Life in the Fray: Greed
Joshua 6:16-19; 7:1-8:2a
Midweek Lenten Service
March 4, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
I think it’s fair to assume that almost every Christian has heard the story of Jericho. It is a staple of Sunday School curriculums and Vacation Bible Schools, and has been for generations. But it is the events surrounding the fall of Jericho that have truly grabbed my attention in the years since I became a pastor. As a child I regularly heard about the trumpets and marching and the walls that were a-tumblin down, but it was not until I studied the whole book of Joshua in some depth that I learned the importance of the bookends surrounding the fall of Jericho.
The events that lead up to Jericho are worth a sermon all their own, but a summary will have to suffice for today. After the Ark of the Covenant led the Israelites miraculously across the dry ground of the Jordan River, the Israelites set up camp outside the city of Jericho. They did not attack right away, even though Rahab told the Israelites spies that the people of Jericho were so afraid of Israel’s God that they had basically conceded defeat before the battle even began. Instead of marching straight into battle, however, God had the Israelites drop everything. He reestablished his covenant with them. The Israelites born during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness had not been circumcised, which meant they had no claim on the promises God made to Abraham. Translation: the Promised Land of Canaan was not promised to them. Before receiving the land, they had to be brought into the covenant through circumcision, so every uncircumcised male in Israel, including basically the entire army, was circumcised on the plains of Gilgal, leaving Israel’s army vulnerable and weak in the sight of their enemies. Yet they did not need to fear, for through this circumcision they were brought into the covenant of God and were assured victory in the Promised Land.
Well, assured victory if they did things God’s way. If not? If they chose to do things their own way? That’s where the other book end comes in, the story of what happened after Jericho, the story of Achan. Before God gave Jericho into the hands of Israel, he told them not to collect plunder from the city. The saying is true: to the victor go the spoils, and this was nothing if not God’s victory. Israel did little else other than walk around and blow some trumpets – God did the rest. This was his victory, therefore the wealth of Jericho belonged to him. All the luxuries of Jericho were to be destroyed except for the precious metals, which were to be put into the treasury of the Lord. Israel was warned that anyone who ignored this command and kept some of the wealth of Jericho would bring death upon God’s people, which is exactly what happened. After defeating Jericho in such convincing fashion, Israel’s next opponent seemed like a sure thing. Joshua even sent fewer troops because he expected to win quickly and handily. Except that when the Israelite warriors returned to camp, it was not a victory parade. It was instead the solemn march of those who had been embarrassed, injured, and some even killed at the hands of an inferior enemy.
The cause was Achan’s greed. The cause was one member of Israel trying to do things his way instead of living according to God’s design. There are many layers to peel back from this situation. Take, for example, Achan’s lack of trust in the clear and direct command from the God who had acted so visibly for so long among his people. This is a people who have lived on miraculous bread from heaven for so long that some of them know no other food. These are a people who have seen the flood waters of the Jordan dry up so that they could walk across safely on dry ground. These are people who either crossed the Red Sea as children or heard their parents speak of it. The same is true of the events of Mount Sinai. These are people who watched as the walls of Jericho toppled at the sound of mere trumpets. These are people for whom God has acted openly and miraculously. And yet it was not enough for Achan. He wanted more. As if God had not already provided so much, as if God had given him any reason to doubt whether or not he would provide for his future, Achan stole from those things that rightly belonged to the Lord. Such is the greed that continues to tempt us as God’s children today.
This story also illustrates that neither Achan’s greed nor ours is a victimless crime. Greed is a sin against both God and our neighbor. But as in the case of a drunk driver who walks away from an accident while the coroner collects corpses from the car he struck, in cases of greed it is often other people who suffer the consequences for our sin. In the case of Achan, the consequences suffered by his neighbors became evident almost immediately; just ask the 36 widows whose husbands did not return from the village of Ai. The consequences of our greed, on the other hand, are usually harder to recognize. That’s partly because greed so often hides behind masks of apparent virtue. We call it hard work or dedication. We call it ingenuity or capitalism. We call it saving for the future and planning ahead. And while hard work and dedication and planning for the future are indeed godly, so often what we are up to under these names is really just greed made up with the cheap lipstick of a churchly facade. The question that exposes our greed is, “Am I motivated by love of others or by love for myself?” Yes, it is good to work hard and use my God-given gifts to the best of my ability, but am I working hard so that my neighbor might benefit, or is this ultimately all for me, so that I can have the life I want for me, the house I want, the car I want, the vacation I want, the retirement I want. Yes, it is good to plan for my future so that loved ones might be provided for, but what am I sacrificing today in the name of saving for my future? Am I allowing the work of God to go undone so that I can take an extra cruise in my retirement? Am I ignoring the call God has given me to support the ministry of his church so that I can drive a nicer car or buy a bigger house?
Acahn’s greed had an immediate negative impact on the lives of his fellow Israelites. Our greed has a negative impact on the lives of the people of God too. What are the hidden consequences of the fact that a church of our membership and worship attendance struggles to make a minimal budget work, much less explore the possibility of adding church staff and programs to maximize the ministry possibilities here. How many families, how many children, how many young single adults, how many married adults, how many empty nesters, how many people of any age or station in life all across the globe are robbed of opportunities to hear God’s Word and experience the ministry of God’s church because God’s people won’t support God’s word? How many people who walk through our facility choose to go somewhere else because our building is outdated and in need of repair? How much potential goes untapped around here? How many souls across the world are not being reached with the gospel because we as God’s people can’t see past our own noses? How many people might be classified as victims of our greed? Achan had 36 victims. How many more do we have?
Not only is greed a sin against our neighbors, it is a sin against God. Greed is unbelief in action. The Bible is not clear whether Achan thought God wouldn’t notice or whether he thought God wouldn’t do anything about his theft. The Bible doesn’t tell us what Achan was thinking. What is clear, though, is that Achan did not trust God’s Word concerning the wealth of Jericho, nor did he take the many opportunities he had to come clean and repent. The Lord has Joshua go through a weeding out process before revealing Achan as the culprit. We are not told exactly what the process was, but for the sake of argument we can imagine it went something like this: All the people of the United States are gathered into one place and told that God knows one of us is guilty. First, God says that everyone who is not from Michigan can go home, they are innocent. Then, God says that everyone who is not from Macomb County can go home, they are innocent. Then, God says that everyone who lives north of Hall Road can go home, they are innocent. Then, God says that everyone who lives outside of Fraser can go home, they are innocent. With each group sent home, with each tribe and family cleared, Achan had the opportunity to call off the search process and turn himself in. Yet he stubbornly refused. Achan’s greed is symptomatic of a deeper struggle with unbelief.
The same is true for us. We too struggle with greed because money is the most common idol to attempt to unseat the Lord from his rightful place in our lives. As Luther said, your God is that thing to which you look in times of need, that which you trust to deliver you when you need deliverance the most. So often we struggle to believe that God will continue to provide for us, so we fall prey to the greed of our hearts. We tell ourselves we can’t simply give our money to the work of God because we might need it later if something goes wrong. Yet so often we end up spending that money anyway on things of this world, things that will decay and break and fall apart in the end. Our Lord would have us use our money his ways, in service to others through his church. That is one of the ways he challenges us and strengthens us in our faith. In theory, God could miraculously provide all the money this church needs to do ministry. But would that be good for us? Think of all the spoiled heiresses in the news who flit around on their parents’ dime without a care in the world. Does excessive money in their pocket make them happy? Does having everything provided without having to work for it help them mature into adulthood? Or does it stunt their growth? So also, the sacrifice of faithful giving is good for us, for it teaches us to rely on God to continue to provide for us. The sacrifice of faithful giving is good for us, for it teaches us to look beyond the desires of our own flesh to the wellbeing of the people of God who surround us, and the people of God who are not yet born who might one day reap the benefits of our sacrifice in the same way that we reap the benefits of those who have gone before us, those who founded this church, those who built this church, those who worked hard to sustain this church through the Great Depression and other times of economic turmoil. Because of their sacrifice we have a place to worship and learn and gather today. So also we are called to provide these things for the generations to come after us. Such is the perspective of mature faith.
And that is what Achan didn’t understand. He was overwhelmed with greed for what amounts to $30,000. While that’s no small sum of money, God had so much more in mind. He intended to give all the cities of Canaan to the Israelites, not just Jericho. He intended to establish the Promised Land as the headquarters for his Gospel proclamation, for the promise of the Messiah and the eventual work he would do. God was going to save the world from the Promised Land, and Achan’s short-sighted greed couldn’t see that. God’s plans for the Promised Land extended far beyond Achan’s lifespan, into the days of Christ, who would win salvation for all people. The benefits of what God was up to in the Promised Land are enjoyed by you and me and all God’s people today, and all those yet to come. But Achan couldn’t see that. He was too focused on himself. So often that is our problem, but therein lies the solution. We are called to stop looking at ourselves and rejoice in God’s larger plan.
As Paul wrote, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Cheerfulness comes from looking at the big picture. When it comes to greed and generosity, “the freedom and authenticity of generous giving are marked by the symptom of cheerfulness.” That cheerfulness comes from seeing the work of God in the big picture, from seeing Christ in our neighbor, as Jesus said, “when I was hungry, you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me.” The forgiveness and love of Christ burst like the sun on the horizon at dawn and warm our cold, lifeless, greedy, Ebenezer Scrooge-like hearts into joyous, generous, giving hearts like little Zaccheus who returned what he had taken and then some. As one pastor put it, “God makes his [abundant] grace [abound] – grace in the word of forgiveness, grace in Holy Baptism, grace in the Sacrament, grace in the consolation of a brother or sister in Christ. Grace breaks the fetters because it cannot be contained, it cannot be controlled. It’s stronger than all sin, all death, and all the power of the devil. Good cheer and generosity are the products of a heart set free from its gods.”
Achan saw only himself, and blind to God’s larger plan of salvation, he was enslaved to his greed. We were created for more. We were created for self-sacrifice and community. We were redeemed, washed, and renewed so that this life of self-sacrifice could be ours. We are new creations through the water of baptism, and while it may be hard to see it sometimes, God has greater things in store for us than the treasures of this world – he has the joy of the world to come. May God grant us repentant hearts this Lententide, that we might not be blinded by our own greed and selfish desires, but rather rejoicing in the gift of our forgiveness, we might cheerfully embrace the ministry he has given us in this place both for the benefit of those he blesses through us today, as well as those yet to come.
 Mathew 25
 Luke 19
 Harrison, A Little Book on Joy p. 130