Greed: The Mother of All Sins

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

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Bhishma isn't alone in naming greed as the preeminent sin. Buddhism, in essence, rests on a practiced abhorrence of the ways of desiring. The Visuddhimagga explicitly counsels: "Greed is the real dirt, not dust …The wise have shaken off this dirt, and in the dirt-free man’s religion, live."

The Tao Teh Ching, too, tells us that, “There is no greater calamity than indulging in greed;” and The Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs, delivers the same news: “Where there is greed, what love can there be?”

Here in the West, it is Judaism and, by declension, Christianity that has appointed greed as the matriarch of all other sins. Long before Sinai and the giving to Moses of the Law, there was Noah and the seven laws or mishpathim that are presented, one by one, incident by incident, in the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis. Known as The Seven Laws of Noah, they were the governing principles of Judaism before the Ten Commandments, and sketched in the first parameters of Jewish moral and religious thought.

In order of their biblical occurrence, the first of these seven mishpathim is blasphemy; the second is idolatry; the third, theft; the fourth, murder; the fifth, illicit sex; the sixth false witness or duplicity in adjudication; and the last, the eating of flesh torn from a living beast. Many rabbis came in time to teach that theft was the greatest, because all the others come from it: To commit adultery is to steal another’s partner. To blaspheme is to steal the name of G-d for human purposes. To commit murder is to steal another’s life, etc., etc. And theft comes out of greed.

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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.).
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