The sin of Avarice
II Kings 5:19-27, Luke 12:13-21
Gordon Gekko, the fictional character in the 1987 film Wall Street declares “Greed is Good!” In the listing of the Seven Deadly Sins it has been called “avarice”, sometimes known as “covetousness” But I think “greed” in our culture comes closer to its meaning. Greed for food we call gluttony, but greed for money, wealth or possessions is called avarice: the inordinate love of money or the things that money can buy.
Did you hear of the miser who, when about to die, reluctantly made out his will, but made himself his own heir?
One of the earmarks of avarice is the miser spirit. His love is for money, more than for what it can purchase. Those kinds of people are like piggy banks. It is very easy to put money into, but very difficult to get anything out of the piggy banks. You and I have all gone through the childhood experience of trying to get money out of the bank. We shake, and wheedle and contort that thing, and finally it yields a coin.
The greedy are like pigs as well as piggy banks. A pig is good for nothing until it is dead. A cow can give milk, a horse can provide transportation, a sheep can provide wool, hens can give eggs. But a pig gives nothing until it is dead.
You have, of course, heard the story of the pig and the hen going down the road — “for you it’s just an offering, but for me it’s a complete sacrifice”, and that is the way the avaricious feels about any giving.
History and fable are replete with stories of avarice at work. We all know the situation of the monkey with his hand in the jar. Nelson D. Rockefeller (according to recent fable) was asked “How much money does it take to make a man happy?” His response — “just a little more.” Avarice is one appetite that is insatiable.
Roman history passes on to us the story of Marcus Crassus who in 60 B.C. was defeated by the Parthians. He had earned over the years the reputation of being an avaricious man. Upon his capture, his conquerors took molten gold and poured it down his throat with the words, “You hast thirsted for gold, now drink it.” And of course we know the legend of Midas with the golden touch. We hear of the sin of avarice, not only in secular lore, but in the Bible too.
The Biblical Diagnosis.
Go with me to the conquest of Canaan. Joshua and his armies have penetrated the land. Jericho has fallen. They move on to insignificant Ai. And they are soundly defeated. God seems to have deserted them. Joshua comes crying to God. God tells him what has happened. One man’s (Achan’s) covetousness has caused the death of 36 soldiers. He took plunder and hid it. (Joshua ch. 7) It caused the defeat of an entire nation. Achan is detected and he and his family perish. Avarice is deadly.
Go to the New Testament and you see a similar event. The Acts of the Apostles begins with a series of great successes. They are conquering a nation for God and Christ. But two people, Ananias and Sapphira, want the best of both worlds. (Acts ch. 5) They sell their house to give money to the church. But not only do they want the kind of esteem of the saints, they want money too. They lie–they die. Avarice will kill you.
Gehazi’s leprosy was caused by covetousness. But avarice will not just kill the body, it will keep a man out of the kingdom of God. The rich young ruler–went away sad, because he had great riches. Hear the verdict of the rich fool who has hoarded until God says “Thou fool! this night thy soul shall be required of thee and whose will those things be?” And look at poor Judas. He kept the purse. Money allowed him to sacrifice his master. And be careful about all the attempts to white-wash Judas–the scriptures are clear–he did it for the money, and having achieved his desired goal, he went out and hanged himself!
And when Dante writes his Divine Comedy, those who were consumed with avarice find themselves either on the 4th level of hell or the 5th round of Purgatory paying for or being purified from the dreadful disease. Dante says that he saw hell more populated at this level than another. Avarice takes a toll. The Love of Money is the root of all kinds of evil.
But the Bible does not only give stories of the victims of avarice. It gives stern warnings.
The last of the 10 commandments gives us the command. “You shall not covet!” Paul can say that covetousness is idolatry (Eph. 5:5, Col. 3:5). It is the equivalent of bowing before false gods.
But it is Jesus who is most stern.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also… No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?
And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’
Luke 12:15-21, 32-34
And He said to them, ‘Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this, I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”‘
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms, provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
It is easier for a camel….
What shall it profit a man….
So many of Jesus’ parables were about the use and abuse of money. He knew it to be a great snare to both poor and rich. Those who do not have it, seek it. Those that have it, want to hold on to it, usually at too high a price.
Move through church history to John Wesley. A man not afraid of men nor devils. He could face the mob, or charging bulls with great courage – But one thing he feared – Money! He knew what wealth could do. Thomas Olivers writes: “Hundreds and thousands are forever draining Mr. Wesley’s pocket to the last shilling, as those about him are eye-witnesses, those in particular who a few years ago saw and experienced his generosity in giving away by fifties and by hundreds the thousand pounds left him by Miss Lewen.” In reply to his sister, Mrs. Hall, he wrote, “You do not consider money never stays with me; it would burn me if it did. I throw it out of my hands as soon as possible lest it should find a way into my heart; therefore you should have spoken to me in London before Miss Lewen’s money flew away,” (Wesley’s Anecdotes 224-225)
Wesley published a History of England, and made two hundred pounds ($50,000 in today’s currency) from the sale of that work, and he said to Thomas Olivers, as he informed him of his profits, “But as life is uncertain I will take care to dispose of it before the end of the week,” which he accordingly did.
