Avarice is the inordinate love of riches, and is a vice that is especially prominent in the world today. We see it in the growing inequality between rich and poor, in gross displays of luxury, and in the many people who direct their lives to the pursuit of wealth. And yet this sin that drives our capitalist world is too rarely denounced.
The evil of avarice firstly has the effect of setting our hearts and minds on the corruptible things of earth, and so preventing us from rising up to contemplate incorruptible heavenly realities. As Jesus said,
‘Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through, and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.’
I feel we’ve grown far too comfortable ignoring Jesus’s words, but He could not be clearer. We have to make a choice: do we want the riches of heaven or the riches of earth? Both is not an option.
Avarice then has the second effect of separating us from our fellow humans. We look at our property and say in our hearts, this is mine and not yours. We build up and fiercely guard a tiny kingdom of what is mine, and we allow no one else in. If you need something I might kindly give it to you, but I’ll make damn sure it’s known I am being gracious and have no debt to you. Here is me and mine, and outside this there is you and yours, and you can look after yours and I’ll look after mine.
This is why evangelical poverty is so important and so powerful. It tears down these walls we have placed around ourselves, and frees us to meet each other without the barrier of mine and thine, but just as people. Basically, it frees us to love one another.
St Basil says, commenting on Jesus’s parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16-21),
‘But thou wilt say, Whom do I wrong by keeping what is my own? For it follows also, And there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. Tell me what is thine, from whence didst thou get it and bring it into life? As he who anticipates the public games, injures those who are coming by appropriating to himself what is appointed for the common use, so likewise the rich who regard as their own the common things which they have forestalled. For if every one receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.
‘But if thou confessest that those things have come to thee from God, is God then unjust in distributing to us unequally. Why dost thou abound while another begs? unless that thou shouldest gain the rewards of a good stewardship, and be honoured with the meed of patience. Art not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast received to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which rots in thy possession, the money of the pennyless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightest be a benefactor.’(St. Basil, quoted in St Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea)
The rule is simple, but extremely demanding, and many of us should immediately recognise that we are avaricious. We hoard so much that we do not need, and happily leave others to go without. We store up wealth against possible future misfortune, while our neighbours experience such misfortune already.
This doctrine is called the ‘universal destination of goods’, and says that all of creation was made for the enjoyment of all humanity, and in justice ought to be ordered to the good of all. No one has the right to claim anything as ultimately and exclusively his or her own, and to do so is nothing less than theft. This is the teaching of the Church. As St Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘Man should not consider his material possession his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.’
This doesn’t mean we all have to take vows of poverty (although that is the ideal). But we do need to inspect and challenge our relationship with wealth. If it is anything to you more than a tool to meet your needs and love your neighbour, then it is avarice.
How do we fight this vice? Very simply, we identify the vice and then practice its opposite, charity. When we are holding too tightly to what we have already, we must consciously decide not to keep track of what others might owe us, and then to forget it entirely, even if they won’t do the same. In fact, we should abandon the notion we could ever have a debtor, since we ask God every day to forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. When we have more than we need, we must seriously ask ourselves how best to use it for the good of our brothers and sisters, and resolve to do accordingly. Essentially, refuse to believe it is really yours at all, and you will do fine.
God bless you 🙏🏽
P.S. For an example of avarice, I recommend this classic from Tom and Jerry, the Movie: