Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"The Seven Deadlies; Invidia and Avarita

Genesis 4:1-12

Luke 12:13-21

     This morning, we’re going to consider the second and fourth of the seven deadly sins:  envy and

greed.  Dante, the great Italian poet of the late 13th century, has called envy a “sin of perverted love,”

in that it loves what other people possess rather than loving what is good, and beautiful, and true. 

Along those same lines, Dante has grouped greed with lust and gluttony, calling them all sins of

“excessive love of earthly things.”  A few minutes ago, we heard the reading of an Old Testament text

which delivers the first Biblical account of the consequences of envy, exposing it as deadly in both the

literal and the spiritual sense.  Now I would like to share with you a New Testament text – a parable of

of Jesus – which speaks of the sin of greed, and its deadly consequences.

          (Read Luke 12:13-21)

      The renowned preacher Dwight L. Moody once told the fable of an eagle who was envious of ano-

ther eagle that could fly better than he could.  One day, the bird saw a sportsman with a bow and ar-

row, and said to him:  “I wish you would bring down that eagle up there.”  The archer said he would if

he had some feathers for his arrow.  So the envious eagle plucked one out of his wing and gave it to

the man.  The arrow was shot, but didn’t quite reach the rival bird because he was flying too high. The 

first eagle pulled out another feather, then another…. until he had given up so many that he couldn’t

fly himself.  The archer took advantage of the situation and killed the helpless bird.  The moral of

Moody’s story:  If you are envious of others, the one you hurt the most by your actions will be you.

      This was a difficult lesson learned by an older brother named “Cain.”  As the story is transmitted

to us through the oral tradition of the Old Testament, the first son of Adam and Eve had a bone to

pick with younger sibling “Abel.”  Both brought offerings before God;  Abel, the first fruits of the flock

he shepherded; Cain, “an offering of the fruit of the ground” which he tilled and tended.  Scripture

tells us that to Cain’s dismay, the offering of brother Abel was found more acceptable before the Lord

than his own.  We might speculate as to the reasons Abel’s offering was regarded over Cain’s, but that

would risk missing the point.  The story is more about response than reason.  Cain’s response was one

of rage, maybe stemming from a long-fomented and deep-seated hatred for his brother.  Although

God warned the elder brother that “sin” was “lurking at his door” in this envious and hateful attitude,

and that he must “master it” rather than being controlled by it, Cain led Abel out into the field, rose

up, and killed him.  The consequences were deadly in two respects.  Literally, the life of a young man

was unjustly taken. Spiritually, another became an outcast; cursed from the very ground which sup-

ported him; cast away from the very “face” of God, consigned to forever be “a fugitive and a

wanderer on the earth.” The aftermath:  Abel was physically dead.  Cain was spiritually dead. 

      I ran across a quote attributed to Basilea Schlink, a German nun, which states: “Envy is a poisonous

root in our soul that can kill others, and ourselves.”  A simple definition of invidia, the Latin word for

envy, would be: a compulsive desire for other’s traits, status, abilities, or situation.  But envy is not

such a simple matter.  It’s a corrosive attitude which lies deep in our hearts; so deep that we may not

even realize it’s lurking there.  Such as “I saw a work associate’s new car the other day, and I said to

God, ‘Why does she get to drive a beautiful vehicle while I’m stuck driving this crummy minivan that

has duct tape holding the side mirror on?’”  Questions such as this flood our minds daily, but we

seldom recognize them for what they are: symptoms.  Such fleeting thoughts for most of us don’t

even register as envy; as witnessed by that online poll we talked about last Sunday, wherein only one

in ten respondents considered envy a most serious issue for them.  Far from being harmless and inn

cent thoughts, envy is so serious a thing to God that one of the ten commandments prohibits it:  You’ll

 

not covet - or longingly desire in your heart - your neighbor’s anythingIn Proverbs, we are told why: 

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.”

