Aesop told the tale of the Peasant and the Apple Tree.
A peasant had an apple tree growing in his garden, which bore no fruit, but merely served to provide a shelter from the heat for the sparrows and grasshoppers which sat and chirped in its branches. Disappointed at its barrenness, he determined to cut it down, and went and fetched his axe for the purpose. But when the sparrows and the grasshoppers saw what he was about to do, they begged him to spare it, and said to him, “If you destroy the tree we shall have to seek shelter elsewhere, and you will no longer have our merry chirping to enliven your work in the garden.” He, however, refused to listen to them, and set to work with a will to cut through the trunk. A few strokes showed that it was hollow inside and contained a swarm of bees and a large store of honey. Delighted with his find he threw down his axe, saying, “The old tree is worth keeping after all.”
The moral of the story: Utility is most men’s test of worth.
As I thought about Aesop’s fable, I thought how often utility is the rule. Some people are involved in church primarily to receive, not to give. Others view their spouses as servants or keep points as to who owes whom. Countless Christians serve God only for personal benefit. Utility is most folks’ test of worth. But—Praise the Lord—there are many exceptions to this rule.
The Bible speaks against our attempts to take advantage of others
The Bible warns us against utilitarian thinking, but urges us to think in terms of reciprocity, giving, receiving, submitting to one another, etc. Scripture also warns us about abusing our authority or exalting ourselves at the cost of another.
The Bible warns us frequently about taking advantage of others.
“Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless” (NIV 2011, Ex. 22:22). How wrong it is to make difficult situations more difficult!
Leviticus 25:14 warns us: “If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other.”
Leviticus 25:17 provides the broadest ethic: “Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God.”
Christian employers need to remember Deuteronomy 24:14, “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns.” This verse validates the idea of labor laws and has probably influenced our work ethic more than most Americans realize.
I Thessalonians 4:4-6 warn us about the dangers of getting sexually involved with someone other than our spouse, “…that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before.”
I Corinthians 6:7-8 warn us about rushing to court in order to exploit others with a lawsuit: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.”
The Bible commands us to be proactive in our concern for brothers and sisters
Hillel died probably when Jesus was a young teenager. He was famous for a version of the golden rule: “What you do not want done to you, do not do to others.”
Jesus made Hillel’s rule positive and proactive: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you” (Luke 6:31). These commands prohibit us from taking advantage of others; they can be summarized by Hillel’s rule, but Paul’s teaching parallel’s Jesus’ rule. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to expose utilitarian thinking in Philippians 2:3-4 and replaces such thinking with a variation of the Golden Rule. He wrote:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Paul tells us it is not enough to avoid cheating others; we must be concerned about them. God gave us people to enjoy and things to use, but sometimes we are tempted to enjoy things and use people!
You are one person. The world population is about 7 billion. We cannot possibly be concerned about 7 billion people. It is worth noting that Philippians 2 was written in the context of the local church. That does not mean we should avoid doing good outside of our church family—but our church is a starting point. Galatians 6:10 gives us a balanced approach: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
But even our church family is a bit much for one person. We can care for many people in different ways at different times. We can Christmas carol to the shut-ins, shake hands with a few people after church, help with a funeral dinner or a youth ministry, etc.
My first challenge to you is to show concern and care for someone—anyone in the church body—besides your family (which is, in many ways, an extension of you). Take Paul’s proactive command out of moth balls. You have neither time nor energy for everybody, but you do have time and energy for somebody!
My second challenge is to remind you that whereas Christianity is a personal relationship to God through His Son Jesus Christ, serving God does involve developing Christian ethics. Let’s watch out that we do not take advantage of others—even those close to us.