United Church of Christ

Virtue in the Vice: Greed is rampant — and deadly; how to 'want wisely'

A monthly feature about spirituality

There seems to be one thing about which most people can agree: greed is rampant in American life. The idea that "enough is never enough" threatens our very existence.

The deadly sin of greed is defined as the inordinate love of money and material possessions, and the compulsive behavior that is driven by the need to have more and more of both. The truly greedy person is never content and is willing to sacrifice everything (and everyone) to acquire more. Also known as "avarice" and "covetousness," we see it in corporate bandits, sports idols, and legions of preachers hawking "prosperity theology."

Honesty also dictates that we confess to being guilty of this sin ourselves and that, to some degree, we are all hypocrites when it comes to condemning greed in others, while going easy on ourselves. But just when we need to bring the word back into the pulpit, we seem to have lost our nerve. We can talk about anything in church except money. It is the "last taboo."

Perhaps it would be helpful if we made a more careful distinction between greed and desire — because the truth is, we all "want" things, and this is not always a bad thing.

J. Philip Wogaman, a Christian ethicist, has offered a very helpful distinction between "intrinsic" and "instrumental" values. We want some things because they are of value in and of themselves, while we want others things because they instrumental in acquiring something else. Our society has the tendency to treat human relationships and other intrinsic values as if they were instrumental ones, measurable in purely economic terms. This is the spirit of the old aphorism: love people and use things, don’t use people and love things.

Moral philosophers do not consider the pursuit of wealth as sinful or the wealthy as inherently sinful. What matters is how that wealth was acquired, at what cost, for what purpose and to what end. More important is our failure to regard all blessings as having come from God. Biblically speaking, being rich is not a sin, but being stingy is.

We can, however, "want wisely," by always asking whether the things we desire have intrinsic or merely instrumental value. In Judaism, one is to use wealth "for the sake of heaven." For Christians, the word is stewardship. Either way, knowing what money is and what it is for is a mark of true faith. Seeing how high you can stack it is pathetic.

The Rev. Robin Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower UCC in Oklahoma City and is professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma City University. His latest book, The Virtue in the Vice: Finding Seven Lively Virtues in the Seven Deadly Sins is available at HCIbooks.com. 

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