Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fattened for the Slaughter

I was recommended by a friend to purchase a specific audio version of the NKJ version of the Bible, so I did. One of the things I learned from listening to it was that the chapters, section breaks and individual verses formatted into the Bible, not to mention the long-winded run-on sentences popular in the New Testament (much like this one), have caused me to lose something when reading the Bible. The audio version just flies along and you're forced to hear the context of each topic in its entirety without stopping. Yeah, I miss a lot of the details that I get from reading, but it paints a better overall picture of what purpose the author is trying to portray as each book is read.

That said, I was listening to James today and something stood out to me in chapter 5 that I didn't notice before. It begins with:
1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! 2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days.

So some rich people were having some problems, to say the least. Clearly, these were people that were leaning on their riches rather than on God and were pretty impressed with themselves, but those riches were clearly temporary. God states what He thinks of such behavior in verse 4:
4 Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.
The word "Sabaoth" is a Greek-rendered version of the Hebrew word for "hosts". Hosts, in the context of the Old Testament, were also referred to as the armies of God. To paraphrase, "God has heard about your treacherous behavior; prepare for a whoopin'."

The next verse has something interesting in it that gets discussed in the first three verses, but this stands out to me because of the imagery it presents:
5 You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter.
Just think about that for a second... Cattle probably think they've really hit the jackpot when they enter the feed lot. Food is constantly given to them anytime they want it. Just eat and eat and eat and eat for weeks on end... Nummy! Then one day, it's time to take a walk. "Oh, okay, I'd rather keep eating, but I probably do need the exercise seeing as how I put on 100+ lbs in the last few months." Next thing it knows, it's corralled down a few chutes with a few other fattened friends and... Well, the rest is obvious.

After verse 6, which I'll get to below, the audio version of the Bible kept on reading to verse 7, which is separated from this first section using a different header in the text.
7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. 8 You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Notice how it starts with "Therefore", which clearly shows it to be a continuation of the proceeding section on rich people's attitudes and actions. In previous chapters, James is admonishing the Church to have a humble attitude and to tame their tongues. Here, he tells them that their materialism--and really, this section describes anyone who's overly materialistic, not just the richest among us--should be replaced with patience... Patience in waiting for the good gifts God has in store for us. Don't constantly seek to be better than the Joneses or add to our pocketbooks, our business "empire", our collections or our toys. Ecclesiastes 5:10-17 has an eye-opening view of this kind of pursuit of wealth.
10 He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver;
Nor he who loves abundance, with increase.
This also is vanity.
11 When goods increase,
They increase who eat them;
So what profit have the owners
Except to see them with their eyes?
12 The sleep of a laboring man is sweet,
Whether he eats little or much;
But the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep.
13 There is a severe evil which I have seen under the sun:
Riches kept for their owner to his hurt.
14 But those riches perish through misfortune;
When he begets a son, there is nothing in his hand.
15 As he came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return,
To go as he came;
And he shall take nothing from his labor
Which he may carry away in his hand.
16 And this also is a severe evil—
Just exactly as he came, so shall he go.
And what profit has he who has labored for the wind?
17 All his days he also eats in darkness,
And he has much sorrow and sickness and anger.
The point is that the numbers we see in our bank account can easily come to represent power and security we think we possess through material goods. Clearly, according to the above passage, those pursuits are empty and temporary. We've seen enough MCIs, Enrons, Bernie Madoffs to know that's true. They hurt us because they take our eyes away from the One who can give both riches and joy in the life to come. James exhorts that we must patiently wait for God to provide what we need when He finally sees that we're ready for it. "Establish your heart" in the humbling fact that God knows what's best for us and when.

Haughty materialism is not an effective path to living a godly life. It's fun while it lasts, but it leads us to a not-so-fun judgment. It has caused many people enamored with their power and wealth to treat "lesser" people with disdain and disrespect while employing an attitude of wishing such foolish, "lesser" people would simply go away--once they're done with the gardening, of course. Note verse 6:
6 You have condemned, you have murdered the just; he does not resist you.
Do you think the rich people James was speaking to or about were murdering their servants? Surely in the world, that was occurring! However, I think another point that can be made here that applies to us non-murderers is that selfishly acquiring objects can easily lead to a spirit of murder--that is, wanting someone to cease existing for reasons of hatred or disdain. Does this seem like a bit of a stretch?
9 Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door!
James warns the Church to stop griping about fellow brethren--something materialistic individuals are guilty of--due to vanity (over what we own), jealousy (over what they own) or a competitive spirit ("I'll get the best of you!"). Grumbling against another potential son of God is a spirit of murder (Matt. 5:21-22) and James wants us to be aware of that attitude and destroy it. I will demonstrate how materialism translates into a spirit of murder by destroying an entire society a little bit later.

So who can we to look to as an example of the kind of conduct James is talking about?
10 My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.
The prophets patiently endured some awful hardships and tests brought on directly by their work with God. Yet they are esteemed by God as blessed. And let's face it, when we consider today what they went through (peruse Hebrews 11 just to review a few), they've likely earned our respect, too. Righteous Job lost everything he had except his wife and some not-so-consolatory friends. Yet after a hard-learned lesson, he received double what he had before, yet had the godly character and wisdom built to appreciate and share it even with those same friends afterward.

God does not want us to refrain from riches or success. Nor does God despise us for desiring and working towards getting material things. But He does want us to build and utilize His holy characteristics, including a meek and thankful spirit, as we do. We follow His lead in our labors because His character is the very essence of joy, peace, quality and richness. And He is well-acquainted with what happens to our desires when He is removed from the picture. They mutate...

Materialism without God's character is pure selfishness, and selfishness leads to poverty and death. This is outright suicidal when you think about it. Yet God wants to save us from death, so He wants us to destroy selfishness in our labors. Note the shift in behavior He requires in Ephesians 4:28:
28 Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.
"Hey, burglar-dude! Stop robbing Quik-E-Marts, get a job and give it to the poor!" Much like tithing, finding a job, working hard at it and giving of that money to the poor seems counter-intuitive to the foolish. "How am I supposed to make money by giving it away?" the Burglar-Dude asks. This is uncommon sense, really. Successful people always cite the characteristic of drive, hard work, resiliency, resourcefulness and perseverance as primary reasons they're successful, which is contained in the part about laboring in an honest manner. But being charitable adds to our labor God's spiritual law that we are to love our neighbor. Stealing simply reinforces lazy habits, hurts others in the process and promotes distrust among society.

There are many proverbs about dishonest scales and weights. Looking at the business world today shows thousands of corporations and individuals trying to shortcut, lie, misrepresent, scam and outright steal money and goods from others. Proverbs 30:15: "The leech has two daughters--Give and Give!" Those who engage in such practices have seen short-term gains, prompting other fools and simpletons to follow in their footsteps.*

*My favorite such story is the guy who's selling a video on how to make thousands of dollars a month FROM YOUR OWN HOME! In the video, he tells his customers--future millionaires, all of them--to make a video and commercial to sell others on how to make thousands of dollars a month FROM YOUR OWN HOME!

What will happen when we find out that products, services, business practices and ethics of those claiming to serve our best interests have been cheapened just for the sake of a quick buck? Sadly, that has already happened. These companies--not to mention the nations housing and, at times, protecting and supporting them--are beginning to fail due to distrust and grumbling by their customers and partners. All of society as we know it is crumbling beneath our feet and our destroyer is our own lust for more.

All of this from the selfish desire for more riches and material objects that God says are fleeting. "[Y]ou have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter." Indeed, it makes us wonder who is actually performing the slaughter--God or ourselves. Regardless, let's follow James' sound wisdom and seek a patient spirit in our labors and establish our hearts in His ways so that we may embrace God's bountiful riches in peace and joy in the time to come.

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