Romans 8:12-17 St Matthew 7:15-21
We are the children of God. And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ... [Rom 8:16-17]
At Ascension, in five of the past six Sundays and today, we are looking at the passions of the soul – our most basic thoughts, emotions and desires – as understood by the early Christian Fathers of the Church – East and West.
We want to understand how they work in us – what is a distorted response to a passion and what is the true purpose for this passion in the soul given to us by God.
Today we’re considering a passion of the appetitive part of our soul, our appetite for material possessions.
We all desire material possessions, and a certain amount of that desire is good – if we desire material possessions excessively, that is greed or covetousness.
As adults we can so easily become enslaved by a “fleshy” desire for possessions. We can end up working long hours, maybe even at a job we dislike, slavishly to acquire things (land, house, vehicles, furnishings, clothing). Our life can become totally absorbed in acquiring and in maintaining our possessions. We may find ourselves continually afraid of losing what we have or of others stealing it. We can wrap up our sense of self-worth in how we are adorned outwardly.
But Paul says,
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die: but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. [Rom 8:12-13]
Our appetite, the desire for some possession, can come upon us and, if we are not reasoning properly, we will find ourselves pursuing that appetite as if we owe it something, as if we are a debtor to it! But Paul reminds us we don’t owe those out-of-order passions anything, we are not debtors to the flesh.
Paul would have us remember,
You have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. And if children, then heirs—heirs of God, and fellow-heirs with Christ... [Rom 8:15-17]
What do we desire in those possessions? Will we sacrifice a good portion of our life with the hope that one day we will have the time and comfort to enjoy life? What if we die young? What will we become in the process? Will our children grow up without us? Will we forget what we were ultimately looking for? When Mary held the Christ Child in her arms, it was in a lowly stable. Do you think she really was thinking about the quality of her surroundings (perhaps, other than, would it be safe for Jesus)? As children of God, Paul reminds us we are inheritors of so much more…
In our Gospel today, Jesus gives us a scary image of someone captured by greed:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. [Mt 7:15-21]
A wolf in sheep’s clothing is someone who appears to be “one of the flock” but comes to consume the substance of those around them, their goods, even their life. What might come quickly to mind in the image Jesus gives us is the wealthy evangelist preaching a “prosperity gospel”. There are many false prophets in the world.
But in this Gospel we are being challenged by Jesus not just to watch out for the wolves out there – that’s not so hard. But we are to turn within, to look plainly at ourselves, at our inner motivations for what we are doing, to look at our appetites within us – to make sure there isn’t a wolf in us hidden behind the clothing of a sheep! [Dante in midlife, discovers a ravenous wolf within himself – and it terrified him!] Advertisers make a study and business of tapping into our appetites even for heaven and trying to make us satisfy them with the worldly – associating the possession of things with the look of success, respectability, power, or nobility. Jesus says, beware! And if we find it difficult to look within, Jesus says that our inner life is plainly reflected outwardly by the fruit we bear in our lives. Is our life bearing spiritual fruit?
We could look first at our bank accounts and see how we spend our money. We have to do battle in our choices every time we go to make a major purchase – are we spending too much (greedily acquiring possessions or excessive luxury) or too little (greedily holding on to our cash in a way that hinders us in our ministry as disciples of Jesus and in loving our neighbour as ourselves)?
We can also look at our relations with our other people. Are we honestly seeking their company as true friends or trying to get something out of them for ourselves? Do we treat the rich man better than we treat the poor man, because of self-interest? [Jas 2] Or do we treat the rich man worse than the poor man out of resentment that they have more than us – that also would be a sign of our greed.
Greed can lead to the abuse of labour, not giving just wages, being dishonest in what we trade, the devouring of what others have, even using violence to obtain it. Many of the Proverbs deal with being just and fair and honest in our business dealings – they are addressed to that wolf within us.
Because of the danger of greed, some in the Church through the ages, such as some Anabaptists in the 16th century, have suggested that it is impossible to have any private possessions and enter the kingdom of heaven, and so required their adherents to give up all and to live a communal life, as in the early Church in Jerusalem. But the Church has taught that it is possible to have possessions and not be destroyed by them. [See Article xxxviii of th 39 Articles (BCP)] The Church reminds us of our responsibility to be good stewards. We are to be vigilant about our inner motivations around our possessions – vigilant of the danger that our love can become skewed. One desert Father advised a man who had wealth to hold it as if holding a flaming torch, to be aware of the great danger to his own soul and the souls of others around him that none may be burned by it.
What can we do to help us put in check our desire for material possessions? A careful consideration of how much we give for charitable work is a spiritual discipline that can counter our greed. There is the biblical discipline of tithing, giving away 10% of our earnings to the Church and charities, as a way to continually remind us where all things come from and to practice generosity. But there is another spiritual discipline to counter greed and that will make us grow in a right appreciation for worldly goods.
If we turn this great appetite of ours to acquire things, this appetite that Jesus is actually stirring up in us, to the things of heaven – to Truth, to holy Wisdom, the knowledge of God, the love of neighbour, to preparing ourselves to receive spiritual gifts – the inheritance of heaven – we discover that the more I get of these, the more everyone gets. Think about it – if you are wise and I come into your presence and learn wisdom from you – now we are both wise. Spiritual things grow the more each of us are gifted with them and share them.
Paul would have us continually remember that – we are the children of God. And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ. We want to enter the kingdom of heaven now, in this life, to know true treasures, and because Christ has died for us, and we are his brothers and sisters, we can inherit the things of heaven even now. The spiritual discipline to counter greed is to take time to look more directly at the things of heaven – the Psalmist writes, My soul cleaves to the dust: O quicken thou me, according to your word. [119:25]. The writer of Proverbs says,
Happy is the man that finds wisdom, and the man that gets understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things you can desire are not to be compared to her. … [from Proverbs 3]
In a beautiful poetic passage, Job marvels at (and pities) those who go to great lengths to dig deep into the ground for “treasure”, but know not where to get the greatest treasure, Wisdom. [Job 28] When we catch a glimpse of heavenly treasures, it puts earthly things in perspective. Jesus describes this in the parables of the hidden treasure in a field, and the pearl of great price, where the person who discovers it sells everything to buy it. [Mt 13:45-46]
Reading the Bible and reflecting on it is a way to satisfy and to stir up our longing for Wisdom, for God. When we read the Bible we find our worldly appetites are diminished. The words of Scripture indeed become to us more precious than silver and gold, sweeter than honey. This is what happens as we move from being carnally or fleshy minded to being spiritually minded.
Part of being temperate in our desire for worldly wealth is to be able to trust in God’s providence, God’s foreseeing to our needs. If we have been saving up large sums, or think that we must provide for every possible contingency to ensure our future financial security, we need to ask if there is some lack of trust that God will provide for us what we need. A lack of trust in God’s providence can also hinder us from taking steps to spend, when we should, in order to learn or to change our work or vocation to what is more suited to our gifts, to following God’s will for us.
The Collect for today (below) is an ancient prayer that gathers up these ideas. Are we really trusting in God to provide us what we need? If we ask God to take away hurtful things, it means anything in our life that we are too fixed on so that our vision of heaven is obscured, it might include earthly possessions. Are we really doing the will of our Father? Are we willing to change our lifestyle to be more giving, if we have been miserly, or less prodigal if that is our extreme? Do we dare to strip off the sheep mask, and ask God to reveal to us our desires and turn all our greed, our excessive love of material possessions, into a longing for heavenly things, even a greed for the things of heaven, a heavenly avarice?
We will now prepare ourselves to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus. Here Christ offers perfect forgiveness for where we have strayed. And here Jesus will fill us with renewed desire. May we direct that desire to the those things that are truly profitable for us.
O GOD, whose never-failing providence orders all things both in heaven and earth: We humbly beseech you to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2