Sunday, March 18, 2012

Rethink: Treasure

The word "money" is thought to come from a temple in Rome called Iuno Moneta. The first word is the name of the goddess Juno and the second word either comes from the Latin for "remind, warn or instruct" or from the Greek for "unique," a title for Juno. The oldest coins have been found in a Greek temple in Ephesus. And these coins may in fact be badges issued by the priests of the Temple to Artemis. So from its beginning the story of money is entwined with that of religion.

When business dealings became too complicated to be handled by barter, money was introduced. In China shells were used as money. In the West the value of the coin was determined by the metal it was made from and the weight of the coin. But eventually making money symbolic of certain values made more sense. People would agree on how much a good or service was worth in terms of money, making it possible to equate quite different things, like a certain amount of work with a specific amount of buying power of goods from a distant land. And because we are given money for using our time and talents, money tells us how society values our time and talent. It also shows how much we value the stuff we use money for.

This leads to some interesting juxtapositions. We pay entertainers and professional athletes a lot more than we pay police officers, or teachers or nurses or soldiers. Yet most people would agree that the work done by those in the public service professions is of more value to society. Why don't we pay the people who keep us safe, teach our children, or help us heal better? That's a question for economists to ponder. The point I'm getting at is that there is no direct connection between the worthiness of the work a person does or his personal worth and the money he has. The hardest working teacher in the world will never make anywhere near what a major movie star will. And as we've seen, the sleeziest operator on Wall Street, even after nearly wrecking his company, will get bonuses that amount to more than the most honest cop will make in his whole career.

And very few of those who are rich got to that state without some help or advantages. How many millionaires are ugly, handicapped, non-white, female, and not related to or connected to other rich or powerful men who could give them a start and advice? True rags to riches stories are rare.

The prophets and the psalmists were not oblivious to the incongruity of wealth and virtue in this world. Jeremiah asks God, "Why does the way of the wicked prosper?" The writer of Psalm 73 admits to envying the wicked until he sees how precarious their position is. The writer of Psalm 37 concludes, "Better is the little of the righteous than the abundance of many wicked."

But by Jesus' day popular thought held that wealth was a blessing from God, specifically, a sign of his favor, and consequently poverty must be a punishment. So when Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, even his disciples were shocked. "Then who can be saved?" they asked. Jesus' reply was that "for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." We all need God's grace.

And this is a major way in which Jesus tried to get people to rethink money and wealth. First off, it is not as a sign of who is right or who is righteous. It is not your worldly wealth or power that counts but your heart. Actually, great wealth is an obstacle because you are more likely to rely on it and trust in its power than to rely on or trust in God. In fact, this whole discussion comes after Jesus just told a very wealthy young man who claims to have kept all the commandments that he only had to do one more thing to be saved: give everything he had to the poor. Jesus never asked this of anyone else but obviously this man could not divest himself of everything and just rely on God. When Jesus is listing the commandments that the man should follow he stops just before he gets to the one about coveting. Jesus must have seen that this particular man did not just have wealth; his wealth had him. He was addicted to acquisition. Advertising and marketing companies would love this guy because when it came right down to it, he loved money more than anything or anyone else.

Jesus often cautions against serving money or putting one's trust in it. It is not that being rich is bad, provided that you got that way through hard and honest work and that you are generous to the less fortunate. Jesus and the disciples got support from several well-to-do women, according to Luke and his friend Lazarus doesn't seem to have done badly for himself and his sisters Mary and Martha. But just as fame offers constant temptations, so does wealth. If a starving man steals, it will be limited to food or money for food. But only people who eat and live well would conceive complicated financial schemes that will deprive others of houses simply to make more money.

Ever wonder why Judas was the disciples' treasurer and not Matthew, the former tax collector? Probably because Matthew didn't need or want the temptation. He had lived well on the fees he had extorted from his fellow countrymen while collecting taxes for an occupying power. He chose to follow a poor carpenter over an easy life based on ill-gotten gains. He was probably like that rich man: addicted to money. He needed to go cold turkey.

