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?