Avarice brings to mind the image of a hoarder—one who simply wants things for himself. However, while wanting more of something is certainly one side of avarice, it might not be the most important side.
The image that always comes to mind for me when thinking about the vice of greed, or avarice, is that of Scrooge McDuck entering his vault and swimming through his coins—rubbing them up against himself as if they were some sort of golden soap bars. It’s the image of the hoarder—one who simply wants these things for himself.
Though this wanting more of something is certainly one side of the vice, I’ve come to think of it as not the most important side. In fact, this image has certain aspects of good in it. I came to see this after one of my sons got interested in coins. He liked to look at them and touch them and compare them with each other. While I suppose there might be the possibility that he had some sort of “worship” of the coins that fell into the vice of avarice, I didn’t really see it. What I saw was a joy and delight in a certain kind of thing, no different from my own childhood collecting baseball cards. He liked those individual coins themselves for being part of a pattern and history of making and for the great differences in them. He liked coins because they were “dappled things” and “counter, original, spare, strange,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins said in “Pied Beauty.”
I’d like to pride myself on my lack of greed, but usually it’s really only a failure to take real interest in real things in the way my son did that I can see. Real desire for real things just because they are cool is actually a sign of a person with a potential for virtue, for the world is really glorious—gold, silver, and copper coins included. As Screwtape warned Wormwood, “The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack.” It’s easy to mock those who pay money for expensive Velvet Elvises or Thomas Kinkade paintings. It’s also easy to mock those who like more outré luxury goods—after all, I’m not all that interested in them!—but if they can afford them, there is nothing wrong with purchasing them. Screwtape says that he’s “known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.” I might think you need your head examined if you like Kinkade or any of the abstract artists out there making a (literal) splash. But if it really “speaks to you” and you aren’t just pretending in order to make sure you are considered hip, maybe your heart’s in better shape than mine.
Avarice has less to do, I think, strictly speaking, with possession of goods or money than it does with the manner of holding them. I’ve known many people much wealthier than I who are much more generous with their resources than I am. The cynic might say, “And well might they be! They have more discretionary income from which to give.” Perhaps that’s it, but I confess that while I’ve got more money now than I did when I was growing up, the increase has made it more difficult for me to give. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t give to causes and to friends in need. But I feel the strings of avarice around my heart somewhat stronger now that I have something more to give. I can certainly affirm the biblical warnings about the difficulties of the rich entering the kingdom of heaven even if I’m not a “one-percenter.”
Of course, I may be wrong about my own perception. Perhaps an old friend reading this will remark, “Ridiculous! He’s always been stingy and he couldn’t possibly be stingier now!” If true, perhaps my noticing it is actually moral improvement. After all, when I had very little money as a twenty-something I once gave a beggar at my door the bills in my pocket in exchange for a shirt, horrifying my friends in the house. They all thought I should have just given him the money. I thought differently, that this exchange gave him dignity and made us equals.
Maybe they were right. But that would point to what I’ve already observed: that it’s not necessarily the amount of wealth that one has that determines the hold of avarice on a heart. People who have little can be just as avaricious about their small portions of goods as the titans of Wall Street. In an article on whether the poor can be greedy, writer Jerry Bowyer recounted Ron Blue, one of the creators of the “faith and finance” movement, telling about a turning point in his thought. While visiting a poor African pastor who lived in a mud hut, Mr. Blue asked Pastor Daniel what the spiritual challenges of his own congregation were. The answer, “Materialism,” shocked him. Mr. Bowyer himself recalls knowing a homeless man who refused to pay another homeless man what he owed him in order to buy tobacco. St. John Henry Newman observed in a sermon that “poverty must not be allowed to make us,—is no excuse for our being,—what poor people so often are, anxious, fretful, close, deceitful, dull-minded, suspicious, envious, or ungrateful.” Any level of wealth provides grounds for the vice of avarice. The grasping hand can smell of “craft” soap or it can smell of the street, for the poor are not to be confused with the poor in spirit.
Idolatry is at the heart of avarice. But what is idolatry? I think it the reliance of the person on something other than God for one’s happiness and security. I’ve always found the description of the tempting thought of greed by the fourth-century writer Evagrius of Pontus in his work Praktikos particularly interesting and powerful: “Love of money (avarice) suggests: a long old age; hands powerless to work; hunger and disease yet to come; the bitterness of poverty; and the disgrace of receiving the necessities [of life] from others.”
There is nothing here of Scrooge McDuck, nothing of the love of stuff. Instead, it is the absence of trust in God for one’s welfare. It is the temptation to base one’s happiness on one’s comfort certainly (“the bitterness of poverty” and “hunger and disease”), but what is more interesting in this analysis is how much avarice is connected with pride. It is motivated by a fear of losing one’s usefulness (“hands powerless to work”) and one’s independence (“the disgrace of receiving . . . from others”). The tempting thought of avarice gains its power from our desire to think of ourselves as self-made men (and women!) who are powerful and independent of others—little gods whose treasuries of gold disguise our dependence on the grace of God and the graciousness of brothers and sisters who stand as our equals.
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The featured image is “Suppliants in the Office of Two Tax Collectors” by Quentin Matsys (1466-1530), and is in the Public Domain.