Sunday, March 21, 2010

Root of All Evil

1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19
John 12:1-8
Lent 5
March 21, 2010
William G. Carter

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Greed is the Deadly Sin that we consider today. With just a week away from Holy Week, it’s a natural that we would hear about Judas Iscariot. Whenever the Bible talks about him, it mentions he is the betrayer. Even when he is introduced as one of the hand-picked disciples of Jesus, the Gospel writers remind us, he is the one who turn over Jesus. And he did it for the money.

There have been theories about Judas and his motives. His surname “Iscariot” suggests he was “Ish – Carioth” – a man from the southern town of Carioth. If so, he was a Confederate, and Jesus and the rest of the disciples were Yankees. Some regional conflict or competition may have been a contributing factor.

Others say Judas was a strong believer in Jesus. But he grew frustrated that Jesus didn’t move faster or show his divine identity more forcefully. So he set up the arrest in Gethsemane to force Jesus’ hand, and it didn’t work.

Others say, no, he was consumed by evil. The devil got into him somehow. Earlier in the Gospel of John, the narrator says “Judas was a devil from the beginning.” We don’t know if we should take that literally or not. Certainly the church had to struggle with how one of Christ’s own followers could have done him in. Judas did a nasty deed, and some would say the devil made him do it.

A few scholars are kinder to Judas, and declare he was a pawn in God’s larger plan. The reasoning goes like this: if God planned to save the world, if God decided to use the sacrifice of Jesus to do this saving, then God needed to get Jesus arrested, condemned, and crucified. God used Judas to get this done. That theory makes God seem a bit too manipulative, discounts human free will, and dismisses the power of evil.

The plain fact is that Judas did it for the money. In the Gospel text for today, the Gospel of John gives Judas a good kick. He questions Mary’s generous offering of perfume. She and her household are hosting Jesus for dinner. The Lord has just raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. Mary is grateful. In a stunning act of devotion, she anoints Jesus’ feet. Judas protests: “That evaporated perfume was worth one year’s wages. It could have been cashed in, and the funds could feed the hungry.”

With that, the Gospel writer gives him a good kick under the table. “He didn’t care about the poor,” says John. “He was a thief. Judas handled the money for Jesus and the disciples, and his hand was often in the money bag.” Say what we want about his motives – Judas betrayed Jesus for the money.

Greed is one of the nastiest of sins. The early Christians knew this. They watched their neighbors in the Roman Empire scrambling for wealth. Opulence was a sign of importance. You proved yourself a significant person if you had a lot of money. Those who could climb to the top of the heap could own the whole heap. They could influence their little corner of the world. They could buy into significant positions of authority. They could remove themselves from the riff-raff and live in a big house on the hill. They could surround themselves with the finer things of live. That’s how it was in the affluent sections of the Roman Empire. Things haven’t changed a whole lot, have they?

This obsession with financial gain can take over a person’s life. That’s what made the first Christians suspicious. By the end of the first century, the wisest church leaders had already issued warnings about greed and what it can do. The text from First Timothy is one of them. As the apostle writes, “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

I think of the minister who took me around for a tour of his northern New Jersey community. This was twenty-five years ago, and he was interviewing me for a position on his staff. We toodled down a few unmarked lanes, and he pointed out some of the mansions in his town. He started telling me what the properties were worth, and what the owners were paid. I was a senior in seminary; I had no concept of that kind of money. “People pay for the privacy,” he said, “but I can tell you as a pastor that, behind these tall hedges, every one of these families has serious problems. Their money has done them no favors.”

I didn’t take the job, partly because I grew up in a modest small town, and that Jersey community seemed like it was another planet. But I’ve never forgotten what he said: “Behind these tall hedges, every one of these families has serious problems. Their money has done them no favors.” It makes me wonder: why is there so much heroin abuse in our own affluent community? Is there an automatic underside to affluence and the pursuit of wealth? I don’t know, but this is a point worth raising.

Certainly envy creeps in, but that’s the deadly sin for next Sunday, so we’ll explore that more deeply next week. Many of us compare what we have with our neighbors. Up in the suburbs, the gerbils are always running in an endless wheel, trying to keep up with their neighbors, and hopefully surpass them. It’s a costly game. Should someone lose a big job in a town like this, they might be shunned at the country club or the annual dance. The social circles quickly exclude and close ranks . . . and I’ve noticed there are significant numbers of people who once had it all, lose some of it, and then we never hear from them again.

