“Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Haggai 1:4, NIV
Very old ruins have held a romantic fascination for me. When I walk beside the ruined walls, I wonder what stories could they tell of lives lived long ago. What hopes and dreams did the people who built them have? What tragedies might they have witnessed? Were the lives of those ancient folk mundane with routine and boredom? Or was life a daily struggle simply to survive? Does the beauty of the ruin tell us anything of the beauty of their lives?
Today we pass on such things in books, pictures and media recordings. Very little of that existed in ancient times. Even today, in some parts of the world, these things are not common. However, we still try to piece together a story from what little there is to guide us, so we look at the ruins and try to imagine the lives that were lived in these places. In those places where we do have some written guide for our contemplation, we are grateful for the color it brings to our understanding. In the case of the temple of Jerusalem and the surrounding city, we have much written of its fall and destruction as well as its rebuilding. From those writings, we have not just a log of what took place, but also perspectives on the reasons why the temple became a ruin.
Several of the biblical prophets have addressed reasons such as injustice, oppression, idolatry, greed, and intolerance. However, Haggai cuts straight to the chase. From his perspective, the primary problem is selfishness. Each is taking care of his or her needs without regards to anything else.
Perhaps this is understandable even if it is not excusable. Those who passed through the Great Depression of the 1930s became a generation of scrimpers and savers. They learned to place a higher value on even simple things like bits of string or used rubber bands. In today’s throw-away society where we find it more economical to throw away even items costing hundreds of dollars rather than repair them, we may find it strange that someone would save rubber bands from the grocery store produce or paper and string from packages, but these things were hard to come buy at times during the depression because there was little cash to buy them. What cash there was would better be spent for food and shelter.
During the depression those who had it slightly better would sometimes ill-treat those who had nothing for fear that they might take what little they had from them. This was illustrated by John Steinbeck in his novel “The Grapes of Wrath” when he described how the “Okies” were treated when they attempted to relocate to California. Even though times may be better now, we still struggle with this fear when confronted by another’s need. Too often, just as the Californians in Steinbeck’s book, we defray our responsibility to our fellow man by questioning their worthiness to receive help. They may be commies, socialists, alcoholics, pedophiles, homosexuals, or any number of literally dozens of categories we place people in to justify not helping with their need.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus puts forth the claim that what we do to these we do to Him.1 Of course, no one sees himself or herself as being among the goats. We all tell ourselves that we are the “remnant church” of Revelation.2 As such a church, we certainly would recognize Jesus and minister to Him. But would we?
The remnant church is often understood to be the remaining church when the Parousia takes place. Are the members of that church typified with generosity and self-sacrifice, or does the Bible give us a different picture. Some have held that the seven churches of Revelation represent different periods in the history of the Christian church.3 If this is so, then the seventh and final church, Laodicea, would probably be synonymous with the remnant church. So if one would expect to see generosity and self-sacrifice, Laodicea should exemplify it. Instead we find a different picture.
We find a wealthy church which is indifferent to its own spiritual condition.4Their wealth has blinded them to their needs. Perhaps, it has also blinded them to the needs of those around them and even to Jesus’ desire to enter into their lives.5 The paradox is that the same Jesus, who would vomit at the indifference of these individuals,6 nonetheless continues to reach out to them in love and compassion as He goes on requesting they invite Him into their lives.
In Haggai’s day, he also contrasted the desire to accumulate wealth and prosperity with neglect of God. As our verse above refers to, people were living in beautiful houses but neglecting to provide the same for the house of God. As a result, even the security they were stockpiling for themselves and their families was threatened. The returns on their work and investments fell short. Perhaps as they realized diminishing returns they were finding themselves on a treadmill. They would work hard to accumulate a secure future, but the returns were not as much as they expected, so they worked harder to make up the difference. They were always running but never arriving. As a consequence, God’s people can become so frantically busy that they no longer even find the time to consider the needs of others, the needs of the church included.
We are very familiar with that treadmill, today. We see churches in various states of disrepair or unable to easily move forward with appropriate improvements to the church plant due to lack of sufficient funds. Paradoxically, the offering basket may be filled with one dollar bills and small change, while outside the parking lot is filled with vehicles costing tens of thousands of dollars that have come from homes costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why is this so?
Perhaps we have come to believe that ultimate security lies in what we can accumulate as opposed to what God provides. This is reinforced by the advertising media in countless ways. If you do not have this expensive item, you are neglecting your children, your spouse, or even worse, yourself. Madison Avenue has a gift for turning indulgences into necessities. In order to have those “necessities,” easy credit expands our purchasing power to reach out and fill the “needs.” Sadly, once we have filled the needs with that easy credit, we are introduced to a whole new level of needs. Like sheep, we are driven by advertisers to seek more credit so we can arrive at these new, greener elysian fields of perfect living.
The longer we remain on this treadmill, the greater the chance that our ever-expanding borrowing will jeopardize even the fundamental needs for security that we first attempted to cover. Unfortunately, it also restricts our ability to provide for the necessity of advancing the work of the Lord as well. Perhaps the few dollars collected at church are so few because so many are going to service the debt we accumulate as we trust in what we can accumulate instead of what God provides for our security. Once ensnared in these spidery webs of debt and interest, it can be very hard to break free.
Some might say that the more they have, the more they can do for the Lord. This can be true if what they have is given them as a blessing from God. It is even an expectation in that case. However, if it is the result of ever increasing debt and entrapment, God has never endorsed such a plan for furthering His work. Search as we might, we will never find one word of scripture where we are told it is necessary to go into debt to carry forward God’s work. Instead, we are told that God will take care of our needs.7 This extends even to our work for Him. As one author has put it, “All His biddings are enablings.”8
Perhaps we should understand the importance of our example in this area. When we place our trust in easy credit to provide for our needs, others may think that we have what we do because we are blessed by God. When they try to accumulate a similar standard of living, not knowing the trap we have fallen into, they may also be led into the same snare and become lost to the needs of the gospel as well. Our example is the greatest witness we have. Whom does our lifestyle say we are depending on? Who will others end up depending on if they emulate us?