AVARICE By James Stalker
By James Stalker, 1902
1. No one who has pondered much on the course of human life will be astonished at avarice holding a high place on the roll of the deadly sins, for it has played a conspicuous and an evil part in history. The old authors who wrote on the Seven Deadly Sins used to assign to each of them a number of daughters—that is, of sins which each breeds—and the daughters assigned to avarice were numerous and ill-favored. A large proportion of the wrongs and crimes of history has been due to the inordinate greed of gain. Indeed, the Bible itself says that ‘the love of money is the root of all evil.’ Many attempts have been made to soften down this statement. Attention has, for example, been drawn to the fact that it is not about money the statement is made, but about the love of money. Then, it has been pointed out, the correct translation may be—’is a root of all evil,’ not ‘the root.’ Evil has many roots, and this is one of them. Or, again, the meaning may be that every kind of evil at one time or another springs from this root—it may spring from other roots here or there, but somewhere it is always springing from the love of money. In spite, however, of these ingenious suggestions, I am persuaded, the text means what it says. It is a magnificent hyperbole, to denote how widespread is the evil which money does—corroding the hearts of men, spoiling their happiness, and setting them in conflict with one another. ‘Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn’; but the inhumanity springs, for the most part, from the desire of one man to possess that which belongs to another.
The lust of one country for the soil of another has, thousands of times, let loose war and pillage on innocent populations. The powerful have, in every age, under the sway of similar motives, plundered the goods and oppressed the people of the weak. The lawful hire of toilers has been kept back by their employers, and human law has been too servile to say them no; and so the rich have filled their granaries with the food which ought to have fed the poor, and worn as purple and fine linen what ought to have covered the people of the naked. The love of money has begotten the courage of the highwayman; it has sharpened the ingenuity of the thief; it has, many a time, put a knife in the hand of the murderer; and for thirty pieces of silver Judas sold his Master.
But, besides such tragic crimes, the record of which reddens the page of history, what a progeny of sordid sins the love of money is bringing forth every day. It teaches the merchant to adulterate his goods, the apprentice to put his hand into his master’s till, the lawyer to lie, the operator on the Stock Exchange to swindle his clients. A Latin satirist, twenty centuries ago, charged the Roman fathers of his day with saying to their sons, ‘Get money; honestly, if you can; but, in any case, get money’; and a satirist of our own age alleges that, in modern life, the only unpardonable sin is poverty. On every hand men are making haste to be rich, and, if they succeed, everything is forgiven them. The gates of the highest society swing open to the man who has gold, and he is not asked how he has come by it. Over the man who has swindled and failed, society, with upturned eyes, pronounces an annihilating judgment; but the adventurer who brings home bullion tinged with the blood of slaves is welcomed as an honor to his country and sent into Parliament.
One of the daughters of avarice which the old writers used to mention was gambling; and the need has not gone by for indicating the true place to which this vice belongs. The desire to make money is undoubtedly at the bottom of the practice—to make money in haste, without giving any equivalent for it—and this is its condemnation. But, after it has grown into a habit, it becomes a very complex thing. The gambler can hardly tell why he follows with such eagerness the events of the green turf and the fortunes of the green table. There is a fever in his blood which drives him on, rendering ordinary pursuits and ordinary gains stale and making his own heart reckless and hardened. A single act of gambling has an innocent look, and the first steps in a gambling career are frequently exhilarating; but the atmosphere soon becomes grimy, the associations and companionships into which it leads are demoralizing, and many a time it ends in the dock and the jail.
2. Such are the daughters of avarice, and the character of the progeny does not say much for that of the mother. What the innermost nature of avarice is may be learned from the well-known words of Scripture—‘Covetousness, which is idolatry.’ Pride, the first of the deadly sins, is also a kind of idolatry: it is putting self in the place of God. But avarice substitutes for God an even more amazing deity—something outside of ourselves, earthly and material. We think with disdain of the folly of the heathen, who bend the knee to engraved images; but many a man’s money is his god, and the coins of silver and of gold which he fingers so caressingly are in reality images in which his deity is embodied. This may seem a figure of rhetoric, but it is the sober truth. For, what is it to have a god? It is to have an object to which the heart turns with supreme affection and to which the mind looks as a refuge and defense in all the changes and chances of time. Are there not, however, those who feel the money they possess to be a far safer assurance against possible calamity than faith or prayer, and who would feel the loss of the opportunities of worshiping God afforded by the Sabbath and the sanctuary a far less sensible calamity than the loss of their money?
