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
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
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
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.
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
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 pealing 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.
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
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj