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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Remembering the Sabbath


Let me first apologize for not updating the blog over the past four weeks. For two weeks I was travelling, and upon returning I moved into a new apartment where I do not yet have an internet connection. I hope to get this remedied soon!

We now continue our series on the relevance of the Ten Commandments today with the Fourth Commandment, which reads thus:
“8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
There has been much disagreement within the church about the continuing role of the Sabbath. Adherents to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, like the Jewish religion, continue to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week. They point out that the basis of the Sabbath commandment was not something intrinsic to the Law of Moses (which has been fulfilled by the coming of Christ), but rather pointed back to Creation, and thus remains applicable forever.

Other Christians continue to observe the Sabbath but have changed it from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week. For these believers, Sunday has become the “Christian Sabbath” because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Mark 16:2; John 20:1). They follow the precedent of the early church in coming together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; Revelation 1:10).

Still other Christians believe that the Sabbath day has passed away as a strict, literal requirement. They believe that the spirit or underlying principle of the Sabbath is to regularly set aside time from the pursuits of daily business and worldly concerns to worship God and fellowship with God and other believers. However, they do not consider themselves bound to set this time aside on a particular day of the week, but rather to prioritize God on every day of the week. Many of these Christians still come together for a worship service on Sunday, if only for reasons of convenience and convention.

This non-literal view of the Sabbath commandment looks to Jesus’ own teachings and practices for support. Jesus infuriated some of the Jewish religious leaders of his day by healing the sick on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10-12; Luke 13:10-16; John 9:14-16), and allowing his followers to perform certain tasks on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8; John 5:9-16).

By the letter of the law, Jesus did break the Sabbath. He commanded a healed lame man to carry his mat into the city on the Sabbath, which was in direct contravention of the Law which prohibited carrying a burden through the city gates on the Sabbath (Jeremiah 17:21-24). The real purpose of this law, though, was to prevent commerce from taking place in the city on the Sabbath (see Nehemiah 13:15-22). Jesus argued that important tasks such as giving an ox a drink (Luke 13:15), pulling a sheep from a pit (Matthew 12:12) or circumcising a child (John 7:22-23) were allowed on the Sabbath, so “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” He provided a much-needed reform to the legalistic Sabbath practices of the Jewish religious leaders who were enforcing the law to unreasonable extremes. He urged us to keep the Sabbath in perspective: the Sabbath was made for man, and not the other way around (Mark 2:27).

However, Jesus’ novel interpretation of the Sabbath went beyond simply allowing exceptions for good deeds. In the case of his disciples’ picking corn on the Sabbath, his justification was that in Old Testament times, priests had broken the Sabbath in the Temple and been blameless, and that “One greater than the temple is here.” He also pointed out that the Father works continually, and therefore so does he (John 5:17). The key principle here was that “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus’ right to break the Sabbath derived from his divine authority. This gave him the right to set aside Sabbath Day restrictions for himself and his followers, and this is the basis for many Christians to claim today that the Sabbath restrictions are no longer in force.

Ezekiel’s prophecy of the age to come envisions Sabbath Day observance (Ezekiel 46:4), so it would be presumptuous to say that the Sabbath has been done away with. However, it must be noted that the Sabbath was hardly mentioned in the epistles of the New Testament, and even in the Book of Acts it comes up only when the apostles used it as an opportunity to preach to the Jews.

Paul’s only teaching about Sabbath observance is found in Colossians 2:16-17: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” This shows us that there should be tolerance for different Sabbath practices. It ought to be recognized that the principle of setting aside time at intervals to worship God and build up fellow believers is a good thing to do. The Sabbath commandment is not obsolete, but its observance is in spirit and not only in letter.

I want to wish a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all readers of this blog!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Blaspheming and Misusing the Name


In our last blog we discussed the second of the Ten Commandments (“You shall not make for yourself a carved image”), and how it appears irrelevant to modern Western citizens, but is in fact broken by most of us through, for example, our obsession with digital images with which we are willingly bombarded on a daily basis.

I suspect it would be hard to find a person who believes the Third Commandment is obsolete: “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7)

It is somewhat ironic that, even as belief in the biblical God and the Lord Jesus Christ have declined in popular culture over the past few decades, the use of their Name has remained steady. Exclamations of “Oh my God” (so commonplace that it now needs an acronym, OMG) and “Jesus Christ” fly from the lips of people who place little or no value on the Christian faith. I have never heard anyone exclaim “Oh Mohammed” or “Oh Buddha” or “Oh Vishnu” – it is consistently the founder of the Christian faith whose name is blasphemed. Maybe this is because Christians are generally a tolerant bunch and they can get away with it. Or maybe it is because they know, on some subconscious level, that Jesus is worthy of their attention. It is not unheard of for God’s enemies to inadvertently prophesy (John 11:49-52).

Let there be no doubt that to exclaim “Oh my God” or “Jesus Christ” in a moment of surprise or disgust, without any intention of actually invoking the Lord and his power, is blasphemy and a violation of the Third Commandment – an offence that God solemnly declared he will not leave unpunished. In fact, a form of blasphemy (speaking evil when confronted with the work of the Holy Spirit) is the only unforgivable sin, according to Jesus (Mark 3:28-29, on which this explanation). So it is not a subject to be taken lightly. However, exclamations of this kind are often a merely a bad habit that is difficult to break, and in my view they are not the worst way to break the Third Commandment.

If invoking the name of God or Jesus Christ in a meaningless or irreverent way is bad, then what about invoking the name of God or Jesus Christ in order to achieve evil motives? For example, falsely claiming to be a prophet or miracle worker in order to obtain wealth or fame. Or, using the Word of God to manipulate or extort people. Or, taking an oath in God’s name to make a lie sound convincing (Matthew 5:33-37). Or, going on a murderous Crusade and claiming a divine mandate to do so. These are all gross abuses of the divine name, and they are traps within which we as human beings can easily be ensnared.

There are still less blatant ways of committing this sin. Maybe we tried to behave righteously in order to impress a devout Christian girl. Maybe we volunteered for a church outreach program because we thought it would look good on our C.V. Maybe our studies of the Bible are focused on proving our own presumptions right rather than growing and correcting our errors. We may have done things that are good on the surface, but if we did them to advance our own interests rather than Christ’s, we have taken his name in vain.

If we Christians search ourselves, we are all guilty of taking the Lord’s name in vain on many occasions, whether in word, in deed or in motive. If we are keeping an honest scorecard, we are all 0 for 3 after considering the first three of the Ten Commandments.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Carving up the Second Commandment


In our last blog we referred to the Ten Commandments as the bedrock of morality for the ancient Israelites as well as (to some extent) modern Western society. We noted the attitude of a wealthy, religious Jew of Jesus’ day, who believed he had mastered the commandments: “All these I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20).

One of the threads of Jesus’ teaching ministry, later picked up by the apostles, was that no one masters the commandments. In fact, we all fail miserably. As Paul pointed out in Romans 7:9-13, the commandments are a standard of holiness which show us how sinful we are when we fail to keep them.

We looked at the first of the Ten Commandments in the last blog and saw that whenever we let something compete with God for our worship, prayer, gratitude and desire, we are putting other gods before God, and breaking the first commandment.

What about the second commandment? Exodus 20:4-6 reads thus:

“4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
It could be argued that this is actually an elaboration or clarification of the first commandment, which read simply, “You shall have no other gods before me” period. However, tradition has named it a separate commandment, hence the Ten Commandments, not the Nine Commandments. It is certainly in the same vein as the previous commandment, but focuses more on tangible, physical idols as opposed to gods of the imagination.

Once again, the knee-jerk reaction of a citizen of modern Western civilization may be, “Those primitive people and their silly carved idols.” This kind of thinking suggests that there is no risk that a modern, monotheistic Christian could violate this commandment. However, the truth is that we are a lot more engrossed in carved images than the ancients were. It is just that our methods of “carving” are a lot more refined – digital, in fact. Through the media, we view hundreds if not thousands of images daily. What effect do these images have upon us? Do we not model our way of speaking, dressing, and behaving after what we see in the media – TV, movies, magazines, Internet?

We may not literally bow down to carved images, but we spend a lot of time sitting in front of digital images and being transfixed by them, during our free time that we could be using to serve God and bring his glory to the world.

If the First Commandment is fundamentally about God’s uniqueness, the Second Commandment is fundamentally about faith. Faith is “The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). We cannot see God (1 Timothy 6:16) or the things he has promised to those who love him (1 Corinthians 2:9). So, will we model our lives after the visible things we have created that we see all around us? Or will we model our lives after the unseen One who created us? That is a choice we face many times a day; and every time we make the wrong choice, we break the Second Commandment.

So, as much as I may think I’m pure and pious when it comes to the Second Commandment, having dug deeper I have to admit that I’m a serial servant of carved images! And I bet you are too. So where does that leave us? In the next blog we will continue our march through the ever-more-menacing Ten Commandments.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

How many of the Ten Commandments have you kept?


The Ten Commandments (recorded in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) formed the bedrock of morality for the ancient Israelites, and were also foundational to the development of modern Western civilization. In ten short rules are contained the standard of a righteous life before God.

1)      I am the LORD your God…you shall have no other gods before me.
2)      You shall not make for yourself a carved image…you shall not bow down to them or serve them…
3)      You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…
4)      Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…
5)      Honour your father and your mother…
6)      You shall not murder.
7)      You shall not commit adultery.
8)      You shall not steal.
9)      You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
10)   You shall not covet…

Some of the religious elites of Jesus’ day, such as the Pharisees, and the rich young ruler who spoke to Jesus in Mark 10:19-20, felt that they kept the Ten Commandments without fail. At first glance, it’s not such an outrageous idea. The commandments seem pretty straightforward, and most societies, regardless of religious beliefs, have laws and social norms that more or less square with the final six.

Some may think that keeping these commandments is not so difficult, and that most members of society do a reasonably good job of it. When we consider the Ten Commandments in light of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings on the subject, however, it is apparent that even the best among us fall far short of this moral standard. In fact, I would venture to claim that every human being who has ever lived – with the exception of Jesus Christ – has broken all ten commandments. This may strike you as absurd, but as we look closer at the spirit of these commandments, you will see what I mean.

Let us start with the First Commandment. At first glance it seems irrelevant to a modern Western mindset. Most of the debate in our society is about whether there is one God or no God. Isn’t this commandment obsolete, belonging to past ages of pagan polytheism and tribal deities? Not at all, once you realize that ‘god’ has a pretty broad range of meaning. It doesn’t have to be a deity as such; it can be something as mundane as your belly (Philippians 3:19). Anything or anyone that becomes a competitor with God for our worship, our prayer, our desire and our gratitude, is another god. 

We may not have “idols of wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 29:17), but we have houses of wood and stone and other possessions that draw our attention away from God. We may not have “idols of silver and gold” (Psalm 135:15), but we spend a lot of our time thinking about money. Then there are obsessions with sports, celebrities, soap operas, video games, and other pursuits that draw our energy and passion away from worshiping God. For some, science and technology have become their god.

John Stott, in his book Basic Christianity, wrote the following: “For us to keep this first commandment would be, as Jesus said, to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; to make his will our guide and his glory our goal; to put him first in thought, word and deed; in business and leisure; in friendships and career; in the use of our money, time and talents; at work and at home. No man has ever kept this commandment except Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 82).

We will continue by looking at the Second Commandment in the next blog entry. It’s all pretty depressing so far, but I want to promise you that this series on the Ten Commandments will have a very happy ending!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Fellowship: Real vs. Nominal



Words derive their meaning, not from a static, wooden definition, but from the ways they are used. Sometimes a word takes on a misleading connotation. Take the word ‘church’ for example. As used in the New Testament, the word ‘church’ (ekklesia in Greek) refers to the community of believers; but often people take the word to refer to a physical building or an institution. Because of this misleading connotation, the Christadelphian community generally refrains from using the word ‘church.’

Within the Christadelphian community, however, the word ‘fellowship’ has become loaded with unscriptural baggage. Phrases like “The Central Fellowship” or “Is he in fellowship?” suggest that fellowship is a word describing a nominal status of belonging, like membership in an organization. In most human organizations, you have ‘membership’ if you pay the fees, and perhaps meet certain requirements (such as engineering qualifications, if you want to join the Society of Professional Engineers). For people who see Christian fellowship this way, you ‘belong’ to the fellowship if you adhere to a particular set of propositional beliefs (a Statement of Faith).

Christians put their faith in a living person (Christ), not in a set of propositions. In the same way, fellowship (Greek: koinonia) is a relational term, like grace and love (2 Corinthians 13:14). God has called us into “the fellowship of his Son” (1 Corinthians 1:9). Those who put their faith in Christ do not obtain membership in an organization; they become part of a family. Fellowship fundamentally is a state of close relationship, measured in terms of sharing and participation. Shared beliefs and values are an important aspect of fellowship, but they are not the basis of fellowship. Christ is (1 Corinthians 3:9-11).

One person can be a ‘member’ of a certain church, meeting the criteria for joining the church (such as baptism, or agreeing to a certain statement of faith) but have no spiritual relationship with the other people. At the same time, a second person can fail to meet the criteria for nominal ‘membership’ but play an active role in the life of the church and build close relationships with the members. Custom dictates that the first person be addressed as ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’ while the second person not be.

People in Jesus’ day thought of a ‘neighbour’ as someone of common ethnicity or geographical proximity; but in Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he blew up such nominal notions of fellowship and showed that being a neighbour is about acts of kindness and love. Once again it comes down to relationship.

What about families? Family terms like father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, and aunt nominally express a biological link. However, in many families, these terms are applied to people who are not biological relatives. An adopted child may not know his biological parents, and he may call his adoptive parents ‘Mom and Dad.’ In such cases the loving bond and shared experiences are more real and important than any nominal ‘blood relative’ status. On one occasion Jesus masterfully illustrated that this is also true in the family of God. Reading from Mark 3:31-35:

“31 And [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you." 33 And he answered them, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother."”
Next time you use the word ‘fellowship,’ stop and ask yourself if you’re using it to refer to real sharing and participation within the family of God (as God intended), or to nominal membership within an organization.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Contrarian Living



Since the establishment of stock markets in capitalist economies, analysts have been studying market trends with the aim of predicting which stocks are about to go up or down (in order to buy low and sell high, as the saying goes). One approach to market analysis is “contrarian theory.” This theory, put very simplistically, says that an investor should find out what the crowd is thinking, and then do the opposite. New York Stock Exchange pioneer Charles H. Dow wrote, “When it’s obvious to the public, it’s obviously wrong.” Garfield A. Drew, a later advocate of contrarian analysis, claimed that “Only 5 percent of the population think for themselves, 10 percent copy the 5 percent, and 85 percent believe what they read and hear and do what they are told.”

This insight was made in the context of the stock market, but it can be extended to many other areas of human activity. How many of our opinions are truly ours, and how many are pushed upon us by our peers, or the mass media? The fields of marketing, public relations, and yes, even religion, are concerned with influencing people’s opinions and behaviour.

‘Herd mentality’ has been around as long as we humans have. An evil herd mentality dominated the earth in Noah’s time to such an extent that God observed that “all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Genesis 6:12). Noah and his family were the only ones who walked with God and were spared from the ensuing Flood. In both Noah’s case and that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), those who had the courage to think for themselves and stand up to the evil around them were very few – far less than 5 percent in fact!

Jesus may have had these ancient outpourings of divine wrath in mind when he gave this principle: “13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

The road to destruction is pictured as a well paved highway with lots of travelers on it. The travelers assume that, because most people are choosing this route, it must be the best. How could so many people be wrong? But Jesus reminded us, “If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). He predicted that the last days before his Second Coming would be like the times of Noah and Sodom: people were following others’ false ideas, carrying on their daily lives and oblivious to anything beyond food, drink, sex and business (Luke 17:23-30). He called on those who would be saved to be contrarian thinkers: “Don’t follow or run after them” (Luke 17:23 HCSB).

Instead, Jesus has called us to be contrarian thinkers – to take the road less travelled. This does not mean to be different for the sake of being different, or to take a “Question everything” approach to life. It simply means we should follow our own convictions rather than taking our cues from social norms. It also means we should have courage to be in the minority when the majority are wrong. This principle was written into the Law of Moses: “Do not follow the majority when they do wrong” (Exodus 23:2).

The danger with contrarian thinking is that it can lead to elitism. If we believe our religious group is the chosen few, it becomes too easy to isolate ourselves and look down on everybody else. If this is our mindset, we could do with a reminder that the family of God is not hereditary: we all must be radically born again regardless of our religious pedigree (John 3:1-10). We have a mandate to bring Christ’s good news to all creation (Matthew 28:19), and this cannot be achieved unless we humble ourselves like he did (Philippians 2:3-8).

We are not to be conformed to the world around us; we are to be transformed by God (Romans 12:2). Both these verbs are passive in the original Greek, so either way we are following someone else. We do not achieve perfection through will-power or self-help, but by looking to the right source of leadership. It is only by God’s grace and power that we can resist the mob mentality; not by our own strength. God wants us to be like sheep, which require a lot of care and close supervision, and not like goats, which are more self-reliant (Matthew 25:32-33; John 10:27).

To live by faith is to follow an invisible God, even if doing so is contrary to what we see happening around us.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Beatitudes and Bewaritudes


One of the most well known parts of the Bible is the series of statements known as “The Beatitudes” with which Jesus opened the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:2-12). Each Beatitude declares those who have a certain personal quality to be “blessed” and promises them a particular reward. The Gospel of Luke also contains a version of The Beatitudes. It is less famous than Matthew’s version, probably because it is shorter (four Beatitudes instead of nine). However, there are other important differences. While Matthew’s Beatitudes focus mainly on character attributes, Luke’s focus on what might be termed ‘circumstances of living.’ Luke’s Beatitudes are also intriguing in that they are followed by “Woes” or (to coin a phrase) Bewaritudes, which are the opposite of Beatitudes. These sayings of Jesus read as follows in the English Standard Version:

Luke 6:20-26: “20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. 24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. "Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. 26 "Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
The word ‘woe’ isn’t one we use every day, but the Greek word behind it is an exclamation of grief, like “Oh no!” or “What a pity!” As we read these words of Jesus an obvious question presents itself: “Ummm…What?” Jesus describes circumstances that we typically describe as “less fortunate” or “underprivileged” (poverty, hunger, grief and rejection/unpopularity) and calls them blessed. Then he describes circumstances that most people envy and aspire to (wealth, feasting, laughter and fame/popularity) and calls them less fortunate. In other words, we should feel sorry for the celebrities who grace the covers of lifestyle magazines and music videos on MTV, and should envy despised, brokenhearted beggars.

It sounds crazy, but the key to understanding this message is time. Seen through God’s eyes, this life is just a blip, and the next life is what it’s really all about. Wealth, fullness, laughter and popularity tend to blind people to their need for a relationship with God, and distract them from the far greater blessings that could be theirs in the future. By contrast, poverty, hunger, grief and unpopularity cause people to put their faith in God and the everlasting reward that he offers. This is precisely why the Christian faith is on the decline in affluent Europe and North America but thriving in the developing world.

So what does all of this mean in practical terms? Should we sell off our worldly possessions? Not necessarily. There are poor atheists and there are wealthy saints. What really matters is where our heart is; but we should recognize that poverty and hunger are more conducive to godliness than wealth and feasting. So if you’re breathing a sigh of relief that you can keep your beloved Mercedes-Benz, maybe you should think about how attached you are to your possessions. After all, Jesus did command one wealthy young man to sell everything and donate the proceeds to charity as a prerequisite for being a disciple (Luke 18:22).

What about the persecution bit? Should we go around seeking persecution? We should not seek it, but it will find us, as Paul’s ‘Law of Persecution’ states: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). If we take a stand for Christ and against evil with courage and integrity, there will be people who will make life difficult for us – maybe even from our own family (Matthew 10:34-36).

As for grief versus laughter, Jesus may have been alluding to the words of Ecclesiastes 7:2-3: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” In this context, we are probably talking about the kind of laughter associated with partying. Sorrow builds character and perspective; laughter (especially of the alcohol-induced sort) does not. This life is about building character; there will be plenty of time for laughter in the next. As the saying goes, “He who laughs last laughs longest.”

In summary, the heart of a Christian is not focused on materialism or enjoying the finest luxuries in this life. He/she doesn’t have a list of “1000 things to do before you die” because death is not the end, so what’s the rush? Nor is he/she focused on “winning friends and influencing people” like Dale Carnegie’s adherents. He/she is mainly concerned with loving God and loving others, and rejoicing in the grace and promises of God. I feel this message is à propos because of the “prosperity gospel” which has spread from America to a growing global audience.

The prosperity gospel says that good Christians should expect to be rewarded by God in this life with money. Some proponents go as far as to claim that those who tithe to the church can expect financial reward from God in return. Worst of all, they make the poor to feel guilty and inadequate. After all, if faithfulness to God leads to financial gain, then poor people must be unfaithful to God, right? Some prosperity preachers are getting rich by guilt-tripping the poor into giving their money to the church. They are replacing the Good News of the Kingdom of God with the American Dream. They view their own wealth as a mark of divine approval, but they need to reread the Bewaritudes.