"Love your neighbour as yourself!" we are told from childhood. But we are also told from childhood that we have to compete with our neighbour: in school, in sport, in everything. "Nice guys come last," they say. These are two different (even opposite) religions, and we are continually persuaded and educated to follow them both. Is it any wonder that we become confused? "No servant can be the slave of two masters," said Jesus, "he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn" (Luke 16:13). As if rediscovering that truth, someone said that if there was an outbreak of Christian love, the whole economic system would collapse immediately!
John Milton, the 17th century English poet, imagined Mammon (which means 'wealth regarded as a God') not really as a god but as a fallen angel. Even before he fell from grace Mammon's character wasn't quite upright ("erected"); he had his greedy eye on the gold.
Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell From heaven,
for even in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy….
It is not today or yesterday that avarice was invented! You could go back much further than Milton's century to the ancient Greeks. In their story of King Midas there is the deepest wisdom about avarice. For some favour, the god Dionysus offered to grant Midas anything he wished for. The king requested that everything he touched would turn to gold. But he soon regretted his choice because even his food and drink were changed to gold! That is the punishment of the greedy, and it is self-inflicted. Their focus narrows down to acquisition. It is like deciding to breathe in and never to breathe out any more.
The wisdom of the world shines out clearly in print, yet how hard it is to translate it into one's life! "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also," said Jesus (Mt 6:21) - for better or worse, one might add. The Irish proverb appears to take it up from there! "Where your heart is, there your feet will take you." (An áit a bhfuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa thú.) And that could well be a very narrow stony place - if our treasure has a pitfall in it, like Midas's.
What about the other religion, the religion that told us to love? That sets the flow in the opposite direction: rather than spend your life acquiring, it tells us, give yourself away! Breathe out! Be a fountain rather than a drain!
How can I pour myself out continually when I feel so limited, so poor, so needy? Surely I should admit I have needs - I need to breathe in too!
Yes! I could not breathe out if I couldn't breath in! I proclaim joyfully that I am part of the world and of everybody, and I depend on everything to make my life human! But the primary urge should be to give everything away, to give myself away, and not to hoard. Meister Eckhart, the great German mystic of the 14th century, said that only the person who is able to give everything away is really rich; people who accumulate a great deal of goods (the people we would normally call rich) are showing how poor they are! They feel poor, so they need all these things in order to feel rich. But a person who knows inwardly that his or her father is a King has no need to accumulate ciphers of wealth. That person is everyone who calls God Father.