The Lord commands us to love our neighbor
also with regard to his possessions
Scripture: Lord’s Day 42
Text: Malachi 3:8-12; 1 Timothy 6:17-19
Sermon by Rev. Alan Camarigg
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 17, No. 6
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Arthur Pink, in his book on the Ten Commandments, points out that it is a solemn and striking fact that the first sin committed by the human race included the sin of theft. God said that Adam and Eve could eat freely of every tree in the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they were not to eat. But, as we read in Genesis 3:6, “when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.”
And man, by nature, has been a thief ever since. It is striking that the first sin recorded against Israel, once they had entered the promised land, was the sin of theft: Achan stole from the spoils of Jericho. And the first recorded sin by which the early church was defiled was that of theft: Ananias and Saphira tried to keep some of the money they received for a tract land they had sold, and were struck dead when they lied to cover their theft. “How often,” writes Mr. Pink, “this is the first sin committed outwardly by children! And therefore this Divine precept should be taught to them from earliest infancy. Years ago we visited a home, and our hostess related how she had that day secretly observed her daughter (about four years old) enter a room in which was a large bunch of grapes. The little tot eyed them longingly, went up to the table and then said, ‘Get thee hence, Satan. It is written, Thou shalt not steal,’” and rushed out of the room.”
Boys and girls, is this how you deal with the temptation to steal? Is this commandment, as well as the others, written upon your heart so that when you’re tempted to steal, whether it be from our mother or father, or a brother or sister, or a business owner downtown, you tell Satan to get away? What you and I need to understand, boys and girls, is that those who disobey God’s commandments are not really free. Oh, they will say that they’re free, but what they don’t realize is that they are really slaves to their own greed. And greed, if it should grip our hearts, brings spiritual death! Remember the parable of the seed being sown on different kinds of soil – how some of the seed, when it began to grow, was choked by the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches? We are not free then, when we disobey God’s word. True freedom is when we, renewed by the Spirit of God, are able to obey His commandments. That little girl was living the free life of a child of God when she did not eat the grapes. Why? Because the power of greed had been overcome: and she no doubt enjoyed the food prepared by her mother later that evening – food received as a gift from the hand of her heavenly Father. Now that’s freedom! And that’s the life God wants for us as His own redeemed people – His special treasure.
With that in mind, I proclaim the Word of God to you this morning, as summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, which teaches us that the Lord commands us to love our neighbor also with regard to his possessions.
1. Beware the subtle power of greed!
2. Be a good steward of God’s gifts!
3. Be ready for the abundant blessing!
The apostle Paul was certainly not naive when it came to the subtle power of greed. In the same chapter which we read from I Timothy, Paul exhorts us to be content with food and clothing and then issues a rather solemn and sobering warning, namely, that “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” I believe there is always something of a tension here between being wealthy and the desire for riches. God Himself has blessed some of His people with great wealth – Job, for example, and Abraham, Solomon and others. There were also those in the New Testament, Lydia the seller of purple, for example, and Peter who owned their own homes. There is nothing particularly wrong with wealth in and of itself then, if it is obtained honestly as the result of God’s own providence and blessing.
But it is an entirely different thing when one’s desire is to be rich. I knew a young man once, whose stated goal in life was to be a millionaire by the age of 30, and it is destroying his marriage. This is the destructive power of greed. Its destructive power is unveiled when it is identified, alongside of the trickery of Satan and the fear of persecution, as a power that can choke the Word and keep it from bearing fruit in our lives! Greed has the power to take our eyes off the riches of heaven, and to set them upon the things of this world. Before we know it, the legitimate need for money and possessions can be transformed into a desire which drives us to many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. It is imperative, therefore, that we be able to recognize the telltale signs of greed. The most obvious, of course, is the overt act of stealing or theft. We have no problem in recognizing greed when it comes to the bank robber or burglar who breaks into someone’s house.
