Generosity and Greed

The prosperity gospel, which assures its followers that wealth is a sign of blessing from the Lord, and the more one has the better, is really no different from the ‘greed is good’ mantra of Gordon Gekko. In some respects, it is far worse, because it spreads a religious gloss over behaviour that is anything but godly. Many of the words we associate with money-making have unpleasant overtones: greed, avarice, meanness, miserliness, profiteering, fraud — they are not words we would want applied to ourselves. The one that always strikes me is miserliness, from the Latin miser, meaning someone who is wretched, unhappy. It is, as always, the degree of attachment to wealth that tends to make one happy or unhappy rather than the amount of money one has or does not have; but amassing wealth and refusing to spend it is a sure way of becoming deeply, wretchedly unhappy. Who ever derived more than a passing joy from contemplating the noughts at the end of his bank balance? Surely only a nut-case.

Today and tomorrow we are re-reading St Benedict’s advice to the cellarer or business manager of the monastery (RB 31). He begins with a list of qualities the cellarer ought to have, and they make challenging reading. The cellarer should be

a wise person of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, nor offensive or lazy or wasteful, . . . who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1–2)

I think that is a neat summing-up of an attitude we can all cultivate, of being detached in respect of our own material possessions, but generous to others in their use. We may have very little left over at the end of the month, perhaps nothing at all, but we can still be compassionate, ready to share what we have. I am reminded of a story my father once told me of a time when he was serving in the Middle East. He was running along, tired, sweaty and very fed up when he passed an elderly man walking in the opposite direction. The man immediately reached into a bag round his neck and pressed a handful of fresh dates into my father’s hand. The man was poor, materially much poorer than my father, but he was rich in compassion and showed himself a father to my father, sharing the little he had. Who he was, whether he was Christian or Muslim, we shall never know, but nearly three quarters of a century later his instinctive generosity is still remembered and celebrated. We might ask ourselves, will ours be?

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7 thoughts on “Generosity and Greed”

  1. As a ‘survivor’ of prosperity gospel groups I can wholly appreciate the truths in this message. There is an insidious grasping underlying these teachings which completely oppose the love, unselfishness and generosity of the Gospel in Christ.

    Thank God for the simple truths of The Rule.

  2. A couple of years ago was in the local coffee shop when a homeless man took out a sealed pkt of sandwiches from his bag and asked me if I would like them. I thanked him and insisted that he should keep them for himself in case he needed them. He said that it was OK, that he’d had them from the bins at ASDA and they always had plenty there. I don’t know if it’s true, but someone has told me that the homeless can no longer access the ASDA bins 🙁

    I found it a little disconcerting that so much food was being thrown away. Also it could be a little risky if food is off, but the man didn’t seem at all concerned about that and to be honest I think we are probably far too cautious at times.

    He was being very generous though because it was a long walk back to ASDA if he wanted to get more.

    He seemed very agitated and un-rested. I asked him if he was OK. He said that ‘they’ were all round the boarders and were coming to get us. When I asked him who they were and he said the Russians. So, I reassured him that it was fortunate that he had wandered into Herefordshire because the SAS had all the boarders covered, thinking that he could have a rest and get some sleep if he felt safer.

    He seemed to relax then, had a cup of tea and said that he had to go (I hope it was to find somewhere to get some sleep). His paranoia, or Schizophrenic nature reminded me of why he was probably homeless in the first place. He certainly had a generous nature and a Christian upbringing. Perhaps a wealthy sane man might say that he was mad to offer what might have been his last bit of food.

    It’s a funny world and strange how these events have an impact our lives.

  3. Thank you so much for these observations! In the U.S., where I live, the disparity of wealth between the “haves” and “have nots” is growing, along with a kind of disdain of the “haves” for the “have nots:” “If we rose to wealth, others can as well. You’re on your own!” We seem to have forgotten that the stakes are not equal, although “all men are created equal,” as our genius-founders asserted. Newly elected legislators want to spend billions more on “defense,” yet also want to repeal our new healthcare act, cut spending for education, the elderly, the poor, the immigrants. In a nation as wealthy as the U.S. there simply seems to be a lack of will, of compassion, and of willingness to understand. I am grateful that Catholic social teaching stands as a path to enflesh the Gospels in our unequal land!

  4. I often wonder how generous is generous, if it doesn’t cost us anything, or costs us so little we hardly notice it’s gone.

    I suppose that this is the point Jesus was making when he said how generous the woman at the temple was, who had given just a few coppers.

    • Yes, but it’s difficult, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t exactly commend the woman for her reckless generosity as such; he notes how far it surpasses that of those who have their offerings trumpeted before them, but I think his remark is a bit ambiguous, implying that we’ve got to work it out for ourselves.

  5. I will never ever forget the generosity of my friends in the Ecuadorian fishing village where I used to live. They had almost nothing, yet they freely shared with me,a wealthy foreigner. It was a powerful lesson in priorities.

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