Tag Archives: Greed

“Give Me Land, Lots of Land…”

So they finished dividing the land.
Joshua 19:51 (NRSV)

When I was in college I took a semester off and worked as an abstractor. It was tedious, monotonous work. In the morning a stack of property abstracts sat on my desk in the Polk County Office Building. One by one I would walk a legal history of property around the Recorder’s Office checking various land and tax records for buyers, sellers, and the property itself to make sure that the abstract was accurate and no one was trying to pull something (on at least one occasion, I caught people attempting to do just that).

That semester my acquaintance with property records and their arcane legal descriptions gave me an appreciation for the value and importance we humans place on land.

“Give me land, lots of land, with the starry sky above!”

I finished my college career and a few years later found myself leading a congregation in a small Iowa farm town of 300. As a city boy, this was my first real exposure to the way farming exists for so many in my home state: legacy, business, family, inheritance, and life. It is hard to appreciate just how inseparable people become with the land they and their family possess.

Every Sunday there two old farmers who sat in the back pews as far away from one another as possible. The two had a long standing dispute over a boundary line and fence between their adjacent properties. They never spoke to one another.

As I read through today’s chapter, which is basically an ancient abstract, I had all sorts of thoughts about land and the value we place on it. The property descriptions laid out in these chapters are so black and white, but you have to believe that there are all sorts of stories and emotions that the book of Joshua does not record. Families feeling cheated that another tribe got more land. A tribe thinking they should have such and such a village, river, well, forest amidst their property. Tribes disputing exactly how to interpret what it meant that the boundary “touched Tabor.” In time, these tribes would end up in a bloody civil war. How much bad blood was rooted in resentments hidden in these property descriptions.

This morning I’m thinking about God’s original admonishment that we should “subdue” the earth, and how we may have misinterpreted His intent. History teaches me that we’re really good at misinterpreting things. I’m thinking about Jesus who owned so little and encouraged his followers to hold on loosely to the things of this earth (including, I imagine, the earth itself). I’m thinking about Iowans intimate relationship with the land from which we make our livings and feed the world. I’m pondering the ways that possessions, including that same land, can end up coming before and between relationships.

I’m happy not to be an abstractor.

Idealism to Cynicism to Hope

This land will be his possession in Israel. And my princes will no longer oppress my people but will allow the people of Israel to possess the land according to their tribes.
Ezekiel 45:8 (NIV)

When I was young, one of my boyhood dreams was to go into politics. With idealistic notions and the strains of Schoolhouse Rock going through my head, I thought that it would be great to serve my country by running for office.

Then I grew up. And, my idealistic notions gave way a more sober understanding of what politics is really like in our day and age. You have to have money to run and pay for all those political advertisements, so your hand is always out and you’re likely going to be required to make deals with donors and special interests so your war chest is full. You can’t get anything done without political alliances with the inside power brokers who have been incumbents for decades and hold all the senior positions. So, you have to make back room deals and support bills you don’t agree with so that you can get your pet project through. Then there’s pork barrel spending, negative ads, and a number of other “realities” that make me happy to put away one particular boyhood dream.

The people of Israel went through a similar wake-up call in Ezekiel’s day. About 500 years before, the people of Israel with their idealistic notions wanted a change in government. They wanted a King to rule over them; A strong centralized monarchy like all of their neighbors had. God, through the prophet Samuel, warned them that they were being naive and said:

[This King you desire] will take the best of your fields and vineyardsand olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.

But, they finally got their wish. Now, 500 years later, Ezekiel is giving a prophetic word of eschatological hope that someday the princes of the land will stop oppressing the people by continuing to do exactly what Samuel had predicted.

Today, I am reminded that on this side of eternity there is no perfect form of government, because there are no perfect human beings. Our fallen nature, despite the highest of ideals and best of intentions, is given to corruption, greed, and pride. Monarchy, Parliamentary, Democratic, and Socialist governments all suffer from the same human corruption. As it was in Ezekiel’s day, so it remains these 2600 years later.

A rather sobering and cynical thought to start the work week, but I am reminded that the underlying message Ezekiel is communicating is one of hope that someday things will be restored, reclaimed, and redeemed. And, this morning I take that to heart and join with all others who continue to hope for that Day.

Outside the Systems

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Revers...
Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
Luke 2:1-2;19-20 (NIV)

In yesterday’s chapter, Luke related the story of Simeon who told Jesus’ mother that Jesus would cause the “rising and falling of many.” Now he lays out the political landscape of the day. The land at that time was under Roman occupation, so the Roman emperor (Tiberius Caesar) ultimately ruled along with the Roman governor in charge of the occupational force (Pilate). Then there was the local civic leaders, the sons of Herod the Great who operated the region as a client-state of Rome. For the people of Israel, they also answered to the religious authorities led by the high-priest Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Talk about a political mess.

Into this midst of this mess strides John, the cousin of Jesus. Luke introduced us to John’s story in the first chapter. John is out in the wilderness. While visiting Israel years ago I visited an archaeological site in the wilderness of southern Israel. At the time of Jesus, there was a community residing there who lived frugal, hermitic lives very similar to the monks in medieval monasteries. This community preached and practiced baptism and archaeologists had unearthed baptismal pools. Because the men were celibate in this community, they took in orphans as both a community service (orphans were a huge societal problem in that day) and to perpetuate their ranks.

Luke does not delve into the particulars of John’s life, but we know that his parents were old when he was born. It is quite possible that they died while he was young and he was sent to this community to be raised. There, he would have been taught to live off of the land, would have been educated in the scriptures, and they would have instilled in him the importance of ritual baptism.

I find it interesting that Luke lays out the landscape of political power, then introduces us to John who suddenly appears on the landscape like an ancient prophet out of the desert.  John is not from inside any of the political or religious systems of that day. He is an outsider, preaching against the corruption and greed which the political systems bred. It would land him in prison.

Today I am thinking about the systems in which I live and work. Political systems, corporate systems, religious systems, and family systems. It’s amazing how we live within these systems and are influenced by them constantly without giving them much thought. I find it fascinating that both John and Jesus were outsiders. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus would preach to the world, is not an earthly Kingdom or system. Despite humanity’s constant effort to institutionalize it (which always leads to corruption), it remains a calling for those who are willing to follow a path outside of earthly systems.

Delicacies and Darkness

A pastry infused with dark chocolate and served with dark chocolate sauce from Casa Cortes ChocoBar in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
A pastry infused with dark chocolate and served with dark chocolate sauce from Casa Cortes ChocoBar in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil
    so that I take part in wicked deeds
along with those who are evildoers;
    do not let me eat their delicacies.
Psalm 141:4 (NIV)

Wendy and I returned home from our cruise late on Saturday night. We had an amazing time (more about that in another post). If you have ever been on a cruise, you know that there are some incredible delicacies to be experienced both on the ship and in the various ports of call. On Tuesday in San Juan, Puerto Rico we stopped in at Casa Cortes ChocoBar. The restaurant and bar infuses everything they make with chocolate. They even serve grilled cheese sandwiches with dark chocolate dipping sauce! Having just eaten at another restaurant, Wendy and I only ordered drinks and dessert, but the experience was certainly a tasty highlight of our trip.

In the psalm this morning, King David’s lyrics use the word picture of “delicacies” to embody the concept of being tempted and drawn in by evil. After a week of being mindful of my appetites amidst a seemingly endless supply of scrumptious food and desserts, it was not hard for my mind to make the connection.

Along my life’s journey I’ve observed that evil generally follows a fairly simple playbook. The strategy is to take a healthy human appetite and then feed it incessantly until it is perverted into a spiritual snare. There was absolutely nothing wrong or evil with any tasty treat on the menu this past week, but if I allow my natural appetite for food to indulge its craving over and over and over again without restraint then I will find myself trapped both spiritually and in jeans that won’t fit me any longer.

  • Our appetite for food gives way to gluttony, over eating, and unhealthy consequences.
  • Our appetite for sex gives way to adultery, pornography, and unhealthy consequences.
  • Our appetite for industry gives way to greed, power, and unhealthy consequences.
  • Our appetite for rest gives way to sloth, indulgence, and unhealthy consequences.
  • Etc.
  • Etc.

We do not avoid these spiritual traps without being mindful of our appetites. Our hearts are easily drawn to delicacies which are not evil in themselves, but will stimulate our appetites to crave more than what is good for us. Today as I wrestle back into my daily routine after a week of many delicacies I am, like David, praying for a little grace and strength to keep my appetites in check.

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Whose Side Am I On?

English: King Henry V at the Battle of Agincou...
English: King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For he breaks the pride of princes, and the kings of the earth fear him.
Psalm 76:12 (NLT)

My personal favorite of Shakespeare’s plays is Henry V. It tells the story of a young man who had spent his early years acting much like the prodigal son. He squandered his youth partying it up with common people and a largely discredited nobleman who was given to indulging his appetites. When his father dies and Henry is suddenly placed on the throne, no one thinks the young prince is up to the task. In leading a war against France, he is underestimated by the enemy, betrayed by friends, and driven to do a lot of soul searching about himself and his role. The play ends with a retelling of the historic Battle of Agincourt. Henry and his Englishmen are outnumbered by the French 5 to 1, but Henry leads his band of brothers to an unlikely victory. In the glow of victory, Henry refuses to take credit for the win:

  • Henry: Come, go we in procession to the village.
    And be it death proclaimed through our host
    To boast of this or take the praise from God
    Which is his only.
  • Fluellen: Is it not lawful, an please your majesty, to tell
    how many is killed?
  • Henry: Yes, captain; but with this acknowledgement,
    That God fought for us.

Today’s psalm was written in time of war. The lyrics reminded people of God’s sovereignty and judgment which the writer proclaimed would ultimately prevail over earthly kings and rulers. Ancient tradition holds that the song was written in response to another improbable victory over Sennacherib‘s army when they threatened Jerusalem.

Over the years I’ve grown increasingly suspicious of those who like to cloak human actions and activities with God’s will. Henry’s humility is noble, but the English motives for invading France were far from godly. God’s will is used to justify all sorts of human tragedies and terrors. Everyone claims God is on their side. God’s will is regularly cited by those who wish to cloak selfish and greedy motives. Shakespeare himself ends his play reminding the audience that while it appears God fought with Henry, He must have switched sides after Henry’s death because France reclaimed all that Henry had fought for. It gets muddy when you humanly start bestowing God’s favor on things that God hasn’t explicitly bestowed Himself.

This morning I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s words when someone asked whether he, like King Henry, believed God was on his side. Lincoln replied: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

Chapter-a-Day Mark 7

Official seal of the National Organic Program
Image via Wikipedia

“Don’t you understand either?” he asked. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes.) And then he added, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” Mark 7:18-23 (NLT)

I have watched with interest as the growth of the natural, healthy, and organic food market. Ten or fifteen years ago the health food market was confined to small mom and pop stores in major cities and food co-ops for the granola set. Today, almost every major grocery store carries a plethora of all natural and organic foods. There are now large, national chains of health food stores.

Our culture has increasingly embraced more healthy and organic foods in contrast to the highly processed mass market foods available in every grocery aisle. I’m not adverse to this. I think it is a good thing. God advocates taking care of our bodies and treating them like a temple.

Nevertheless, I remember Jesus’ words: “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your soul.” Reading Jesus’ words about food in today’s chapter, I hear Him making a corresponding point. What does it profit you to eat all natural and organic food, and work to keep your body in optimum health, if on the inside your spirit is withering in anger, depression, malice, greed, lust, or shame?

Our bodies are good for, at best, eighty to just over a hundred years. Our spirit is eternal. Where should I make the greatest investment?

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Chapter-a-Day Numbers 36

Deed 1661 signed at Rehoboth Massachusetts Ind...
Image via Wikipedia

“No inheritance-land may be passed from tribe to tribe; each tribe of the People of Israel must hold tight to its own land.” Numbers 36:9 (MSG)

Land is a funny thing. We like to think we own it, and in doing so we attach all sorts of value to it and allow it to have a strange sense of power over us. The land I own here at home was first owned by the founder of the town, H.P. Scholte. All of the Dutch settlers gave Scholte their life savings and he pooled the money to buy all of the land around here, then parceled it out once the U.S. Government gave him the deeds. The problem was that it took a while for the Government to process the paperwork (some things never change, I guess). The delay created all sorts of conflict and scandal in the fledgling community. People became obsessed with claiming and owning their land. I can still see some of those obsessive attitudes in the descendents who inherited it.

The land that I “own” in Missouri was first developed in a time of blatant racism. The paperwork to my land includes handwritten instructions by the racist landowners that the land may never be owned by anyone other than a pure blooded caucasian. How very sad.

I’ve been reading through The Lord of the Rings again. I lost count how many times I’ve read the epic tale. In The Two Towers, two Hobbits are sunning themselves on the peak of a tall hill and they run into an ancient Ent – a giant tree-like creature who shepherds the trees. He asks the Hobbits what they call the thing they are standing on:

“Hill?” suggested Pippin. “Shelf? Step?” suggested Merry.

Treebeard repeated the words thoughtfully. “Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped.”

Indeed. Today I am reminded that I may own land, but if I’m not careful it can end up owning me. The truth of the matter is that in the end we all die and, as God’s Message reminds us, return to the ground from which we were made. I may hold claim to a piece of land for a short time, but the land will ultimately claim me.

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Chapter-a-Day Numbers 32

estranged
Image by Norma Desmond via Flickr

They continued, “If you think we’ve done a good job so far, give us this country for our inheritance. Don’t make us go across the Jordan.” Numbers 32:5 (MSG)

Land is a funny thing. Along life’s journey I’ve watched families and friends become enemies over land disputes. I’ve watched people fall into deep bitterness, anger, and resentment over arguments about boundary lines and the inheritance of land. I’ve written a lot about how things have changed since the time of Moses, but there are some things that I observe never change.

I knew two upstanding men who, each week at church, claimed a pew on the opposite side of one another in the sanctuary. They’d been feuding over a boundary line between their farms for decades and refused to speak to one another or sit near one another in church. In another case, I watched as parents used land and their children’s inheritance as a tool of manipulation and power which ultimately divided the family. I’ve seen siblings back bite and slander their brothers and sisters throughout their parent’s funeral as they squabble over who is going to get what in the estate. I’ve known people so focused on maximizing and increasing their land wealth that they isolated themselves until their land became a relational island.

Today, I’m reminded that the things of God can’t be bought or sold, nor can they be hoarded, deeded, or put into our last will and testament. Land, like all earthly possessions will end up possessing us if we do not guard our hearts closely.

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Chapter-a-Day Numbers 11

no_whining

The riffraff among the people had a craving and soon they had the People of Israel whining, “Why can’t we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna.”  Numbers 11:4-6 (MSG)

A couple of weeks ago, Wendy and I spent the week with our friends at the lake. There were four children under the age of five. It has been a long time since I’ve spent such a long period of time with such a number of little ones. I’d forgotten how quickly a child could transform from precious angel to a tearful, whining lump of humanity on the floor. Oh my.

As the week went on and I observed more and more of these sudden Jekyll and Hyde transformations, I was struck again at how adults are just big children who put a more sociably acceptable face on the same flawed human behaviors. Adults whine too, but we usually cloak it in more deceptive communication devices such as passive agressiveness, gossip, sarcasm, and silence.

We are such silly human beings. Even as adults we are constantly discontent with what we have, and continually craving things we don’t have. God blesses us with what we need and in not time we’re bored and discontent, desiring something else. I’ve discovered that sometimes it’s not good for me to get what I crave. What I want isn’t always my Heavenly Father’s best plan for me. But God is a parent, too. Today’s chapter stands in evidence that sometimes He gives in and gives us what we’re whining about, knowing that getting what we crave will prove to be a long, painful life lesson.

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Chapter-a-Day Luke 21

Widow's Mite - Ancient Roman Bronze Coins
Image by IronRodArt – Royce Bair via Flickr

[Jesus] said, “The plain truth is that this widow has given by far the largest offering today. All these others made offerings that they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford—she gave her all!” Luke 21:3-4 (MSG)

There is an interesting place where money and faith intersect. I come from a Dutch heritage. The history of the Dutch is a fascinating study. In the 1600s, Amsterdam became the financial center of the world. Dutch trading ships made the Netherlands the richest republic in the world. At the same that time their coffers were brimming over with gilders, the Dutch were staunchly entrenched in their Reformed faith and Calvinist theology against greed and worldliness. The result was a wealthy people who felt intensely awkward about being rich. In a small town founded by Hollanders, half a world and four centuries away, I can still see that awkward struggle trying to work itself out. 

It is the season of giving centered in the greatest, most extravagant gift of all. Despite a heritage of wrangling with riches, I’m reminded today of the simplicity of Jesus’ teaching.

Let go. Be generous. Give extravagantly.

God did.

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