What about greed?

I was reading a biography of Catherine de’ Medici today. The book opens with an extended argument that it was in the late 15th century and early 16th century that capitalism and a social order based on competition finally swamped the medieval church’s prohibitions on greed. The author argues that the church was simply and finally pushed along by the currents of social change into accepting a set of values that it had resisted for hundreds of years before that.

I was thinking of that as I was reading this evening from Ephesians 5.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. (Ephesians 5:3-7, NIV)

In the midst of our current church debates, our eye might first be drawn to the apostle’s concern of sexual immorality, but I want to draw your attention for a few moments to the sin that draws equal condemnation here: greed.

If I asked a hundred clergy, I think I would have a hard time getting much consensus about what the biblical definition of greed might be. I wonder how many of us have preached on this topic or discussed with our members the dangers of this sin. I wonder how many of us could even articulate clearly what we think the sin might be.

In our Methodist tradition, of course, we have some resources to draw upon. John Wesley wrote and preached on “The Dangers of Riches” and “The Use of Money.” In the eighth his 13-part series of sermons on the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, he devotes extended attention to the sin of laying up treasures on Earth. Because this is my blog and I enjoy this particular bit of Wesley’s writing, I am going to share an extended quotation from that sermon:

With regard to most of the commandments of God, whether relating to the heart or life, the Heathens of Africa or America stand much on a level with those that are called Christians. The Christians observe them (a few only being excepted) very near as much as the Heathens. For instance: the generality of the natives of England, commonly called Christians, are as sober and as temperate as the generality of the heathens near the Cape of Good Hope. And so the Dutch or French Christians are as humble and as chaste as the Choctaw or Cherokee Indians. It is not easy to say, when we compare the bulk of the nations in Europe with those in America, whether the superiority lies on the one side or the other. At least the American has not much the advantage. But we cannot affirm this with regard to the command now before us. Here the heathen has far the pre-eminence. He desires and seeks nothing more than plain food to eat and plain raiment to put on. And he seeks this only from day to day. He reserves, he lays up nothing; unless it be as much corn at one season of the year as he will need before that season returns. This command, therefore, the heathens, though they know it not, do constantly and punctually observe. They “lay up for themselves no treasures upon earth;” no stores of purple or fine linen, of gold or silver, which either “moth or rust may corrupt”, or “thieves break through and steal.” But how do the Christians observe what they profess to receive as a command of the most high God? Not at all! Not in any degree; no more than if no such command had ever been given to man. Even the good Christians, as they are accounted by others as well as themselves, pay no manner of regard thereto. It might as well be still hid in its original Greek for any notice they take of it. In what Christian city do you find one man of five hundred who makes the least scruple of laying up just as much treasure as he can? — of increasing his goods just as far as he is able? There are indeed those who would not do this unjustly; there are many who will neither rob nor steal; and some who will not defraud their neighbour; nay, who will not gain either by his ignorance or necessity. But this is quite another point. Even these do not scruple the thing, but the manner of it. They do not scruple the “laying up treasures upon earth,” but the laying them up by dishonesty. They do not start at disobeying Christ, but at a breach of heathen morality. So that even these honest men do no more obey this command than a highwayman or a house-breaker. Nay, they never designed to obey it. From their youth up it never entered into their thoughts. They were bred up by their Christian parents, masters, and friends, without any instruction at all concerning it; unless it were this, — to break it as soon and as much as they could, and to continue breaking it to their lives’ end.

Our bishops have taken up the charge to sort out how we can live in a church where there is widespread disagreement about exactly what is and what is not sexually immoral. We have no need of such a commission on the topic of greed. We seem to not be vexed by that sin at all. I fear, though, that it is because we have ceased to view it as a sin and not because it is no longer a problem among the people called Methodist.

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Pray like Christians, live like heathens

Should Christians live differently than non-Christians?

Even in my limited role as a part-time local pastor, I come across this question quite often. The question is not about whether Christians should be drug dealers or murderers but whether they should be typical Americans. Should our lives, interests, entertainments, and ambitions look pretty much like everyone else’s or should following Christ change more about our lives than what we do on Sunday morning? The most frequent way I hear this question emerge is in the unsettled voices of members of the church who wonder if it is — after all — a problem to love expensive luxuries or whether God will pardon them for lavish vacations or days spent in idleness while other humans live in misery and constant suffering.

These are not new questions. William Law wrote an influential book in the 18th century that gives a decisive answer. Here is a representative excerpt:

You may see them different from other people, so far as times and places of prayer, but generally like the rest of the world in all the other parts of their lives: that is, adding Christian devotion to a Heathen life. … they who add devotion to such a life, must be said to pray as Christians, but live as Heathens.

Law was hugely influential on the young John Wesley, whose sermon “The Almost Christian” makes the very distinction Law does between living according to the general morality of the world and practicing real Christianity. And so, these pastoral questions also raise questions about our very notion of what it means to be a Christian in the United Methodist tradition.

In the days of Law and Wesley, critics found their approach to border on lunacy. It was too much to expect men and women to forgo the pleasures of this world simply because their fellow creatures suffered. The idea of such a “serious” approach to life seemed to them to be morbid and joyless. Isn’t it okay for a man to gamble a bit on Friday night and buy a sports car in his forties so long as he shows up for church on Sunday and puts his check in the offering plate?

As a pastor, the great temptation is to soothe the worry behind such questions. “Of course, God wants you to enjoy your life. Just try to be good and do good most of the time. It is okay.”

Law argues that such answers and questions miss the entire point. What we need, he writes, is to reframe our whole point of view. The question is not what God will pardon or forgive, but what will God honor. The Christian seeks to please God in all aspects of life, and so the questions that we often ask are turned on their heads.

He does not ask what is allowable and pardonable, but what is commendable and praiseworthy. He does not ask whether God will forgive the folly of our lives, the madness of our pleasures, the vanity of our expenses, the richness of our equipage, and the careless consumption of our time; but he asks whether God is pleased with these things, or whether they are appointed for the gaining of His favour? He does not inquire, whether it be pardonable to hoard up money, to adorn ourselves with diamonds, and to gild our chariots, whilst the widow and the orphan, the sick and the prisoner, want to be relieved; but he asks, whether God has required these things at our hands, whether we shall be called to account at the last day for the neglect of them; because it is not his intent to live in such ways as, for aught we know, God may perhaps pardon; but to be diligent in such ways, as we know that God will infallibly reward.

The question that Law poses strikes hard: Do we intend to please God?

The question exposes for me the misguided mindset with which we often approach our faith. We often view religion as another product or service that we buy. Here is a little dose of relief from anxiety about death. Here is a lovely gathering to celebrate a wedding. Here is some uplifting music and a pretty little talk by a pastor on Sunday morning. We want these things, but we want them with as little cost as possible. God is a merchant peddling some wares and we want to strike as good a deal as we can for what he offers.

Law — and Wesley after him — argue that this attitude not only misses the point but falls outside the bounds of actual Christianity. It is heathenism dressed up for Sunday morning.

Honor God in all things, they would say. Seek first the kingdom. Or they might quote our Lord and Savior:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Stanley Hauerwas has argued that the mark of becoming a Christian is to be able to hear the Bible read and not react with anger or defensiveness or evasion. In our day as in Law’s, we are much in need of God’s grace if we would become not just praying heathens but altogether Christians.

If one rises from the dead #LukeActs2014

Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead. (Luke 16:31, NIV)

Before I started this year-long practice of reading Luke-Acts in 2014, I had always known Luke’s gospel spoke a lot about the poor and the rich. But it is one thing to know it, and another to sit down week after week with the gospel and read it.

Luke is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

The verse at the top of this post comes at the end of a chapter that is relentlessly about wealth and how to use it. It starts with a parable that is often puzzling to people — the dishonest manager. The man who got his way into heaven by reducing the debts people owed his master. I’m not arguing I fully understand the parable, but in light of the whole chapter, the message appears to be that we are in the position of the dishonest manager. We are about to be called to account for the way we’ve managed our master’s — that is God’s — wealth that has been put in our hands. If we want to end up on the good side, it is time to start using that wealth to remove burdens from those who are in our debt or who could be blessed by it.

This certainly is the point of the rest of the chapter and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man saw the poor Lazarus every day and walked by him. Now tormented, he pleads for word to be given. It is a version of A Christmas Carol without the happy ending.

And the zinger for us right at the end. If the witness of the Old Testament is not enough to get us to be generous, then even a man rising from the dead would not be enough to convince us.

We who are fresh from Easter worship are confronted by that assertion. Does the risen Lord persuade us of what we did not believe without Jesus?

I cannot say what the specific application of this chapter — or this theme in Luke — is. John Wesley taught that every penny we have is a gift from God. After we have used our money to care for the needs of our family and to provide for necessities for our work and education, we should give every penny beyond that to doing good for others — good for their bodies, minds, and souls. Others teach that after we offer one tenth to God, the balance of our money can be with clear conscience used in any ways that are not manifestly evil or sinful. Others teach about money in other ways.

I am not certain what the proper biblical stance is, not down to the fine points. But you can’t spend as much time as I have with Luke so far this year without being hounded by the question: Will you serve God or money?