Greed: The Mother of All Sins

Many world religions say greed is the stuff the other deadly sins are made of.

BY: Phyllis Tickle


Continued from page 1

This idea--that greed is the source, not the substance, of sin--continues to inform Judaism. In his book, "The Nine Commandments," Donald Neal Freedman argues that the last two commandments, against coveting one's neighbor's goods or wife," don't name a sin as the other commandments do, but forbid an attitude.

Jesus of Nazareth, irregular rabbi that He was, erased the traditional moral distinction between committing an act and intending. He taught that desire itself is a sin, that the thought is enough. The early Christians shaped their evolving theology around this principle, but even in this new scheme of sin, the primacy of avarice (avaritia, which we translate somewhat inadequately as “the love of money”) remained. Avaritia, the Apostle Paul warned, is the root of all evil; and the early Church took up his cry. The devout took to writing Paul’s doctrine as an acrostic, making it a kind of cartoon about the corruption of Rome as well as a cautionary dictum:

Radix (the root)
Omnium (of all)
Malorum (evils)
Avaritia (avarice.).

We in the new millennium understand this kind of graphic punning. Our own version might look like this:

United (in the)
Sin (of)

Does this seem harsh? The current tear in our national self-confidence, which our Fed chief put a name to this week, arises in part from a loss of naivete. That would have come as no surprise to Bhishma, who says that from greed spring "loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice."

We are good people, we want to object--as are ex-Enron CEO Ken Lay, supporter of many good causes; Joseph Berardino, head of a system of accounting that was the system; Dennis Kozlowski, appreciator of the arts; Bernard Ebbers, proof-positive that a poor boy from Mississippi can make it big. We say to ourselves, because we need to, that these are not “bad” people, just greedy ones. As stockholders—more Americans own securities today than ever before--we profited from their greed, enabled them, and we are certainly not impious!

Brishma puts the lie to this conceit as well. “When wicked-souled persons," he tells the king, "under the domination of covetousness, apparently practice the duties of righteousness, the consequence … is that the desecrations committed by them soon become current among men.”

Desecrations and habits of desecration, both theirs and ours, current among us? Our times, if not our selves, made impious? If that be true (and we know in our hearts that it is), then the sin amongst us must be pulled up in the same manner as it took root, one citizen at a time. And thus it is perhaps good that we turn ourselves, and our leaders, for the first time in many decades, to the study of Greed.

The Farm in Lucy
July, 2002

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