even killing to appease these gods. We betray the confidence of those who trust us, even setting them up for a fall.
A survey in the United States conducted by James Patterson and Peter Kim a few years ago (The Day America Told the Truth) revealed what some people were willing to do for money. In exchange for $10,000,000, 25% of the people surveyed said they would be willing to abandon their entire family, 25% said they would be prepared to abandon their church, 23% said they would become prostitutes for a week or more, 16% said they would give up their citizenship, and 7% said they would be willing to kill a stranger!
Many were prepared to do other things, but think about that last one a bit. Out of every hundred people in the United States of America, there are seven who would be willing to kill you, a total stranger, for money. That gives us a very nice perspective on greed and what people are willing to do for it! We might be willing to do similar things for less!
Many examples illustrate this particular truth in Scripture, the most notable being Judas. His greed turned him into a thief (John 12:6) and then a betrayer, selling out his friend and master, Jesus, for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:15).
But is money going to make us happy? It didn't make Judas happy. Consumed with guilt and anguish, he went and killed himself. Jesus asks: "What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?" (Matthew 16:26).
The Corruption of the Soul
Gehazi is another man from Scripture who exemplifies greed—and the consequences of greed (see 2 Kings 5:21‑27). Greed didn't cost him his life, but he suffered rather grievously because of it. Gehazi was the servant of Elisha, the prophet. He was a witness to all the great miracles that Elisha performed, including the miraculous cure of Naaman, who suffered from leprosy. When Gehazi sought to profit from the miracle personally—he lied to Naaman that Elisha wanted a reward for healing him—Gehazi became infected with the leprosy that Naaman had been cured of.
Greed makes our souls leprous and affects those around us. The self-centeredness of greed prevents us from sharing the blessings we have received with others, robbing the community of resources. It is avarice that accounts in no small measure for the huge disparity between the rich and the poor today.
Many people often ask how a loving and merciful God would allow such degrading poverty as one often sees in parts of Asia and Africa. The fault isn't God's. It is ours. There is enough wealth, food, and resources to care for every man, woman, and child on this earth a thousand times over. Unfortunately, the sin of greed makes a few people hoard much of it to themselves, leaving the rest starving even for basic necessities.
But it isn't only materially that people are affected. Even spiritually, the world becomes poorer if those who obtain spiritual blessings aren't prepared to share them with others.
Don't We Need Security?
But don't we need money and the security that money brings, we may ask. Money is only good for what it buys us, and we don't need to buy more than we need. Christians get—or should get—their security from God.
Many of us who put our faith in the things of the world have learned our lesson during times of recession. We believed we were ensuring the security of our future and the future of our families by putting our faith in our wealth, stocks and bonds, and investments. For many of us, all this "security" was wiped out overnight, leaving us bereft of anything.
The world is in a terrible state at the moment, and steadily getting worse. But those of us who put our trust in our Lord should remain secure that he who clothes the grass of the fields and feeds the ravens in the sky will clothe us and feed us too, in addition to taking care of our every other requirement. We need to seek his kingdom and righteousness, not the material things of this world.
Jesus brings this point across in another avarice-related parable he told the people (see Luke 12:16-21).
A farmer once had a huge crop. Rather than be happy with the blessing he received, he began worrying about where he would store his crop. Finally, after thinking about it, he decided he would tear down all his old barns, build new ones, and stock all his possessions in them. Then he would put his feet up and take it easy for the rest of his life. That night God appeared to him, saying: "You fool! You're going to die before the sun rises. Who will get what you have prepared for yourself?"
Then Jesus adds the punch line: "This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God" (Luke 12:21).
How can we be rich toward God? By sharing what we have with others! Jesus said: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). God blesses us so that we can bless others. God blessed the farmer with a huge crop, and he would not have minded in the least if the man enjoyed the fruit of his labor; what upset God was that he wanted to hoard everything for himself.
We are stewards of everything God has given us, whether time, talent, or treasure. We need to be good stewards. And how do we become this? By cultivating the gift of generosity — the virtue to combat this particular sin.
The Virtue: Generosity
Before his betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, Judas revealed his nature during a visit to Mary and Martha's house in Bethany.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
"Leave her alone," Jesus replied. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial" (John 12:1‑7).
The selfless generosity of Mary stands in stark contrast to the selfishness of Judas, whose greed would one day make him betray his master. It is a generosity that all of us are required to have, bringing tremendous reward. But who are we more like: Judas or Mary? Are we extravagant in our display of love for God like Mary, or do we make excuses for our tightfistedness like Judas?
We show our love for God by the love we display for his people. John writes: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).
We need never worry that our well will run dry because the more we give, the more we receive. Jesus said: "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38).
Although the context of this advice is mercy, it holds true for everything that we give to others. I remember a time in my life very soon after my conversion when God taught me many things. He gave me many valuable insights on life, love, and many other subjects. Even as I was thinking about how best I could share these insights with others, I had this voice in my head telling me that I didn't need to do so because if I did, others would grow too and possibly overtake me! Fortunately, I didn't listen because not only would I have deprived people of shared blessings, I would have deprived myself of further blessings because the more we share, the more God gives us.
Paul confirms this in his second letter to the Corinthians. He tells them: Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
Then he continues, quoting Psalms 112:9: They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever. He goes on to say: Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness (2 Corinthians 9:6-10).
In the book of Acts, Paul quotes Jesus as saying: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). The great German composer, Johannes Brahms, understood this. One day an admirer of Brahms left him 1,000 pounds in his will. Upon learning about the bequest, Brahms was deeply moved. "It touches me most deeply and intimately," he wrote to a friend. "All exterior honors are nothing in comparison." Then, in the very next sentence, he informed his friend that since he did not need the money, he was "enjoying it in the most agreeable manner, by taking pleasure in its distribution."
To the calculating mind, such generosity might seem stupid, but it is greed that impoverishes us, not generosity.
The Gift: Understanding
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks about the understanding that God gives those who love him of certain truths; truths hidden from others. "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God" (1 Corinthians 2:9-20).
Understanding is the second gift of the Holy Spirit, behind wisdom. It differs from wisdom in that while wisdom is the desire to contemplate the things of God, understanding allows us to penetrate to the essence of revealed truths. When we obtain this understanding about greed and the damage that attachment to worldly things does to us and our relationship with God, we realign our sights, focussing on God and the rewards that he promises us for all eternity.
What is the understanding? It is foolish to put our faith in the wealth of the world, which is impermanent, ignoring the treasure that we need to build up in heaven, which is forever. Jesus cautioned: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21).
We must truly grasp that our journey doesn't end when we are dead. It continues after that for all eternity, which is forever. Consequently, we have to expend as much energy (if not more) as we do to secure a reward for ourselves in heaven as we do to secure it on earth. This is temporary; that is permanent.
We need to let go of our attachment to the things of the world because they serve only to trap us, just like ring-tailed monkeys are ensnared by their love of melon seeds. The ring-tailed monkeys are tough to trap, though they pose no difficulty for the Zulus, who know the little creatures very well and set traps accordingly. Their trap consists of a melon growing on a vine. Knowing that the seeds of the melon are a favorite of the monkey, the Zulus cut a hole in it, just large enough for the monkey to insert his hand to reach the seeds inside. The monkey will stick his hand in and grab as many seeds as possible, but he cannot withdraw his hand as his fist is larger than the hole. The monkey will pull and tug, screech, and fight the melon for hours, but he can't escape the trap unless he gives up the seeds, which he refuses to do. Meanwhile, the Zulus sneak up and catch him.
I'd like to think we are wiser than monkeys.
May the Spirit be with you.