      Just as sticky foods cling to our teeth causing a slow decay of the protective enamel -- a reality of

which we’re usually not even aware until we wake up with that killer toothache -- likewise envy over

time decays the gratitude and joy which protect us from bitterness and resentment.  Envy eats away

at kindness and compassion, often causing us to choose hateful, hurtful behaviors, even toward those

we claim to care about.  Or it can cause us to withdraw, such as from the fellow student who got a

better grade, the friend who got a promotion, or the new car or house, or got pregnant, or any num-

ber of blessings we wanted, but didn’t receive.  What we fail to realize is that this envy problem is

really a bone we pick with God.  Beneath all our envious thoughts and mutterings about what other

people have and we don’t is an accusation that God loves someone else more than God loves us.  This

was Cain’s fundamental problem.  Envy twists our perspective so we start believing that the material

or spiritual blessings others enjoy is evidence that God plays favorites.  What started as small, whining

complaints of the soul can grow into a disease that “rots the bones.”  That’s what makes it deadly.

      A remedy, however, is within reach.  Let’s take our eyes off what God is doing in someone else’s

life, and focus instead on the overwhelming goodness God’s shown in ours.  Of course there are and

will be times when seeing God’s goodness is difficult.  Sorrow, tragedy, loss, disappointment, betrayal,

delays --- all these can blind us to God’s blessings and mercies.  But God plays no favorites.  We all

have equal access to God’s love and grace on a daily basis.  Let’s make a Lenten practice – and a life-

long practice – of refocusing our attention on appreciating the generosity and goodness of God;

toward us, and toward others.  In time, that bone-rotting envy will be displaced by life-giving peace.

      The fourth of the seven deadlies – avarita or greed [sometimes called “avarice”] is every bit as

corrosive to the soul as envy, and in some ways is closely related.  We could identify at least three

forms of greed: 1) an obsessive and restless desire for ever more material things for the power and

influence that come with them; 2) a fearful need to store up surplus goods for a vaguely defined time

of want; 3) a desire for more earthly things for their own sake.  Jesus’ parable of the rich man exposes

all three of these.

      It seemed that folks were always trying to enlist Jesus to side with their causes.  On one occasion,

Jesus was teaching a large crowd.  Out of that crowd came the voice of one who had a specific con-

cern; a bone to pick with his sibling; “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with

me.”  Jesus responded by asking what this had to do with Him.  Jesus after all was not a family law

attorney or regional magistrate.  But Jesus did capture a teachable moment as He perceived some-

thing in the heart of this brother.  So He told the parable of a rich man; a farmer, the successful tilling

and tending of whose land had made him very wealthy, and powerful, and influential.  But this man

was not satisfied.  Such a one may have been on the mind of son of Sirach, a Jewish sage of antiquity,

when he wrote: “He who loves goods never has goods enough.” 

      As the story goes, the rich man had a dilemma.  He was running out of room to store his massive

harvest.  He didn’t seem to have considered less wealthy neighbors who might have need of a portion

of his excess, or how he might bless family and friends with his abundance.  Instead, his concern was

getting and keeping more and more of what he obviously had enough of already.  In order to guaran-

tee a carefree future, the rich man saw only one viable solution:  “I will pull down my barns and build

larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”  But then came the day which he had

not expected, nor for which he had made any provision.  Jesus draws His parable to this conclusion:

“But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things

you have prepared, whose will they be?’”  Will there be yet another person calling from the crowd:

“That rich man was my dad!”  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 

      A simple definition of avarita or greed might be: the compelling, even consuming, desire for mate-

rial wealth or gain, all the while ignoring spiritual wealth or gain.  This was truly and precisely the rich

man’s problem, leading Jesus to add an editorial note to His own parable:  “So it is with those who

store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”  I’m reminded of a statement I once

heard:  “It’s not a sin to be materially rich.  But it is a sin to want to be materially rich.”  Within this

statement, I hear an implication that to desire to be materially wealthy overshadows the desire to be

spiritually wealthy.  You can’t worship both.

      Let’s spend just a moment or two on each of the three forms of greed mentioned earlier.  First,

the greed for power and influence.  In this form, earthly goods are chiefly a means to an end, which is

not really far off from a healthy view.  The question is: What is that end?  When money, real estate,

cars, etc. are simply things used to achieve, wield, and display personal power and success, employed

to intimidate or sway others, or to reinforce one’s own or other’s illusions about what is ultimately

important, this is the sinful attitude which lies at the root of greed. The real problem here is an under-

lying and sometimes obsessive desire for power and influence over others let alone the actual greed. 

     The antidote for greed for power and influence is being generous in granting power and influence

to others. When appropriate, as taught by the apostle Paul, be even submissive to others.  Avoid

those situations which give rise to the temptation for a power grab.  Share credit for successes with

others, and when warranted, claim a fair share of responsibility for failures being blamed on others. 