But what about us? It’s doubtful that anyone here is going to hold a bank up at gun point or rustle a herd of cattle, but does that mean we’re in the clear with regard to this commandment? And if not, what are some of the ways that we fall into this sin? It’s been noted that the highest form of this sin is where it is committed against God, which is sacrilege. “Will a man rob God?” says the Lord through His servant Malachi. “Yet you have robbed Me!” But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, even this whole nation.”
It must be said that you as a congregation are very generous in your giving, but we must never drop our guard either. We must constantly examine our own hearts in this matter of giving – whether or not we are giving in accordance with the measure in which we have been blessed. And that includes you young people especially if you are working and earning a little money of your own. Now is the time to cultivate the habit of thankful giving to the Lord. It is true, of course, that we have earned the money by our labors, but it is, nevertheless, a gift from His hand. Where did we get the strength to do the work as well as the opportunity to work? Do we really want to be stingy toward God when He is so generous toward us not just in material blessings, but in our very salvation? May it never be said of us that we robbed God by keeping everything we receive from His hand to spend it all on our own selfish desires. Let us cultivate a generous heart toward God, and not squander His gifts either. It is as much robbery of God when we use His gifts for riotous living as it is when we are miserly toward Him.
But our responsibility is not only toward God. It is also toward our neighbor, and there are many ways that we transgress this command. Idleness is a kind of theft. I remember seeing a chart once when I worked at Fey Industries in Edgerton, Minnesota, detailing how much it cost a company in a year’s time if a hundred employees waste 10 minutes a day. At the rate of $9.00 per hour, it would cost the company $37,000 or $370 per employee! That’s the price tag for idle time. Now we’ve been in the workplace enough to know that sometimes circumstances are such that one has nothing to do for a few minutes. But that’s not where the problem lies. The problem lies in deliberately and habitually wasting time. It is a form of theft.
It is also a form of theft to withhold a necessity of life in order to drive the price up beyond what is fair and equitable. “The people will curse him who withholds grain,” writes the author of Proverbs, “But blessing will be on the head of him who sells it” – that is to say, sells it at a fair price so people can live free of want and economic oppression. I can’t help but think of the far-reaching implication of this principle to certain professionals who are amassing fortunes while those who desperately need their services are being charged excessive and oppressive fees.
Michael Horton notes that in a survey conducted by the authors of The Day America Told the Truth, it was reported that a night manager was nicknamed “The Burglar” because he stole from the company every night. Others said that everyone steals from the warehouse, that coworkers take money out of the cash register, that people are being cheated out of pay, that jobs not finished are being covered up, and that people are being paid for work they didn’t do. And in many instances, people excuse their sin on the grounds that the rich corporation sort of owes it to them. But this is theft. The catechism also calls theft any show of right by which we would defraud our neighbor.
As Christian businessmen, we must ask ourselves if our advertising is an honest reflection of the products and services we supply to the community. And are we paying our employees a fair wage for their labors? James calls upon those who have kept wages from their laborers by fraud to weep and howl because of the miseries that will come upon them.
We are stealing if we neglect to pay our taxes. We can complain, of course, that they’re too high or unfair, but the state does have a right to levy taxes, and we are called upon to pay taxes to those to whom taxes are due. On the other hand, the state is guilty of theft when taxes are exorbitant and the revenues collected under the guise of “poverty relief” end up pooling in the bank accounts of bureaucrats. It’s been noted that the two most wealthy counties in America serve as bedroom communities of federal employees. Still true is the observation of Luther that while petty thieves are often prosecuted to give a show of righteousness, those who rob publicly and steal run at large in security and freedom! A man is also a thief who will transfer title of his property to his wife just before he becomes bankrupt, or fails, if he should prosper again, to pay his creditors. Well...we could go on and on, but the point is that once greed has gripped the heart, it can lead us to break this commandment in an endless variety of ways. So what is the answer to all this? How do we break free of greed’s deadly grip; and what is the positive fulfillment of this command?
