Is Greed a Virtue?
Fourth Sunday of Easter (Easter4B), Apr. 29, 2012
By Fr. John Foley, S. J.
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Jesus compares the good shepherd to the mere hired hand in Sunday’s Gospel. The good shepherd cares about the sheep. The hired one cares about his salary and only his salary.
But what is wrong with working for hire, and doing your job even if you do not like the sheep you are tending? I imagine that a lot of us are like this out of necessity. Why can’t we work simply for gain?
Look at it this way.* Imagine that there are “handles” on things, poetically speaking. Everything I own—honors that come to me, possessions, etc.—all of this has “handles” that someone could grab in order to wrestle it away. Looks, home, car, reputation, career, money saved up for the children’s education, respect from others, pleasure, youth, you name it.
We want to keep what we have. We grab the handles tight. Who can blame us? But an ominous power comes into play at that point. The forces of greed and evil tell our hearts that everything in the whole world is there just to be grabbed for myself and kept. “Greed is a virtue,” in fact the only virtue, these forces say. The first decades of the 21st century present an economic crisis that seems a perfect result of this way of thinking.
But there is an alternate way of life. It has to do with love, the kind that the good shepherd shows us. Love says, “The real value in life is to receive, not to grab and possess.” All that you have and all that you are is a gift from the good God. You can open your hands and let God pour into them whatever you really need, and if you keep them open, you can easily let what you have pass to others, others who are in need.
Two ways of life: on one side, “Grab And Keep.” On the other, “Receive and Let Go.” The hired hand, the good shepherd.
Do you understand, thus far? Good, because the story continues. There comes an epic battle between these two ways of life. It is waged on the cross. Evil applies its weapons. It seizes and tears away from Jesus everything with “handles” on it—friends, followers, career, respect, relation to God, ordinary comfort, slaking of thirst, the ability to breathe, and life itself.
It takes everything. Evil wins.
Yet there is a fatal flaw in the grab-and-keep philosophy. Since this viewpoint thinks that everything has handles on it, there is an important reality that it cannot recognize at all. Love. Love lets go, receiving humbly, giving humbly. The devil has no way to perceive love since there are no handles on unselfishness. He has to misinterpret what he sees as just another form of self-interest.
So the devil burrows down to the innermost sanctum of Jesus’ soul, greedy to seize the ultimate prize itself, the reality of God. Salivating for it, ravenous, unable to hold back, he throws open the tabernacle doors of Jesus’ soul only to find that sacred space empty, completely empty. The quiet stillness of receiving gratefully and lightly letting go are there, but they are handle-less. The devil goes on his way, confident that everything is now his. But it isn't. Love wins because it has given everything away.
Shall we try it this Easter season? With help from the Good Shepherd?
__________________*I learned a simple poetic explanation from Rosemary Haughton that helps me understand the contrast. It is one of my favorite insights so I have tried to boil it down and present it to you here, though I make no promises about whether I succeeded. Haughton’s book is The Passionate God (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), especially pp. 112 ff.