The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines greed as "intense and selfish desire for wealth, power, or food." Spiritually, the Christian Church identifies greed as one of the seven deadly sins. For the greedy person, wealth and power have become ends in themselves, rather than being the means to flourishing, for self, others, and the world.
Identifying extreme examples of greed can be relatively straightforward. For example, Luke's gospel includes Jesus' story about a wealthy farmer whose greed knows no limits, who continually builds barns to store his ever-increasing agricultural produce, but who unexpectedly dies before he can enjoy his wealth. In the prelude to the 2008 housing bubble bursting, greed led mortgage underwriters to abandon sound business practices, writing mortgages to home buyers that the buyers patently could not afford to pay and then re-selling those mortgages to investors without fully and accurately describing the quality of the mortgages.
Greed may also be more mundane, perhaps more insidious, e.g., a non-hungry child knowingly taking more cookies than his or her fair share, thereby depriving one or more others of their fair share. (Adults act in similar ways!)
Furthermore, greed denotes desire and not necessarily results. Greedy people may be poor, possess little power, or be hungry, but consumed with an overwhelming desire to possess more and more.
Yet, as the definition of greed stipulated, not all self-serving acts constitute greed. Market economies depend upon people wanting to increase their income or wealth as their engine of growth. Psychologists and some biologists question whether all human actions are, at least to some degree, intended to benefit the self.
Christianity's basic ethical injunction is that we love our neighbor as we love our self, implicitly recognizing the inevitability if not importance of loving self-love. The newly elected Pope chose the name Francis, an allusion to Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis will certainly not live in poverty nor give away all of the Roman Catholic Church's wealth and possessions. This Lent, ask yourself, what is a healthy, Christ-like balance of self-interest with concern for others?
As Jesus' story about the wealthy farmer poignantly illustrates, death will separate us from any wealth or power we have accumulated. Wealth and power are useful only as a means to an end, a life of flourishing for self and others. As you prepare to file your income tax forms this year, ponder how much wealth and power are enough?
Are your answers honest ones? Or, have you succumbed to the moral hazard of deceiving yourself about your real motivation?