Greed is putting one’s trust in accumulation, rather than provision. More specifically, it is trusting our ability to gather in for ourselves, rather than trusting God’s capability to provide us with what we need. In order to illustrate what I mean, I thought we might return to the story of the Israelites, who had just stuck their camp at the base of Mount Sinai in order to continue their journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom that awaited them in the Promised Land, and who seemed suddenly to conclude that having their daily needs miraculously met by a God who loved them was kind of a drag.
“Hey guys, remember back in Egypt, when we had barbecues and stuff?” they asked. “And we had cucumbers and melons, and leeks and garlic, and all kinds of succulent goodies? Man… it kinda makes me wish we’d never left Egypt in the first place.” Now, I don’t mean to diminish the Israelites’ situation. They were, essentially, stuck eating the same thing every single day, three meals a day. And perhaps God could have seen fit to release a line of… flavored mannas or something. Banana manna. One that tasted like rum punch and coconut, called cabana manna. Or what about “Tropicana manna?” Or one that tasted like charbroiled beef steak, called Montana manna? Or one that tasted like crawfish étouffée called Louisiana manna.
Because according to scripture, for a miracle food, manna really didn’t taste like much. The New International Version of the Bible says, “They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil.” So… manna-coti, then?
We’ve already talked about how the Israelites’ nostalgia for the good old days in Egypt, when they enjoyed a little variety in their diets—slaves who enjoyed a little variety in their diets, let’s remember—was an obstacle to their living with an attitude of gratitude. ‘Cause after all, this really was—no kidding—food which graciously rained down from heaven. There was never a shortage. Everyone was always completely satisfied. Their needs were met.
But eventually, they didn’t just want their needs met, they wanted what they wanted. The classic translation of the opening line of the twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is quite poetic, but it can lead us to a minor misunderstanding. The Hebrew word at the end of that phrase doesn’t mean “want” in quite the way we’re thinking about it presently. It really means “need.” What the Psalmist is extolling is that the Lord is his Shepherd, therefore he will never be “in need.” The same is already entirely true for the Israelites. They have their daily needs met.
We all know the next bit of the story as well: God gets angry at the Israelites for complaining and declares to Moses that the people are going to get so much meat from him they’re going to have to eat it until its coming out of their noses. “You want meat? I’ll give you meat!” he says. And he asks a great question that I hope will stick with you: “Is the Lord’s arm too short?” That’s a brilliant question because I love the imagery. If God can’t do something, presumably it’s because his arm is too short. It’s just too far for the Lord to reach, right? And so he’s going to feed the Israelites meat until they choke on it. He’s going to prove just how long the Lord’s arm is; that is to say, he’s going to prove just how capable God is of providing for their every need.
And then he sends clouds of quail toward the camp. Now, depending on how you translate the Hebrew one could either envision so many quail descending upon the camp that they literally pile up in drifts, or you could imagine them hovering (or at least flying around in circles) about three feet off the ground. Scholars argue over which is the best translation, but to argue over this is to miss the larger point. God didn’t just send the Israelites on a turkey shoot and say, “Good luck!” He made the quail so easy to gather a child could do it. Either they were piled up so that people were practically stepping on them, or they were flying around at waist height, in which case all you had to do was open a sack and wait for them to fly right in! Either way, you’ve got plenty of quail to eat and it has required nothing of you whatsoever. Just like with the Manna, with which God showered the people with bread from heaven, now the Israelites were divinely pelted with poultry.
Now, here’s where we finally get to my present point. What was the reaction of the Israelites? They went out and they gathered quail of course! They gathered quail all day and all night for a day and a half. And when they were done, the least anyone had gathered was SIXTY. BUSHELS. OF QUAIL.
SIXTY. BUSHELS. OF QUAIL!
The Bible says they had to spread them out all over the camp—well, yeah, you think?! Sixty bushels or more per person… they’ve gotta go somewhere!
What does this tell us about the Israelites? It tells us that they trust their capability to gather more than the Lord’s capability to provide. They put their trust in accumulation, rather than in provision. The Israelites were greedy, instead of grateful.
The Pharisees, Matthew’s favorite foil for Jesus in his Gospel — probably because they were the biggest detractors of Jesus-followers living in Antioch at the time of the Gospel’s writing — laid a trap for Jesus with a little help from their enemies, the Herodians. The thing you have to understand is that the Herodians and the Pharisees were political polar opposites. The Pharisees thought it was unlawful for the Jews to participate in Roman customs in any way (in this instance, to carry Roman coinage because of the graven images on it) and really just wanted to push the Roman occupation out of their territory altogether. The Herodians, on the other hand, were determined to accommodate the Romans, because they wanted to curry favor with their oppressors in order to get ahead in society. These two factions were so diametrically opposed, it would be like the Tea Party teaming up with Hillary Clinton.
There’s a plant in the crowd: someone who asks Jesus the question, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not.” Jesus could smell the trap a mile away, if for no other reason than that the crowd was full of both Pharisees and Herodians! Each faction would have wanted a different answer. The Herodians wanted to hear “Yes,” because they wanted to curry favor with the Romans. The Pharisees wanted to hear “No,” because they believed that to pay taxes to Caesar was a violation of Mosaic Law. On which side would Jesus land?
Before we get to his answer, let’s all have a little confession time. As Americans (or at the very least as Westerners), there’s something deep inside us that wants to balk at the idea that what we have—what we’ve earned—doesn’t belong to us. We worked for it. We earned it. We know best how to spend it. That’s what we tell ourselves. Heck, we Americans even went to war over the offense of taxation without representation, didn’t we? So we also have a vested interest in Jesus’ answer. Couldn’t Jesus give us a valid excuse not to pay taxes? Couldn’t he make conscientious objectors out of his followers?
“Does anyone have a coin?” Jesus asks in response. (And let me stop right there to point out that Jesus apparently didn’t have a single coin on him! The King of kings. The Lord of lords. He hasn’t one thin dime on his person.) He must have gone through life feeling the way I do when I try to shop at Aldi only to realize I don’t have a quarter in the car!
What happens next is… well… awkward. For the Pharisees, it’s “that moment when” their political opponent asks for a coin you’re not supposed to have, and you pull one out and give it to him. Oops! After all that talk about Roman coinage being an affront to God, here they are in the courtyard of the Temple handing a Denarius to Jesus. Without having to say anything at all, Jesus has already trapped them in their hypocrisy.
But Jesus is the consummate showman, and he has an audience! So he looks at the Denarius as though he’s never seen one before. “Huh… Who is this on the coin? Why, there seems to be someone’s portrait engraved upon it! Whose image is this?” And the word “image” in Greek is icon. Whose icon is on this coin? But we all know—and the Pharisees would have known even better—that asking about the “image” had deep theological implications, am I right? Because we all know—and the Pharisees would have known even better—that we are all made in God’s image! “But who’s image is this?” Jesus asks.
And someone begrudgingly admits, “It’s Caesar’s.”
And Jesus responds, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”
And now this is that moment when it dawns on us that Jesus isn’t talking about taxes anymore. Give to Caesar whatever he’s claimed by putting his own image on it. Give to God whatever God has claimed by creating it in God’s own image. This is bigger than taxes. This is bigger than money. This is a question of what belongs to God.
And if you ask me what belongs to God, I’ll respond by asking you, “What doesn’t?”
See, we’re all a lot like the Israelites. We don’t trust God to provide for us, and so we hoard what we get. We trust our capacity to accumulate more than God’s capacity to provide. We prove by our actions that we’re afraid God’s arm is too short. And then, once we’ve gathered all that we can unto ourselves — no less than 60 bushels full, more than we could possibly need — we brashly argue that no one, certainly not the government, has any right to it. “I earned this,” we say. Which, from God’s perspective, essentially means, “I stood outside with a sack about yay high and waited for God’s blessings to fly right into it.”
We didn’t make the quail in our lives. We didn’t hunt them, we didn’t trap them, we didn’t even lure them. They just showed up in our lives as a sign of God’s abundant provision. And the quail isn’t even something we need. God had that covered all along—the manna was always sufficient. No, God provided not only what the Israelites needed, but also what they wanted. And still, in their greed—in their lack of trust that God would continue to provide for them, they hoarded the gift, and it plagued them. It plagued them! And so that place was called, in English, “The graves of the craving.” Unsatisfied with needs, the Israelites complained for wants. And their greed led to their graves.
What they needed—what we need—is an attitude of gratitude. Greed is a great obstacle to gratitude. We have a hard time participating in God’s abundant generosity to the world, because we cling to God’s blessings. We hoard them. We gather sixty bushels of blessings all for ourselves, and as all those intended blessings begin to pile up and go bad on us, they begin to plague us, because we did not receive them with the right attitude. And that attitude is this: everything we receive in life is a gift from God. We may feel like we went out there, waist-deep in blessings, and had to do “all the gathering ourselves.” We may feel like it was a lot of work to just stand there with our bags open, like trick-or-treating children, and waiting for God to drop quails right in for us. But who do we think we’re kidding? All that we have, all that we are—created in God’s image—is God’s gift to us. Jesus says, “Let Caesar have his little coins.” What belongs to God is far, far greater.
Ask yourself, “What belongs to God?” And then find a way to put it all back into God’s hands.