By Engr. Carlos Cornejo
Greed for money and material things has two parts: greed to get what we don’t have and the greed to keep what we have. Thus, the two opposites of greed are (1) the virtue of contentment, voluntary poverty, or detachment and (2) the virtue of generosity or having mercy on others. St. Paul practiced contentment when he said “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content” (Phil 4:11). As for generosity, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7), and “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
There is nothing wrong with being rich. Our Lord never criticized the rich for being rich but only for being attached to their riches. Thus, he criticized the rich for not giving more compared to the poor widow who was more generous than them (Mk 12:43). Here’s what St. Paul said about rich people: “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.” (1 Tim 6:17-19) Here St. Paul never said don’t get rich but rather he just reminded the wealthy not to rely on their riches, nor make it the most important thing in their lives or to be attached to it. Likewise, he reiterated that they should be generous in sharing their wealth and be rich in good deeds. It is commonly said when we die, riches can’t be brought along with us in the next life. “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, naked shall I return to earth.” (Job 1:21) Well, I disagree, a bit. Material riches transformed into good works by sharing our wealth to others especially to those in need, becomes spiritual riches that can be brought along with us to the next life.
Our society becomes a danger for us for a number of reasons. The general public especially the media encourages competition and economic aggression rather than contentment. We are bombarded with advertising appeals to greed in owning things, and that being affluent is the greatest form of contentment in life, making it appear that happiness comes only from possessing. On a deeper level, greed is a great unwisdom, a philosophical foolishness for it assumes happiness comes from acquiring and having things. This is a lie. There are so many things money can’t buy such as health, happiness, friendship, immortality, love, wisdom, virtue, a good name, etc. Happiness can come only from being, not having. Objects that we possess will always be lesser than ourselves. Happiness comes from being possessed by what is greater than ourselves—God, Truth, Goodness, Beauty (beauty that is not physical but spiritual) wisdom and virtue. These alone can make us happy, can satisfy the restless heart, can fill the infinite God-shaped hole at the center of our soul. Greed simply doesn’t work. It’s like satisfying your thirst by drinking sea water.
How do we practice this virtue of detachment in our day to day lives? Since it is all about moderation in possessing things, we should not own things that are not necessary. Owning five sets of rubber shoes for the same purpose when one or two would do is a form of attachment. Having five kinds of wristwatches when only one or two would suffice is not how we practice this virtue even if we could afford them. The key word here is contentment with what is needed and being generous with our wealth. Tertullian, an old sage and Christian writer of the first century, would always repeat the same thing whenever he would go to a market place where all sorts of items are being sold, “Lo and behold!” he says, “So many things that I don’t need.” We should say the same thing when we go to department stores or to on-line selling websites.
We try to empty our hearts of things not just for the sake of not desiring them, but so that it can be filled with better and higher things. We try to empty our hearts with created things so that it can be filled by God. And that is the ultimate purpose of detachment.