Covetousness and Greed: Our Demise!

Lessons of the Day: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life for the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him.

It does seem that it is about the bread. In the story of Jesus, it was about bread; but not just any bread, it was about the “true bread,” which comes down from heaven. If we just have the right bread – the true bread, Christ will live in us, and we will live in Christ. One might note that we pray, just as Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And note that as we pray we acknowledge that it is a bread given. Yes, those who live in Christ depend on bread that is graciously given daily.

The daily bread for which we pray is, of course, an echo of an earlier time when our forebears wandered in the wilderness, hungry and desperate. The Israelites grumbled against Moses, wishing they had died in Egypt. But the Lord rained down bread from heaven, bread for the Israelites to eat. This bread was called “manna,” which in Hebrew roughly translates as “what-is-it.”

It was this bread that sustained the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. However, as was noted in the Joshua narrative that we encountered today, once the people had passed over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, they no longer depended on Manna. Instead, “they ate the produce of the land.” The narrative makes this point clear, repeating it twice: “The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.” (Joshua 5:12)

This could be seen as good news. The people have arrived at the place of promise and are self-sufficient, taking their fill from the produce of the land. They are no longer struggling in the wilderness. We might take note, however, of an easily overlooked assertion in the narrative – a peculiar assertion made by the author: The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land. There is a suggestion here of a cause-and-effect relationship. In other words, the new found self-sufficiency of Israel interrupts the graciously given bread supply.

Now, this might seem a minor matter; but, as we read further on in the the Joshua saga, we discover that such self-sufficiency (divorced as it now is from the gracious gift) begets dangerous behavior. Namely: Once Israel is no longer dependent on the daily bread that is given by the gracious hand of God and instead take from the produce of the land, the Israelites begin to encounter problems of covetousness and greed. God had warned them about covetousness (and its related vice of greed), during the manna season when God issued the ten commandments. “You shall not covet” is repeated twice in Exodus 20:17. Nevertheless, once the new-found self-sufficiency had set in, covetousness was not far behind and greed was sure to follow.

Indeed, soon after crumbling the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6), the fortunes of Israel turned, and all because of one person’s covetousness and greed. The Lord had decreed, that upon the capture of Jericho, ‘all the silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron… shall go into the treasury of the Lord” (Joshua 6:19). These things were noted as being “sacred to the Lord” and would be used for the benefit the entire community. This mirrors the manna season when the Lord provided enough for all, no one had too much and none had too little. If the manna was saved for morning, it went sour (see Exodus 16:13-21). The treasury of the Lord was meant to work for the benefit of the whole of God’s community.

When Israel’s fortunes turned at the next battle, the conquest of the city of Ai (Joshua 7), Joshua is commanded by God to investigate. Someone, Joshua is told, has coveted that which was devoted to the treasury and sacred to the Lord. Joshua, therefore, brings all the tribes of Israel before him. From the tribe of Judah, he brought forth their clans. From the clan of the Zerahites, he brought them forward family by family, then household by household from the family of Zabdi. Finally, it was revealed that Achan, son of Carmi, son of Zabdi had “coveted” some things that belonged in the treasury of the Lord and had taken them (Joshua 7:21).

Achan had taken from the community goods, and this had caused the people to lose the next battle. One man’s sin caused the entire community to fail. Because of Achan’s covetousness and greed, the life of the community was imperiled. Withholding anything from that which belongs in the Lord’s treasury brings misery to God’s gathered community. Covetousness and greed kill. And all of this because they had given up their dependence on bread graciously given, daily.

Luke and Acts recreate a similar manna season in the life of the early Christian community. “No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own but they had everything in common. ¦ There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-37).

Which brings us to a question: What does it mean to live in Christ? It has something, I think, to do with a return to manna season. Notice the story told by Jesus that we heard this morning. We might readily identify with any of the principal characters in the story of the “Prodigal Son.” We might see ourselves as the son who absconded with the inheritance, wasted it in profligate living, and returned in humility and penance, in need of mercy. We might see ourselves as older brother with seemingly justified anger, wallowing in self-righteousness and self-sanctity. We might even see ourselves as the father showing unconditional mercy and welcome. At times, we can probably identify with any one one or all three.

But have you ever wondered about the “minor” characters in the story (who aren’t actually all that minor).  The servants are relatively unheralded but I think that they provide a powerful example of what it truly means to live in Christ. Notice, first, that at the father’s command, the servants have free access to the best in the father’s household: the best ring, the best clothes, the best food. The servants are called upon to administer all the “best” according to the father’s wishes. Notice, also, that at the father’s command, the servants are presumed to go and do. The story doesn’t actually make reference; it is assumed that it will be done according the father’s will.

The servants get it!! They truly get at what it means to live in Christ. The servants are stewards of all the best in the household and are trusted to do with those things what the Father wants done. Isn’t that who we are? Are we not the servants who have been entrusted with all the best God has created – the earth in its abundance and richness? Has not God graciously given this to us, entrusted this to our care, made us stewards of all creation? Have we acted like Achan – in covetousness and greed, hoarding “our own” like Achan? Or have we behaved like the servants, and been stewards of God’s best?

Now, it isn’t just the “treasury” and the father’s best stuff that is entrusted to us, Saint Paul notes in his letter to the Corinthians that God has also entrusted to use “the message of reconciliation.” One suspects that the two are related: a willingness to accept bread that is given daily and reconciling the brokenness of the world (a brokenness largely born of extravagant living, covetousness, and greed). But that is a discussion for another day. For today, it is enough to plead: Let us be good stewards of this message!

Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, became a martyr on March 24, 1980. On a day like today in 1980, the Archbishop was celebrating Mass in the chapel of the hospital’s property where he lived.  A car stopped in front of the open doors of the chapel, and right after he finished preaching, as he walked toward the altar, a gunshot rang out. Romero collapsed and died, killed on the order of Roberto D’Aubuisson, the right-wing nationalist of El Salvador. Romero was killed because, frankly, he loved too mightily and too radically, and because his love challenged his world’s covetousness and greed. During the liturgy of canonization (October 14, 1918, Rome) Pope Francis noted, “Archbishop Romero left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters.”

Saint Romero once said,

“Let us be today’s Christians. Let us not take fright at the boldness of today’s church. With Christ’s light let us illuminate even the most hideous caverns of the human person: torture, jail, plunder, want, chronic illness.” Let us be Christians today!

We are ambassadors for Christ. God makes his appeal to the world through us. We are those people who pray for daily bread. May we also pray for the courage to be reconciled to God so that we might accept the message of reconciliation he so desires to give to us.

Lessons from the 4th Sunday of Lent: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

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