By Faith Online
PCANews.com has now become ByFaithOnline.com. The first issue of this new webzine for the Presbyterian Church in America includes profiles of two wonderful ministries: Harvest USA and Desire Street Ministries. Just as I did with the old site, I plan to keep this site bookmarked so that I can visit it regularly.
This morning I gave my final lecture of the academic year on the subject of Augustine. I ran out of time and was unable to run through all my favorite quotes from this remarkable "Father of Western Civilization." So, I'm posting them here:
“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.” Confessions
“Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love, and the future to God’s providence.” City of God
“Love God, and then do what you like.” Confessions
“Too late I love you, beauty so old yet always new. Too late I loved you. And lo, all the while you were within me—and I, an alien to myself, searched for you elsewhere.” Confessions
“Where there is not that justice by which the One Supreme God rules over a city obedient to His gracious will, there is not a fellowship of people united in a common sense of right and community interest. And where that does not exist, there is not a people—nor is there a state, because where there is no people there is no commonwealth.” City of God
“It is all too possible to want gifts from the Lord, but not the Lord Himself—which seems to imply that the gift is preferable to the Giver.” Commentary on Psalms
“He could have come down from the cross, but He preferred to rise up from the tomb.” Enchiridion
“To see God is the promised goal of all our actions and the promised height of all our joys.” City of God
“The things of the Spirit do not come naturally to us like our mother tongue. We are fallen, and the things of God are therefore strange to us. Of course, interest, joy, and delight will help me learn, but behind them there needs to be the divine compulsion, the pressure of the Holy Spirit’s firm but loving discipline.” Confessions
It has an appetite that can never been satisfied. It has a thirst that can never be quenched. It has an ambition that can never be exhausted. It makes demands that can never be fulfilled. It has needs that can never be met. It has passions that can never be quelled. Its aspirations are limitless. Its hunger is ravenous. Its yearning is boundless. Its craving is voracious. Its longing is inestimable. It never has enough. Greed is insatiable.
Greed always wants more. More money. More possessions. More power. More pleasure. More leisure. More prestige. More fame. More influence. More accomplishment. More food. More drink. More toys. More gadgets. More than the last guy. More than the next guy. More. More. More. Always more.
The dictionary defines greed as “an excessive or rapacious desire.” It is the root of both avarice and covetousness. Though it is often associated with an inordinate obsession for economic gain, it is not exclusively a fiscal vice. Rather it can be a consuming desire for absolutely anything. It is a peculiar form of pride which can lead to gluttony, drunkenness, contumacy, lust, envy, anger, or sloth just as easily as it can to opulence or miserliness. It can drive a man mad with alcohol, sex, drugs, and rock and roll just as surely as it can with stock options, mergers and acquisitions, and investment portfolios. It may seek its fortune just as ardently among the wild and the free as among the rich and the famous. Greed is a thrill seeker which it may get its kicks just as well by conquering the X-Games as by conquering Wall Street.
Essentially what that means is that greed is less about the things that we have than it is about the things that have us. It is less about what we possess and more about what possess us. There are men and women of great substance who are free of greed’s entanglements while there are innumerable poor men and women who are so ensnared by greed that they are no longer able to function in any area of their lives. Greed is less about dollars and cents than about discernment and sense.
Greed is ardent, fervent, and voracious.
Greed’s professed credo is “waste and want.” When we succumb to greed we always find that getting is better than having. After all, when we get something it is new and exciting. But once we have it, we invariably begin to take it for granted and we become bored by it. Of course, everything we get ultimately turns into something we have. That is why greed perpetually compels us to get new things. It is a mad, unending, and vicious cycle.
Because it is never satisfied, it is never gratified. Because it is never gratified, it is never thankful. Because it is never thankful, it is never at rest. And because it is never at rest, it is never gain a sense of proportion, perspective, or purpose. Greed defeats every purpose, including its own.
Greed is a particularly virulent vice. It wrecks havoc in the lives of its possessors as well as all those who cross paths with its possessors. It is no respecter of persons. It is an equal opportunity destroyer. It cuts off its nose to spite its face. It slays the goose that lays the golden egg. It robs Peter to pay Paul.
And it is all too common. Greed has always infected humanity in epidemic proportions. It has brought down the great and the small. It has caused the demise of men and nations. It has disappointed great promise. It has undermined great ambition. It has squandered great opportunity.
It has conquered more kingdoms than all the armies ever amassed. It has robbed more men than all the thievery ever devised. It has unsettled more happiness than all the pestilence ever unleashed.
The poisonous effect of greed is thus one of the most common leit motifs in the literature of the world. It plays a prominent role in the myths, legends, epics, tales, songs, proverbs, and stories of nearly every culture and every time throughout history.
The story of Midas is among the most famous. He was the son of Gorgias king of the kingdom of Phrygia. Once, while playing in the royal hunting grounds as a boy, he stumbled across a massive chest filled with gold, silver, and gemstones that had been hidden there by soldiers of fortune returning from the Trojan War. He quickly appropriated the hoard for himself. This fabled largess then became the basis of his extraordinary wealth and opulence.
Over time however, Midas grew discontent. He had heard that in the far flung lands around the Mediterranean there were other kingdoms more resplendent than his, other palaces grander than his, other armies greater than his, other marketplaces busier than his, and other treasuries richer than his. Sullen and forlorn, he railed against the gods for this seemingly capricious challenge to his supremacy. His weeping and wailing went on for days. He was inconsolable.
Dionysius, the god of wine and feasting heard this hue and cry—and because Midas had done him good service in the past, he granted the king the fulfillment of any wish he might choose. Midas had the impudence to ask that from that day forward, whatever he touched might turn to gold. Dionysius could not help but think that it was a foolish, greedy wish. But, he had already promised the king whatsoever his heart might demand. The wish was granted.
Immediately, Midas thought himself to be the most blessed man on the earth. He was utterly delighted. He danced a jig as he departed from the god’s presence and the very soil he trod upon turned to gold. He plucked a twig from a tree—twig, leaves, and all immediately turned to gold. He touched a boulder by the side of the way—it too, turned to gold. He patted his favorite dog as he entered his palace gates—the dog at once froze into a golden statue. Midas did not know whether to be glad or sad.
That evening he ordered his servants to prepare a great feast. When the meal was ready, the courtiers, the royal retinue, and all the favored men and women of the kingdom gathered at their places. Midas opened the festivities by raising a goblet of wine and toasting the assemblage. The goblet was gold already but as soon as the wine touched his lips, it turned into liquid gold. Surprised, he spat out the wretched stuff. He took up a piece of bread—and it too was transformed. By this time his guests were eating and drinking to their hearts content. But to his horror, he realized he could eat none of it. “I shall starve,” he cried out.
At last, the king left the presence of the revelers and spent a very unhappy night alone in his bed chamber—it was also a very uncomfortable night for golden pallets are hardly as comfortable as his old feather mattresses. His greed had consumed every natural pleasure he had ever had.
He could never kiss the ones he loved—his wife, his children, or his grandchildren. He could no longer grasp the hand of a friend. He could not eat or drink. He could not pluck up a flower or swim in the sea or walk through the tall grasses. He could no longer enjoy his life. Indeed, he could no longer live. Greed had greedily taken away everything.
Such tales of woe abound. There is Smaug, the fierce dragon in Tolkein’s modern fairy tale, The Hobbit, whose hoard proves to be its undoing. There is Pahom, the ambitious farmer in Tolstoy’s morality play, How Much Land Does a Man Need, who dies trying to expand his holdings far beyond his capacity. There is Dives, the covetous rich man in Christ’s Gospel parable who ultimately gained the whole world but lost his own soul. Each of these stories—and a thousand others just like them—illustrates the destructive power of greed.
