In tropical countries there exists an insidious parasite that can attack a thriving palm tree and cause its downfall. It is called the strangler fig. It works by dropping a seed into a crevice of the palm.
The seed in that crevice sprouts and sends out long roots that descend to the ground beneath, where they take root and increase in size. Soon there is a parallel growth of thick roots spreading out across the outside of the palm tree in a deadly embrace. The parasite sends out competing branches until it completely overwhelms its host. The palm survives for a while with a few fronds peeking over the wild growth. But eventually, all life is choked out of the palm tree, and the whole structure crashes to the ground—palm and parasite together. It’s one of Satan’s long-proven ways of operating in the lives of individuals and institutions.
The strangler fig’s embrace of the palm is not an embrace of love. It is a union of exploiter to exploited that leads only to death. And our world has seen too many such unions. Certainly, destruction is not the intent of many unions between honest MBAs and the firms they embrace. But greed unharnessed has found a way to destroy many good businesses and many good individuals.
The world of commerce has given us many vivid examples of the corruption that greed produces, as well as the cost of that corruption: the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s; the Enron scandal of the 1990s; the collapse of government institutions in 2008; and, as if to top it off, Bernie Madoff’s huge embezzlement of people’s investments. Human greed knows no bounds, even when it threatens the very economy of the nation.
Conversion does not guarantee a follower of God against yielding to greed anymore than it does against any other temptation. The spirit of greed has often had success with the people of God. When Israel was conquering the land of Canaan a man named Achan stole “a beautiful mantle from Shinar, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels” (Joshua 7:21)1 and hid them in the earth under his tent. The thievery of this single individual was disastrous to the whole nation. “The anger of the Lord burned against the people of Israel” (verse 1).
Achan’s hidden sin—concealment of his action and burial of stolen goods in the camp—made it impossible for Israel to stand against its enemies The Lord explained to Joshua: “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant . . . ; they have stolen, and lied, and put [stolen goods] among their own stuff. Therefore the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies” (verses 11, 12). We tend to be much more relaxed about sin than God is. His anger against Achan’s theft and concealment, which violated His agreement with Israel, was not appeased until Achan and his family were publicly exposed and executed (verses 24, 25).
Conversion does not guarantee a follower of God against yielding to greed anymore than it does against any other temptation.
In the days of the kings the prophets inveighed against the evils of greed. Ezekiel prophesied against the shepherds of Israel: “Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! . . . You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves . . . , but you do not feed the sheep” (Eze. 34:2, 3). “Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds” (verse 10).
Malachi, God’s messenger and the last prophet of the Old Testament, warned that the coming Messiah would be severe: “Who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire . . . ; and he will purify the sons of Levi” (Mal. 3:2, 3). Messiah stated that He would “draw near” for judgment (verse 5). God’s evaluation is not superficial. One of His accusations is that His people are thieves and full of gall: “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How are we robbing thee?’” (verse 8).
How do humans steal from God? We steal from God when we retain, misappropriate, or embezzle funds belonging to Him. Listen as He denounces the nation: “You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me; the whole nation of you” (verse 9). Can flagrant offenders suppose that they will escape the wrath of God? “Behold the day comes, burning like an oven when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 4:1).
Jesus found the spirit of greed thriving in His Temple. He cried out, “You shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16). Whip in hand, He drove out the money-changers, buyers, and sellers, scattering their ill-gotten gain. When nothing changed after two attempts to cleanse His Temple He withdrew His presence. “My Father’s house” became “your house,” as greedy people degraded its condition to “forsaken and desolate” (Matt. 23:38). Forty years later it collapsed in a bloody inferno.
The early church was not immune to the spirit of greed. Ananias and Sapphira falsified the amount of their donation to the church and were struck dead (Acts 5:1-10). Their punishment is for our own counsel: “Now these things happened to them as a warning, . . . for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11). These examples show the Lord’s indignation when corruption invades His church. He will take stern measures to cleanse it from evildoers.
Is it possible that such evils could worm their way into the Adventist Church today? Could there be parasites choking the lifeblood out of our institutions and organizations? Could embezzlement exist among us? Do we have the moral strength to search ourselves for our weaknesses? Or to welcome those who “in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1) point out to us our flaws?
Or do we react against those who hold the mirror up to our face? It would be sheer tragedy if the organization once sacrificially nurtured by the pioneers of the Advent movement should ever become subverted by greed or other corruption, whether among our rank and file or at administrative levels of the church.
Ellen White, who as a messenger of the Lord2 stands as a modern counterpart to ancient Malachi, shares strong counsel against robbing God in our time: White saw “that many who profess to be keeping the commandments of God are appropriating to their own use the means which the Lord has entrusted to them and which should come into His treasury.”3 She speaks of the common duty of leaders and people to work toward the church’s betterment, with the solemn understanding that “God holds His people, as a body, responsible for the sins existing in individuals among them. If the leaders of the church neglect to diligently search out the sins which bring the displeasure of God upon the body, they become responsible for these sins.”4
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is growing at a rapid pace; and such care, attention, and shared moral sense will do us well in all parts of the world and at all levels of our operation. Financial faithfulness by individual church members everywhere must ever be matched to ethical uprightness by all those who receive, process, disburse, invest, and otherwise wisely and honestly exercise their divinely appointed stewardship with regard to those funds.
As the Holy Spirit waits to descend in latter-rain power upon us, we may all accept Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith” (2 Cor. 13:51), a faith defined, not by doctrinal theory alone, but by godly practice as well.
Here are some questions I ask my conscience: Have I been transparently honest in my use of the funds that flow through my hands? Have I been frugal in my personal use of the
Lord’s money and generous in responding to the many appeals for help? Have I “eaten the fat” while neglecting to feed the flock under my care? Have I worked for personal aggrandizement? Have I helped safeguard the Lord’s treasury? Are there leaks I could have plugged in the dike around God’s treasury? There are certainly more.
As we probe our own souls, let us also tactfully and graciously provoke one another to "love and good works" (Heb. 10:24) that include honesty and transparency in all our dealings with the Lord’s tithes and offerings.
Even now we may remember God’s promise to “bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or evil” (Eccl. 12:14). What does our Judge require of us? He offers more than one answer. To Micah He says “do justice,” “love kindness,” “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). To Solomon He says: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14).
Isn’t this what we mean when we pray for revival and reformation in our church?
Beatrice S. Neall is a professor emerita of religion, Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska,