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s124g12  Sunday 12   24/6/2012

'have you still no faith?'   Mark 4.40

Despite all that the disciples had witnessed, it seems they still didn't have faith, such that Jesus himself marvelled.   We ought to take heart when we are assailed by doubts, when we haven't seen like the disciples had.   Of course, Jesus was also surprised that the orthodox and the devout didn't have faith either.   Jesus found faith in those outside, those who hadn't seen, those who weren't following.   He found faith in the woman who touched the hem of his garment despite her 'uncleanness', in the centurion with the sick boy.   Indeed he goes out of his way to say to these people 'your faith has made you whole', not my power or my divinity.  It seems that faith is inversely proportional to knowledge of God and Jesus.   It seems the more orthodox and devout, the more direct knowledge of Jesus, the less faith.   Indeed faith seems proportional to how grounded we are rather than the inverse, to how much we devote our lives to 'heavenly' or 'spiritual' things.  

This, of course, begs the question why the church spends so much of her time defining orthodoxy and devotion and commending those who know Jesus as ‘their personal Lord and Saviour?‘   Personally, this implies that it is quite likely that I have less faith than someone who doesn’t go to church like I do, read the bible like I do, pray like I do.

Recently we have been reading the story of the occupation of the promised land recounted in Joshua, and I noticed, for the first time, the sin of coveting.   When I have considered coveting, the last of the 10 commandments, I have assumed that it is about envying my rich neighbour's possessions.   Now I recognise that living a life of envy is to live a life of unhappiness, which is certainly not God’s will, nor is it desirable.   But envying someone else’s possessions (or coveting one's own) doesn’t seem to warrant instant death, such as happened to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.   Joshua in the OT and Peter in the new, tells us that it is a religious sin.   It is taking the goods of someone else, even a foreigner, which are devoted to God.   Joshua 6.18, 7.21

So it is not an unfortunate personality trait, nor a breach of morals, it is theologically evil.

It is clear that the sin of coveting was a particular sin of the ancient people of God, for Isaiah says: ‘Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry; I struck them, I hid and was angry; but they kept turning back to their own ways.’   Isaiah 57.17  

When I think of those people who we are told God killed, there are the sons of Judah, Er and Onan, the sons of Eli the priest, Hophni and Phineas and the son of King David born of Bathsheba.   It is significant that each of these had reason to consider themselves entitled.   While we are not told the reason why God considered Er wicked, Onan treated his brother’s foreign wife with contempt, Hophni and Phineas contemptuously treated the offerings of the people as their own and David conspired to have his faithful servant Uriah killed in order to legitimise his relationship with Uriah's wife.

So it begins to make me suspicious that we don’t hear anything about coveting within the church.  I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon about the sin of coveting, and neither can Mary. 

Taking the goods of someone else, goods which belong to God seem to me to point to other peoples' souls, their self-esteem, their natural dignity.   Other people belong to God no less than we, as 'christians', as people of faith, do.

The example of Ananias and Sapphira tells us that we can covet things that belong to us, so we can covet our 'faith' as if it belonged to us alone, rather than a gift of God, meant to be shared.

And I begin to wonder if the reason Jesus didn’t find faith in the orthodox and the devout, as well as in the disciples, was that he didn’t confuse faith with coveting.   Jesus saw particularly clearly the sanctified selfishness, arrogance, blindness and inertia which the orthodox and the devout counted as faith.   He saw the sanctified selfishness and confronted it by his own mode of life and teaching.   Jesus had to continue to confront sanctified selfishness in the disciples throughout his ministry.   It was the disciples who wanted to keep Jesus to themselves, to keep children away from him, to send the Canaanite woman away (Mat 15), who argued over who was the greatest, and who were scandalised when Jesus talked about the way of the Cross.

Indeed Jesus was killed by the orthodox and the devout because he confronted their covetousness by associating with the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners.

And to suggest that Jesus died on the Cross for my sin and to bring me salvation is no less covetous.  

I have reflected in times past the propensity of some 'evangelicals' to challenge others rather than to love others.   'Love' has dropped out of their vocabulary almost entirely, as has covetousness.    It is said: 'attack is the best form of defence' and I begin to realise that this is a tactic of those who think that they can conceal their little faith as they challenge rather than love others.  So also the propensity of some 'evangelicals' to focus entirely on sexual sins (of course, of others) is a neat way of avoiding focussing on the evil of their own religious covetousness.

The sin of covetousness goes some way to counteract the wholesale destruction of lives as the ancient people of God took possession of the promised land, and also some way in counteracting the rampant 'prosperity gospel' of some evangelists.   It is the besetting sin of all religious of all religions.   It is the reason that those outside the church are content to remain there, for they, like Jesus, see the faith of some within the church for the covetousness that it really is.   They are right to despise us for it.

The fact that those I detailed above, those who considered themselves entitled to covet other's goods and treat them with contempt, suffered death, for me, for once, puts some sense into the substitutionary theory of the atonement.   It is because of covetousness of the religious that they deserved death, so that death of Jesus on the Cross was ‘necessary’.    Tt was Saul's covetousness that made him consider himself entitled to persecute others.   The risen Christ meets him on that road to Damascus and tells Saul he is persecuting him.   He is saved from covetousness!   So we are saved from covetousness not to allow us to be covetous.

And surely this world would be a better place without covetousness in the name of God.   It would certainly be a happier place for all, rather than a world without gays, lesbians, people of other faiths and people of no faith!   This is a kingdom worth working for, worth risking one's life for, and worth enduring the ridicule of the orthodox and the devout.   For there are a multitude of people who work for, risk their lives for and endure ridicule for a world without religious covetousness who wouldn't, on principle, darken the doors of the church.

So the question Jesus posed to the disciples in that boat when things got rough, is posed equally to us.   Is our faith really covetousness in an elegant disguise?

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