Three Faces of Greed
Sin seldom strides into our lives announcing its hostile intentions. It prefers stealth, camouflage, or even better, to appear friendly. As Thomas Aquinas taught, when we do evil we always will to act "under the aspect of the good."
Sin typically cloaks itself in some story or rationalization that mitigates or hides our wrongdoing from ourselves: Inordinate anger masquerades as "righteous indignation," arrogance as "standing up for my rights," retaliation as "giving them what they deserve," profligacy as "giving myself what I deserve," lust as "healthy romantic ardor," and so on. When it comes to sin, we're inveterate "spin doctors." As "The Fraudbuster" suggests, such rationalizations also accompany greed.
Greed is an inappropriate attitude toward things of value, built on the mistaken judgment that my well-being is tied to the sum of my possessions. Greed is more than mistaken beliefas if knowing a few more facts would somehow solve the problem. It also involves emotions (perhaps longing, unfulfillment, fear) and attitudes (a sense of entitlement, rivalry). Greed alienates us from God, from our neighbor, and from our true self.
Ahab only coveted Naboth's vineyard in his heartone form of greed. But Jezebel, his queen, acting under the banner of entitlement"Are you the king of Israel or not?" (1 Kings 21:7, nlt)arranged for Naboth's death and seized the vineyard. When we covet our neighbors' house, car, spouse, or whatever else, we see them as rivals or impediments to our own gratification.
On one level, we see at once the errors that underlie greed. We know that the world and all that it contains belong to God, and that our immediate and ultimate good consists in being rightly related to him, not to any of the things his world contains. Nevertheless, disordered loves and skewed thinking combine to suppress this clear Christian truth. So we pursue goods to bolster our egos, to win the admiration and acceptance of others, to dominate others, or to palliate unacknowledged spiritual ills.
How we camouflage greed depends on the particular species of greed to which we're tempted. For instance, greed can take the form of acquisitivenessbeing inordinately concerned with amassing goods.
Michael Milken, the infamous junk-bond king of Drexel Burnham Lambert, earned a salary of $550 million per year when he was indicted and eventually convicted for violating federal securities and racketeering laws. Although rich beyond the average person's wildest imagination, Milken craved more and cheated to get ita clear case of acquisitiveness. What might have motivated him? Perhaps he cloaked his acquisitiveness by ambition and ego, and justified his excesses by supposing that only unbridled competitiveness could win the high regard of his adversaries and success in the world of high finance.
Compare Milken with Katherine Drexel, niece of Anthony J. Drexel, the financier whose name Milken's former company still bears. Katherine, only the second American citizen to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, inherited millions from the family's banking fortune. She did what the rich young ruler of the Gospels could not: She sold all that she had and gave it to the poor. Despite her wealth, she lived poorly, mended her own clothes, traveled by third-class rail, and distributed millions to more than 200 missions and schools established on behalf of Native Americans and African Americans. Milken was in the grip of greed; Katherine Drexel let money slip easily from her grasp.