The Sin of Entitlement
September 30, 2018
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: James 3:13 – 4:8, John 8:1-11; Genesis 3
Purity, peaceability, gentleness, a willingness to yield, merciful, the bearing of good fruits.
Words, concepts, phrases all seemingly in short supply this last week – these last months or years – possibly since James first wrote this letter/sermon to the Christians chased from Jerusalem by persecution.
Words taking me back to a story I’ve dwelt upon frequently in recent times. If I’ve preached upon it frequently, I apologize for coming round to it again.
The scene is Jerusalem. Its fall – about this time of year. All of Jerusalem is celebrating Sukkot, the main harvest festival. Prior to the festival the Jewish leadership had put out a warrant for Jesus’ arrest and condemned him to death. Afraid to be seen in the city with his disciples, Jesus sneaks in alone, going to the temple to teach. Crowds form. Some to listen, some to jeer, some to watch the spectacle. Roman soldiers keep watch from atop the temple walls. Temple police look for an opportunity to arrest Jesus. The air crackles with tension.
A group of men push through the crowd dragging a woman. Some are scribes – keepers of the temple traditions. Some are Pharisees – respected experts in Jewish law. “This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery,” they announce. “Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
If Jesus urges the crowd to stone the woman, he runs afoul of Roman law. If he proclaims the woman innocent, he runs afoul of Jewish law. It’s a trap. The woman is a pawn. The man, equally guilty and – if the woman was actually caught in the act of adultery – equally known, is absent. Jesus bends down. Writes something on the ground. Stands up. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” Jesus says. Jesus bends down again. Writes again on the ground.
Slowly, one after another, the accusatory men leave, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus stands up, looks at the woman, and says to her: “Where are they? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and from now on do not sin again.”
In this environment of intense hostility we find Jesus the picture of calm. He’s gentle – toward the woman, yes, but also toward those who seek to use her. He’s peaceable, diffusing the tensions instead of fanning the flames. Through this quiet calm, Jesus secures mercy for the woman and leaves those who sought to use her empty handed.
If only I could emulate Jesus. Instead I want to get into the fray and grab what is mine. The conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in the gospels tend not to be over theology, or even religion. Jesus keeps the Jewish law. He participates in the temple rituals. They fight not over substance but over control, over authority. The men who dragged the unnamed woman before Jesus were part of a class – urban, sophisticated, well educated, exclusively male – who had positioned themselves as the official arbitrators of God’s law and keepers of the temple customs. They decide who is right and who is holy. God calls people into such roles, grants them the wisdom to provide holy guidance and burdens them with the responsibility to be his shepherds. Yet what God grants as a holy calling can easily turn into a self-serving entitlement to be defended at all costs – even the cost of a woman’s life, even the cost of our own souls.
We can at times see such a sense of entitlement in our national and religious leaders. We see it on a smaller scale too. I had a co-worker once who had long lost any sense of mission or purpose to her job. Instead she felt her mere daily presence entitled her to the full benefits our employer provided. Our employer owed her, she had no responsibility toward it. She always deserved more, even while, in the workplace, she consistently did less. When she was finally fired, she claimed persecution and threatened to call her lawyer.
Its hard not to feel entitled. All you have to do is see the look on my face when our entire church parking lot is empty except for the one person who’s parked in my spot.
“These conflicts and disputes among you,” James writes, “where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. We make ourselves the center and cling mightily to whatever power, privilege and prestige we’ve managed to acquire. We’ll cling to it even at the cost of our integrity. We’ll cling to it even at the cost to our souls.
In the original garden the snake, the trickster, comes to Eve and points out the fruit on the tree in the middle of the garden. God’s wisdom saturated every corner of Eve’s world. Purity and peace. Gentleness and mercy. A life of connectedness to God bearing good fruit. The snake, the trickster, points out the fruit and the woman saw it was good not only for food but would bring her wisdom. Over time Eve (and Adam) had become immune to the blessings around them. They wanted more – and wanted to be able to control what they had. They wanted the world on their terms, not God’s. They wanted to be the center.
When we put ourselves at the center, all hell literally breaks loose. We turn blessings into entitlements we seek to preserve at all costs. We become unfaithful to God. We loose the blessings God has promised. We bring hurt and injustice to our neighbors. We loose our souls. All to walk a path far removed from God’s incredible, blessed vision for our lives, our family systems, our social systems, our world.
The Sin of Entitlement