The story is just as pointed as it is old of the man whose soul was controlled by the devil of avarice. He had a lot of money, but he wanted more. In his fear that thieves might learn of his riches and come to steal them he had a strong room built deep down beneath the foundations of his house. The door to this room was made of iron and was cleverly concealed in the wall.
Every time he got hold of some more gold this grasping fellow would hurry to his hiding place and add it to his heaps of coins. One day he acquired a particularly large amount of money, and he was particularly eager to add it to his treasures. He hurried to his secret chamber, but in his haste he forgot to take the key from the outside of the lock. He entered, quickly closed the door, dropped the new-won coins one by one on the piles of gold and silver, gloating over every piece. As he started to leave he discovered to his horror that the door was locked and could be opened only from the outside. He screamed and shouted for help; he tried to dig and scrape his way out. But the room was so strongly built that there was no hearing him and there was no escape.
Meanwhile his family wondered where he was. They thought some misfortune had befallen him. They searched everywhere. They asked his friends and business acquaintances. No one had seen him. At last the news reached a locksmith who immediately remembered that this miser had engaged him to make a strong door with a spring lock that would lock itself when the door was closed. He hurried to the home, told the family and rushed to the secret door. There was the key in the lock - outside. They opened the door and found the dead body of the man sprawling with his arms extended over the heaps of coins, embracing his treasures in his deathstruggle, still worshipping in death the god of gold he had adored during life.
1. That man had been killed by the devil of avarice, the second capital sin. Avarice or covetousness means an excessive love of money and worldly goods. Those material possessions may take the form of books or pictures, buildings or land, cars or jewelry. Usually, however, to the avaricious man gold is god. All his affection, all his ambition, all his talents and all his energies are principally and often exclusively devoted to getting more and more gold, money and goods.
2. Avarice attacks in every walk of life. It is a vice that affects both the rich and the poor, the high and the lowly. Have we not all seen men of means, men who have plenty of this world's goods, still straining with every ounce of their strength, and with every power of mind and body, to build up a still bigger bank account? Have we not seen men and women who own several houses or hundreds of acres of land or boxes full of jewelry, still striving to get more? But the covetous are not limited to the wealthy. There are avaricious people among the poor. They would give anything to have more of this world's goods. Their hearts are set on riches, even though they do not have them. They strive for things which are beyond their reach.
3. The more food you give this devil of avarice, the more he wants. The covetous heart is ever adding to what it has; it is never satisfied. St. Bernardin of Siena brings this out in a conversation he carries on with a moneygrabber:
"Now, 0 miser, how much money do you want?" asks our saint.
"If I had ten thousand florins," replied the miser, "I would consider myself
A florin was worth about 50 cents. Let's say the man wanted ten thousand dollars. Suppose St. Bernardin gives him the ten thousand and a few days later asks what he has done with them. "Oh, I have spent them," answered the miser, "and I need some more. There was a tenant of mine to whom I lent a hundred. Then I spent some on cattle, and fifty I used to repair a house, oh, more than fifty."
When our saint asked him how much he now wanted the avaricious one exclaimed:
"Oh, I need fifteen thousand at least."
"What are you going to do with that much money?" asked St. Bernardin.
"Oh, there is a house beside mine that I would do very well to possess. And between the two houses there is a plot of land. If I could have that, nobody would be able to get at me to do me any harm."
No sooner did he spend the fifteen thousand than he wanted twenty-five thousand. When the saint asked him why, the fellow declared:
"What would I do with it? Well, to begin with, there is a certain castle that greatly attracts me. And I want to have a room by each one of the gates. You know I can't bear foggy weather. And so if it is foggy in one place, I must have somewhere to go where it is clear."
St. Bernardin winds up his sermon on the subject by sarcastically saying that the man would then want grand clothes and equipment, and would not be satisfied even if he had a hundred thousand dollars.
Revise this story and the amounts of money, and you have a picture of many people, including some Catholics. Indeed, some of our modern gold-seekers would not stop at a hundred thousand or a million.
4. Such covetous hearts are also wretched and miserable. They cannot be content. They never relax. They never rest. They never sleep. They never stop grasping.
5. The covetous man has many marks, many characteristics by which we can recognize him. Pay close attention to these marks. Some of these labels may fit you:
A. He is heartless and inhuman toward everyone, including those who are in extreme need. His condition is brought out in the famous German folk story about a poor charcoal burner who in the kindness of his heart always tried to do good turns for others. Often he wished for riches that he might help others still more. One day a wicked-looking spirit met him in the woods and told him he would make him rich on condition that he exchange his heart of flesh for a wonderful mechanical heart. The poor man did not fancy the condition, but he consented to the bargain. The evil spirit cast him into a deep sleep. When he awoke he could feel the mechanical heart beating regularly in his breast but it, felt cold, very cold. Riches came to him, but his heart was harsh and stony, his manner overbearing. Everything he touched turned to gold, but the more money he made, the harder his heart became. As old age crept upon him he longed, but in vain, for his warm human heart. The man who gives in to a greed for gold, always has to make this cruel exchange. His heart becomes hard.6. We must keep clearly in mind the difference between avarice and prudent economy. It is not wrong to be thrifty, to be saving and economical. In fact, wasteful and extravagant living is the opposite vice. How can a person tell whether he is stingy or merely economical?
B. The avaricious man is mean and stingy. He becomes what we call in common language a "skinflint," a "cheapskate," a "tightwad." He shows this stinginess everywhere:i. He shows it at home where he scarcely allows enough money to pay for the necessities of life. The skimpy allowance he gives his wife scarcely pays for the groceries and running expenses. He denies his wife and children any pleasure or amusement that costs money, not because he does not have the money, but because he wants to build up a bank account.C. When you see a Catholic who gives little or nothing to the missions, who gripes about the orphan collection, who waits and waits to make his measly contribution to the building fund, mark him down as a miser. The man who thinks only of his own bank account will be blind and deaf to all the good work of the Church.
ii. The avaricious man is stingy outside the home. Ask him to help in a charity drive of any kind and he will try to find an excuse for not giving. If he does weaken he will give a dollar when he should give a twenty. His support of the Church is as cheap as he can possibly make it. To cover up his stinginess with the Lord he will rant and rave about expensive church furnishings, about the priests bleeding the parishioners, and winds up demanding where all the money goes to.
iii. This stingy fellow is stingy also in his social life. That is where he gets the nickname of "cheapskate." He will never treat unless he is forced. He lets others pay the way, and pick up the bill.
For tips he picks the smallest coins out of his pocket. It is not a question of prudent economy; it is miserliness and meanness with regard to money.
D. Because it might cost him something in the way of money, time, or energy, the covetous man will avoid serving on committees or as an officer of parish organizations. He is stingy not only with his silver; he is stingy with his service. He takes no practical interest in parish or community affairs.
E. He delays in paying his bills, causing needless expense and inconvenience to his debtors. He figures that in the meantime he can draw the interest on the money which should be used for meeting his obligations.
F. He becomes uneasy and even angry at trifling losses or expenses. He flies into a rage if one of the family accidentally breaks something, or if something is spoiled or lost.
G. Often the avaricious man is guilty of violating the Tenth Commandment, namely, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods." Covet here means to want in the wrong way. He cannot bear to see another with a better car or more property or a bigger bank account. He is miserable at the financial success of others. The good fortune of his neighbor makes him unhappy.
An old legend brings out this connection between avarice and jealousy. A business man, while on a journey, overtook two travelers. One was a greedy, avaricious man; the other was of a jealous and envious make-up. When they came to the parting of their ways, the merchant said he wanted to give them a parting gift. Whoever made a wish first would have his wish fulfilled, and the other man would get a double portion of what the first had asked for. The greedy man knew what he wanted, but he was afraid to express his wish, because he wanted a double portion, and could not bear to think of his companion getting twice as much as he would receive. Meanwhile the envious man was unwilling to wish first, because he could not stand the idea that his companion would get twice as much as he would get. Each waited and waited for the other to wish first. Finally the covetous man took the envious man by the throat and threatened to choke him to death unless he made his wish. At that threat the envious man said:
"All right, I will make my wish. I wish to be blind in one eye."
At once he lost the sight of one eye, and his avaricious companion went blind in both eyes. That is how avarice and the other capital sin of envy blind and curse the souls of men.
H. Avarice is also one of the principal causes of the controversy and struggle between labor and management that has brought on so much bitterness and so many costly, crippling strikes and violence. Not always, but often, the demands of labor rise from avarice and not from justice. On the other hand, the refusal of management to grant just demands finds its foundation in covetousness, a desire for greater profits.
This vice creeps into other business and social relations. The grocer who cheats, the butcher who gives unjust weights, as well as the customer who tries to outdo the merchant, all are inspired by avarice. Yes, it is one of the capital, principal vices of mankind, a vice we must weed out at all costs and at all efforts.
By asking himself whether he is guilty of anyone of the indications or marks of the covetous person, as I have just outlined them for you. If your saving makes you unfeeling toward the poor and suffering, if it makes you stingy toward your family, your parish, and other charities, if it keeps you from cooperating in parish affairs, if it prompts you to delay paying your debts, if it makes you extremely sad when you lose something or miss a chance to make money - then you can be sure that the devil of avarice has a hold on your heart.
7. Once you have recognized this evil spirit of greed in your make-up, start at once to root it out. How can a covetous man overcome this vice?
A. He should realize that he is merely a pilgrim on this earth, and that he cannot take his treasures with him. He should recall the words of St. Paul to St. Timothy, words which are divinely addressed to all of us :8. Generosity is that virtue which withdraws the affections from earthly goods and prompts a person to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It shows itself:
"Godliness with contentment is indeed great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and certainly we can take nothing out." 1 Timothy, 6:6-7.
B. He should think less of earth and more of heaven, recalling and living the words of that same letter of St. Paul to St. Timothy regarding the rich:
"Let them do good and be rich in good works, giving readily, sharing with others, and thus providing for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, in order that they may lay hold on the true life." 1 Timothy, 6:18.
C. The avaricious man must consider the emptiness of mere things, helpless things, like money and land and belongings. Think of the wretched man in the story with which we started tonight - the man who was accidentally locked in the secret room with all his treasures. His piles of gold were helpless to open a door or secure him assistance. Stocks and bonds and bank accounts will be worthless on the day of doom. They will be worse than worthless, if we have violated God's law in acquiring them.
D. The covetous soul should weigh the evils of avarice: it hardens the heart, it blinds the eyes, it cripples the hand of giving, it limits the joys of life to cold, unsatisfying gold.
E. He should seek to know the will of God, especially as expressed in the Tenth Commandment: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods."
F. Above all he should strive to acquire that virtue which is the direct opposite of avarice, namely, generosity.
A. In active charity toward the poor. Suppose you suspect that you are covetous. Test yourself by giving to some poor person or some charitable cause at the next opportunity.9. About twenty years ago there died in Davenport, Iowa, a man who was nicknamed "Hummer." His real name was Henry Kahl, but they called him "Hummer" Kahl because he got things done efficiently and quickly. His life reads like an Alger story - poverty to riches. Born in 1875, he had to go to work at the age of 12. At 16 he was driving a team for a contractor. He worked energetically and efficiently, became a foreman and then a partner in the business. As head of a contracting firm he never asked his men to do anything that he could not do. He was fearless as well as tireless. No one was surprised when he became a millionaire. And no one was surprised at his generosity in the giving of time and energy and money to individuals and worthy causes. His keenest delight was to do someone a kindness unnoticed. He was the very opposite of an avaricious man, so that the then Bishop Rohlman could say of him:
B. In supporting good works. The next time there is a collection for the missions, the orphans, or war relief, double your contribution. Prove to yourself that you are not avaricious. Incidentally, you will double your blessings.
C. In developing greater confidence in God. The more you put your trust in earthly treasures, the less you put your confidence in God. Yes, be thrifty, be economical, be saving, but be so in a prudent, reasonable way. We find generous souls in every walk of life.
"To his fellow citizens he remains a demonstration that a man can reach wealth and success through honesty and hard work. To those of our faith he will be a challenging example of a man who made his mark in a material way, and was withal a thoroughly practical Catholic."Would that this could be said of everyone of you.
10. Finally, in this question of avarice and liberality, we can do no better than think of our Lord and how He purposely gave everything He had in the service of others. Think of how He was stripped of even His clothing in His passion and death.
By way of contrast, recall the avaricious Judas who sold His Master for thirty pieces of silver. What a contrast! Tonight and during this Lent choose to be more like the Master and less like Judas. Trust not riches. Trust in God. Amen.
Adapted from Lent and the Capital Sins
by Fr. Arthur Tonne, OFM (©1952)