Even more, they give voice to a universal moral: attempting to satisfy the cravings of greed is not only futile, it is certain to impose a smothering sadness and futility upon those very people the world sees as the most accomplished and richly blessed. Indeed, as the contemporary poet Tristan Gylberd has quipped, “There is nothing more depressing than reading a copy of People magazine while waiting at the doctor’s office—page after page of rich, beautiful, and talented celebrities, each more miserable than the last.” Similarly, Hollywood actor Martin Sheen confessed that in all his years among the most glamorous and admired people in the world, “I never saw a satisfied rich man. They were never happy with themselves. They always wanted more.” Interestingly, in the late eighties, Sheen starred in the blockbuster hit, Wall Street. The most famous line from the film was passionately pronounced by his nemesis in the film, a character named Gordon Gecko. This corporate shark asserted, “Greed is good.” The entire film was a profound demonstration of the fact that Gecko was wrong. Dead wrong. But amazingly, the phrase endures while the message it was meant to belie is now forgotten.
Such is the power and effect of greed.
But greed is not just dangerous to those like Midas, Smaug, Pahom, Dives, and the Hollywood starlets who harbor it. Greed affects whole communities. It can unleash its destruction on whole populations. It can spread its deleterious effects around the entire world.
And indeed, it has. The annals of history are strewn with the sad evidence that greed destroys. It destroys everything it touches. Its golden touch starves the aspirations of fulfillment, satisfaction, and freedom.
Greed has no thought of justice. It does not seek to care for the needy, the poor, the despised, or the rejected. It gives no thought to the problems of social stability, cultural enhancement, or national security. It also has no interest in the future—its concern is only for the moment. It is single-minded in its obsessive compulsions.
Greed never looks to others. It is heedless about the victims strewn in its wake. It is entirely incognizant and unconcerned about the people, the principles, or the prospects it must trample on the way to the top of its self-designated vista. It cares only for its own cares. It cares only for itself.
That is why when greed is wed to ideology, the results are so devastating.
Marxism is greed wed to socialism. This is the horrific philosophy that gave the world Communism. It is what gave us the tyranny of the Soviet hegemony. It is what gave us the genocides of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. It is what gave us the crushing deprivations of Eastern Europe’s collectivist economies. It is what gave us the wrenching conflict of the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and the Tiananmen Square. In Das Capital and the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx tied to harness the revolutionary rage of the have-nots against the haves. He tried to yoke socialist structures to anti-social ideals in an effort to create a materialistic dystopia. It is greed run amok.
Mercantilism is greed wed to capitalism. This is the horrific philosophy that gave the world monopolism. It is what gave us corporations without conscience. It is what bestowed upon the business world the profits-at-any-cost-mentality. It is what gave us economics as a science—a series of cold and impersonal calculations—rather than as an art—a series of intimate interpersonal relationships. It is what gave us the commodification of the community—where everyone and everything is defined and valued solely in terms of dollars and cents. It is what gave us commercialized globalism—with its sweat shops, its exploitive labor practices, and its vast disparity between owners and workers. Capitalism is merely an economic structure designed to ensure free and open markets. But mercantilism transforms capitalism through the collusion of big business and big government so that those markets actually become less and less open and free. It is greed run amok.
Imperialism is greed wed to colonialism. This is the horrific philosophy that gave the world the great international empires of Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Rome, the Western European powers, the Soviets, and the Chinese Communists. It is what gave us the oppressions of the Raj. It is what gave us chattel slavery. It is what gave us world war. Adventurism, exploration, commercial expansion, settlement, and aculturation can be the quiet harbingers of great progress. But superceded by greed, they can be—and have been—the leading edge of great oppression. It has reinforced the divide between the rich and the poor. It is greed run amok.
Unfortunately, confronting greed is not as easy as simply identifying and condemning it. It is endemic it seems, to the human condition. We are all prone to its bewitching wiles. It continually beckons to us all, disguised as progress or ambition or diligence or accomplishment or entrepreneurial zeal.
That is why greed must not only be identified and condemned; it must simultaneously be resisted. It must be resisted not just in word but in deed. It must be resisted by a whole series of choices—decisions woven continuously into the very fabric of our lives.
We must not only wisely order our fiscal affairs, our consumption patterns, our work relationships, and our investment strategies to mitigate against greed, we must also take care to guard our eyes, our hearts, and our appetites. We must practice the healthy habits of gratitude, thanksgiving, charity, service, and giving. We must develop life plans, mission statements, and vision for our callings. In other words, we must not allow nature to take its course; we must not allow the force of moral entropy to drive us into the maws of greed.