Essay / Theology

On Avarice and Benevolence

The Christian life is a battle between good (i.e., God) and bad (i.e., Satan). As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12, “For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms.” Further, this fight against “flesh and blood” is described well by the apostle in Romans 7:15-20: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” Does this sound familiar? It does to me. In light of this reality then, I have found it helpful to think of the vices and then to make an effort to know its opposite virtue and to attempt to cultivate that virtue in my life. I agree wholeheartedly with Evagrius of Pontus who wrote, “Why do the demons wish to commit acts of gluttony, impurity, avarice, wrath, resentment and the other evil passions in us? Here is the reason – that the spirit in this way should become dull and consequently rendered unfit to pray” (On Prayer 50). This brings us to the vice and virtue for this blog: the vice of avarice and the virtue of benevolence.

The most straightforward definition of avarice is that it is the love of money. The medieval author Peter Damian wrote that “Avarice is the root of all evil” and John of Salisbury tells us, “There is no worse vice than avarice.” The result of avarice is that it “weakens friendships, generates hatred, breeds anger, plants wars, nourishes controversies, and ruptures the bonds of children to their parents” (Alan of Lille). Maybe you are thinking to yourself, “but I do not have any money, therefore I am free from avarice.” To this the early Christian theologian John Cassian would respond, “not only should the possession of money be bewared of but even the desire itself should be utterly cast out of one’s mind. For it is not so much the result of avarice that must be avoided as it is the disposition toward it that must be uprooted, since it is profitless not to have money if the desire to possess it exists in us” (Institutes 7.21). This should cause us to see that avarice not only affects those who have money but also affects those without money. It affects those who simply have a greed for gain. Like the other vices that we have examined, the Bible is not silent regarding the vice of avarice.

The Greek word for avarice is philargyria, which comes from the verb phileō meaning “to love” and argyros meaning “silver” and by extension “money” (cf. Luke 9:3; Acts 8:20). Luke 16:14 tells us that the Pharisees loved money whereas the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3:2 tells us that “in the last days” people “will be… lovers of money.” Of course, the verse most familiar to us regarding the vice of avarice is 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” The spirit of avarice is captured well in two biblical accounts: the narrative of Lazarus and the rich man and the account of Ananias and Sapphira. Luke 16:20-25 says, “At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.’” The rich man was too avaricious to help Lazarus, thus suffering the consequences. Acts 5:1-11 recounts for us the avaricious spirit of Ananias and Sapphira: “Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.’” As you likely know, the punishment for Ananias and Sapphira was death, not for their avarice but because they lied to God. Regardless, their motivation to lie was certainly avariciousness.

With this understanding of the vice of avarice, it is time to examine the virtue of benevolence. Before I do that however, let me suggest that though avarice is the “love of money” it can also manifest itself in a “love of things,” that is, materialism. It is important to state here that avarice takes many forms in today’s affluent society. A good biblical example of a “love of things” is found in Luke 12:16-19: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’” Now, the virtue of benevolence.

The opposing effect of benevolence on avarice is best seen when looking at the two words in their original Greek forms. Recall that avarice is philargyria in the Greek while benevolence is philanthropia, which literally means “love of humankind.” We see that love is at the root of both of these character traits. However, it is the object of this love that determines whether one is a vice or a virtue. For the vice of avarice, the object of love is money and/or things whereas for the virtue of benevolence the object of love is all people. The concept of benevolence is beautifully demonstrated by God in Titus 3:3-7: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love (philanthropia) of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” Though sinful humanity was unworthy and undeserving, the benevolent God sent a Savior to wash, renew and justify us. “O the overflowing [benevolence] and love of God toward man! God did not hate us, or drive us away, or bear us ill will. Rather, he was long-suffering and forbearing” (Letter to Diognetus 9.2). The essence of the virtue of benevolence is captured well in Jesus’ words from Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” You see, avarice keeps our focus on something that is ultimately of little value and which passes away – money. Benevolence keeps our focus on God’s greatest creation – people – for whom he died. Avarice causes us to preoccupy ourselves with protecting our money, investing our money to make more and finding things on which to spend this money. Benevolence causes us to give away our money, to invest it in things that matter to God and to spend it for God’s glory. Again, money is to be used to help others whereas avarice causes us to use money for our own benefit only. Let me share with you a powerful illustration from early Christian history.

Christian benevolence was institutionalized very early and the local pastor was entrusted with the administrative responsibility for the charities of the church. In the fourth century, Christian benevolence took a new direction when it was extended to believers and unbelievers alike. This led to the establishment of hospitals, hospices, homes for the aged, orphanages, and houses for the poor and houses for the blind. Perhaps the most striking example, however, of early Christian benevolence is the “treasure chest” mentioned by the Tertullian. He writes, “We meet together as an assembly and congregation, that, offering up prayer to God as with united force, we may wrestle with Him in our supplications… We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace… we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession… One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us… we are in our congregations just what we are when separated from each other; we are as a community what we are as individuals…” (Apologia 39). Did you catch that? These Christians in the third century demonstrated benevolence by their actions. They used their resources to help others, not only themselves. They cared for those who could not care for themselves. They fed and clothed those who could not feed or clothe themselves.

Is this an example that we should seek to emulate? Absolutely!

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