Greed vs. Blessed are the Merciful

A sermon preached at All Saints in Boise, Idaho on 13 April 2014.

Here’s a pop quiz for you: Where in the Bible do you find the verse, “God helps those who help themselves?” You ought to know this because it’s one of the more popular quotes in American culture. About 15 years ago, a scientific poll found that 74% of the population cited that quote as a biblical teaching. It was the top-scoring result of a second poll about the best-known Bible verses, and in a third poll, 75% of teenagers surveyed said it was the central teaching of the Bible.

On one “Jaywalking” sketch on the Tonight Show, Jay Leno asked people on the street to name one of the ten commandments. The most popular answer was, “God helps those who help themselves.” Even Bill O’Reilly once cited it as a biblical teaching on his show. So tell me, where is it found in the Bible?

If you answered, that quote isn’t found in the Bible, you’re right. Not only that, but it is actually the opposite of the gospel message that is central to the Bible. Yet the fact that so many Americans –even American Christians– think that it’s a biblical teaching shows how self-reliant we have become.

We often have this idea that if we do good, good will happen to us. I’ve helped myself as much as I can, we think, so God should take it the rest of the way. It’s even easy to start thinking that God owes us something in return. This is dangerous thinking, it’s the opposite of the gospel, and it is an indicator of Greed.

The Bible is very hard on Greed. Did you know there are far more references in the Bible to money than there are to Lust? Did you know that nearly half of Jesus’s 38 parables talk about money? Scripture’s attention to Greed indicates the frequency and seriousness of our temptation to this sin.

Greed has been a serious temptation for all people throughout history, but it is perhaps especially strong for us. Although there is still no shortage of injustice today, there has never before in human history been the kind of democratic wealth and upward mobility of the last couple centuries. These advancements have brought us numerous benefits, but with them the temptation to Greed has multiplied.

I. What is Greed? Let’s first clarify a couple things: Greed is not the sin of having or profit-making. We should rejoice that God has blessed so many people and increased our standard of living. Many of our brothers and sisters faithfully use the abundance God has given them to build the Kingdom. In Matt 25 the wise steward of the 5 talents and the wise steward of the 2 talents are both praised by God, and we should thank God for blessing others — yes, even people who don’t deserve it. So making a profit and having things are not sins.

In fact, the vast majority of things are amoral — that is, they are neither moral nor immoral, neither good nor bad. They’re just things,  and the thing itself — a car, a watch, or a pair of shoes — is almost never either good or bad. It’s how the thing is made or used that God will one day measure.

So Greed is not the sin of having things; it is rather the sin of misusing what we have. Greed begins when we take more pleasure in God’s gifts than in him. As with all idols, what starts as a blessing from God becomes our god. We begin worshiping and serving the blessing instead of the One who gave it to us.

Greed is a child grabbing a toy and yelling, “Mine!” Greed is Gordon Gekko, the villain of the movie Wall Street, giving his famous speech about why Greed is a good thing. He said: “I don’t produce, I don’t create, I own.” Beware when you begin to care more about ownership of things than you care about God or his people! That is Greed seeping in.

Let’s correct some misconceptions about Greed: First, Greed isn’t always about money. We all know that money isn’t really a thing anyway. What is a small piece of paper really worth in itself? Greed is really more about buying than money. However, Greed often centers on money because money is easy to count. As one author put it, “Money is how we keep score.” But we can be greedy about plenty of other things besides money.

Second, make no mistake about this: Greed can take many, many forms. Think of the contrast between Ebenezer Scrooge & Bob Cratchett. We would all be quick to point out that we are not like Scrooge! Because as long as I’m not like Scrooge, then I must not be greedy, right?

But beware, that’s not true! Greed takes many forms, and it doesn’t always look like Ebenezer Scrooge! Greed can be an overflowing shopping cart or just a single purchase; a retirement strategy that is either aggressive or conservative; a wallet full of credit cards or none at all; a safety deposit box with just a few treasures, a garage full of expensive cars, or a closet jammed with great deals.

There are two opposite forms of Greed: on the one hand: avarice, or hoarding,or being miserly; on the other hand: prodigality, recklessness, or wasting. They might look very different, but both are Greed. Greed is about taking pleasure in things — either the pleasure of spending, or the pleasure of security. Spending today or spending tomorrow, you might put it. Greed is having things, acquiring them, preserving them, loving them, fighting for them.

Third: Greed is innate to all of us. It’s a universal human problem. We’ve all seen this: Nothing changes a small child from a little angel into a machine of rage faster than trying to take whatever happens to be in their hands. Greed comes naturally: We don’t have to teach selfishness to our children; they come that way! And this innate greed does not discriminate by age, race, income, or any other socio-economic demographic.

And finally: Greed manifests itself in our actions, but like all the Seven Deadly Sins, it is an internal problem, a problem of the heart. We might be greedy because of malice, because we hate other people. Or maybe we are just thoughtless and don’t really consider others before we purchase things. Regardless of its source, Greed is a state of heart before anything else.

“The reason money so often ends up being God’s chief competition is that we tend to ascribe divine attributes to it. We look to money to do for us the very thing God wants to do for us” (Idleman).

Slowly and subtly, our hearts look to things for:
– Our source of security: We think we can take care of ourselves. “The Lord is nice, but he really isn’t necessary. We don’t need to pray for our daily bread because we’ve got a pantry full of it. The gods of success appeal to our self-sufficiency.”
– Our source of satisfaction: We think that money, whether spending it or saving it, brings happiness.
– Our source of significance: We attach our identity to our money, whether in spending it or in saving it. I’m fun! says the spender. I’m wise! says the saver.

But all of this is idolatry. The first of the 10 commandments is, “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods before me.” But every single day of our lives, we find things taking God’s place in our hearts.

Here are some questions to ask yourself: What do you think will make you happy? That you couldn’t live without? What are the possessions that would be hardest for you to give away today?

And Greed is not found in just the extremes: being a Scrooge-like miser or free-spending shopaholic. What are your spending priorities? Where does the money go first? In what ways does a lack of money frustrate you? How much anxiety do you have about money? How does money influence how you vote?

II. What does Greed do? Eccl 5.10: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.”

Prov 11.24: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.”

Prov 28.22,25: “A stingy man hastens after wealth, and does not know that poverty will come upon him… A greedy man stirs up strife, but the one who trusts in the Lord will be enriched.”

James 4.1-3: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

Greed comes from the heart, as we’ve already noted. But it also re-shapes our hearts. All of the Seven Deadly Sins are potentially addicting, but perhaps Greed more than any other. That’s because Greed works its way into our thinking like few other sins. Our inward character and outward expression of Greed combine to warp our souls into a shape that corrodes our generosity and ignores real justice.

What makes it so hard for us to be generous with our things?
1) We sweated for it. It isn’t easy to earn things. It’s always easier to give away other people’s money.
2) Having experienced want. This fear dies hard.
3) Our consumeristic economy reduces people to money. It’s how we evaluate people, and it’s how we are evaluated. We don’t want to give to others because they haven’t earned it, they don’t deserve it. And that is why we invest so much in displays of wealth. We have to wear things and do things and drive things that prove we are valuable people.

But the reality is that we can’t take it with us. The ancient kings of Egypt built enormous pyramids to contain all the things they wanted to take with them into death. But those things are now scattered around the world in museums. You can go visit them. They didn’t make it to the other side. Or as one comedian famously put it, “I’ve never seen an armored car following a hearse into a cemetery.”

Luke 21.1-4: “Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’”

When Jesus points out the widow’s tiny offering, he makes an important distinction: The amount we spend or give away or whatever is not as important as the heart with which is is given. That means we can’t hide behind a big check and say we don’t struggle with Greed. It also means we can’t write a small check and hide behind this principle!

The manner in which something is given reveals the heart of the person.
– What is your instinctive reaction when someone mentions giving to others, or giving to God?
– Do we give only our leftovers?
– Do we give with joy or with fear? This question especially reveals how well we understand the gospel

Do you want to know if you are Greedy? Ask yourself this question: Do I use people to serve my love for money, or do I use money to serve my love for people? That is what Greed will do to you.

One writer: Imagine that someone else had access to all your financial records, but they knew nothing else about you. What would that information tell them? What kind of impression of you would they have?

III. The Beatitude provides the great contrast to Greed
Matt 5.7: “Blessed are the merciful, because they shall receive mercy.”

The opposite of Greed is Mercy. We see this most clearly at the cross. Phil 2.5-8: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

The mercy and humility of Jesus is astonishing. He did not grasp at what was his, shouting, Mine! Instead he gave up what was his for us. Jesus is mercy embodied, and the extent to which he was willing to go for us greedy sinners is downright shocking.

Being merciful means being so overwhelmed by the generosity of God that you give freely to others. Has not God provided for you? And not just necessities, but luxuries! And not just materially, but spiritually at the cross! Has he not brought you from life to death? Then how could we not be merciful to others?

Here’s the thing: We owe others a loving, generous mercy. It’s not an extra, “above-and-beyond” kind of principle. Rather, it’s a part of the fundamental obligation that comes from receiving mercy from God.

EX: Basil of Caesarea: “It is the hungry one’s bread that you hoard, the naked one’s cloak that you retain, the needy one’s money that you withhold. Wherefore as many as you have wronged, you might have succored.”

Or, as one modern writer paraphrased that same idea, “Your second doughnut this morning belonged to the child who came to school with no breakfast, the new winter coat hanging in your closet next to four other coats (now out of style) belongs to the homeless person you passed on your way downtown last weekend…” and on and on. How often do we pay attention to that?

The Beatitude has a strange, circular nature to it: God expects us to be merciful, and the reward for living mercifully is receiving mercy. So if you want God to be merciful to you, what should you do?

