The Love of Money and Other Idols

Categories: Sermons

The Love of Money and Other Idols


Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Jesus full of the Holy Spirit crossed from the river into the wilderness between the water and the city. In that place, Jesus dwelled for forty days. The number “40” usually represents a period of testing in the bible, a time to be endured, like forty years wandering in the desert. Now Jesus entered into the wilderness filled with the Holy Spirit. You would think he would be going out there to get ready for the Spirit to come, but no. The Spirit was already there.

What happens? The devil pops up. The Greek word is “diabolos” meaning the devil but also the accuser, the slanderer, the calumniator. By the way, when the definition of a word includes another word like “calumniator” the definition is rather unhelpful. So the devil is there. Is he accusing? No. Is he slandering? Not really. Is he calumniating? Who knows? Actually, calumniating simply means maliciously slandering, so the dictionary folks are just getting fancily redundant.

The devil pops up and talks to Jesus. Jesus, out there in the wilderness, hungry and alone. We do not know what it looks like. Was it hot like a desert? Was it a windswept hillside? And what was it like at night? What was it like to be out there for forty days with only the devil for company?

Jesus was tempted. Not much of a surprise, being hungry all that time. And what does the devil have to say? You are hungry, make some bread. If you are the Son of God, tell the rocks to become bread for you. What is the sense in going hungry? Jesus responds, “One does not live by bread alone.” This is a reference to the Book of Deuteronomy – Jesus is dueling with the devil using lines from scripture.

Next the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. Worship me and all of these will be yours. All the glory, all the honor, all the power, if you just bend your knee to me. To this Jesus says, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” Neither hunger nor vanity serves to tempt Jesus.

The devil then picks up Jesus and places him at the top of the Temple. The devil suggests that Jesus throw himself down from that height so that angels will come and bear him up. To this Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord God to the test.”

The editor in me wonders at the order of temptations. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to place that temptation about falling to the ground second followed by the third temptation, the big finish, the one about ruling over the world? It seems to be the greater temptation. But actually it is not.

The first temptation is about hunger. It is a bodily temptation, a natural and daily concern. Jesus was out in the desert to fast, so he had chosen to give up eating for that time. The second temptation was about power. Be the king, be in charge. Everything would be in your hands, as long as you were willing to bow down before another.

The third temptation up on the Temple is more subtle. Throw yourself off that holy place so that angels might bear you down softly to earth. It seems like nonsense, a fool’s temptation, and we know Jesus was anything but a fool. So why did the devil propose something that was doomed from the start? Maybe it was a mistake, but I do not think so.

Hunger is an immediate and obvious temptation. You are hungry, so eat something. The desire for power is a different temptation. Wouldn’t it be great if I were king of the world? Everyone bowing down to me. It was a devil’s bargain, quite literally, but more than a few men and women would have chosen to sign on that particular dotted line. Jesus did not.

The third temptation was also about power. It was about power that Jesus already had. The devil said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here…” Why? Because you can. Because you have the power and can use it however you see fit. And who would care, you being the Son of God and all? The second temptation was about the desire for power. The third temptation was about the careless use of power. Power for the sake of it, for the show of it.

Just because.

Paul once wrote that the love of money is the root of all evil. It was in the First Letter to Timothy. Paul said, “[T]he love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

In the time of Jesus, money had value, it had inherent worth. It was silver or gold. The fact that it was a coin was in one sense a representation not of the value of the money but that the kingdom warranted that there was a certain amount of silver or gold embedded in the coin. Money was a commodity, like wheat or rice or beef. You were looking for the silver, not a picture of the emperor.

Eventually money took on a representative capacity, either because it could be traded somewhere for gold or silver or because it was a promise made by the government. Money becomes a collective belief that piles of special paper are worth something. Money may soon be little more than a collective belief that a computer somewhere contains information about us.

Money represents the ability to act. To buy something. Think about your daily life. Do you need money? Do you need actual money or what money is used to get? I need breakfast, lunch and dinner. I need a roof over my head and clothes on my back. I need various items that are more conveniently attained through the use of money. We could go around swapping chickens for shoes, but it is often hard to make change. Bartering is not easy when you are looking for mismatched values, a jacket for an apple, a doctor’s visit for some clean drinking water. Our society has become dependent upon money as an easier means for transforming our labor into value that is useful and portable.

Labor is another concern with money. Where does our money come from? It is from the value placed upon labor performed or goods exchanged. Money endures long after the work was done or the object bought and sold. Someone who inherits money may be receiving the value of labor from decades before, of property obtained in another lifetime.

Money is a representation of value, but it can become the object of desire. Not just because I could buy something with that money but because the money represents power itself.

Think back to the devil in the wilderness and his three temptations in a row. First there was hunger. It does not get any more basic than hunger and thirst. Food and water keep us alive and money is a means to that end. You could get a drink out of a lake or river, assuming the water was clean enough. You could hunt down some food, fish in the ocean, or bag a few tasty squirrels. That was how human life proceeded for thousands of years. A daily struggle to eat and to drink, to survive one more precarious day.

As society grew more complex, with fixed places of agriculture, there needed to be a way of transporting harvests from place to place. Not just the physical wheat and rice and beef, but the value implied by there being wheat and rice and beef somewhere. That implied value was money. This was a move away from direct application of effort as people who dealt with money, like merchants and bankers, were not doing the underlying work. Money was and is a generic substitute, generally useful but not itself the item desired.

That leads to the second temptation, the desire for power. To be in charge, to have people obey you. That desire for power was historically handled through force. And force is still a means for obtaining power, but money is also the means by which force is manifested and acquired. The power of kings even in the time of Jesus was frequently about money. The power of kings today is almost entirely about money. So money represents not only the power to acquire but in many ways power itself.

Now the third temptation, Jesus up on the top of the Temple. Hey Jesus, wouldn’t it be great if you jumped off? You know you would be fine. The angels would come to your rescue. That would be a sight to see. Why not? I double dare ya. And you being the Son of God and all, it would be okay. You have the power, so use it.

These passages from the Bible serve a purpose. They explain the resilience of Jesus in the face of temptation. Resistance to hunger and the demands of the flesh. Resistance to vanity and the desire for power over others. But what about the third temptation? If we assume that his power was already there, why not use it? Why not get a piggyback ride from an angel? It sounds fun.

What is power for?

Think about how Jesus lived his life. He taught, he healed. He traveled around caring for his companions and the people he came across. The power he possessed was not for feeding himself. Notice that the feeding of the multitudes was other people. The power was not in order to become a king. Jesus repeatedly states that he is not to be a king of the world. The power that he had at his disposal was not for his own pleasure or self-aggrandizement and certainly not for taking joyrides on cherubs. The power of Jesus had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with others. The power to care for others.

And money is a form of power. The power to survive, the power to preserve. The power to live and to prosper. But money is not always just for those purposes. It is the power to enjoy and to beautify, to enrich and to indulge. And it is also the power to speak, to speak more loudly and noticeably than others. It is the power to influence and even to control. It is the power to act and in many ways it is the power to rule.

Why do any of that? Surviving and living, preserving and even prospering make sense. Those are needs, needs rather than wants. Enjoying one’s self, buying and experience beautiful things, indulging in fine foods and wines and other luxuries. Those are wants rather than needs. Those have nothing to do with hunger and everything to do with desire. And eventually such temptation moves even beyond desire, with temptation emerging into the realm of staving off boredom. Staving off boredom in a world that knows hunger and thirst.

The love of money is the root of many evils because loving money, and loving the things that money can buy, sometimes obscures other love. The love of money is not merely the need for money, for its convenience. But need and desire can blend. Meeting the basics is followed by a few dollars in the bank, a small cushion for hard times, a little nest egg. The question becomes how much is enough. Who needs a billion eggs in their nest? Anyone?

Before the sermon, I invited you all to think about someone you love or have loved. A person who mattered to you in some meaningful way. I do not know who you thought of, whether it was one or two or more people. I do not know why you love them. I then asked you to light a candle, a small act in recognition of that love. It is not a big deal, not a bonfire roaring. A little flame, some warmth in that moment.

Think again about that person. Maybe you remember something you did together. Something he or she said to you, something big, something small. I do not have any idea what you are thinking, but I hope it is lovely.

When Jesus went out into the wilderness, the Holy Spirit was upon him. He did not go there to find it, but carried the spirit with him. There in the wilderness he was tempted and he did not succumb to temptation. I do not know what Jesus was thinking either. I know what he said, how he sparred with the devil with scripture. I know he was hungry yet he did not eat.

Jesus had the power, we are told, to do what the devil was asking. A man of many powers yet he did not use that power. He did not use it to impress the devil or to take away Jesus’ own suffering. I do not know what Jesus was thinking but I do know that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was filled with the spirit of God and did not give in to the many temptations before him.

Our middle hymn was a short chant, Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas deus ibi est. Where there is charity and love, God is to be found. Some believe that the Holy Spirit is no more and no less than the love of God present in the world. The love of God present in our lives.

When I think about that love, it exists in between. It exists in between two people, in between one and the other, in and among family and friends, invisible lines binding us together. Love has to be in between, it is the only place love can exist. It exists in between, whether it is loving one another or loving God. Love can never be ours alone.

So when we consider the Holy Spirit in our lives, the spirit of love, the love of God, it is not about what that person on the other end is worth to us. It is not about what I can get out of him or her. If the lines that bind us have to do with a sense of worth, the line is not drawn between the people. That connection extends from our hearts to something else – some-THING. The person in that dynamic is the means to an end, they are the money. There are relationships like that, but they are not about love – more about the second and third temptations. Power, desire, and even boredom.

Today, Valentine’s Day, can be an interesting example of this connection or lack thereof. If a connection is about candy and flowers, about dinner and a show, about orders and deliveries, then it is not about the person on the other end. The expectation attaches to the object not to the person. That is not love any more than demanding something from God suggests that we love God. That expectant sort of relationship is not a little candle fondly lit.

That is not to say Valentine’s Day is a complete waste of time. If the connection is about the person, about the in between rather than the what’s in it for me, and one or both of you want to show your love in some celebratory way, then by all means look to candy and flowers and perhaps dinner and a show. I hear Pippen’s in town.

Think about those little candles again. The light and the warmth. A small gesture representative of something greater. The love we have for one another is not in any one gesture, not in any one moment or day, not in any one conversation or any one argument. Love is the sum total of those candles and conversations, those enduring connections woven together into a tapestry of a relationship. No single bouquet of flowers will save or ruin that tapestry. But flowers are nice.

Love is in the thoughts we harbor, the warmth we feel, the light we seek out for, from and within that other person. Love is not a Valentine’s Day card, even though cards can be nice. Love is the feeling you have searching for that card, selecting those flowers, cooking a special meal, or just holding on to someone’s hand. It is in the thought and the sharing. Once, twice, again and again, the habit of loving.

Love is not a means to an end, it is the end in itself. Love is the mission and the goal, the horizon sought and the journey’s end. Like money, love represents the labor and the care we put into something. But unlike money, love is not there to be traded for anything else. I do not know who would trade love for anything. Amen.

Author: Rev. Mark J.T. Caggiano

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