Sermon for Jan. 23, 2011, Matthew 5:7 Greed and the Merciful

Matt. 5:3-10

Greed and the Merciful

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Matt. 5:7   “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Someone once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.”  That about sums it up.  For us, as Christians, the “main thing” is Jesus.  We are followers of Jesus.   Why is it so hard to keep this the main thing?

Because of an intractable conundrum; some would call it a riddle.  It is possible to “worship” Jesus without “following” Jesus; that’s the conundrum.  It is possible – in fact common, to find Christians who will come to church, sing songs of praise, say the creed, pray, and yet live lives that show little of the impact of Jesus’ teachings.

I’m not just talking about the famous religious leaders who are caught doing terrible things – though they are included – I’m talking about ordinary people like us.  And the reason is simple once you think about it.  It is a whole lot easier to worship than it is to forgive people who hurt you.

It is easier to sing a hymn than to  let someone else’s opinion win the argument; it is easier to say a creed than it is to turn the other cheek.  It is simply a whole lot easier to perform acts of worship than it is to put into practice the teachings of Jesus.  In fact it seems that there is little correlation between how important many folks feel worship is and how mature they are as followers of Jesus.

Jesus himself anticipated this conundrum.  He says, later in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matt. 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

So, yes, while it is possible, even common for Christians to find worship a lot easier than following Jesus, it is clear how Jesus feels about it.  For Jesus, “the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.”

The Beatitudes and the 7 Deadly Sins

We are in a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ central teaching.  This is the essence of what he expects of us; the “main thing”.

But we are human; we do not find it easy to live as Jesus requires.  So we are also, along with the Beatitudes, looking at the list of seven fundamental obstacles we face; what the church has identified as the “Seven Deadly Sins:” pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust, wrath and gluttony. This pairing of a Beatitude with a Deadly Sin was suggested to me by Jeff Cook’s book.

Greed and the Merciful

Today we are looking at the Deadly Sin of Greed, paired with the Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”  – Matt. 5:7

Did you notice the implied threat in this beatitude?  What if we do not show mercy; will we then not receive any?  It’s frightening to consider.  It reminds us of the implied threat we repeat each time we say the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  What if we don’t forgive?

The whole basis of our Christian lives is that God has chosen to be merciful to us.  Is it possible to worship God sincerely, to praise him for his lavish mercy, and at the same time withhold our mercy from others?

Jesus says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

It turns out that it is of utmost importance to keep the main thing, the main thing.

I have a question: did it strike you as odd that we would pair the beatitude of the blessing on the merciful with the deadly sin of greed?

The Good Samaritan

Remember Jesus’ most famous parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan.  We all know it well.  It begins with a man trying to limit the circle of people he is responsible for.  He asks: “If I am required to love my neighbor, who exactly is my neighbor?”

Jesus tells the story of a victim of random violence and of the two men who saw his need and refused him help, and of the one man who did stop and help him.

Jesus asks the question at the end: which one was a neighbor to him?  To which he replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”   In other words: “You go and be merciful in this way as well.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

How is mercy such as this the opposite of the deadly, soul-killing sin of greed?Think of the men who refused mercy to the victim in Jesus’ parable.  Why did they fail the test?  At least in part because of the sin of greed.

What is greed?  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.  Let me say that again: greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.

Greedy for Money

The priest and the Levite in the parable both know that to stop and help is going to cost money – and for the Samaritan it does.  Who will pay the fee at the inn?  Who will pay for the care?  Someone has to.  The greedy person withholds the mercy that is required because he sees the costs involved.  Yes mercy costs money.  That is one of the reasons why Jesus told us that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon; Mammon is against mercy – no one can serve both.

But this is shallow thinking to this point.  I honestly do not think the dollar costs were upper most in the minds of the priest and the Levite, though they must have added to their resistance to showing mercy.  I believe that both of them were greedy for other things as well.

Greedy for Security

They  were both probably greedy for their safety – if a man has been a victim of robbers, then there are robbers around.  If you stop to help, you become an easy target; best keep moving lest there be two victims lying together.

Wrong!  Mercy requires that our own security cannot be our highest concern.  Mercy requires some risks as we get involved with people in need.  Mercy runs toward the burning building from which the cries are coming.  Mercy sits with people who have become desperate – with all the uncertainty that state implies.  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given. Mercy gives up total security; it goes to places where those greedy for security would never venture.  Places where people are suffering.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Let’s go even deeper, because it was not just greed for money and security that made the priest and Levite fail the test.  It was greed for something else – how do you put this in words?

Greedy for Self

The priest thinks of himself as a priest.  It’s who he is.  He is a man of dignity and honor.  But more than that; he is a person who takes his role seriously.  He is responsible to handle holy things: holy books, holy sacrifices, the holy instruments of the temple.  He is required by the law and he requires himself to keep from contamination; to keep from impurity.  It would simply not be in keeping with his whole personal sense of himself to go over and touch this victim.

The man who was robbed and beaten must at least be bloody, if not already dead.   Either way, touching him would defile a priest and make it impossible for him to fulfill his function for a while.  He is greedy for this sense of his own dignity and importance; for his clean hands.  No way he is going to give all that up for the sake of some man who didn’t have the sense to travel in a protective group!

And the same with the Levite.  What if someone saw you doing humanitarian work?  It’s simply beneath you.  Greed is selfishly clinging to what mercy requires be given.  Mercy requires that we let go of our personal pretensions in the face of suffering.

If we extend mercy, won’t we be taken advantage of?  Yes; maybe; sometimes.  Being merciful means we give up the idea that the height of virtue is to never be taken advantage of, never be played for a fool, never become the victim of a scam.  We will be as wise as we can be; we are not called to be fools, but if there is a risk involved in being a person of mercy, so be it; we accept it.  We will not be greedy for what mercy requires be given up.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

The Blessed Life

This is what we believe, as followers of Jesus.  The blessed life is not the life that walks by on the other side.  The blessed life is not the life that keeps all the coins safely in the purse.  The blessed life is not the life that risks nothing.  The blessed life is not the life that keeps hands clean and reputations intact.

The blessed life is the mercy-giving life.  We all, like the priest and the Levite,  are presented with tests: will we be greedy, or will we show mercy?  As followers of Jesus who know that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing, we commit ourselves, not just to worshipping, but to the harder task of following Jesus, who taught us:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

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2 thoughts on “Sermon for Jan. 23, 2011, Matthew 5:7 Greed and the Merciful

  1. Steve, I remember fondly, you playing the guitar in that old house next to the church as we sang of Jesus and tried to find our way. I chose this particular sermon as it was just after Rosie died. Couple of comments: As to security, the paradox is that Jesus said if we strive to save our life we will lose it and if we lose it for His sake we will find it, so our true security is in the sacrifice. As to the financial cost, again if we invest in His kingdom, it will be insulated from rust and moths and thieves that may break in and steal. Bless you and your love for our savior.
    Phil

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