On Avoiding the Dangers of Prosperity
I don’t very often announce titles for my sermons, but today I want to do so. My title for today is ‘On avoiding the dangers of prosperity’.
Now, it might come as a big surprise to you that prosperity can be dangerous. It certainly isn’t a message that our politicians want us to hear, because they are committed to the position that prosperity is an unmitigated blessing which must be cultivated at all costs. Our economic masters don’t want us to hear it either, because their entire strategy is to encourage in us an attitude of discontentment with our current level of prosperity, so that they can sell us more things.
Nonetheless, when I read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, it sometimes sounds to me almost as if he’s talking about radioactive materials; they can do a great deal of good if they’re used properly, but you have to be extremely careful how you handle them if you want to avoid being poisoned! And the authors of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy have the same viewpoint. To them the prosperity of the nation of Israel is a blessing from God for which they give thanks, but it also has potential dangers. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it? That’s the theme of our Old Testament reading for today.
First, let’s get the context. The Hebrew slaves have been set free from their bondage in Egypt, they’ve received God’s commandments at Mount Sinai, and they’ve then spent forty years wandering in the Sinai desert. They are now standing on the borders of Canaan, their promised land. Moses is an old man and is about to die, and he has gathered the people together to give them what you might call his ‘Last Will and Testament’. Deuteronomy is presented to us as a sermon preached by Moses, in which he restates God’s laws to the people and encourages them to remain faithful to their God. Listen to what he says in verses 7-9:
“For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.
No doubt this sounds pretty mouth-watering to the Israelites as they stand on the borders of Canaan. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses outlines for them in the following verses. They might go into the Promised Land, settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land and then get so used to it that they forget it’s a gift of God to them. As verse 17 puts it, they might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’.
I would suggest to you that today, as we celebrate Thanksgiving, we may need to guard against a similar danger. Despite our recent economic woes, we still live in one of the most prosperous societies that has ever existed on the face of the earth. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around ‘standard of living’ have increased exponentially.
I remember when I first heard that a machine had been produced that would take movies and play them on your television. I knew for a fact that I’d never be able to afford something so extravagant! But now they’re old fashioned, and being able to watch movies at home on the Internet is seen as almost a human right! When I was a little boy one bathroom per house was the rule, and in hotels you assumed you’d have to share a bathroom with others. Not so nowadays! And so it goes on – microwaves, personal computers, smart phones – all of these very new things have become part of the standard expectations of most people.
I enjoy these things, I give thanks for them, and I don’t relish the thought of living without them. Nonetheless, from a spiritual point of view, not all is well with this picture. First of all, in this prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. And second, of course, not everyone shares in the prosperity. Twenty years ago the average American CEO of a large corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.
In our Old Testament reading for today Moses points out this danger to us and gives us three strategies for dealing with it.
Strategy number one is to ‘Remember’. When I first came to St. Margaret’s nearly twelve years ago, we did a number of ‘Meet the Rector’ evenings at which we used an exercise called the ‘Four Quaker Questions’. Two of the questions were “Where did you grow up and what were the winters like?” and ‘Describe the house you lived in? How was it heated?” So we spent time sharing stories about our roots with one another. A couple of things were very interesting to me. Firstly, many of us grew up in circumstances much more humble than those we now enjoy. Second, many of us have very fond memories of those simpler times!
Moses’ first strategy for the Israelites to protect themselves against the potential dangers of wealth is to remember where you’ve come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, he says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.
Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”.
The interesting thing is that the people for whom the Book of Deuteronomy was written had no personal memory of the slavery in Egypt or the desert years of Israel. In writing these stories down and passing them on, the authors of Deuteronomy were encouraging the cultivation of a kind of ‘ancestral memory’. The same thing happened when Israel celebrated the Passover every year; they re-enacted the night before they left Egypt, so that the younger generations could, in a sense, enter into the experience for themselves.
Those of you who have visited Fort Edmonton Park will probably have seen the house Premier Alexander Rutherford lived in during the early part of this century. The interesting thing to me was that many of us in this congregation now live in larger houses than the Premier of Alberta lived in less than a hundred years ago! Moses would encourage us as a society to remember where we have come from. Our present standard of living is not something we enjoy as a human right; most people on the face of the earth do not, in fact, enjoy it. It is a privilege that ought to lead us to thankfulness to God.
And that brings us to Moses’ second strategy for dealing with prosperity. Verse 10 says, ‘Bless the LORD your God’. In other words, we are to continually thank God for all the blessings we have received.
Thankfulness is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to cultivate it; I believe we live in a culture that has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. Rather, we’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments of course provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.
Thankfulness is an antidote to this. The way Moses tells it here, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. He doesn’t say, “Feel thankful”; he says “You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (v.10). Thankfulness, in other words, isn’t a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words, you see, have the power to transform us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.
This isn’t just about saying grace at our daily meals – although that’s important. It also includes making a habit of including a good dose of thanksgiving in our daily prayers, and pausing often during the day to say “Thank you” to God. It includes experiencing the truth behind the words of the old chorus: “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done”. I challenge you to do that: count your blessings, name them one by one. Then do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Do it until it becomes a habit. It’s a habit with the power to change our hearts.
So Moses has given us two strategies to guard against the dangers of prosperity: we’re to remember where we’ve come from, and we’re to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. The third strategy is to keep God’s commandments. Look in verse 11: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, in this passage, is not a way of buying blessing from God; rather, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received.
But I have a question: which commandments are we talking about here? When we hear the phrase ‘God’s commandments’, we tend to think in terms of the Ten Commandments and other laws about personal morality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the Law Moses was commanding the Israelites to obey was much bigger than the Ten Commandments. It is embodied in the first five books of the Bible, and it includes not just laws about personal morality but also laws about building a just society.
For example, when you were harvesting your field you had to leave some grain standing at the edges so that the poor could glean a living from it. You had to let the land lie fallow every seventh year and rely on God sending you a bumper harvest in the sixth year. When you sold land, you had to offer it first within your own family so that equality of wealth between families was preserved. And every fifty years the Year of Jubilee was celebrated. In this year all land was to revert to its original owners, all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free. The ideal was equality; that society as a whole should prosper, and not just individuals in it.
My point in bringing this to your attention is not to suggest that we should revive the entire Jewish civil law. Rather, it is to remind you that God’s law has never been solely about personal morality; it also requires that we work toward the creation of a just society where the rights of the poor and vulnerable are protected.
Today at St. Margaret’s we gather to give thanks for all the blessings we have received from God. Moses encourages us to cultivate this habit. We ought to verbalise this as often as possible – both to God and to others. So let me encourage you to be intentional about growing the habit of thankfulness. My observation, over thirty years in pastoral ministry, is that people who make thankfulness a habit are happier people who enjoy their lives more.
But the other side of thankfulness is to show our gratitude by making sure others also enjoy the fruits of prosperity. Today at St. Margaret’s we’re doing this by our offering of non-perishable food items for the Food Bank. We’re also doing it by our special offering today for the work of World Vision’s Cambodia Trauma Recovery Centre.
But of course it can’t end there. We’re encouraged in the Scriptures to move through our lives with our eyes wide open, ready to see the needs of others and look for ways to help them – not just in our community, but in the world at large as well. This is another way we show our thankfulness to God for all the blessings we have received.
Prosperity can be a blessing, but we have to handle it carefully. We have to remember where we have come from; we have to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we have to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, we have to learn to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being poisoned by it! May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us to use what has been entrusted to us according to the will of God.
Cross-posted at Brutally Honest.