I detected a touch of envy in that minister who took me on that tour years ago. It blended in pretty well with whatever greed he also felt. He was paid pretty well, although never paid as well as most of his church members. And I’m sure that was working on him – I know how it works on me. It is a strange and weird experience to have people vote on your salary. When you see how they live, where they live, and how they spend their money, it can belittle you. Or it can bedevil you.

We treat people differently because of the money they have – or because of the money they don’t have. The inequities affect us. When my older daughter began elementary school, she was mistakenly signed up for the free lunch program. I found this out about three weeks into the school year, and I was mortified. Then I tried to convince the person in charge of the program that it was a mistake. It couldn’t be changed, she said, for that would be a bookkeeping nightmare, and might subject the school to an audit. I might face legal action for an enrollment I did not make.

“But it’s not right,” I said. “There are kids who really need this benefit, and my kid isn’t one of them.” In time, the change was made. And I’ve given this some thought – were my motives altruistic? Or was it that I didn’t want my kid to be treated as if we were poor. Probably a measure of both. I didn’t like what this exposed in my own attitudes about money – and it awakened some deeper sensitivity to how deeply money can disrupt us.

The Bible is full of stories and teachings about money. In itself, money is currency, a means of making purchases or compensating for wages. It has no power, except as we assign power to it. In his teaching, Jesus spoke about wealth, affluence, and possessions more than he spoke about prayer. Nearly every parable he taught has some aspect of economics. And why all this attention? Because of our attachments to what we have, or our hungers for what we want to have. Our desire to consume can consume us.

An older woman is in the process of moving in with her retired daughter. She’s running out of money, and her daughter has the ability and the room to take her in. The biggest issue is that the older woman will not get rid of anything. All the possessions in her little apartment are relocating with her – and there simply isn’t enough room for it all. I said rather innocently, “I thought she didn’t have all that much.” The daughter piped back, “You wouldn’t believe what she had stashed under the bed.” On top of the kitchen cabinets, there are 57 different coffee mugs. The daughter said she could bring eight, and they had an argument.

Somebody tells me about the refrain from a country song: “Ain’t No U-Hauls Behind Hearses.” It’s true. We can’t take any of our possessions into the next life. But we seem to want it all while we’re here. That’s what Paul is warning us about. When the hunger for money and possessions takes over our lives.

In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman philosophers had a lot of conversations about contentment. How do we become contented? One school of thought was rooted in people called the Cynics. They rejected the virtues of wealth, power, and fame. Their motto: pare down, and live a life free from all physical attachments. Question the value of everything, and assume it’s not as important as you think it is. That’s where the word “cynical” comes from.

Another school of thought was the philosophy of the Stoics. They took a different tack, and advocated a life free from passion. Don’t attach to anything. Throw away your catalogs, develop an indifference to the goods of this world, ignore what your neighbors possess, and make your heart a desert. Don’t get hooked to what you have, or hunger for what you want. Both of these philosophies are still around, and they are venerable ways to stave off greed.

But the apostle Paul suggests something else. He calls it “eusebia,” translated “Godliness.” Four times in this chapter, he speaks this word which is translated as “reverence,” “piety,” “holiness,” and “respect.” It is a profoundly God-centered word. What he’s talking about is a satisfaction with God’s generosity. “Eusebia” neither grasps for more, nor clings too tightly. It is the insight that everything comes as a heavenly gift, and we are called to honor God the Giver more than whatever content there is to the gift.

What he’s getting at is this: nobody can be greedy and grateful at the same time. If we are grateful to God for what we receive, we will take care of it, we will share it, we will not hoard it. This was one of the characteristics of the people who first gathered around Jesus, and then the apostles. In the fourth chapter of Acts, there’s a wonderful description of how the Christian people countered the sin of greed. Do you know what they did? They shared what they had:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

A bombastic cable news commentator might refer to that as “socialism.” Biblically speaking, it’s Christianity – Acts, chapter four. It’s a picture of Christian people caring for one another, and living a life “in common,” for the common good. That’s “eusebia.” That’s godliness: it is receiving what God provides for all of us, and ensuring that all have access to it. Working this out is a challenge for every generation to figure out anew. It is never neat and tidy. Those who have a lot and those who have little will both want more. But this kind of sharing for the public good, I believe, is the only way to counter the demeaning sin of greed.

The most damning evidence against Judas Iscariot is that he pulled cash for himself out of the common purse. He plundered for his own pocket what belonged to them all. You might have noticed that still happens. When it does, life becomes pretty cheap. Long-established relationships are twisted beyond recognition. People will sell out their friends to the highest bidder.

Just ask Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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