I’m not sure if it’s common knowledge these days, but Switzerland has long been known for its neutrality. It stayed out of both world wars of the last century, neither attacking anyone nor suffering invasion. Its neutrality was established by treaty among the principal military powers of Europe—specifically, the Treaty of Paris of 1815 that ended the Napoleonic Wars.
You also might know that the Pope’s bodyguards are Swiss. I’m not sure if that was widely known in this country or if I just learned it from reading Richard Scarry growing up. I know that’s where my mental image of the Swiss Guard came from (see above). Right along with the Queen’s Guard in their big bearskin hats, you had the Swiss Guard in Rome dressed up like a bunch of clowns. Knowing as I did that Switzerland was neutral, I figured they were a joke.
You can imagine my surprise when I found out that for over two centuries, Swiss mercenaries were the elite soldiers of Europe. The beginning of the end came in 1515 when Swiss troops suffered their first defeat since the 1200s, and the leaders of the Swiss Confederacy realized that there were major downsides to all that warfare. For one thing, after so many battles, other nations were learning to copy their tactics, and some of them were getting pretty good. For another, while exporting their people had brought a lot of money back into Switzerland, it had also put the country at risk. That wasn’t clear as long as they were winning, but once they lost a battle, the risk became obvious. Switzerland declared itself neutral and outlawed mercenary service, allowing only those troops serving in the French army and the Swiss Guard at the Vatican.
Rulers hire mercenaries for various reasons. Some are strategic in nature. The way the French economy worked, for instance, their military strength was primarily heavy cavalry—the nobles and petty nobility, who had big horses and could afford plate armor and servants. Their weakness in infantry cost them on the battlefield more than a few times in the 14th and 15th centuries, so when they had the chance to hire elite infantry units, they took it.
The classic reason to hire mercenaries, though, is political: the ruler doesn’t trust his own people. If there’s a popular rebellion, native troops can’t be trusted to fire on their fellow citizens; if there’s popular discontent, they may well be at the center of it. It’s hard to buy the loyalty of your own people. It’s easy to buy the loyalty of mercenaries: you pay them on time, in full, and make sure you’re paying them enough for what you’re asking them to do. As long as you have the money, honor the contract, and don’t do anything really stupid, you’re good.
That can be an effective way to build an army, for a while, and an effective way to stay in power, for a while. Over time, though, it breaks down, because it’s no way to build a nation. It’s like glue that never really dries—it’s sticky enough to keep things together under normal circumstances, but there’s no bond that will hold when things get tough, as they always do. You can win a war and destroy a nation with mercenaries; to win the peace and build a nation, you need something more: you need citizens.
This is because if you rely on buying people’s loyalty, you can always be outbid; if someone with a better offer comes along, you might be left in the lurch at the worst possible time. Even if you do get what you pay for, you won’t get an inch more. I’ve heard a funeral director talk about his time working in a funeral home in Chicago, where the union contracts operated in the Chicago way. They had a driver on the staff, and all his contract said he had to do was drive, so that’s all he did. He didn’t even pump his own gas, because that wasn’t in the contract—and lend a hand if anyone needed it? Fugeddaboudit. His contract didn’t say he had to, so he didn’t. That’s the mercenary mindset.
Unfortunately, such is the allure of money that that mindset creeps in even where there’s no reason for it. We can see that happening in our country, as the popular understanding of citizenship becomes more and more mercenary in character. That’s not a partisan thing, either; the Left drives it with their emphasis on government benefits—the Stanford economist and columnist Thomas Sowell once wryly defined “compassion” as “the use of tax money to buy votes”—while the Right drives it with their emphasis on taxes. More and more, our relationship to our nation is about getting and spending; and so, as the poet William Wordsworth said, we lay waste our powers, letting more important things shrivel as we squabble over who gets what piece of the pie.