Instead of Greed, God expects us to show Liberality in our giving. Liberality is giving freely and trusting God with the future. EX: One Christian school principal. Christian schools nearly always struggle to stay in the black. But one writers tells this story:

My grandfather’s “family was too poor to pay for his tuition at the local Christian high school. In a moment of boldness, he went to the principal and told him he wanted to attend school but couldn’t afford it. The principal promptly admitted him, on the condition that ‘you remember us someday.’ The principal’s generosity was an act of trust, an investment in an uncertain future, and likely done on an already tight budget. His trust was rewarded. My grandfather was still writing checks to that school until his death” (R. DeYoung). That’s how God expects us to live — give generously and trust God with the future.

And here’s the key to mercy: Yes, it’s about providing for others. But it’s about your own spiritual health too! We absolutely must nurture giving liberally, make it a habit, for our own soul’s sake!

1 Tim 6.9-10: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”

The wages of Greed is death. “All sin is slow suicide.” And Greed is sin. It is idolatry because in Greed we worship a false god — though perhaps not the one that first comes to mind. If I asked you, what is the idol that Greed is worshiping? I suspect you would say, “Stuff, things, money, security, etc.” But the real idol, the hidden idol, is actually you. Greed is worshiping ourselves.

Greed tells us: “If I can only just work hard enough, save hard enough, do enough to provide myself with everything I think I need, then I will be happy.” It creates a measure of success apart from God’s. It makes you your own savior. And it gives you a plan for salvation that is entirely apart from God and up to you.

That’s why Greed is dangerous, it’s deadly, and it will kill your soul. The moment you look to anything except God himself to provide meaning for your life and to satisfy your desires, you have begun the process of slow spiritual suicide. One theologian: “He who provides for this life but takes no care for eternity is wise for a moment, but a fool forever” (John Tillotson).

Matt 6.24: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Heb 13.5-6: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”

Do you trust more in God’s providence or your own? He has promised to provide. Do you believe that he will keep his word? Or do you think you have to fulfill God’s promises for yourself?

IV. How can we be free from Greed? Here are six ways:
1. Know your weakness. Evaluate your heart. Do you live to accumulate? Be honest. Confess your Greed to God & to others you trust.

2. Do a full inventory of your spending. What do you spend too much on? What do you spend too little on? Where do you tend to spend prodigally and where do you tend to hoard? Get actual, numerical answers to those questions. Don’t shy away from the facts. That’s how repentance and change begin.

3. Train your heart by taking a “fast” or “Sabbath rest” from consumerism. Pick one day a week, a month, or whatever is a good starting place for you. On that day, buy nothing, ignore your online banking, take a break from however your Greed manifests itself.

Like fasting from food, choose that day to instead consider the God who has even now richly blessed you, who promises in the future to give you everything you need for all eternity. Consider his promises, and look to him and not to yourself for your provision.

4. Rename everything you own. As one writer put it:

“God has given us the use of his resources for a short time here on earth, and we have much to be grateful for. Go through your day sometime just recognizing that everything is God’s. Get out of God’s bed and walk into God’s bathroom, and turn on God’s shower, then put on God’s clothes. Eat God’s cereal and drink God’s coffee. Get in God’s car and head to work. When we start to see all of our resources as God’s, it helps us develop… a heart of worship” (Idleman).

5. Tithe. Tithing is the biblical principle of giving 10% of your income to God. Tithing is hard. But it’s good for you. And it is freeing to entrust your money to God! I read this quote this week: “I have never heard someone say, ‘We tried tithing faithfully; it hurt us financially and we had to stop or go bankrupt.’”

Tithing is not about adhering to an ancient code, it’s about having a healthy heart that isn’t being destroyed by Greed. Psalm 119.36: “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” Step down from the throne and make God the King of your money. Trust him; he will provide everything you need.

6. This is the last and more important thing I will say to you today: You can only purge an idol from your heart by replacing it with the real thing. That means the only way to stop worshiping false gods it to worship the true God.

Whatever idol you are struggling with — whether it is Greed, Lust, or anything else — the one and only way to defeat that idol is to Worship God. We need to Worship God. And because we constantly struggle with worshiping the false gods of Seven Deadly Sins, we must replace all that by constantly worshiping the true God.

We must reorganize, re-shape our entire lives to make Jesus our priority. We must create reminders for ourselves, throughout our day, to keep our eyes on Jesus and keep them from slipping toward our idols.

Ponder frequently who he is, what he has done. Fear him only, above all people or situations. Spend as much time & energy as you can meditating on, talking with, obeying, and worshiping the one true God, and your idols will grow smaller and smaller. They fade away into the nothings that they really are.

That’s what we do every week when we come together: When we really truly worship, we are bending the knee to Jesus the King and putting him on the throne of our lives. The question before you now is whether you will pay lip service to Jesus the King one hour a week, or will you really worship him with everything you are and everything you have?

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