Rethinking the 7 Sins, Part 4: Greed and Sloth

February 20, 2005



Rethinking the Seven Deadly Sins

Part 4: Greed and Sloth (2/20/05)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

This morning we will bring our series on the Seven Deadly Sins to and end. I know there are mixed emotions in the congregation about this series. Some have wished I would have tried to cover all seven sins in a single sermon, and others just can’t get enough sin. But today we’ll put an end to sin, by covering the final two Seven Deadly Sins: greed and sloth.

Francis Bacon said, “If money be not thy servant, it will be thy master. The covetous man cannot so properly be said to possess wealth, as wealth may be said to possess him.” If you remember week one of this series we considered the two broad classifications of sins according to the historic church: venial sins and mortal sins.
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According to classic Roman Catholic theology, a venial sin is a sin that does not endanger one’s immortal soul. A person may do something that is sinful, but deep within he or she knows it is wrong. One longs to be a better person, but gives in to temptation. A mortal sin, on the other hand, is a sin that causes spiritual death. While a venial sin will weaken the relationship between a person and God, a mortal sin destroys that relationship. To commit a mortal sin, a person must embrace the sinful act in such a way that one wants to be defined by that type of behavior. You don’t think that behavior is wrong for you. And that, in traditional theology, is the very definition of spiritual death: thinking that evil is good.

In Robin Meyer’s book, The virtue in the Vice, which we have used as an outline for this series, he cites a great example of a person who turns greed into a mortal sin. Remember the movie Wall Street? Michael Douglass stars as Gordon Gecko. Gecko is the ultimate Wall Street bandit, a man who refuses to let anything get in the way of his drive for the acquisition of money.

He buys out a company called Teldar Paper, and vows to save it by downsizing it. I’ll quote the Gordon Gecko character as he addresses stockholders of Teldar Paper: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

I thoroughly enjoyed that movie, and thought that Michael Douglass gave the performance of his life, but his little speech to the stockholders of Teldar Paper is the very definition of a mortal sin—at least according to the medieval church.

Whatever our stand on mortal sin, we have to admit that Gordon Gecko is right, in a very practical way. If everybody in America was happy with what he or she truly needed, the economy would be in a shambles. We want things, and it is our desire for more that drives the economy. But the problem is we are taught to want things without limits from our very youngest days. Our children are bombarded with ads from the time they can focus on the television. And it never stops. If only you would buy a little bigger house, or a little nicer car, or a really expensive dress; then life would be good.

But it never happens. Enough is never enough. Still, I maintain that we human beings, even with all our deficiencies, are good. So what do we do with this thing called greed? Sadly, a large part of the modern church has an answer, and it is basically the same answer we heard from Gordon Gecko. “Go for it! Grab the biggest piece of the pie! If you have lots and lots of money and possessions it is because you are blessed by God!”

It’s called prosperity theology, and you too can be rich if only you would invite Jesus into your life. Remember the very popular book The Prayer of Jabez from a few years back. In that book the author says we should be asking God for more every day—more money, more possessions, more everything. After all, God might have plans to give us the biggest house in the neighborhood and the nicest car on the block—in fact, God has those things waiting for us right now. But we have to have enough faith to ask for them!

I hope when people pray for a bigger house they also ask God to house the millions of homeless in this world, who would be quite thrilled with the smallest house in which any of us has ever lived. But it seems the new Jesus doesn’t have the concern for the poor he once did. In fact, as Robin writes in his book, “The prophet Jesus is out, and the cosmic friend and financial advisor is in. No longer a radically disturbing presence (asking the rich young ruler to sell all he had, give the money to the poor and follow him), the new Jesus is a kind of cosmic, life-enhancing partner. He has become an additive of sorts, like STP. You put him in your tank and get wherever you’re going faster and with fewer knocks.”

But let’s cut the church some slack—even that part of the church obsessed with prosperity theology. Greed is much more than simply wanting to better one’s life. Greed is the unhealthy love of money and material possessions. Greed is a compulsive behavior that makes a person always want more than he or she has. Nothing can stand between a greedy person and his money. Remember the movie Prizzi’s Honor? It’s about a mob family and stars Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner. The Nicholson character falls in love with the Kathleen Turner character, but then discovers she has stolen some money from his family—the Prizzis. He ponders the situation: So what should I do? Should I marry her? Should I kill her? Which of these things? If you have not seen the movie I won’t give away the ending, but I’ll give you a clue. At one point in the movie somebody says, “The Prizzis would rather eat their young than part with money.”

And that pretty much defines greed. It’s that compulsion, that irrational love of money. It is caring about money more than people.

So what is the answer to this sin of greed? Is there a virtue hidden somewhere within this sin? While generosity is the opposite of greed, and a virtue to be embraced, Robin says that the sin of greed is actually the corruption of the virtue of wanting wisely.

I’ll quote from his book: Moral philosophers do not consider the pursuit of wealth as sinful, and the Bible does not label wealth as sinful or the wealthy as sinners. What matters is how that wealth was acquired, at what cost, for what purpose and to what end. What is considered sinful is the damage we do to others as we acquire more and more.

There are good examples of wanting wisely. We want to make enough money to help our children through college. And beyond money, we want to spend time with our children. We want to have friends. The difference between greed and wanting wisely, in many ways, comes down to motivation. Do our wants work for the benefit of all, or do they serve only to aggrandize ourselves?

There is one other thing to say on this subject before we move on. All of us in this place have wealth. We are cursed with tunnel vision from living in a society of excess, but on a global scale, we are the rich. Some have more than others, but we are all people of wealth. Each one of us lives a more comfortable, healthy, and opulent lifestyle than 90 percent of the world’s population.

There are two ways to view one’s wealth. Some view it as a gift; others view it as an entitlement. The people who come to this church on Sunday morning understand that everything in life is a gift, from the breath in our lungs to the food on our plates to the money in our bank accounts. We are grateful for our blessings. And we share from our abundance. And that is the cure for greed. Being thankful for what we have, and sharing from our abundance. And with that, we’ll move on to the last of the Seven Deadly sins: sloth.

What a nasty sounding sin! Sloth. It is an archaic word. We usually use the word lazy in place of sloth. But the word lazy does not really capture the essence of sloth as a deadly sin. Sloth involves much more than a lack of energy and enthusiasm. Sloth involves apathy, indifference, and a loss of faith in the notion that your life can make a difference.

Robin calls sloth a sickness of the soul that leads to complete and utter indifference. Shakespeare best captured the despair that arises out of such indifference when Macbeth says, Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

How easy it is to give in to this type of despair. We all want to find meaning and purpose in our lives, but we all know that at the end of the road lies the grave, and then, what will all our efforts have meant? Nobody thought more on this subject than Kierkegaard. He called this angst, and said it was at the very root of human life. Kierkegaard thought we should face this angst head on, or it would slowly destroy us. If we refuse to do this, we literally waste our lives, either by becoming slothful and allowing despair to rule our lives, or by busying ourselves with all the little details of life and never realizing that it is through our despair that we meet God.

I’ll quote Kierkegaard: The only wasted life is the life of him who has [been] so deceived by life’s pleasure or its sorrows, that he never became decisively, eternally, conscious of himself as a spirit… that he is answerable to and exists before God.

According to Kierkegaard, we can only find meaning in life through the search for God. Carl Jung wrote of the role of religion when he confronted the despair in his older patients, quote: Among all my patients in the second half of life…there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.

Both Kierkegaard and Jung recognized that we are mortal beings, and if we build our worlds around ourselves, those worlds will ultimately collapse into meaninglessness. The church has traditionally placed zeal as the virtue that is opposite of sloth. But is there a virtue hidden somewhere within sloth. Does it, like the other sins, have a virtue hidden within it that becomes a sin only when taken to its extreme? In this case, according to the book The Virtue in the Vice, contentment is the virtue hidden in the vice of sloth.

In the movie The Razor’s Edge, based on the great book by Somerset Maugham, Bill Murray plays a World War I veteran who travels the world in search of enlightenment. In India, he comes across a man who is washing dishes in a river, and mentions something about how boring it looks. He is surprised to discover that the man considers this daily washing of dishes a form of worship.

Again, contentment and religion are sides of the same coin. It is good to make big plans and do great things, but the fact is our everyday lives consist of some fairly mundane activities. And this is where it is easy to give in to sloth—to become bored, and uncaring, and ultimately fall into despair if you have to wash just one more dish, or drive that same stretch of road one more time, or crawl out of bed, get the paper, feed the dog, put on the coffee, shave, shower, dress…

Life is made up of those routine moments. We can view such moments as a gift, or as drudgery. Learning to be content, without losing one’s zeal for life, is a balancing act that none of us has mastered. I confess that the last time I did the dishes I did not feel as if I was having a particularly powerful religious experience. In fact, it came frighteningly close to drudgery. Well, we all have plenty of room for spiritual growth. And if any of you would like to come over to my house and try your hand at the religious experience of dishwashing, or house cleaning, well, I am here to help you on your spiritual journeys.

Okay, four weeks on sin is enough. Let’s make a quick review of the Seven Deadly Sins, each sin’s opposing virtue, and the new virtue Robin Meyers says we can find hidden within each sin.

The sin of pride is countered by the virtue of humility, but perhaps holds within it the virtue of worthiness. The sin of envy has the opposing virtue of loving kindness, but also has within it the virtue of emulation. The sin of anger, opposite of the virtue patience, has within it the virtue of righteous indignation. Lust, which the church has taught is the opposite of self-control, has within it the virtue of Holy Eros. Gluttony, the sin opposite the virtue of temperance, has within it the virtue of communion. The sin of greed, opposed by the virtue of generosity, carries within it the virtue of wanting wisely. And finally, the sin of sloth, opposite of the virtue of zeal, has within it the virtue of contentment.

I began this series by saying that this world we live in is not as black and white as the traditional church would have us believe. Religions tend to oversimplify ethics, as if life was one big series of decisions with each decision having a clear right or wrong choice. There is the path of light and the path of darkness, we are told. Choose the path of light. But each of us walks a path through life that unfolds in various shades of gray. Doing the right thing is not that easy, not because we refuse to live ethically, but because it is so difficult to determine the right thing.

As I wrestled with this over the course of this series, I came across an article in Christian Century that I found helpful. Herbert McCabe was one of England’s most renowned theologians from the past century, and he had this to say on the subject of sin, and right and wrong, and good and bad: Ethics is not about distinguishing right from wrong, but about living according to the deeper meaning of our lives.

I find comfort in that, and I think both Carl Jung and Soren Kierkegaard would agree. This world is not black and white. It comes at us in so many shades of gray, one would go mad if he or she obsessed over right and wrong at every turn. But we can live according to the deeper meaning of our lives. We can live life out of that place deep within that refuses to give in to despair. And from that place—from that center—we can respond to despair with hope; we can respond to doubt with faith; we can respond to sadness with joy; and we can respond to hatred with love.

From that place—living according to the deeper meaning of our lives—right and wrong just sort of take care of themselves.