In the movie "The Gods must be Crazy," a tribe of bushmen in Africa find a Coke bottle. They realize it has a wealth of uses: as a mortar to crush vegetables, as a container of precious water, as a musical instrument. They treat it as a gift from the gods--until they start fighting over it and one child hits another over the head with it. They call it "the evil thing" and one of them undertakes a quest to return it to the gods.

They learned the wrong lesson. No thing is either good or bad, in and of itself. The Coke bottle could be used for good purposes, as they discovered. But it was their greed for this unique thing that made them use it for bad purposes. James writes, "You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts." Evil thoughts and deeds, Jesus reminds us, come, not from anything external, but from our hearts.

This is not to say that some things do not have more power than others. Having the right tool can make some things more easily realized. Money has value and if you have access to lots of it you can do a lot with it. You can feed the poor but you could also buy yourself the latest totally unnecessary electronic gadget. You could fund medical research or buy a fleet of sports cars. You could give it to a church or lose it to a casino. You could build a school in Haiti or a dog house with air conditioning. You could support your wife and kids or a mistress. The choice is yours.

Spiderman learns that "with great power comes great responsibility." Jesus put it this way: "To whom much is given much will be required." As we've established, your income does not accurately reflect your worth to society. If it did good teachers would be well-compensated and lobbyists would hold bake sales. And there would be no such thing as a professional video gamer.

So if you are poor, it doesn't mean God hates you. And if you make more than enough to live on, it doesn't mean you are extra-virtuous. But you should look on any wealth as a blessing from God.

Wait! Didn't we say that Jesus deflated the whole idea of wealth as a blessing? No, what he did was show that it could also be a curse, if you let it take over the way you think and live. The Biblical idea is that the purpose of having a blessing is to bless others with it. If I'm throwing a party and I give you a tray of desserts, it's not because I want you to eat them all. I intend for you to pass them out to others. God has given some people a knack for making money. God doesn't intend them to hoard it all for themselves, lest they succumb to the toxic effects of a wealth overdose, the way your body would be damaged by all the carbs and cholesterol you'd ingest if you ate all the desserts. God has put the moneymakers in charge of helping those in need or those whose gifts lie in other areas. Where would our communities be if rich people did not get together and create foundations and build hospitals and fund schools and endow scholarships and underwrite medical research and contribute to charities? It was just reported that J. K. Rowling, the first female billionaire author, is no longer a billionaire. She has founded 2 charities and is president of a 3rd. She has given away so much money that she is merely a millionaire. She said, "You have a moral responsibility when you've been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently." J. Paul Getty put it more colorfully. To paraphrase his words, money is like manure. In a big pile it just stinks. But spread it around and things grow.

And even those of us who are not rich in relation to the cost of living in this country are still wealthy in comparison to most of the world. The majority of the 7 billion people on this globe live on less than 2 dollars a day. By combining in giving just some of what we receive thanks to God's grace, we can bring medical care and schooling and clean water and farm animals to people living in poverty the like of which we cannot imagine. Our churches give money and food to local charities and provide places for other groups to meet. And here's another odd statistic: poorer churches give more proportionately than rich churches. That's probably because we can better empathize with those for whom money is always a factor in their decisions. Remember the poor widow whose contribution of 2 cents, Jesus said, meant more than all the money richer people gave, because it was all she had. Without being asked, she did what the rich young man could not. Why did she give all? I don't know. Maybe she heard Jesus say that where our treasure is, there our heart will be. Maybe she gave all because she realized where it all comes from.

Our time, our talents, our treasures: all are gifts from God. We only think we control them. But there are less millionaires today than before the Great Recession, and not from generosity. So don't get too attached to anything in this life and don't make it your ultimate concern. That position belongs to God alone. While all we are and all we have belong to him, all he asks is for gratitude and that we use our gifts for his purposes. In concrete terms, he asks for a 7th of our days and a 10th of our income, at the very least. It's a small thing to give in return for the gift of life and all the other gifts life makes it possible for us to enjoy.

Is that the sum of our duty to God? We'll look at that Wednesday. But for now ask yourself this: if wealth is a blessing from God, how am I sharing that blessing with others? If money has the potential to be a curse, what am I doing to keep it from dominating my thinking and my life? If I can't give a tenth of my income, what percent can I contribute? If I am not rich, how can I nevertheless share what blessings God has given me?

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