No Cheating

Micah 6:9-16                                                                                           “No Cheating”
October 25, 2015 – Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Rick found 3.4 million dollars in hundred dollar bills stashed in the wall behind the closet in his father’s old house. That’s how Joseph Finder’s new thriller begins. Of course, if Rick had simply reported his find to the police and tried openly to determine the source of the money, there would be no story. So from the first moment, Rick starts to conspire and deceive those around him in order to hang on to the fortune he discovered. I haven’t gotten very far in the book, but I’m guessing it’s not going to turn out well, that he will suffer the consequences.

There’s a good reason greed is one of the seven deadly sins. It might be better to call them the seven “capital vices,” character defects from which other defects flow. Here in the second half of Micah chapter 6 we see how greed manifests itself in dishonesty, in cheating. There are all sorts of painful consequences for Jerusalem and its inhabitants.

Our text follows last week’s look at God’s perfect formula for human life, to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. What we see now is greed ruining that whole plan, creating injustice, mercilessness and disregard for God as people cheat to make money. It will turn out disastrously.

Here in our verses for today God lists more sins of Israel to continue His case, the lawsuit against His people we heard last week at the start of the chapter. In verse 9 we hear Him talking to the “city.” It probably means Jerusalem, but it could be Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Either way, God is addressing not just individuals, but a whole society which allows such things to happen.

There’s a little parenthesis in verse 9, “It is sound wisdom to fear your name.” That’s Micah’s admonition that it would be wise to listen to what God has to say, to be frightened at His indictments. God starts with a probing question to His people and to their city in verse 10. Do they expect Him to “forget,” to overlook their sins of greed? “Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked?”

Christianity Today just ran an article about what churches should do when they learn that an offering came from stolen money. A Michigan megachurch got $300,000 from David McQueen who was indicted in 2012 for a $46.5 million Ponzi scheme. Should the church give the money back to help those who’ve been defrauded? It’s hard when the money has already been spent. But the bigger question is whether God will just forget where such money came from, cheated out of those who lost their savings. Micah says God won’t forget the “treasures of wickedness,” whether a tithe was given or not.

Neither will God forget the “scant measure,” says the end of verse 10. It’s an old, old story that’s as contemporary as the latest tweet. Dishonest merchants would squeeze the sides of the basket, the standard ephah, when they measured the grain they sold, but push the grain down and the sides out to measure what they bought. Likewise in verse 11, they had crooked scales or else a bag with one set of weights to balance the scales for a purchase, and another lighter set of weights to balance what they sold.

We might think of the butcher who puts his thumb on the scale when he weighs the meat or the gas station with dishonest pumps. Years ago I remember a gas station in Nebraska where the pumps always read a penny before you even squeezed the handle. Not much, but over the course of a day’s sales, a little extra for the owner. We might think that today’s digital age helps prevent such things, but my perception is that it’s even worse.

I found a Boston Globe article about the decades old practice of putting less in retail packages while the box or bag or whatever stays pretty much the same size along with the price. You used to buy a “pound” can of coffee and it had sixteen ounces in it. Then a similar looking can was marketed that held less, maybe 13 ounces, or now 11.5 ounces. Of course it’s marked right on the can, but the obvious intent is to make you think you are getting the same while actually receiving less.

The Globe ran a picture of a table stacked with chips and yogurt and paper towel packages where the same cheating game was being played, packages that looked alike but where the newer ones held less than the old ones. Micah tells us God has absolutely no patience with that sort of thing. It’s not just “business.” It’s deceit and dishonesty which God in verse 12 says is “violent.” “Your wealthy are full of violence.” No one gets robbed at gun point, but by being cheated they get robbed just the same.

Think about the Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) scandal in 2012 when it was found that banks provided false information to inflate or deflate their interest rates so as to profit from trades. Just this year we’ve been hearing how VW built their cars in America to automatically change settings to pass emissions tests, then reset to higher emission, better performance settings when the test was over.

Corporations cheat, all the time, because people cheat, all the time, whether it’s inflated interest rates or deflated footballs. Just ask any of the teachers here this morning about paragraphs or whole papers copied off the Internet, about cell phones with answers stored in the memory sneaked into a test, or just plain old looking over another student’s shoulder to see an answer. If you can trust a statistic from the Internet, at least 75 percent of college students surveyed admit having cheated in high school. Teachers hate it, and so does God. Verse 12 goes on to say to that city then and to any city now, “your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mouths.”

You and I say we believe in God. But our God is a God of truth. He is truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Can we really believe and live that and still speak lies, still cheat to make a profit or gain an advantage? Is our Lord who is truth itself going to ignore our deceptions any more than He ignored those deceptive scales used in the market of ancient Jerusalem?

Our first response here ought not to be to point the finger at VW or the Patriots or Folgers, but at ourselves, asking where and how we might be making ourselves better off by some little lie we imagine doesn’t really matter. Is that actually how we want to represent and live for the One who is the way and the truth and the very life we are blessed with?

It’s so tempting. When I first came to this church I had to report our church statistics every month because the denomination was partially funding us. It would have been so easy to just bump up our attendance to look a bit better, like a corporation massages the numbers in its annual report. But that isn’t the way to report on what we’re doing in the name of the Lord. It’s not going to please God at all.

So God lets them (and us) know how displeased He is in verse 13. It announces that God has already started to judge all this cheating. He says, “I have begun to strike you down, making you desolate because of your sins.” Another possible translation is that God was planning to make them sick, diseased on account of their sins.

If it was Samaria in the north to which this prophecy was originally written, then God’s judgment had begun with the Assyrian invasion. They wiped that city and its people from the earth. They became what are sometimes now called the “ten lost tribes of Israel,” people so scattered by war that they lost their identity.

If it Jerusalem was the city to which Lord was crying about their dishonesty, then God’s judgment had begun with the Assyrians and would end with the Babylonians flattening their city and their temple, and carrying the people away into exile. Whether it was Samaria or Jerusalem, God was not going to let a city, a society built on cheating stand and continue on its way.

That harsh judgment from God is actually happy good news for everyone who has been cheated. It’s not always going to be that way. They won’t always get away with it. The scales are going to be balanced not just in the market but in the cosmos. Scripture says many times that God is going to repay the cheaters. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ says the Lord,” is in both the Old Testament the New. Some of you have been cheated, taken by a Ponzi scheme or other deceptions. Whether or not a court convicts, those who’ve lied and cheated through life will end up cheated out of the life they thought they had, because God will judge them.

So those who cheat are going to get theirs and it’s not your or my job to give it to them, as much as we would like to. Whenever we are tempted to get our own payback, the Lord asks us to remember that’s His business, partly because He will do a much better and more thorough job of it than you and I ever could. Just look at the next couple verses.

Verses 14 and 15 are what Bible scholars call “futility curses.” They are punishments which result in the frustration and futility of human efforts. God will turn back those human desires which led to cheating by bringing them to frustration and futility. It’s what we might call poetic justice, punishment suited to the crime.

So God tells the cheaters, “you will eat, but not be satisfied.” In other words, you who sold food at extortionate prices won’t have enough to eat. “There shall be a gnawing hunger within you.” And “you shall put away, but not save.” Those who horde the goods of life for themselves will find they’ve got nothing when it really matters. It’s Jesus’ parable of the rich man and his bigger barns. It all becomes pointless, and a gnawing frustration.

Dante took up the idea of these futility curses when he wrote the first book of The Divine Comedy, the Inferno. The “fraudulent” are in the next-to-lowest circle of hell, with flatterers stuck upside down in human excrement and false prophets like astrologers and fortune tellers having to constantly walk backward. Thieves who stole other people’s livelihoods lose their own identities as snakes bite them and they transform into strange forms and creatures.

I like to say there’s somewhere on one of those circles for the guy who decided to start putting those little stickers on fruit in the grocery stores. He’s going to sit for eternity peeling them off an endless pile of luscious produce which he will never get to eat. But kidding aside, God’s judgment assures that sin, that cheating has its consequences. No one will get away with it forever. Verse 15 talks about all that produce the cheaters sold with gimmicked weights and measures. They will plant it but not harvest it, process it, like crushing olives for oil or grapes for wine, but never get the joy or even a taste of it.

Like I said a moment ago, we must not just rejoice in the coming judgment of the cheaters we see around us, but examine our own lives for dishonesty and untruth. In yet another of those phony quotes that you find everywhere, Edmund Burke is supposed to have said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men to do nothing.” But it can’t be found in his writings. It’s often used as a reason for entering into a just war, doing something violent to prevent the triumph of evil. But what if we put that phony quote to a better purpose by taking it as a reason to root out the evil in our own hearts and minds? Evil can’t triumph if good people refuse to let it triumph in our own selves by lies and deceit, fooling even ourselves into thinking we are honest and true when we are not.

Our other Scriptures today promise there is blessing and help for those willing to let their eyes be opened to their own sins. Jesus healed a blind man in our Gospel reading from Mark 10. It’s a wonderful display of our Lord’s healing power. But now read it in the larger context of His coming entry into Jerusalem where He meets the scribes and the Pharisees who are blind to their own sins and lies. Then that healing becomes a wonderful sign that God will open the darkened eyes of anyone who, like that blind man who wanted to see, wants to see our own failures and receive the Lord’s grace.

Verse 15 here in Micah talks about sowing but not reaping. But in Psalm 126 we heard about those who go out sowing and weeping, remembering their sins, sorrowing for the failures which brought judgment on them. Those who sow in tears like that will reap with shouts of joy. There is hope for those who see and are sorry for their sins.

And our reading from Hebrews 7 repeats a theme we’ve heard all along this month from that book. We are sinners, people who cheat and defraud and deceive each other. Even the high priest of Israel had to offer sacrifices for his own sins before he could offer sacrifices for anyone else. But in Jesus Christ we have a sinless, perfect high priest, who was able to offer the sacrifice of His own life so that we could all be saved from our sins. We receive His grace and forgiveness when we admit and confess our failures and lies.

The last verse of the text gives God’s last argument in His case against His people for today. Verse 16 accuses them of following the two most wicked kings of Samaria, Omri and his son Ahab. I Kings 6:25 says that Omri did more evil than all the kings who went before him and a few verses later we read that his son Ahab did more than those who went before him, more even than his wicked father.

So God points to the ways and laws, the statutes, of the two most wicked kings in Israel’s history and says, “you have followed their counsels.” That’s why then God will “make of you a desolation, and your inhabitants an object of hissing; so shall you bear the scorn of my people.”

That’s what it boils down to. Whose counsel, whose way we are going to follow? God’s people in Micah’s time followed wicked kings, obeyed their wicked laws and became liars and cheaters themselves, earning judgment. But our Lord came to earth in Jesus Christ so that we could follow a better king, a king of truth and grace who will lead us to life.

The last verse of our Gospel lesson tells us that when blind Bartimaeus got his sight back, he used it to get up and “followed him [Jesus] on the way.” That’s the message to take away from the Scriptures today. Let Micah’s warnings and the saving grace of Jesus open our eyes to all the lies we tell others and tell ourselves. Then once we see clearly, let’s get up and follow the way of Truth, the way of Life in Christ our Lord.

At the end of verse 16 God says He will make the city of cheaters a desolation, “an object of hissing,” of scorn. As our Lord’s people now, as the church of Jesus Christ, let’s not let ourselves be scorned because we’re no different, no more honest or fair than everyone around us. Instead, let’s be people whose blindness has been healed, able to see our own failings and false paths and turn from them to follow the straight road behind our Savior.

“Cheaters never prosper” goes the old saying I learned as a child on the playground. The Word of God says that’s true. But those who admit their cheating and who seek the healing and forgiveness of Jesus do prosper, forever and ever. May that be you and I.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj