II Kings 5:15-16, 19-27
Money itself is not bad. It is a convenient method of getting things done, and unless you live in a society that works by bartering, money is a necessity of life. I cannot go up to the window at Dairy Queen and offer the girl at the counter two peppers and a zucchini for a chocolate blizzard. Using money, a commonly-accepted standard of exchange, makes it possible for us to regulate the relative worth of physical commodities, people’s work, their skills, their time, and so forth. Whether it is hard currency or credit on the books, quarters or bitcoin, it makes our interactions far simpler and smoother than they would be if we were exchanging a can of sardines for five minutes of internet access.
The problems start when money becomes a tool for manipulation instead of simplification, for controlling relationships instead of making them easier. Power and prestige push in. That doesn’t happen because of money, but it shows up in the way money can be misused.
Today’s Bible reading picks up on last week’s. Naaman the Syrian had traveled to Israel to find healing for the leprosy that he contracted. After some preliminary difficulties centering on his own pride, he finally did as the prophet Elisha directed him and washed seven times in the Jordan River and was cured. So far so good.
He went back to thank Elisha.
“Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.’ But he said, ‘As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!’ He urged him to accept, but he refused.” [II Kings 5:15-16]
Elisha himself had done nothing. He had simply passed on directions from God. He certainly had not cured Naaman himself. That was God’s doing, and God’s alone. To accept a gift, which to be fair probably was meant as a gift, was coming too close to looking like accepting payment. That would have been tantamount to putting himself in the place of God.
Now, here I have to step onto uncomfortable territory. We’ve got a church to run, here. We have electric bills and water bills to pay. I also collect a salary and get good benefits. I am very grateful for that, and aware of where the money in the budget comes from. So I’m going to make a distinction here, and I believe it’s a valid one, but something to keep a close eye on. That is to say that there’s a difference between supporting the human work that goes into an organization and somehow thinking that God’s work is in any way bought or sold.
Since this comes up in connection with a story about a healing, I’ll point out that doctors are far better at openly addressing such matters than clergy. More than once I have heard a doctor remark, “God does the healing and the doctor collects the fee.” Hawkeye Pierce even said that on MASH one time. In mental health circles, there’s the old joke that says a neurotic builds a castle in the air, a psychotic lives there, and a psychiatrist collects the rent.
Elisha’s servant Gehazi didn’t see what God had done for Naaman. He saw what Naaman could do for him.
“But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance, Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, the man of God, thought, ‘My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something out of him.’” [II Kings 5:19-20]
Which he did. He made up a story about how the money was needed for the ministry, but it was really for himself.
Gehazi has many successors, some of whom make him look like a total bumbler. Kenneth Copeland is a TV preacher who bought Tyler Perry’s private jet. I guess he was being financially prudent, even frugal, by buying a secondhand plane instead of a new one. “He made that airplane so cheap for me, I couldn’t help but buy it.” That’s a direct quote from an interview I watched online when a reporter ran up to him to ask about it. The whole interchange is well worth watching. Just don’t do it on a full stomach. He goes into amazing convolutions about why he cannot be ready to preach if he flies commercial. He also admits that he uses the plane to visit his vacation homes. (That’s “homes” with an ‘s’.)
Elisha called Gehazi to account. When we do our job, the religious community as a whole does the same. It’s only by honest recognition of how things can and do go wrong, of how people’s vulnerability can be and far too often is misused, that we can maintain any kind of credibility with the world as a whole – but most importantly before God, who looks into hearts and minds.
In our day the so-called “prosperity gospel” preachers teach that if you give them money, that it will be a sign of faith and God will therefore bless you with more and more wealth. That appeals to the desperation of exactly the people who have the least, and who therefore feel that they have nothing to lose. It’s the same dynamic that puts the majority of lottery tickets into the hands of the poor.
Naaman could easily afford the money that Gehazi took from him. What he could not afford, and what Gehazi’s greed took advantage of, was his newly-developing understanding of how God works. Elisha’s refusal of his gift highlighted that you don’t need to buy God’s goodness, and that it isn’t ever for sale anyway. Gehazi’s little scam threatened to undermine that. The Bible doesn’t say what happened to the money. I hope it was sent back. What it does say is that God had shown Elisha what had happened and Elisha knew enough not to sweep it under the carpet.
God bless auditors and accountants! Say what you will about denominational structures and organizational bureaucracies. They make mistakes. They can become creaky and cumbersome. Yet they provide oversight and answerability that does more than just keep people honest out of fear that they might get caught. Even when they do only an average job, they keep God’s people focused on real ministry and help hold greed at a distance.
Money is not a bad thing. Greed is. John Wesley put it well when he said, “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” The Bible, of course, puts it best of all:
“Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” [I Timothy 6:6-8]