(Lectionary for September 24, 2017)
Greed seems much in favor these days. There is first and foremost the Greedy One in Chief, Donald Trump, who while performing his presidential duties, however poorly, is profiting all the while from numerous overseas property ventures, thus smashing the emolument clause of the Constitution that forbids any sitting president from foreign source profits. But, what the hey? Greed is on, baby, and a blind eye seems to be the vision quest of the day.
And then there are those so-called preachers who major in greed. There is the hugely smarmy Joel Osteen of Houston, TX, he of the toothy smile and ex-basketball arena worship space, spreading the “gospel” of money and success to 35,000+ each week in person and countless others through the magic of the tube. Success is where it’s at, says he, and if you are not currently in the dough, it is because your attitude needs adjusting. Just think right, and the cash will roll in! God wants it for you, so reach out and grab it! Just look at Joel! No education, no theology, but fabulous teeth, fabulous suits, a fabulously blond wife, and fabulous kids; if he can do it, so can you! Though he is the headmaster of an odious crew, Joel can also claim Creflo Dollar (who could have a better name than that!), Paula White, T.D. Jakes, and a host of others as his confreres. What these folk “preach” is a huge pile of dog doo, but since greed is in at the moment, there appear to be a horde of folk who lap it up. Such foolishness is as far from the Gospel of Jesus as can be imagined, but greed oertops service and giving any day.
All these hucksters need to read Ex.16, or better, have it tattooed on their foreheads. On the surface, the chapter is a magic tale of how God fed the grumbling Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai, but what it really is about is greed and its siren song.
The story begins, as greed stories often begin, with complaining of a lack of something. Moses and Aaron, while leading the escapees through the blasted desert, bear the brunt of the people’s anger. “We wish we had died by the hand of YHWH in the land of Egypt, where we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex.16:3). Their complaint is ludicrous on its face; where exactly did they “sit by the fleshpots and have their fill of bread?” The answer is: nowhere! They were made to make bricks without straw, we remember; fleshpots were merely a lusty dream, and an over abundance of food nothing but a distant vision. Still, the desert is a forbidding place, and food is scarce, no doubt about it.
The grumbling of the people flies up to YHWH who informs Moses. “I am going to rain bread from the sky for you, and each day the people will go out and gather enough for that day” (Ex.16:4). And there is the rub; for greedy people, “enough for that day” is never enough! No! God wants you rich, shout the oily preachers of greed; God does not want you to confine yourself to one day’s needs; if you really trust God, that God will rain enough from the sky for many days, for many years, for enough to satisfy your every greedy whim! You can always fly first class, or better yet, you can get around in your own plane, as Bennie Hinn, Pat Robertson, and Jesse DuPlantis do. Just believe, brother; just trust, sister!
YHWH does indeed provide in Ex.16, but the provision is carefully offered so that each person has enough, but that no one has too much. “In the evening quails came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as ground frost” (Ex.16:13-14). In chorus, all the people exclaim, “What is it,” and thereby name the substance. “Manna” means in Hebrew “What is it?” And that is the only joke in this story, though it is a memorable one. Well, there is a later joke, but it is a far darker one as we will see.
Moses then warns all of them, “Let no one leave any of it until morning” (Ex.16:19). But of course they did not listen to him, and tried to save some until morning. What was left “bred worms and became foul” (Ex.16:20). Day after day the recalcitrant and greedy Israelites get the manna, try again and again to horde it for the next day, “but when the sun grew hot, it melted” (Ex.16:21). But the greedy among them remain fixed in their greed.
Moses and Aaron now warn all of them that on the sixth day of the week, YHWH will provide enough for two days’ food, but on the seventh day, a Sabbath for them and for YHWH, they are not to go and gather, because there will be no manna that day. But of course, the greedy rush out on the seventh day, but, as warned, they find no manna. And YHWH is furious. “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions” (Ex.16:28)? How long indeed?
This is not only a story of keeping the Sabbath, though later Jews found their Sabbath traditions rooted here. But it is a story for us Christians of keeping the commandments of God by not succumbing to the wiles of greed. We receive from God our “daily bread,” as Jesus’s famous prayer has it, and need not a whit more. I know. I know. I have my retirement IRA’s and Social Security. I have extra food in my pantry and fridge, more than I need. But that may not be a sign of greed on my part, though it also may be such a sign. If I gather and horde, and share little and that grudgingly, I have given myself to greed. The horrifying fact of our twenty-first century America is that fewer than 250 families possess more disposable income than the bottom 25% of the population of the USA. That is, the total income resource of some 90 million people about equals the incomes of perhaps the 1000 wealthiest Americans. Let those figures sink in. Greed has become the will and way of the land.
We, you and I, desperately need the tale of the manna of Ex.16. Instead of greed, we need the story of “our daily bread” and what we really need to live in the world God has loved and redeemed in Jesus. Joel Osteen and his crew are not right; God does not desire wealth for all; God desires that all may have what they need to live fully and freely and hopefully in the world God has made.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)