The idea is to stop trying to control everyone and everything.  This doesn’t mean abdicating legitimate

responsibilities, but loosening our grip on other’s lives, as well as on our own.  For if we truly believe

God is in ultimate control, has a plan, and will take care of us, we can let go of greed for power and

Influence; even learning to relax, being in God’s hands.

      Second, is the greed born of fear.  When we think about it, fear is a poor motivator for the virtue of

generosity, but a great motivator for the sin of greed.  Sometimes greed is merely a desire to have so

much that we can’t possibly run out.  This was certainly a potent motivator for the rich man in Jesus’

parable.  Reality is, the crops could fail; the stored grain could rot or get buggy; the stock market could

tank; jobs or health can be lost.  So if we store enough grain; build enough barns; acquire enough

stock, bonds, treasury notes; put in enough hours, we think we’ll be safe from want or need.  This is

an illusion, and spiritually corrosive and deadly as there is no guarantee of what tomorrow will bring,

or as the man learned, that tomorrow will come.  But even if there was some guarantee, it would

stand in opposition to trust in and dependence on God to which we are called.  And that trust is

succinctly expressed by evangelist John when he writes in his first letter: “Perfect love casts out fear.

Trust in God, in God’s love, in God’s provision frees us from a need to build a massive buffer against

the unknown future, which is a potent motivator of much greed

      Few of us are willing to learn to do with less, but herein may lie the remedy for this form of greed.

Could we try to learn to use less of the world’s goods, while drawing more upon those goods which

are spiritual?  As a saying goes, might we “live simply, that others may simply live?”  Once this kind of

freedom is practiced, we come to realize that we don’t need that much anyway.  This knowledge, in

turn, reduces fear and builds a type of strength and confidence which is in every way life-giving.  And

it makes us more generous people, sharing a portion of what we have with those in need.

      Third, and surely the most corrosive and deadly, is the greed of simple acquisition; the greed for

things for their own sake.  This is enslavement, pure and simple.  We can reduce ourselves to a small

and cold desire to accumulate more money, cars, electronics, trading cards, antiques; whatever it is

we accumulate for the mere sake of accumulation.  But consider how far it is beneath the dignity of

our humanity to enslave ourselves to worldly and inanimate objects of our own devices.  It is well said

that our possessions may come to own us.  The man in Jesus’ parable seemed in bondage and under

the control of his own wealth.  Some might describe him as a Scrooge-like miser.

      I can’t help but remember a parishioner I served many years ago who was a retired jeweler.  It had

been rumored that he had diamonds and other precious stones buried all over his property.  Even in

the last days of his life, dying of cancer, his greatest fear was that someone might find and dig up his

stash of jewels. He was surely enslaved to that which he had rightfully acquired.

      The obvious remedy to this form of greed is to divest oneself of as much as possible.  Yet another

suggestion might be to consider the grave.  When we die, we take nothing with us.  Before the jeweler

heard God say, “This very night you life is being demanded of you. And the (gems) you have (buried),

whose will they be?”  I’ll admit that I tried to convince him to have some of those diamonds excava-

ted and their value given toward the work of his church.  I was not successful.  But near everyone in

Carroll County sure wanted to buy his property.  The point is, if we are bound by disordered attach-

ments to worldly goods, the separation forced upon us by death will be even more painful.  If we are

destined for eternal glory, being attached to and enslaved by acquisitions of this life is frankly absurd.

      I’d like to close this message with an excerpt from a prayer written by 20th century monastic scho-

lar Thomas Merton from his book New Seeds of Contemplation:

“Therefore keep me, above all things, from sin.  Keep me from the death of deadly sin which puts hell

in my soul….Keep me from loving money, from avarice and ambition that suffocate my life.  Keep me

from the dead works of vanity and thankless labor.  Stanch in me the rank wound of covetousness and

stamp out the serpent envy that stings love with poison and kills all joy…. but give me the strength that

waits upon you in silence and peace…. And possess my whole heart and soul with simplicity of love. 

Occupy my whole life with the one thought and the one desire of love, that I may love not for the sake

of merit, not for the sake of perfection, not for the sake of virtue, not for the sake of sanctity, but for

you alone.  Amen.