'Thou Shalt Not Covet': Avoiding Greed and Envy
The Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods,” requires us to avoid an unhealthy desire for material goods. In our previous article, we considered the Ninth Commandment’s call not to covet our neighbor’s wife and the accompanying call to live a chaste life. Now, let us consider the need to not covet what belongs to others.
The Tenth Commandment has close links also with the Seventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” but it focuses on excessive inner attitudes and inordinate desires for things rather than on the act of stealing itself.
Greed closes us in on ourselves
Greed is one of those deadly sins that Jesus repeatedly warns us about. For example, in Luke 12:13-21, a man comes to Jesus with his priorities upside down. He is at odds with his brother over material things, and he wants Jesus to help him sever all fraternal ties. He says, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.”
Property is more important for this man than persons. He operates under the illusion that things will make him happy. He has set his heart on “storing up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” Jesus refuses to cater to his folly. Instead of helping the man to get rid of his brother and to grab more property because of an immoderate love of possessing, Jesus tells him a parable to jar him into seeing how foolish is his blind chase after material things.
In the “Parable of the rich fool,” notice how the foolish man’s vocabulary reveals how his excessive appetite for wealth has shriveled his soul. No longer believing in prayer and no longer interested in others, the rich man talks only to himself with constant use of the pronouns “I” and “my.” “He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, ‘Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry?’” He cares only about himself, with no regard for God or others.
Jesus explains that the rich man is a fool because God may demand his life that very night and he will not have stored up anything that amounts to “riches” in God’s sight. We don’t get to heaven by talking only to ourselves and not caring about others. The rich man was doing the opposite of what St. Paul advises (Col 3:2): “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”
Differing Grades of Greed
Not all greed is the same. We can have varying degrees of inordinate desire for material things. Some of these do not amount to deadly sin but they still hinder our friendship with Christ and lessen our love of others. For example, an over-eager desire for possessions can dull our sensitivity to the needs of others. It can distract us from what really matters in life. When this happens, we discover that we are acquiring far more than we actually need.
A warning sign of greed’s advancement on our soul is when we seek to bolster our own ego and self-esteem through acquiring things rather than by maturing in authentic love. We allow worry about creature comforts to distract us from a spiritual life in tune with Christ and His Gospel. Not only do we forget about the true needs of our family and friends but we also forget about those less fortunate in our community, the sick and the poor.
There is, to be sure, a kind of greed that is mortally dangerous. It amounts to a form of idolatry. St. Paul issues a stern warning about this deadly sin (Eph 5:5): “Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure or greedy person, that is, an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ.”
Envy kills joy
The Catechism of the Catholic Church links greed and envy (#2538-9): “Envy can lead to the worst crimes… It refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s good and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly. When it wishes grave harm to a neighbor it is a mortal sin.”
Envy causes a person to find a perverted kind of happiness in the misfortunes of others. Since this amounts only to a counterfeit happiness, it inevitably leads to a dark form of sadness, a weighing down of the heart that breeds hatred, theft and even violence.
A Question of Attitude and Priorities
Jesus does not condemn possessions or wealth in themselves. He does not ask most of us to hand over all material goods in order to be his followers. Rather, He directs our attention to proper attitudes regarding things, to the priorities that matter most. He says (Mt 6:19-21), “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroy, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”
Recall, too, how Jesus asks a rich man who has faithfully kept the commandments to do one more thing, namely to give up his possessions (Mk 10:21-22): “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
Greed and envy stifle the soul and keep us from finding genuine joy in Christ. But Gospel simplicity and a healthy detachment from the things of earth free us to praise our Creator and to put our gifts at the service of one another. As Jesus says (Mt 5:3), “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Copyright 2006 The Catholic Sun.
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