As you know, two of the Ten Commandments deal with covetousness: “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife,” and “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” Covetousness is defined as an inordinately strong desire for possessing someone or something. In his book Victory Over Vice, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said:
Covetousness is an inordinate love of the things of this world. It becomes inordinate if one is not guided by a reasonable end, such as a suitable provision for one’s family, or the future, or if one is too solicitous in amassing wealth, or too parsimonious [stingy] in dispensing it. The sin of covetousness includes, therefore, both the intention one has in acquiring the goods of this world and the manner of acquiring them. It is not the love of an excessive sum that makes it wrong, but the inordinate love of any sum.
Simply because a man has a great fortune, it does not follow that he is a covetous man. A child with a few pennies might possibly be more covetous. Material things are lawful and necessary to enable us to live in accordance with our station in life, to mitigate suffering, to advance the kingdom of God, and to save our souls.
It is the pursuit of wealth as an end, instead of a means to the above ends, that makes a man covetous.
We often hear the words “avarice” and “greed” used interchangeably with covetousness. Both avarice and greed fall under the umbrella of covetousness. The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines “avarice” as follows:
An excessive or insatiable desire for money or material things. In its strict sense, avarice is the inordinate holding on to possessions or riches instead of using these material things for some worthwhile purpose. Reluctance to let go of what a person owns is also avarice.
Greed occurs when a person’s avarice becomes so extreme that it has become an uncontrollable passion. The greedy person loves wealth and material possessions to such an extent that he continually seeks to acquire and accumulate more and more for their own sake. Over time he develops a lust for power that is fueled by his ability to use his wealth to buy influence, get what he wants, and force his will upon others.
Avarice and greed are grave sins when they cause a person to (1) put his faith in the abundance of riches rather than in God, (2) maliciously or fraudulently infringe upon the rights of others to obtain or retain wealth, (3) sin against charity by failing to assist the poor, or (4) become so absorbed in acquiring wealth that he disregards his religious obligations.
One or more of the following attributes will be found in a person who succumbs to covetousness: deceit, stinginess, lack of generosity, disquietude about position or work assignment, hoarding, secretiveness, or ungraciousness when performing or receiving a favor.
The danger in continually seeking and desiring more and more of the things of the world is that such unabated desire leads a person to trust in things rather than in God. Our Lord Himself said, “No man can serve two masters, God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). A heart that is focused on the acquisition of earthly pleasures and possessions is incapable of sharing in spiritual and divine joys.
The fate of those who focus on amassing wealth and material possessions for their own sake was explained by the Venerable Louis of Grenada in his book, The Sinner’s Guide:
Death will rob you of all your earthly possessions; your works, good and bad, will alone accompany you beyond the tomb. If this dread hour finds you unprepared, great will be your misfortune. All that remains to you will then be distributed into three portions, your body will become the food of worms, your soul the victim of demons, and your wealth the prey of eager and perhaps ungrateful or extravagant heirs.
In addition to humility, there are two other key virtues that act as the antidote to covetousness: generosity and trust. These virtues can be practiced by:
• Developing simpler tastes for the things of this world
• Desiring to imitate the poverty of Christ
• Generously sharing what you have with others
• Avoiding excess and the temptation to live luxuriously
• Cultivating the habit of doing without necessities
• Giving generously to the poor and to good works
• Recognizing that wealth and earthly goods are not an end but a means given to you by God to provide for your needs, the needs of your family, the needs of those who are less fortunate than you, and the advancement of the kingdom of God
It was the Son of God who said:
I say you therefore, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink; nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is not the life of more consequence than the food and the body than the clothing? Look at the birds of the sky, how they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them! Are you not of much more value than they? Yet who among you by anxious thought is able to add a single span to his life?
And why should you worry about clothing? Observe the field-lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his magnificence was not arrayed like one of them. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which exists today and is thrown in the oven tomorrow, will He not much rather clothe you, O you of little faith?
Do not therefore worry saying, “What shall we eat?” “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” for the heathen seek after all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His holiness, and all these things shall be given you besides. Do not then be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Quite enough for the day is its own trouble. (Matthew 6:25-34)
Next I’ll cover the primary fault of sloth.