Sunday, August 11, 2013

On Guard Against Greed

Then he said, “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed.  Life is not measured by how much you own.”            Luke 12:15 (NLT)
If you’re at least 60 you probably remember when TV first began to grace American homes.  One of the first stand-up comedians was Jack Benny; you might
recall he delivered most of his lines with a deadpan dry humor.  He also built a reputation as a seriously stingy miser.  He told the story on himself once that a robber held him at gunpoint in an alley and as the bad guy cocked the hammer on his revolver, he threatened:  “Your money or your life, mister.”  Benny just stared at the man, arms folded.  The man impatiently warned, “Hey, don’t you hear well, Bozo?  I said, your money or your life.”  Benny replied, “Don’t rush me, I’m thinking.”
Now, I’ve never thought of Jack Benny as a great intellectual philosophizer…but in this case he demonstrated the most accurate picture of human nature stuck in the quicksand that is greed.  It is the choice between having and living; perhaps better stated would be having at the cost of living!
Jesus’ story was about a man grappling with too much having.  He said he knew what to do…hoard everything…build bigger storage bins!  Jesus called the man a fool.  Let’s face it, when you hoard stuff, for the sake of having stuff, when you are going to die and leave all your stuff behind anyway, you’re a fool!
The Bible does not say that it is wrong to have material possessions, or even to be rich.  Many saints who served God are portrayed in Scripture as being wealthy, Abraham, Joseph of Arimathea, King David and Philemon, just to name a few.  King Solomon was not only incredibly wise, he was “over the top” rich”!
What the Scripture does say is that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Essentially that means the heart that is preoccupied with wealth is guilty of greed.  That takes many forms (financial, material, power and prestige – you can be greedy in many ways); note the number of personal pronouns in our story of the rich fool:
‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry
It’s those last 5 words that tell the difference…the man was going to stuff about a hundred Swiss account-401K retirement plans; then he was going to just chill!  He was going to kick-back and take it easy; he was going to be Jabba the Hut. 
Jesus teaching here is pretty clear; what makes a man greedy is what you plan to do with what God allows you to have.  It isn’t the size of your bank account, but the condition of your heart; it’s seldom money – it’s all about motive.  
So who is Jesus talking to about this basic human tendency to want, to get and to keep stuff?  He could be addressing the rich or the envious poor; probably both!
Well, now that we know that Jesus is talking to all of us, it would be good to ask the question – why?  Why is greed so bad?  Why must we be on guard against greed in our personal lives? 
James, Jesus’ half-brother, and one of the leaders of the first century church, gives us (at least) three reasons – results of materialism that every Christian ought to have tattooed on his eyelids in order to remember – James 5:1-6 gives us the answers to our question, why should we be on guard against greed:

Greed Brings Reproach

Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you.  Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags.  Your gold and silver have become worthless.  The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire.  This treasure you have accumulated will stand as evidence against you on the day of judgment.        James 5:1 - 3 (NLT)
Hoarding is the opposite of sharing.  In Bible times the means of transacting business was different from ours; it was much more of a bartering society.  There were three main kinds of currency…food, clothing and precious metals.  James makes the point that food will rot when hoarded.  It was that way for the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness.  Whenever they tried to store-up some manna it rotted overnight.  Clothing can be attacked by moths, and gold and silver are at the mercy of oxidation.
Hoarding includes judgment.  Dives found that out.  Jesus told another parable[1] about the rich man (Dives) and Lazarus the poor man who sat by the rich man’s gate.  Their lives were different; their deaths were polar opposites. 
Lazarus went to heaven; the rich man wound up in hell.  It wasn’t the rich man’s money, but his treatment of the poor man at his doorstep that was the cause of his fate.  Jesus made it clear that the rich man had some responsibility for the poor man.
There are plenty of stories of people who were incredibly rich, famous and powerful – people who died as lonely and unhappy as anyone in history.  Howard Hughes died alone, naked and afraid.  The billionaire oilman J. Paul Getty said that he’d give it all for one good marriage. 
How different are these than the testimony of people who have been rich towards God.  The widow dropped in the offering plate everything she had, and earned the praise of the Son of God. 
I’m not a big Bill Gates fan (especially considering how much a new computer costs!)…but lately he’s been making my “top ten” list.  Together with his wife, Melinda, Gates has formed a foundation that is giving away billions to help people.  The foundation has given over 7 billion dollars to charity.  Somewhere along the line Mr. Microsoft took seriously Jesus’ statement that to whom much is entrusted, much will be required![2]

2. Greed Makes You God’s Enemy

For listen!  Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay.  The wages you held back cry out against you.  The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.    James 5:4 (NLT)
This is certainly addressed to those who are employers.  However, the principle stands for anyone who holds back the basics of life (food, water, shelter) from a fellow human being.
Deuteronomy 24:14 (NLT)  Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns.
Malachi 3:5b (NLT)   I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.
The God of love is also a God of judgment; we ought never to forget that materialism, or greed is a form of stealing.  God judges, otherwise He would not be a just and righteous God.  There is mercy for anyone who repents of sin…that means to turn around 180o and mend his or her ways.  Sin forsaken is the sin that is forgiven!
God was willing to forgive Cain for killing his brother; God would have forgiven even that sin.  But Cain remained proud and God judged him.  It is not an envious position to be in – being an enemy of God!

Greed kills tendencies toward Rightesouness

You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire.  You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter.  You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you.      James 5:5 - 6 (NLT)
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker back in the 1970’s were the prototype of “excessive lifestyle”.  They preached that having money – and lots of it – was a sign that God loved you.  Tammy Faye never gave up that theology; she died in 1997 with her life metaphorically wrapped around things (and thirteen pounds of makeup on her face.  Jim gave up the prosperity gospel in jail.  When he got out his new book was entitled, “I Was Wrong”!
About the time of my parole hearing (1993), I completed my study of all the words
of Jesus in the New Testament. To my surprise, after months of studying Jesus, I
concluded that He did not have one good thing to say about money. Most of Jesus'
statements about riches, wealth, and material gain were in a negative context.
Even "The Prodigal Son," one of my favorite stories told by Jesus, took on new
meaning as I read it again for the first time with an overview of Scripture in mind. I
quickly noticed that the story began with the younger brother saying to the father,
"Give me! Give me my part of the inheritance" (Luke 15:12). He didn't even say,
"Please give me." He simply demanded. Before long, that young man landed in the
pigpen. I began to see that the fastest way to the pigpen begins with "Give me" ...
and the fastest route to the "big pen," the federal penitentiary, often begins with
the same phrase, "Give me!"[3]
Materialism is habit-forming.  When you begin down that slippery slope of materialism it is always away from righteousness, away from goodness, and towards selfishness.  It tends to deaden any spirit of generosity, until finally you are totally self-absorbed and a poster child for the 10 most backslidden believers of the postmodern society. 
Jim Bakker is back on television these days.  He doesn’t preach the “prosperity gospel” any more, but he’s still “selling” religion. He’s got a new angle…frightening people with end-time prophecies. His book about being wrong was a prelude to proving you can still make a buck off greedy and gullible people.
Guard against greed; remember this – you ARE going to die!  And he who dies with the most toys….still dies!  And he who dies still comes face to face with the living God! 

Take a Financial Checkup

Here are just a few important reminders that you can use over and over again.  I have found that it is best to use them each month as I pay my bills…my checkbook is out and I am face to face with what I think about money (and what I do with it).
1.  Remember God’s claim – this earth is His!
If it all belongs to God, I must learn to think about what I do with everything God has entrusted to me as a steward, a trustee of God’s resources.
2.  Review my lifestyle – how do I get money, view money and use money.  You can do that with an open checkbook (even though it can be painful if you’ve got some growing to do.)  Am I envious of what others have? 
3.  Re-Commit to God’s way – am I being “rich toward God”?
Ask yourself,
·           Do I have an inclination to hoard, to build bigger barns? 
·           Do I often think about “relaxing – taking my ease”?  Have I got a truckload of confidence in my money and my financial planning…or am I trusting in the providence of God to supply all my needs?
·           Am I busy in the kingdom of God…or do I work so exclusively for myself that I have no time for Him?
4.       Do something Practical – when is the last time you didn’t wait for a “special offering” to be announced; you just sought out somewhere to be a blessing to someone in need.

This is one of the best ways I know to guard against greed.  Give….or better, be a sacrificial offering to someone today. 

Give radically.  Make it count.  That’s how to be rich towards God!

[1] Luke 16
[2] Luke 12:48
[3] Jim Bakker, I Was Wrong, Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1996

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