Friday, June 23, 2017

How Much Is Enough? (II)

Continuing our reflections on “greed” and “the greedy person” in Ephesians 5:1-6:

In not previously understanding the import of what Paul was writing, not only was I not challenged by this passage, but I did not challenge others when preaching and teaching Ephesians. In not understanding the distinction between covetousness as found in the Ten Commandments and covetousness (greed; the desire for more, and then more, and then more) as it is typically used in the New Testament, I failed to see the radical countercultural message that Paul was preaching – countercultural for his day, and radical in our day of consumerism. Yes, I knew that “covetousness” as used in the NT was broader than Exodus 20:17, but I hadn’t thought about the distinction critically and I hadn’t thought about the likelihood that many professing Christians have not been challenged by the thrust of what Paul is saying. Was it that I didn’t want to deal with it in my own life? Was it that I didn’t want to offend others?

I am deeply convicted that I missed this, avoided it, failed to study it, failed to think about it deeply, failed to present the text faithfully to others.

When Paul, in verse 6, writes, “Let no one deceive you with empty words…” I wonder if some of the empty words included, “Getting more, more, and then more doesn’t matter. It’s only stuff, only things, only recognition, only power, only position.” We would never think that today, but maybe in Paul’s day people thought that.

Paul writes that a greedy person is an idolater; that may have been true in Paul’s day but certainly it couldn’t be true today; or if so, it must only apply to those who go over the top in their pursuit of wealth, position, power and fame. Certainly as citizens of the United States we have a civic obligation to pursue (the good) life, liberty (do what we want), and happiness. Little wonder that most of the time we vote from the pocketbook. 

Many of us think that not to have other gods “before Me” means that we make God number one, but that is not what Exodus 20:3 means. It means, “You shall have no other gods in My Presence,” and that means that we shall have no other gods…period, end of story. God is to have no competition in our lives – we are to love Him with all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul, and all of our strength (Mark 12:30). Of course our response is typically, “Yes…but”.

Jesus says in His first recorded extended teaching, “You cannot serve God and riches,” (Matthew 6:24); we read it and then we qualify it with, “Yes…but”.

In my preparation for the small group study of Ephesians 5:1 – 6 I was struck by the fact that greed was written about and discussed by ancient Greeks and Romans, including greed’s impact on the greater community; while ancient thinkers wrestled with “how much is too much?” and the care of the community as a whole – we seldom, if ever, discuss it – whether within or without the church. How often do we make greedy people American idols and cultural superstars? Doing so gives us permission to pursue our own game of more, then more, then more.

A friend of mine, after thinking about this subject, remarked in effect, “When I want more I call it ambition, when someone else wants more I call it greed.”

Where is the Cross of Christ in our desire for “more”? This thought has challenged me for years, both personally and in ministry to others. In my involvement in marketplace ministry, both in Virginia and Massachusetts, I have long thought that when we do not challenge marketplace leaders with how the Cross informs wealth and the acquisition of more and more that we do them a disservice. I have seen theologians and others quick to justify the American Dream and yet never raise the issue of the Cross of Christ and how the Cross should determine our economic and vocational thinking.

Whether the disciple is a laborer or the owner of a billion dollar business – a Christian’s vocation is to be a vocation centered on the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ. A dollar earned that is not laid at the Cross is a dollar ill-used.

“Make sure that your character is free form the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you, so that we may confidently say, The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5 – 6.

This passage in Hebrews has been a reminder to me over the years that learning contentment is a form of trust in God and a witness to the world and the unseen realm.

Our economic culture is built on creating discontent, if we are not discontented we will not purchase more, and more, and then more. We are so imbued with this ethos that we see no danger in it. We are ironic slaves; slaves to pleasure, slaves to acquisition, slaves to silence on these subjects – both in the world and in the church – whoever saw a society of slaves that had so much?

Thinking about writing about this is akin to a criminal writing his own indictment…not pleasant.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

How Much Is Enough?

Over the past few weeks I’ve experienced deep conviction when preparing to share God’s Word with others; so much so that I felt a physical burden and inner distress. While I often bear inner distress when meditating on the Word, in prayer, and in intercession; and while this distress can manifest itself as a physical burden – the two instances over the past few weeks were pronounced. As I write this I am also aware of pain in other areas of life that Vickie and I have experienced in June. While I don’t often write of my own experience from this point-of-view, I am doing so now because I want to provide a framework for the deep conviction and challenge I am experiencing as a result of engaging Ephesians 5:1-6 and Paul’s (God’s) words concerning greed and the greedy person.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
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. (NIV).

You may note that I’m using the NIV on this one; this is one of the few times that I think the NIV does a better job than either the NASB or ESV for the English reader. The other two versions use “covetousness” or a combination of “covetousness” and “greed”, but I think that neither quite hits the mark for the contemporary English reader, as I will explain below – and there may even be better words for “greed” and “greedy” for our generation to better understand what Paul is saying. From a technical viewpoint, covetousness is a fair rendering of the Greek word Paul uses – so I want to be clear that I don’t think the NASB or ESV is mistranslating the word(s) used in this passage – I just think we can miss the impact of what Paul is saying by using that English word.

When most Biblically literate, or semi-Biblically literate people, think of the word “covet” they think of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” [Exodus 20:17]. We think of coveting in terms of wanting what belongs to someone else, for this is the thrust of Exodus 20:17. Therefore we think that as long as we don’t desire to obtain that which belongs to others, as long as we don’t desire to take what belongs to others, that we are not coveting – and herein lies the problem with using the words “covet” and “covetousness” in translating the group of Greek words in the New Testament that we find in Ephesians 5:1 – 6 – the Greek words have a much broader thrust than found in Exodus 20:17 – they mean wanting more, then more, and then more. They are not confined to wanting what belongs to someone else – while wanting what belongs to others is included in their meaning, they really mean wanting more, then more, and then more. In other words, they mean wanting more whether or not the “more” belongs to others in the sense of Exodus 20:17 or not. More is more whether obtained lawfully or not.

Furthermore, while material things are included in wanting more, so are position, reputation, recognition, and power – more means more whatever the “more” might be.

This way of life, Paul writes, is idolatry (see also Colossians 3:5). Also note that in Romans 1:29, Ephesians 5:3, and Colossians 3:5 that greed is classed in proximity to sexual immorality. Christians who highlight sexual sins in others would do well to look at their accumulation of “things” lest they think they are free from the toxicity of lawlessness; they would also do well to consider that an insatiable lust for power, position, recognition, money, and material things can morph into a lust for bodies. This is no game (Ephesians 5:5-6), people who give themselves over to these things will not inherit the kingdom of Christ and God; and lest we say, “Oh, it can’t be all that bad,” Paul uses the word “any” – “…has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

We can’t serve two masters, we can’t worship the True and Living God and worship ourselves and more and more and more – it just can’t be done.

Yet, Americans have been programmed to be consumers, we have been raised and brainwashed to want more and more and then more. When we do happen to ask, “How much is enough?” At the least we say, “Just a little bit more.” Our identity is that we are consumers. We are communicated to by business, government, and sadly by most churches as consumers. We live in the opium den of consumerism and narcissism – whether in or out of religious gatherings. Our economy is built on getting us to purchase and accumulate more and more and more. We live in a land of unbridled desire, lust, and greed – we are idolaters, sacrificing ourselves and our children and grandchildren on altars of more, more, and then more.

After 9/11 we were told by our leaders to respond to the attacks by shopping. What will historians say to that?

I was convicted when preparing a Bible study on this passage because when preaching through Ephesians in prior years I missed the impact of the word group translated “covetousness”.  I wrongly thought I knew what the word meant and I didn’t and I therefore did not serve my congregation well. I was also convicted about others things which I will share in future posts.

Are you after something “more” today? How much is enough for you?

To be continued…