That mindset is problematic enough when it’s directed toward our very human government. Thinking of God in that way is a whole lot worse. That’s the situation Malachi was facing. As we noted last week, these were tough times in Israel, and money was scarce; on the other hand, they wouldn’t have been in Israel at all if God hadn’t delivered them from exile in Babylon. As we saw in Ezekiel 37, they were dead hopeless until God went to work. Everything they have, they have only by the grace of God. Indeed, the very fact that they still exist as a nation at all is only because of God. Even if they don’t have much, they ought to be singing hymns of praise that they have anything at all.
Instead, they’re grumbling against God, declaring that serving him is futile. Notice their complaint: “Where’s the profit in obedience?” “Serving God isn’t the best way to get rich,” they whine. “We’re doing all this stuff and making ourselves miserable following God, while those guys over there are thumbing their noses at him and making a killing.” They’re acting as religious mercenaries. They’re willing to do all this God stuff as long as the pay is right, but when they see people who clearly aren’t working for God who’re getting paid better for it, they want to skip out on the contract.
Now, there are a couple things that need to be said about this. First, they’re giving themselves too much credit here. Remember verses 6-12, which we read last week: God charges them with robbing him because they aren’t giving him the full tithe. They’re giving something, sure, but it isn’t 10%; maybe it’s more like 2.5%, because that’s “all they can afford.” Which is to say, they don’t believe they can afford to give God what he commands them to give because they don’t really believe that God will bless them as he’s promised to bless them if they do. If you believe God will provide for all your needs, then you can afford to give anything, if he tells you to. They don’t, and so God challenges them to trust him, obey him, and see what happens. It’s a bit rich for them to complain there’s no profit in obeying God when they haven’t actually been obeying him all that well.
Second, the folks Malachi is addressing have gravely misunderstood their relationship with God. They think, whether they would say it or not, that the purpose of obeying him is to get ahead in this life. You give God something—religious service—and he gives you something—wealth, security, and all the other worldly goods you might want. They think God’s faithfulness can be evaluated solely by the columns of a financial report and the totals in a bank statement. Those columns and totals can be signs of God’s faithfulness, but they never tell the whole story—especially if we’re reading them the wrong way. Remember, in the Lord’s Prayer, we don’t ask God to give us a storehouse full of bread that will feed us for years; we ask him to give us bread for this day, and the assurance that he’ll do the same tomorrow. That’s an approach to God’s blessings which is focused on God; Malachi’s people are focused on themselves.
In short, they’re religious mercenaries. Though in service to the God of heaven—as they see it—they’re still citizens of this world, and what they want to know is if their pay will spend in this world. God wants us to be citizens of his kingdom who happen to be serving abroad in this world. Yes, we need to be able to spend some of our pay here, and so we need to trust him to provide for that, but that’s not our primary reward, and was never supposed to be. Our primary reward is back home.
If we understand that, that changes the kind of rewards we’re looking for here. That’s why I’m preaching sermons on money in the middle of a series on revival: if we want to see revival, what we do with our money matters. I’m not going to go off into a televangelist sort of spiel here, because it’s not as simple as write big check, get big revival, any more than it’s as simple as write big check, get bigger check; but it’s the same issue we’ve seen in Malachi. God won’t bless those who aren’t putting their trust in him. It’s not that he’s selfish, it’s that they aren’t open to him. There’s no room in them for God to bless them, and no vision to see his blessings, because they think they only worship him—they still think they belong to themselves, and all their property belongs to them. They aren’t living as citizens of the kingdom of God.
The work of revival is the work of the city of God and the kingdom of God; if we would see it happen, we need to be striving to live as citizens of the kingdom. This means letting go of our claim on our money, and our claim on our lives, releasing both to God our King—to whom we and everything we own already belong in full anyway. It means turning our hearts to seek a reward that money can’t buy and this world can’t offer—the true riches that will be truly our own, that only God can give us. It means using the wealth God entrusts to us in this world to serve his plans and purposes, rather than letting it use us to serve the world’s purposes and plans.