Finally, “Do not set your heart on ill-gotten gains; they will be of no use to you on the day of disaster.” Immorally acquired wealth may get us far in the world of business and the world of expensive indulgence but it will do nothing for us on the day we hear the final call. We remember Jesus’ parable about the rich fool, who felt so rich that he could put his feet up and have a long life of enjoyment ahead of him. How wrong he was! (Luke 12:13-21). All that matters is here and now to find and recognise and serve Jesus in every other person but especially those in need of any kind.
The passage speaks of our attitudes to wealth, power and false confidence and consists of a number of distinct pieces of advice on how we should behave. It comes from the first part of a 22-line poetic arrangement of warnings on the disastrous consequences of false presumptions, wrong speech and shameful behaviour. It is particularly directed against the evils of the rich which tend to pride and a sense of independence, presumption, false security and no regrets for what they do. They are playing a very dangerous game.
“Do not give your heart to your money or say, ‘With this I have enough’.” There are some who believe that with wealth they can get or have anything, that wealth will give them power to control and manipulate others. Money alone is never enough. Having money has little to do with wisdom or happiness.
“Do not be led by your appetites and energy to follow the passions of your heart.” The passions of our heart can lead us very far astray and bring about our own self-destruction. Pleasure and happiness are two very different things.
“Do not say, ‘Who has authority over me?’, for the Lord will surely punish you.” Wealth can give one a sense of total self-sufficiency, a belief that with money one can get anything one wants, and that one is answerable to no one. And yet, the rich person is, in many respects, just as vulnerable as one who is materially destitute. A tiny blood clot in the wrong place can bring a sudden end to everything. The ultimate life decisions are never ours.
“Do not say, ‘I have sinned and what happened to me?’, for the Lord is slow to anger.” One may be very aware of leading a life which is immoral and unjust but nothing bad has happened so one keeps acting immorally. That is because “the Lord is slow to anger”. This phrase comes from the time the Israelites rebelled against God at Mount Sinai. But instead of punishing them Yahweh gave them a second chance and told them: “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin” (Exod 34:6-7). God’s bias is towards forgiveness and mercy but there is a limit. In the end, sin and immorality will have to be paid for. The unrepentant wrongdoers put themselves outside God’s mercy.
“Do not be so confident of forgiveness that you add sin to sin.” This is similar to the previous injunction. We can be sure of God’s forgiveness when we repent but it never justifies our deliberately continuing to act in ways that are evil and immoral, like someone who says he will continue his sinful life but will make a “good confession” at the end. Once aware of behaving in ways that are in disharmony with the Way shown to us by Jesus, we must abandon such behaviour now.
“Do not say, ‘His mercy is great, he will forgive the multitude of my sins’, for both mercy and wrath are with him and his anger will rest on sinners.” Another similar warning. Yes, God’s mercy is great and his forgiveness is always there for us but, as long as we are turned away from him, we close the door on that mercy and forgiveness. The Prodigal Son could only be reconciled when he “came to his senses” and turned back to his Father.
“Do not delay to turn back to the Lord and do not postpone it from day to day, for suddenly the Lord’s wrath will blaze out and at the time of punishment you will perish.” Repentance must follow immediately on our awareness of going the wrong way. If God comes for us and we are facing in the wrong direction, knowingly doing what we know to be very wrong, we may hear those terrible words, “I do not know you.” (Matt 25:12). And, of course, we do not know when he will come for us. As we know, it can happen very suddenly and to anyone.