2 Kings 5:19-27
Wouldn’t you like to be rich? Of course you would. Doesn’t everybody? But before you make your millions there’s something you should know: “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:9-10).
Elisha’s attendant Gehazi is a great illustration of this principle. Gehazi had great advantages. He was the chief companion of the prophet Elisha. He helped deliver God’s message to his people. He was an eye-witness to God’s resurrection power when Elisha raised the Shunammite’s son from the dead. He saw the regenerating power of God’s grace when Naaman washed in the Jordan and was cleansed from his leprosy. He had these great advantages, but he was seduced by the desire to get rich. He did exactly what the Apostle Paul wrote about. He fell into temptation and a snare and into many foolish and harmful desires. In his eagerness for money he wandered from the faith and pierced himself with many griefs.
The most piercing grief was God’s judgment pronounced by Elisha. “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and to your descendants forever.” The joy of Naaman’s cleansing is contrasted with the agony of Gehazi’s sickness. It invites us to consider how it is that we respond to God’s grace in his promise to cleanse us of our sin.
- Rationalizing Sin/Greed
The first thing we want to note is the danger of rationalizing greed. We can also think of it more generally as ways that we rationalize sin. Naaman had traveled from Syria to Israel so that Elisha could cure his leprosy. Once he was restored, Naaman wanted to give Elisha a reward. 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten garments. Elisha refused to accept even one coin from Naaman and the two men parted ways.
The offer of the reward money planted the seed of covetousness in Gehazi’s mind. The more he turned it over in his mind the more he was convinced that Elisha had bungled things. How could he turn down the riches of Syria? Think of all the good we could do with that money! That old prophet has his head in the clouds – was never very good with the practical things. Sure he raised the dead, but he can’t read a balance sheet!
So when Naaman had gone only a short distance he determined to run after him. We get a snippet of his inner thoughts. He said to himself “See, my master has let that Aramean, Naaman off too lightly, by not accepting what he offered.” What is he doing here? “That Aramean” is a racist label. It was a way to dehumanize Naaman. Don’t see him as an individual. Certainly don’t see him as your neighbor. See him only as a foreigner. The implication is that if he were a neighbor then you would be obligated to have a care for his financial well being. Dehumanizing is an essential step in greed because greed is the desire to possess something at the expense of others.
The second rationalization is the idea that Naaman got off “too lightly.” This is an appeal to fairness. It’s not fair that this foreigner should be rich while I am poor. It wouldn’t be wrong if I got his money – after all I deserve it more than he does. This is the lie that Gehazi tells himself. The third rationalization is found in his oath: “as the Lord lives.” He cloaks his greed in religious language as a way to sanctify it. He makes appeal to God’s name, but his attitude is that of contempt for the free grace of God. This Syrian shouldn’t get something for nothing. It’s not fair! If Jesus had appeared before him he would have said “why are you envious just because I am generous. Is it not my right to heal this poor man without it being a market transaction?”
These three rationalizations all attempt to make greed into a virtue. The movie Wall Street was a seminal film of the 80s. The high point of the movie was Gordon Gekko’s speech “Greed is good.” Greed is what makes the world turn. It is the grease in the wheels of the economy. But it is not true. Progress is made only insofar as we are able to yoke human ambition with the good of others. Bernie Madoff’s fifty-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, the Wall Street collapse, the AIG scandal, and the bursting of the housing bubble – all built on the unbridled greed of investors and lenders – and a thousand other examples that increase by the day – illustrate ways that greed diminishes prosperity. This is why in the Bible greed consistently makes the short list for the worst sins.
“Every man for himself” can become greed disguised as the American dream. It is not freedom; it is selfishness unleashed. A person who is consumed by greed becomes utterly fixated on the object of his greed. Life in all its richness and complexity is reduced to little more than a quest to accumulate and hoard as much as possible of whatever it is that he craves. Even though he has met his every reasonable need and more, he is unable to adapt and reformulate his drives and desires.
The 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow observed that humans have a hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of our needs pyramid is our most primal needs for food, rest and health. Next comes the needs for safety, shelter and stability. Only at the top of the pyramid do we turn our thoughts toward development, the meaning of life, and the deeper spiritual issues. The problem with greed is that it grounds us on the lower two levels and prevents us from experiencing the higher joys of life. Greed prevents us from communing with ourselves and with God. Greed is a form of idolatry that forsakes the love of God for the love of the self and of material things, and forsakes the eternal for the temporary.
2. Greed Ensnares in a Web of Sin
The second lesson here is that greed ensnares in a web of sin. Again, we think of Paul’s warning: that the love of money is a root of all kinds of [other] evil. As soon as Gehazi gave in to greed, he started telling lies and more lies. As soon as Naaman noticed someone running after him he stopped to meet him and said “Is all well?” Literally, he asked him whether there was still “shalom” – peace. Gehazi said there was, although we know that there was no peace in his heart. Gehazi then began to fabricate a false story. “My master has sent me to say, “There have just now come to me from the hill country… two young men of the sons of the prophets. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.”
This story was clever. It explained everything, including Elisha’s sudden change of mind. Elisha doesn’t need the money for himself, but so that he can host visitors. It also plucked at the heartstrings: how could he refuse to support a couple of seminary students in need of financial aid? He also based his lie on Elisha’s credibility. Gehazi is careful also to not be too greedy. Naaman was generous and had been prepared to offer ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes. Gehazi wanted only one talent of silver and a pair of clothes. Naaman bought the story. “Have two talents of silver!” I can imagine Gehazi acting modest. “Oh, two is too much… although it might come in handy… Okay, Naaman, only because you insist.”
Once Gehazi got the goods, he told yet another lie. This time the lie was a cover-up: “When he came to the hill, he took [the silver] from their hand and put them in the house, and sent the men away, and they departed. That way, no one would ever know where the money and clothes had come from. Or so he thought.
One imagines that Gehazi must have been out of breath when he came back to Elisha. Chasing after the chariot, running back to his house to hide his loot, and meeting up with Elisha to act as if nothing was up. “Where have you been, Gehazi?” Elisha asked. “I haven’t [pant], you know, [pant] been anywhere.” Where have you been, Gehazi? “Ummm, I’ve, ahhh, been here and there.” “Where have you been?” “Your servant went nowhere.”
By this point Gehazi was so committed to his sin that lying seemed like his only option. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare.” Gehazi was trapped in his web of lies: Fabrication, deception, cover-up, and false denial. He was boxed in by his deception on every side.
Seeing his lies exposed reminds us to be honest in everything we say or do. This starts by seeing our deception for what it is. Every time we speak untruth, every time we hide a sin, every time we exaggerate for personal advantage, we show ourselves to be aligned with the one who was a liar from the beginning.
Truth is one of the marks of the Christian. We are called to be true because our God is true. His Word is truth. His Son is true. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. If we are in the true God, then we should be true people. We are not like Pilate who exclaimed “what is truth!” We are saved and sanctified by the truth. Therefore, we ought to speak and live the truth.
Deception is a common outcome of greed, as is envy and spite. Greed is also associated with negative emotional states such as stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and despair, and with behaviors such as gambling, hoarding, trickery, and theft. By overcoming reason, compassion, and love, greed undoes family and community ties and undermines the very values on which society is founded.
3. Greed/sin leads to self destruction
The third lesson is that the sin of greed leads to self-destruction. There is an obscure verse in Numbers. It says, “Your sin will find you out” (32:23). We can often hide our sin. We can run from it’s consequences. But it will at some point catch up with you. For Gehezi judgment came sooner rather than later.
Here was a man who was the disciple of the prophet Elisha. He witnessed the power of God. Yet he was greedy. He was a liar and a thief. He dishonored Elisha by including him in his lie. He blasphemed God because he committed these sins in the name of the Lord when he swore the oath: “as the Lord lives.” But this complex of events revealed his true heart. In his heart he despised the grace of God and in his greed he sold out the gospel.
The lesson here is very similar to two other stories in the New Testament. The tragedy of Gehazi is very similar to Judas. Judas was one of the 12 disciples. He had his share in their ministry. He also witnessed miracles. Perhaps he even performed some himself! He also was greedy and pilfered from the treasury. Ultimately he revealed the full extent of his corruption when betrayed his Lord for 30 pieces of silver. Although enjoying close proximity with Jesus for several years he revealed himself as a “son of perdition.” Likewise, we are reminded of Ananias and Sapphira. They were among the first Christians. Perhaps they had seen the resurrected Christ. If not, they at least personally knew the eye-witnesses. In a combination of greed and the desire to be perceived as generous, they sold a property, kept back some of the proceeds, but they lied to Peter by claiming that they donated 100%. Peter said, you have not lied to me but to the Holy Spirit. Satan has filled your heart. And God’s judgment fell on them immediately.
There is a form of counterfeit faith, where one is in close proximity with the Church of Jesus Christ, and they may be members of a visible church, but in their hearts they have denied the gospel. Paul writes “The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.” Again he writes that God, “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.”
The main lesson of this chapter is about God’s grace in the healing of Naaman. It is about how wide his grace is, reaching all the nations of the world. it is about how powerful God’s grace is, cleansing the most defiled. It is about how free grace is. Naaman came to Israel carrying half the treasury of Syria, but Elisha refused to take even a single shekel in exchange for the free gift of God’s grace.
The Spirit of God had revealed to Elisha every thing Gehazi had done. But of all the sins that Elisha could have mentioned, he singled out Gehazi’s timing. “Is this the time?” Is this the time, when Naaman had just experienced the cleansing power of God’s grace? Is this the time, when a sinner has received the free grace of the gospel?
In saying this, Elisha was doing something more than rebuking Gehazi for poor timing; he was condemning the man for selling out the gospel. How could Naaman learn that God’s grace is free if he had to pay for it? How could he understand that God’s grace is not for sale when Gehazi was trying to shake him down?
Gehazi had been careful to not ask for too much. But according to Elisha, he might as well have asked for the entire fortune, because once we add anything to God’s free gift, it is no longer a free gift.
Because his greed stood against God’s grace, the man sold out the gospel. His chilling punishment shows how jealous God is of his grace. When it comes to the gift of salvation, how could God take anything less than full credit? He is the one who designed the plan of salvation. He is the one who sent his Son to die on the cross for sinners and sent his Spirit to grant us the gift of faith.
The religions of the world always try to add something to the grace of God. And some forms of Christianity also add works to grace as the grounds for justification before God. The true and living God – who offers cleansing for sin only through the death and resurrection of his Son – exercises a holy jealousy over his grace.
Gehazi’s apostasy was the ultimate logical consequence of his greed. He set himself against the character of God, presenting him as a taker rather than a giver. But the Father gave his only Son for our Salvation, the Son gave up his heavenly glory to die for our sins, and the Holy Spirit gives us the free gift of eternal life. If this is true, then how can anyone who has received the free gift of his grace be greedy to “get something?” Should we not rather look for every opportunity to give of ourselves, so that other people can experience the gifts that flow from our gratitude for the grace of God? In this way we follow the example of Christ. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).