If you wanted to split up a family the best way to do it would be to start a dispute about inheritance. Most people could name three or four instances. It’s not a new kind of problem; it has always been there. In today’s gospel reading a man brings such a dispute to Jesus. It was common to bring these disputes to a Rabbi. But Jesus brushed it aside and gave the man a lesson on greed instead!
It is common experience that those who have most want most. This must be because they don't really have what they have: it doesn't fulfil them, it only baits them into further accumulation. Greed is a bottomless pit and nothing will ever fill it. Many misers even live very poor lives - in order to die rich! A tycoon stipulated in his will that he should be buried in his limousine, seated at the wheel, with a Havana cigar in his mouth. It was done. As the crane was lowering the limousine into the grave, one of the bystanders said to his friend, “Man! Some people really know how to live!”
How do you calculate your wealth? Usually we calculate it by checking how much we have, but the saints tell us we should calculate it by checking how much we have given away. The psychology of possession is full of paradoxes. Wealthy people, by spending their lives accumulating wealth, prove how poor they feel; people who feel deeply enriched within themselves would not stoop to that. Poverty feels the want of just so much, but greed feels the want of everything. If you collect a million are you happy then? The chances are that you are not; the collecting has done something to you, it has captured your mind and imagination; you want to continue collecting; you have become a collector, just warming to the task. So you collect another million and another... you will never finish collecting. What is it all about? What is it for? What are you adding to yourself? You are adding zeros! You are cheating yourself! So much work for zero! Someone said about a very wealthy man once that he was just the keeper of his wealth, “only a turnkey.”
Can you measure greed? Not exactly. But even a rough estimate could be very useful! Have you ever noticed that the size of a sum of money seems to change depending on whether you are getting it or giving it? The sum is the same, the difference shows your partiality. If you could measure that difference, even approximately, it would be your greed index!
Why would we want to know such an unpleasant thing about ourselves? For the same reason that we would sooner look in a real mirror than in a distorting one. We want to know the truth about ourselves, however ugly. In fact the uglier a person is, the more he looks in the mirror! “The truth will set you free,” Jesus said (John 8:32). Self-flattery only knots us up in delusion.
Instead be a giver, the wise ones tell us. Know the freedom and joy of giving. This we will know only by doing it, not by thinking about it. As the French poet André Gide said, “Complete possession is proved only by giving. All you are unable to give possesses you.” In other words, greed is self-defeating.
Is it wrong, then, to desire anything at all? We should desire only one thing, the heart of the matter, the central meaning of our life. It is this that the saints and sages have been trying to tell us. The same Gide said in another place, “One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it. But I desire everything and consequently get nothing.”
Donagh O'Shea OP