This unconscious idolatry sits deep in many hearts in the form of what our Lord called ‘carefulness’—that is, the continual indulgence of carking care, a lifelong dread of poverty, a sense that, not having money, they have no protection and no hope. For avarice is not confined to those who are wealthy: the poor may be equally the victims of it. Excessive elation in the possession of money and excessive depression on account of the absence of it are, in fact, at bottom the same feeling; and the feeling is, that money is the true divinity, beside which there is no other. It is no unusual thing to hear the avarice of the rich denounced in a spirit of the most sordid greed, the language betraying the belief that money can do everything and making it patent to the critical hearer that the orators, if they possessed money, would be as absorbed in it and as forgetful of the claims of others as those they denounce. The man who is loudest in denouncing tyrants often becomes a tyrant himself, when he gets the chance; and those who cry out for equality are sometimes the first, when they have obtained the upper hand, to shake off the claims of fraternity. The worship of money is not a religion, which favors the brotherhood of man.
3. Deep students of human nature have spoken of avarice as incurable. Thus Dante, personifying it, says–
Accurst be you, inveterate wolf, whose gorge ingluts more prey
Than every beast beside, yet is not filled, So bottomless your maw.
Many a man, at the beginning of his career, dreams of no greater fortune than a few hundreds; but, if he is successful, that which was once the limit of his ambition soon becomes only the starting-point. He may have been humble, and prayerful and thankful for his early successes; but as his money carries him further and further away from the habits and associations of his youth, his heart hardens, and his faith is transferred from God to Mammon; he becomes proud of himself and contemptuous of his fellowmen. Thus the very goodness of God makes him forgetful of his Maker. As long as he was little, he recognized the hand from which his mercies were received, but—sad perversion—when mercies are multiplied, the Giver is forgotten.
Avarice is distinctively a sin of the old; and it is this, which makes the cure of it so hopeless. As other sources of happiness fail, this one seems to grow more substantial; and the flattery which the dependent are too apt to bestow on those from whom they have expectations produces by degrees a sense of omnipotence. On the canvas of the painter a miser is usually represented as an old man clutching with thin and bony fingers a bag of gold. But this is a fancy picture. The real danger, which has to be resisted by old and young alike, is the tendency to believe that, if we have money to trust in, we can dispense with both the blessing of God and the sympathy of man.
4. I have not hesitated to paint this deadly sin in its true colors, but I should feel that I had rendered to my readers a very indifferent service, if I merely left on their minds the impression that money is an enemy of which they must beware. Everyone knows better, and nothing tends more to associate the pulpit with unreality than sermons, which leave impressions of this kind. Everyone knows, on the contrary, that money is a good thing; most men are giving the sweat of their brow and the force of their brain for it; they are well aware that without it they cannot set up a home and fill it with refinement; families and countries which are exercising the virtues of industry, honesty and sobriety tend to grow rich; and are, science and even religion are, in many ways, dependent on money. The fact is, young men are in quite as much danger of putting too little value on money as too much. They often fling it away with both hands, to their own injury and that of others. Prodigality is nearly as much the besetting sin of youth as avarice is the besetting sin of age; but virtue lies between the extremes, and its name is liberality.
To be forearmed against avarice we require to have three convictions sunk deeply in our minds.
The first is that there are better things than money. Good health is better; a cultivated intelligence is better; a sympathetic heart is better; a clear conscience is better. With these it is possible to be happy without money; but without these the happiness which money gives is deceitful. Not only, however, must these be prized, but so diligently acquired as to prove that their possessor knows he cannot do without them. A cultivated mind, for example, that knows something of the best thoughts of the best thinkers of the past, or an active sympathy with the needs and aspirations of mankind, is not obtained by merely wishing, but by working honestly and feeling deeply; only, when it is once got, it cannot be parted with, for it is felt to be a possession beyond all price. I know a public man in a great position who was approached, when the election was hanging in the balance, by the representatives of a party in the electing body which wished him to make a promise to those who would have secured their votes, but his answer was—”Gentlemen, there are some things in this world I can do without, and one of these is this office for which I have been named; but there are some things I cannot do without, and one of these is my honor—good day, gentlemen,’ and he bowed them to the door. This is the attitude we should take up to the temptations of avarice. There are some things we can do without, and one of these is wealth; but there are some things we cannot do without, such as a clean conscience and a useful life; and, if we must choose between money and these, we forego the money.
A second conviction, to be engraved still more deeply on the mind which would defend itself from the invasions of the sin of avarice is, that money is not an end in itself, but only a means to an end. It will tyrannize over us if it is allowed, but we tyrannize over it, and prove ourselves its masters, when we compel it to subserve the ends which we have freely chosen as our own, and which our judgment and conscience approve.
When anyone has much wealth, we are used to call him ‘a man of means.’ But not infrequently the phrase is a misnomer; because means imply ends to which they are devoted, and many a wealthy man has no such ends. He does not know why he makes money; he is like a horse turning a mill, accustomed to the monotonous round; he is the slave of money, which claims all his thoughts and all his energy. Yet the phrase ‘a man of means’ conveys the hint that money can be used in promoting rational and useful ends, and this is true. People often speculate on what they would do with money if they had an immense amount of it. Such musings may not be amiss, but they are mere illusions, unless we are devoting to the same ends such means, as we now happen to possess. David Livingstone, before he had thought of being a missionary, devoted to foreign missions all his wages as a patternmaker, except so much as was required for his frugal personal needs, and there have not been wanting in recent times those who have carried on large and flourishing businesses the profits of which they have devoted to some favorite scheme of benevolence.
One wonders that this should not be commoner. But multitudes who have never felt called upon to sacrifice all their income in this way give liberally of their earnings to causes which lie near their hearts, and they experience a profound satisfaction in so doing, because they feel that they are making their money serve their life aims, and they are keeping themselves free from enslavement to it. I remember hearing a friend of my own tell of the effect on himself of his first givings to the schemes of his Church. He was not at the time earning much, and what he gave cost a real effort and sacrifice; but he felt that he had now something to work for; this heightened his consciousness as a man and a Christian: it made him also look so carefully after his money that, he maintained, he was a gainer, even financially, in the long run.
Giving is usually spoken of as if it were the wringing of unwilling drops out of flinty hearts; but there is a remarkable verse in the account of the gifts offered in David’s time for the temple which Solomon subsequently built, ‘Then the people rejoiced for that they offered willingly, because with perfect heart they offered willingly to the Lord, and David the king also rejoiced with great joy.’ There is great joy in giving, when it is not forced and indiscriminate, but willing and intelligent—that is, when we give to causes with which we are well acquainted and for which we cherish enthusiasm. Ought it not to put new energy into a man’s fingers and help him to sing as he toils, when he reflects that he is earning money to assist the cause for which the Savior died?
The third principle about money deserving to be inscribed on the mind which would escape the bondage of avarice is, that it cannot be kept forever.
‘Lay not up for yourselves,’ said the Teacher of teachers, in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘treasures upon earth, where moth and rust does corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust does corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ There are those who mock at such teaching, declaring the idea of a treasure in heaven to be merely an illusion by which the poor are blinded to the treasure, which is their due on earth. A paradise above the skies is only an invention of priests to cheat men out of the paradise they ought to seek here below. If this be so, how sad it is that the earthly paradise lasts so short a time even for those who attain it.
The existence of heaven may be doubted, but there is no denying the reality of death. However much a man may have amassed, he has in a moment to leave it all and fare forth into the unknown, naked as he came from his mother’s womb. What has he, then, if there is no Savior to meet him on the frontier of the other world and conduct him safely to the many mansions? Is he not poor indeed? But, if a man has realized within himself a virtuous and holy character, this is a possession over which time has no power, it is incorporated with his very existence, and the owner carries it with him wherever he goes—yes, even across the bourne of death. He who has spent his life in doing good, making to himself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, will be met at the gates of heaven by grateful hearts, which have gone before and will welcome him into everlasting habitations. It may be said, that the avaricious man has at least the satisfaction of leaving his money to his heir. But this is a mixed satisfaction; for he does not know whether his heir will be a wise man or a fool, whether he will keep what he has inherited or squander it. The influence, on the contrary, of a benevolent and useful life goes on after death and reproduces itself in those whom it awakens to aspiration and imitation.
Only the actions of the just,
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust.