Sunday, August 01, 2004

A Brief Lesson on the Psychology of Greed

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 1, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Colossians 3: 1-11; Luke 12: 13-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Eighteenth Sunday 2004]

“Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”

A family fight over an estate. Sound familiar?

Some things don’t change in 2,000 years, do they?!

Jesus used this occasion to give a short but very clear teaching on the subject of greed, a teaching that he illustrated with a parable about a rich man who had a bountiful harvest.

Greed, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins. It’s very common—as common as family arguments over the property of deceased loved ones! And greed can also be subtle—extremely subtle.

For example, here’s an interesting statistic that some of you might not be aware of (I read it on-line the other day): “Rhode Island leads the nation in per-capita spending on lottery-sponsored gambling, at nearly $1,200 per person in fiscal 2003, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.”

And now some of our citizens want a casino!

When will it end? Will it ever end—before THE END?

Of course, the deeper and more important question is: Why this attraction to gambling?

Well, for some, gambling might be a relatively harmless form of recreation undertaken with a few dollars—please hear that: a “few” dollars!—of disposable income.

But, let’s be honest about it, for all too many, it’s greed that drives them to gamble, and gamble heavily!

Today I offer you a brief lesson on the psychology of greed:

Greed is rooted in the desire to possess—which is not a bad desire, in and of itself.

We have this desire because we are finite, imperfect human beings; thus we want to possess those realities that we think will make us more complete as persons and bring us closer to perfection.

The mistake the greedy person makes is that he channels this desire toward the wrong objects! He channels his desire “to possess” toward the things of this world.

Now this is a mistake for two reasons. Number one, we will never, ever have enough of this world’s goods to satisfy us; and, number two, if we’re consumed with a desire for money and material possessions, we will probably neglect our immortal soul in the process, and put our eternal salvation in jeopardy.

Look at the rich man in this parable we just heard. He had more than enough grain and other goods for himself and his own needs, but he still wasn’t satisfied. In his greed he wanted more! So decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his “stuff.”

At the same time, he obviously was neglecting the state of his soul. Which is why God said to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”

Now here’s an important fact: The great saints of the Church had a desire “to possess” that was just as strong as this rich man’s was, with one very big difference: their desire to possess was directed toward the things of God and not toward the things of this world.

They desired “to possess” realities like virtue, goodness, love and holiness. Consider St. Paul; he had this desire in abundance. That’s crystal clear from today’s second reading from Colossians 3. And he wanted all of us to have this same desire. He said in that text, “Brothers and sisters: If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. . . . Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and the greed that is idolatry.”

We all experience the desire to have, the desire to possess. It’s part of our human nature. To what are we directing this desire at the present time? Are we directing it toward the things of this world, or toward the things of the Lord?

That’s the key question of the day. May we all have the courage to answer it honestly, and to make any changes we need to make, so that we will become rich (as Jesus would say) “in what matters to God.”