We have another illustration of his benevolence. John Atlay, the Book Steward, said on a certain occasion, “We must stop printing for awhile, for Mr. Wesley gives away his money so fast that I have none left for printing or paper.”
Avarice in our Day
Greed is the prevailing attitude in much of our society. It is demonstrated in our labour-management conflict. Management want as much production as possible for the minimum expense. Labour wants the highest wage possible for minimum work. Both are greedy. The rich acquire more and more out of greed, and the poor covet more and more because of greed. The result are different but the crime is the same. Greed is obvious at all levels of life. The family, year by year, builds up its store of goods, small appliances, big appliances, furnishings, bigger homes, costlier cars, cottage by the lake, boats, skidoos, and on we can go. And then we gather knickknacks, what-nots, and then more cupboards and bigger closets in which to store them. We even rent storage containers to hold the excess of our possessiveness. We are now known, less as “citizens” and more as “consumers.” It seems that we were “born to shop!”
In our society, avarice advances with renewed vigour.
One of the great issues of our day is the wide gap called “income inequality” where the very wealthy siphon up most of the wealth, so that very little in allowed to trickle down to the lower classes.
But avarice is not only corporate and individual in the world – it has found an open door into the Church.
We now hear such bold faced statements, “all God’s sons are Princes and should live as such.” Famous preachers live extravagant lifestyles as the gullible give in faith that God will give more than they give in return. Possibility thinking has too often been turned to personal prosperity rather than the growth of the ministries of the church.
Listen to Dorothy Sayers on this matter of avarice.
“The church says Covetousness is a deadly sin–but does she really think so? Is she ready to found welfare societies to deal with financial immorality as she does with sexual immorality? Do the officials stationed at church doors in Italy to exclude women immodestly dressed, turn anybody away on the ground that they are too well dressed to be honest? Do the vigilante committees who complain of “suggestive” books and plays, make any attempt to suppress the literature which “suggests” that getting on in the world is the chief object in Life…Does the Church arrange services with bright congregational singing for total abstainers from usury?”
But avarice is as serious as those sins that find their locus in promiscuous sex. It may not give aids, but in Gehazi’s case, it gave him leprosy, and so it will to all of us. Leprosy of the spirit–it will eat away at us until we are consumed.
Listen to Paul warning Timothy — I Timothy 6:6-10,
“There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.”
The Cure of Covetousness
If the illness is so severe, and the prognosis not good, what can help us resist the virus? Or, having got it already, how do we find healing?
I think John Wesley in the 1700’s has some profound advice to we who are addicted to money & the things it will buy.
He ministered in a world filled with addictions. The early 1700’s was called the ”Gin Age” of British history. In London one out every six businesses was a gin shop. Alcohol consumption rose to 100 gallons of liquor for every man, woman and child throughout the nation. At the same time gambling had also risen among the wealthy and the wannabees. Fortunes were made and lost at the tables and on the many lotteries available in those days. After the age of Puritanism, the nation also reacted against its strictures, and sexual vulgarity reached new depths in both public display and private ethics. It was an age that seemed to have lost all inhibitions.
Wesley knew that these bad habits of his age ‘tempered the soul”, just as metals that are heated and cooled will retain the shape in which they are bent. This “tempering” made addictions increasingly difficult to break. He was also aware of the cautionary tale that Jesus tells about the expulsion of an unclean spirit, who unless the house was tenanted by that which was wholesome, would invite seven other foul spirits to occupy the house. (Matt. 12:43-45)
But on the other hand, Wesley knew that the Christian, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, could develop “holy tempers”, “holy habits”, “habits of the heart” that would create “enduring dispositions“, where the bent was towards all things good. He taught that the expulsive power of a new affection was the antidote to the many addictions best catalogued by the seven deadly sins of sloth, lust, anger, gluttony, avarice, envy and pride. Each of these soul-destroying inclinations would only lead to the behavioral addictions that damage societies. The initial expulsion of unclean spirits by the gift of the Holy Spirit, however, would need to be followed by the adoption of “holy disciplines”, where the soul would be tempered in new directions. And in this development of “holy tempers,” health of heart and mind and life would be deepened within the person and extended throughout the human community. That may still be the best antidote for our age as well.
Final advice from John Wesley
Do all the good you can,
in all the ways you can,
to all the souls you can,
in every place you can,
at all the times you can,
with all the zeal you can,
as long as you can.