By Wayne S. Walker
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Instead of “extortioners,” the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version both have “swindlers.” The term in the original comes from a word which means to plunder or pillage. “But recall the former days in which, after you were illuminated, you endured a great struggle with sufferings: partly while you were made a spectacle both by reproaches and tribulations, and partly while you became companions of those who were so treated; for you had compassion on me in my chains, and joyfully accepted the plundering of your goods, knowing that you have a better and an enduring possession for yourselves in heaven” (Hebrews 10:32-34, emphasis mine, WSW).
According to its literal meaning, an extortioner is one who is rapacious or ravenous like wolves. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Hence, the term came to mean a robber or, more exactly, a swindler or cheat, and the crime was considered quite serious. “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector’” (Luke 18:11). Thus, it generally refers to one who makes his living dishonestly or unscrupulously at the expense of others. This would include not only downright crooks, but also people such as gamblers, loan sharks, and others who would prey upon unsuspecting or unfortunate victims.
Jesus condemned the attitude that led to extortion and the practices that it engendered in the scribes and Pharisees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). Jesus does not tell us here exactly how they were guilty of extortion, but He does give us a clue in a previous verse. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation” (v. 14). They probably held the mortgages to these widows’ houses, and when something happened that the widows could not pay, the scribes and Pharisees, who were supposed to be religious leaders and help people, would stand before the widows’ houses and make long prayers to show how “pious” they were, then promptly acted to cheat these poor widows out of their homes. Why? Jesus answered that question in a parallel passage. “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness’” (Luke 11:29).
In contrast to cheating and taking undue advantage of others, God wants us to be upright and honest in all our dealings with our fellowman. “Providing honorable things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Corinthians 8:21). “Pray for us; for we are confident that we have a good conscience, in all things desiring to live honorably” (Hebrews 13:18). Not only is honesty the best policy, but it is the only principle for Christians to follow in their relationships with others. Let us always strive to be honest because those who are not will not inherit the kingdom of God.
These two verses do not claim to contain a complete listing of all the unrighteous, but they do identify some of the more prominent forms both in Corinth and in our day as well. Why is this subject so important? “All unrighteousness is sin…” (1 John 5:17a). And “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23a). God’s justice demands that unrighteousness be punished. You and I may not necessarily be guilty of any of the specific sins mentioned here, but we have all sinned (Romans 3:23). The next verse goes on to give God’s remedy for sin in our lives, and our concluding article in this series will discuss it.
—in Search for Truth, 7/12/2015 (Vol. VI, No 49)