Seven Vices & Virtues: Greed and Charity

Greed makes the world go 'round. Or is love what's supposed to make the world go 'round?

Regardless, Western capitalism is built on the premise of managed greed. The desire to want more pushes people to excel and acquire more. Without this drive to consume, the economies of market-driven nations would grind to a halt.

The basic premise behind the vice of greed is that people tend to want more than they need. But it's not just about wanting something. Thomas Aquinas wrote that greed "is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them. . . It is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man [scorns] things eternal for the sake of temporal things."

His definition reveals the two main problems with greed—and helps us see what greed is NOT. First, greed is something that harms your neighbors. Having broadband internet when your neighbor only has DSL is not a sin of greed. The fact that your internet speeds are faster doesn't harm your neighbor. On the other hand, it is greedy to use an inside-connection with the 8th-grade basketball coach to get your kid on the team. In that instance, your kid's inclusion has possibly harmed another child who is thereby excluded. Greed does actual harm to others.

Second, greed focuses on the wrong priorities. It's not greedy to want mushrooms on your burger when you can afford to pay for them. Mushrooms almost certainly have no bearing on our relationship with God or with others. But if we consider the issue of the 8th-grade basketball team, the parent's priorities are clearly misaligned in this case. Kids don't become model citizens or God-fearing adults just because they were on the 8th-grade team. In other words, the ends don't justify the means because (a) someone else was hurt by your desire; and (b) the child might actually suffer in life because of the parent's undue use of influence. This childhood experience could create a feeling of entitlement that will be difficult to overcome in adulthood. Greed in this instance is shown in the parent's misplaced priorities.

How do we overcome greed? The opposing virtue of charity helps disarm the power of greed. What is the virtue of charity? This isn't the kind of charity where one gives $10 to the United Way or donates blood to the Red Cross. Charity can't even be summed up by a person's tithes and offerings to their church.

The virtue of charity goes back to the more ancient definition: Self-giving love. To be a charitable person is to look on others with genuine, unselfish love. This love may cause you to give some material help to another person. But in many cases, material help isn't a person's most important need. True charity looks to benefit other people in the most lasting, effectual manner possible.

This helps us see why charity rather than contentment is the counterpart of greed. Greed stems from selfishness. Contentment does nothing to oppose this inward focus. Charity, by contrast, forces us to look outward and challenges us to see the needs of others. Join me this Sunday as we examine greed and charity in more detail and as we think about how to apply this in our everyday lives.

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