When the Israelites entered into Canaan, they took possession of the land for a perpetual inheritance. Still, they were always to remember that they were living in the Lord’s land – that they were dwelling there as “pilgrims and strangers!” It couldn’t be stated more sharply. They possessed the land as stewards; and, as stewards, there were certain rules that governed their “possession” of the land including the Sabbath year and the Year of Jubilee. At these appointed times, the land was to lie fallow, those who had indentured themselves as slaves to pay off a debt were to be set free, and land that had been signed over to pay a debt was to be returned to the original owner. Those who had received the land were to understand that it was not title that had been turned over to them, but only the produce in payment of the money owed to them.
And the purpose for these rules was to remind the people that as His special people, under His care in a land that symbolized heaven, there was to be no oppression and poverty. This is why the prophets came down so hard on those who, by every scheme imaginable, were adding house to house and land to land. It wasn’t just their neighbor they were hurting, but they were colliding head on with God’s own purpose for His special treasure. Instead of enjoying God’s generosity, and, with thankful hearts, helping those in need, they were using their prosperity to take advantage of those who were not so richly blessed by the Lord. And when we see it in that light, we realize just how heinous their sin really was.
The ideal in the Old Testament then, was freedom from economic oppression by way of good stewardship of the blessings which God Himself showered down upon His people; and that basic principle remains intact for us as a church today. “Command those who are rich in this present age,” Paul writes to Timothy, “not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” Notice, first of all, that the apostle lays his finger on two dangers of wealth, namely, that one become haughty, and that one put his trust in his riches. How often isn’t it the case that the wealthy become haughty especially with regard to the poor. “I worked hard for what I have,” they say, “if that lazy bum would just get to work and sweat a little bit like I did, he could be like me!” But they forget that it is ultimately God who enables a man to get wealth, and that there are many poor people who, when it comes right down to it, put in longer and harder days than they will ever see. And in not just a few cases, it is their own miserly wages that keeps the poor man from advancing.
And the second danger is that they put their trust in uncertain riches. It is no secret that wealth can get wings and fly away. Nor is it any secret that money cannot buy happiness, love, health or eternal security. Strange, isn’t it, that people will still put their trust in riches? And that’s why we need to be reminded to put our trust in the living God who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Indeed, what a joy when we can look upon our earthly possessions as a gift and provision from the hand of our heavenly Father. And when we see it that way – when we understand that it is a gift from Him, our hearts are then poised toward generosity. If we know that our heavenly Father’s supply is always freely given, what’s to keep us from being generous ourselves? Is there really any danger that His provision will run short? And even if we come into hard times economically, is there really any danger that the situation will thwart His ability to care for us?
And in light of this, as those who enjoy His blessing showered down upon us day after day, we are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be ready to give and willing to share. That last phrase, “willing to share,” is really quite interesting in this context. It comes from the Greek word . The primary meaning of this word is to be sociable, ready and apt to form communion and fellowship, and, only secondarily, to be inclined to make others to share in one’s possessions. But it strikes me that the two go together. Think about it. Isn’t it so that opening one’s heart to one’s neighbor in generosity will inevitably involve establishing some bond of communion and fellowship with him? And what ought to occur to us is just how opposite this is to miserliness. The miser makes a wall of his money, breaks fellowship and becomes a recluse. The generous man, on the other hand, by his generosity promotes and enjoys the blessedness of fellowship, friendship and communion with his neighbor. He delights in him, loves him, and delights to see him share in his own prosperity!
As one author notes, this is the real tragedy of affluence and the greed that so often attaches itself to it. “The oppression of the poor,” he writes, “is counted as one of the sins that cries out to heaven for vengeance, as also is the defrauding of laborers of their wages. The neglect of our neighbors and the poor is, in the phrase from the Middle Ages, an insensibility to mercy. ‘Sins against the needy are, in an important sense, the exact opposite of those against the enemy,’ says William F. May. ‘The enemy occupies the center of attention. But the needy, at the other extreme, barely exist.’ These sins of Avarice,” he concludes, “are sins of omission, and they are nourished in us by our societies. More and more, the poor are tucked away where we cannot see them. More and more, we withdraw from them. We omit to remember them, even in our prayers.”
Indeed, are we among those who have tucked the poor away in our hearts where we do not see them? When was the last time that we earnestly prayed for the poor, and, in our prayers, asked God to give us eyes to see the poor when they cross our paths, and hearts open to share something of our prosperity with them? I must confess that this is deeply convicting to me personally. When was the last time you heard me pray for the poor from this pulpit? It is a shame, and I call upon our elders to help me repent of that sin with reminders, now and then, to remember the poor in our congregational prayer – and they are around us here in Lynden too. Indeed, we must be true to our confession, which is based squarely upon Scripture, that I “further my neighbor’s profit wherever I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and labor faithfully that I may be able to relieve the needy.” And the ideal being set before us is that we, as God’s redeemed people, be free of the economic oppression as good stewards of the blessings He pours out upon us from day to day – that we share our blessings and, by this means too, strengthen our fellowship.
We will be very brief on this point, but I wanted to go back quickly to our text from Malachi. There, after chiding the Israelites for robbing Him, the Lord issues a command with a beautiful promise. “‘Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and prove Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘If I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it.’” Noone has placed any questions in the box about this commandment, so I guess that means I’m free to make up my own questions. In this connection, are we still obligated to give a tithe? The word tithe is only used twice in the New Testament – in both cases where the Lord rebukes the Pharisees for tithing even their herbs, but overlooking the weightier matters of the law such as judgment, mercy and faith. I believe this rebuke paves the way to the New Testament rule for giving, namely, that each of us lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper. In other words, as those who live not under the ministry of the law and death, but under the ministry of the Spirit and life, we ought to give cheerfully and willingly in proportion to our prosperity.
I happen to believe that a tithe is still a good guideline even if it is not directly commanded in the New Testament. But the point is that we avoid becoming legalistic about it – that we congratulate ourselves and believe we have fulfilled all righteousness if we toe the line and give the tithe. If the Lord has blessed us richly and we have the means, then it should be a matter of great joy that we give above and beyond the tithe. And we do this mindful that the Lord has never failed yet to open the windows of heaven and pour out His blessings in super abundance on those who are rich towards Him. And we should hasten to add that the blessings are not just material blessings, but also rich spiritual blessings. The Scriptures remind us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And in Psalm 41, we read, “Blessed is he who considers the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble. The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive, and he will be blessed on the earth; You will not deliver him to the will of his enemies. The Lord will strengthen him on his bed of illness; You will sustain him on his sickbed.”
One of the temptations that we face, with regard to this commandment, is to think that it is the poor who face the greatest temptations. Who, after all, is most likely to steal? It would be those, would it not, who are in desperate need? But the fact is that wealth comes with its own set of temptations not the least of which is to maintain a certain standard of living. Once we get a little taste of the prosperous life, it is very easy to be greedy for more – and that greed is what drives us to use a show of right to defraud our neighbor and get what belongs to him. We must beware of this as those who live in a very affluent culture. It is tempting, in a day which boasts e-commerce and teenage millionaires, to get caught up in the money grab.
Faced with these perils, we must confess our sins. We must seek cleansing and redemption through the blood of Christ. And thankful for our salvation in Him, we must listen carefully to God’s Word for, whether we realize it or not, we are a very wealthy people richly blessed of the Lord. Let us, in view of that fact, not be haughty nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God who gives us richly all things to enjoy. And let us do good, that we may be rich in good works, ready to give and willing to share – and in our generosity, enjoy God’s continued blessing and the joy of seeing our neighbor share in our prosperity for his good and God’s glory. Amen.