DEADLY sins go in and out of fashion, as recent news events demonstrate. Gluttony is serious — see the obesity epidemic. Lust is apparently no longer much of a problem — the Culture Secretary’s liaison with a dominatrix produced sniggers rather than censure.
Avarice, however, is another matter. The Panama Papers, the agonised revelations of the Prime Minister’s tax arrangements, the spotlight on Tony Blair’s carefully accumulated millions — all have sparked a sense of outrage. The line has been eroded between tax avoidance, once regarded as no more than careful money-management, and the crime of tax evasion. The secretive rich are simply loathed and hated.
One of the early Christian commentators on avarice, the fourth-century hermit Evagrius, was not sure whether avarice was, like lust and gluttony, a sin of the appetites, or more a sin of misdirected enthusiasm. On the whole, he treats it as sin of the appetites, and links it to anxiety and personal insecurity.
The avaricious person is not necessarily a wicked hoarder whose sole aim is to grind the face of the poor, but, rather, a brooding control freak, anxious about the future and obsessed with the issue whether there will be “enough” to deal with what might happen, and, in particular, with the indignities of old age.
Christians are meant to be free of financial anxiety, living in the moment, and not planning for the future, which is in God’s hands. The avarice that is so condemned in today’s society is often closer to the supposed virtues of thrift and prudence than we might imagine.
At the Reformation, a different theology of wealth emerged. While love of money for its own sake was still regarded as evil, Christians were urged to see wealth as creative rather than destructive. Improving one’s talents was part of Christian stewardship, and that could include the pursuit of profits for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
John Wesley urged his followers to earn all they could, save all they could, and give away all they could. Thus money was kept in circulation for the benefit of all. Capitalism and its fruits have indeed lifted millions out of poverty, while the philanthropic work of people such as Bill Gates have shown how the rich can make a real difference.
The depressing thing today is not so much that the rich are rich, as that so many of them seem so selfish: slaves not only to their own appetites, but to narcissistic vanity and pride — sins more deadly than avarice. And the rest of us are not let off the hook. Envy is the twin of avarice, and just as deadly.
The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.