Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
from the New Testament book of James, Chapter 5
GREED is not a Christian virtue.
For centuries, in fact, Christians have condemned avarice as a deadly sin.
In this new year when the idea of amassing personal wealth is often conflated with God’s blessings, theologians like Stanley Hauerwas are stepping forward to remind Christians of this truth as he did recently in the Washington Post. This week, ReadTheSpirit is taking a different tack. We—our writers and editors—are storytellers and we try to bring you, each week, the best news about books and films that uplift the spirit. So, we have asked popular columnist Benjamin Pratt to share with us some stories—some parables. After a lifetime as a pastoral counselor, Ben has written books on caregiving, on confronting life’s daily challenges and on the importance of understanding the deadly sins and corresponding virtues.
Today, he offers parables you may want to share with friends on greed and charity.
And, by the way, charity is, indeed, a Christian virtue.
By BENJAMIN PRATT
The parable was the main teaching tool of Jesus. A parable is a mirror into which each person is able to see a representation and measure of our soul’s journey in God’s world.
The parable was also the main tool used by best-selling novelist Ian Fleming, the creator of the super-agent James Bond 007. Fleming publicly described his novels about 007 as “parables about evil people.” Bond’s mission was not to be a spy but to “go after the threat behind the spies, the threat that made them spy,” Fleming wrote. Bond’s mission as 007 was to slay the dragons of evil. So, in this reflection, I’ve also reached for passages from Fleming’s Goldfinger.
You’ll find some other literary references here and a couple of real-life saints, as well. Consider this column an invitation to become a pilgrim and progress through these encounters.
As you do, please think about your own responses to this temptation. We can offer antidotes to avarice even in the way we talk about greed, and the need for charity, in conversations with friends. For example, if we wrestle with our own temptations toward greed, one sign that we are winning the battle may be an honest exclamation: “Enough!”
PARABLE OF ‘ENOUGH!’
“Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”
“I do,” said Scrooge. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.”
“Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.”
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
PARABLE OF ‘ENOUGH!’
But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.’
PARABLE OF ‘ENOUGH!’
The James Bond prize for Greed goes to Auric Goldfinger. Super-agent 007 is also referred to as “St. George” in all the Bond tales. This signals his primary mission—to slay the dragons that corrupt our lives.
The dragons Bond faces are all personifications of the evils that plague each of us. Auric Goldfinger is greed personified. As I describe in my book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass, the Bond novels were intended by Fleming as parables about what he felt were the modern world’s deadliest sins. Here are a few passages from Goldfinger, Fleming’s parable about evil—the evil of greed.
Do these passages remind you of a titan of wealth in our time?
“Goldfinger. Auric. That means golden, doesn’t it? He certainly is that. Got flaming red hair … It was as if Goldfinger had been put together with bits of other people’s bodies. Nothing seemed to belong. Perhaps, Bond thought, it was to conceal his ugliness that Goldfinger made such a fetish of sunburn. Without the red brown camouflage the pale body would be grotesque…There was a powerhouse of vitality humming in the man that suggested that if one stuck an electric bulb into Goldfinger’s mouth it would light up.”
Jill Masterton, Goldfinger’s accomplice in card sharking, answers the big question: “Why does he do it?” (cheat to win at cards or golf) “I can’t understand him. It’s sort of a mania with him, making money. He can’t leave it alone. I’ve asked him why and all he says is that one’s a fool not to make money when the odds are right. He’s always going on about the same thing, getting the odds right…and when the odds aren’t right, make them right.”
”He was the kind of man who thought he could flatten the world with his money, bludgeoning aside annoyances and opposition with his heavy wad.”
Goldfinger has a woman once a month. “He hypnotizes them. Then he—he paints them gold … he’s sort of possessing gold. You know—marrying it.”
Goldfinger said, “I am very successful and immensely rich, and riches … may not make you friends but they greatly increase the class and variety of your enemies … I am a poet in deeds—not often in words.”
Goldfinger confesses his driving motivation. “Mr. Bond, all my life I have been in love. I have been in love with gold. But above all, I love the true power gold alone gives to its owner—the magic of controlling energy, exacting labour, fulfilling one’s every wish and whim and, when need be, purchasing bodies, minds and even souls…I shall be the richest man in the world, the richest man in history!”
The end comes with Bond and Goldfinger attempting to choke the other to death. It is a vicious battle with Bond finally prevailing against greed. Our battle with greed is always a vicious life long struggle between our desire to have more and claiming we have enough.
“I have enough,” James Bond responded to a million-pound bribe.
PARABLE OF ‘ENOUGH!’
Have you seen the haunting contemporary painting of Greed by Mario Donizetti? The late Phyllis Tickle pointed to this painting as a disturbing and thought-provoking starting point in our spiritual struggle with this deadly sin. This week, we also are providing readers with that image and a short meditation you could share with friends.
GENEROSITY, aka CHARITY
PARABLE OF CHARITY
Forbes Magazine called him the “James Bond of philanthropy” because he had given away $8 billion in almost complete secrecy. Not one major American philanthropist has given away a greater portion of his wealth. Chuck Feeney’s philosophy met his aspiration to empty his pockets by “giving while living”. He also said, wryly, “When giving while dead, you don’t feel anything.” This New Jersey born, Irish heritage business mogul co-founded Duty Free Shops around the world. He made other wise investments and amassed billions. He funded the peace process in Northern Ireland along with giving billions for higher education, public health, human rights and scientific research. His name is not chiseled in marble nor flashing from gilded letters on the thousand buildings on five continents that were built with $2.7 billion of his funds.
Mr. Feeney, now 85, has nearly completed his life’s aspiration of giving the bulk of his money to worthy causes. He encapsulated his frugality and generosity into his life style by traveling in coach and carrying reading materials in a plastic bag. He said, “You can only wear one pair of pants at a time.”
In June, 2014, Feeney sat among numerous billionaires and received Forbes 400 Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy. Warren Buffett presented the award by saying, “Chuck has set the example. It’s a real honor to talk about a fellow who is my hero and Bill Gates’s hero.” After other appropriate comments of praise, Warren Buffet turned to his old friend and mentor, Feeney, and declared that he has made a terrible mistake by spending money unnecessarily. “Look at your watch. It has a battery which wears out and needs to be replaced,” he said. Then Buffet walked over to his friend Chuck, removed his own watch with a windup stem, and presented it to Chuck Feeney so that he could save a little more money to give away. What a tender, gracious, generous moment between two icons of philanthropy!
PARABLE OF CHARITY
On a fateful morning in 1888, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who had amassed an enormous fortune from the manufacture and sale of weapons of destruction, sat before his morning breakfast and newspaper and read his own obituary! A French reporter had made a mistake, publishing Alfred’s obit instead of his brother’s, who had died. Alfred was shocked at his description as “the dynamite king.” He had always seen himself as a man committed to breaking down barriers between people. To his horror, the world viewed him as a merchant of death. He left that breakfast table to change his last will and testament in the hope of changing his life’s legacy. The final disposition of his fortune established the Nobel Prize given to those who have done most for the cause of world peace.
PARABLE OF CHARITY
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Luke 21: 1-4
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Care to read more?
A VISUAL REFLECTION—Also this week, Benjamin Pratt offers a visual reflection on Greed, based on a disturbing painting by the Italian artist Mario Donizetti, an idea prompted by the writings of the late Phyllis Tickle.
AND, GET THE BOOK—Benjamin Pratt is the author of a book-length exploration of Ian Fleming’s life-long fascination with the challenge of “deadly sins.” In fact, Fleming believed that the traditional deadly sins should be updated with sins of the contemporary world—a theme he explored in his Bond novels. Learn more by getting a copy of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass.