02/28/2012 11:48 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

Lent vs. Greed

For Catholics and many other Christians, the season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday, with ashes that symbolize human mortality. Lent is a time of repentance for sin and of preparation for an intense remembering, at Easter, of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jesus who is remembered and celebrated is a generous Jesus, the one who laid down his life for others. Lenten penance and preparation have often taken the specific form of three things: almsgiving, fasting and prayer. I would like to suggest that all three may serve especially well as antidotes to a lack of generosity, that is, to greed or avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

That greed abounds seems all too evident. In the United States, Lent 2012 is a time also of political campaigning, and of a politics in which a candidate has not hesitated to boast about his wealth, his minimal payment of taxes, his firing of workers, and his disinterest in the very poor. Other candidates call relentlessly for ever more tax cuts for the people who need them least. They exalt so-called good greed as though it were not an oxymoron, but rather the miracle solution to all problems. Thus I suggest that antidotes to greed and its exaltation are urgently needed, and that zeal for Lent, with its almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, may offer an excellent remedy.

Is 'alms' perhaps the most obvious of the three as an antidote to greed? Is almsgiving a kind of fasting from greed? To give alms has usually meant to give to the poor and the needy, to individuals, or to agencies, foundations and institutions devoted to serving such persons. Almsgiving carries the connotation of voluntary charity on the part of individuals with the means to do so. The term may conjure up images of a wealthy elite acting out of a sense of noblesse oblige, rather than with any motivation of genuine care or concern for those in need. But this need not be so. Alms may be given discretely, anonymously; and generosity in almsgiving may involve giving not only out of one's abundance, but also out of one's own need. In the New Testament, Jesus praises the generosity of the widow who gave from what little she had (Mark 12:41-44). And Jesus cautions that one may not serve God and money (Matthew 6:24). Thus a choice must be made: greed or God.

In its more literal sense fasting is an abstinence from the quantity of food one normally eats, from eating at certain times, or from certain foods. Fasting means rigorous self-control in the face of an all-you-can-eat buffet, no easy feat for many Americans. And fasting may mean doing without alcohol or other favorite beverages. For Christians, it also suggests imitation of the Jesus who fasted for 40 days in the desert. It may mean solidarity with the hungry, even if one lives in a part of the world where hunger is less visible than it is in other places. It may express an affirmative response to Jesus who says one does not live on bread alone, but on the word of God (Matthew 4:4). Fasting may mean not only abstention from food or drink, but a more general fasting from material things. To fast is to say that ever more acquisition of consumer goods may not be the path to happiness and human wholeness, however shocking that may be for some.

To pray is to acknowledge that one is not God. The ravenously greedy person is likely to be inclined to idolatry, to adoration of one's self as a god or even as the one God. The greedy think that they deserve endless luxuries while others grovel in misery. Prayer is a kind of iconoclasm that destroys the idol of the self imagined as above all others. Prayer is an ascetical renunciation of the placing of one's self at the center of the universe, and it is renunciation of the seeking of adulation. Prayer is not only words addressed to Another believed to be one's creator, the ground of one's being; it is also a quiet, a silence, and a receptivity to God's word, to God's ways, and to the needs of other people. It may be helpful to consider how genuine prayer is the polar opposite of a car alarm. A car alarm is an example of a greed and of a contempt for others; its installation presumes that protection of the property of a car owner matters, and that this consideration trumps that of the exceedingly obnoxious noise pollution inflicted on others. These alarms are a rude, possessive and noisy protection of private property; but prayer is a peaceful openness to reception of God's gifts and to sharing them with others.

Listening is the heart of prayer. To pray is to fast, in hopeful silence, from the constant babbling about little or nothing that pervades our era of ever shorter attention spans. Prayer is an exercise in waiting, in patience and humility, for prayer is acknowledgment of one's dependence on God, and on God's ways. Prayer liberates us as it downgrades the importance of Wall Street, wealth, and wanton spending. Prayer says no to a culture of façades and illusions, and yes to a deeper sense of what matters most about human life.

Lent calls us to do penance for our greedy ways and to promote the common good, not selfish individualism. The saints Catholics honor and strive to imitate offer countless examples of giving away everything in order to follow Jesus and to serve others. Lent is a time for remembrance and imitation of the self-emptying generosity and sacrifice of Jesus and of his saints. It is a time for coming to understand that greed and Christian discipleship have nothing whatsoever in common.