Sunday, September 25, 2016

What Makes the World Go Round

Those stick figure families on the rear window of your car or van are no longer novel. So people are getting creative with them. There are versions where a fleeing family is being attacked by a T-Rex or a guy with a hockey mask and chain saw or the starships of the evil empire from Star Wars. There are versions where the Mom or Dad figure is missing and an arrow points this out with the words “Position open.” There is one that purports to be from Utah that shows 1 daddy and multiple wives each with several stick figure kids. There is one with a daddy, a mommy and about a dozen kids. Over this, hand written on the dirty window is “OMG, get off her!” Because I primarily see these funny ones on the Internet, there is a possibility that they are photoshopped. But my daughter posted one this week that she saw in real life. It shows a stick figure man and next to him isn't a woman or a man or kids or even a dog but a large bag of money. It's meant to be funny, but I think it's sad.

Today's New Testament lesson contains perhaps the most misquoted verse in the Bible. Rather than saying that “money is the root of all evil” the verse is properly translated as “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils...” Part of the problem is the King James version added the definite article “the” which the Greek lacks and neglected the fact that the word “evil” is a plural. But almost all modern translations have corrected this. Unfortunately people also forget that it is the love of money that is being condemned, not money itself. Money and wealth are powerful and as we've said before, they need to be treated as one would fire. Put to their proper use they can do a lot of good. Put to evil purposes, they can do a lot of damage. ISIS funds itself by seizing the money and assets of the territories it invades. It also imposes taxes on those it conquers and turns oppressed minorities into slaves whom it sells. Most terrorist organizations operate like criminal enterprises. Few people know that Frank and Jesse James began as members of the pro-Confederate terrorist group, Quantrill's Raiders, during the Civil War and after the war, they just kept robbing trains and banks as a way of making money.

Part of the danger of money is that it is fungible. Unlike, say, a movie ticket, which is only good for a specific film at a specific time, money can be used for any purpose. So we get angry when money raised for a charitable purpose like disaster relief instead mostly goes to enrich those who run the charity. But aside from careful accounting and transparency, it is difficult to make sure money set aside or given for a particular reason will actually be used for that purpose.

Another problem with money is that it made in ways both ethical and unethical. Usually a business makes money by offering a product or service people want at a price they are willing to pay. But as we've seen there are many other ways that businesses can make money. They can promise a good quality product or service but deliver something inferior, saving themselves money on parts or labor. They can inflate the price as they have done with certain drugs; they can sell additional services that are overvalued or unnecessary, like undercoating; they can set up a payment plan with an interest rate that insures you pay many times the actual cost of the product. 

They can also produce things that are toxic or dangerous to either consumers or to those who work in manufacturing them, rather than pay for materials or methods that are safer. Remember old-time watches with glow in the dark hands and numbers? The women who painted them with radium died slowly and horribly of radiation poisoning, which the companies then covered up. Right now one of the world's chief manufacturers of airbags may go into bankruptcy because their product was apt to explode with such force it also propelled metallic pieces of the mechanism, killing several people. Sometimes a product is dangerous by accident but too often companies are loathe to admit it and opt to cover it up to protect their investment and profits, rather than protect their customers.

Again the money itself is morally neutral; it is people's love of it and some of the ways they try to get it or use it that are evil. God is not against people being rich, provided the person achieves it through ethical means and is generous to the less fortunate. Several of the Old Testament patriarchs were wealthy. And our passage from 1 Timothy has an awful lot to say about how the rich ought to think and act.

Paul starts by linking godliness with contentment. Greed and an envy of others are not compatible with being Christlike. If we have the basics, like food, clothing and shelter, we need to be grateful instead. If we have more than we need, we should share with those who lack even the necessities of life.

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” If all you are aiming for is to be wealthy, you can do so by stealing or by conning or cheating people or by intimidating them. On NPR one former drug dealer said he actually came from a family of successful people. He wanted to be one too and drugs seemed to be a fast and easy way to do as well or better than his relatives and siblings. Of course, the price paid is the destruction of the lives in his community as well as the danger to himself in turf wars.

Paul says that in pursuit of riches people have “pierced themselves with many pains.” And indeed one way to get rich is to do things that are ultimately self-destructive. In the Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted the filmmakers follow a group of young women who come to Miami to get into porn. One of the reasons that South Florida has become a Mecca for this kind of thing is that California law demands that condoms be used for the safety of the “actors.” Our state has no such requirement. And the riskier or kinkier the sex, the more money you make. At first the girls love the money and the attention of fans. They are mostly small town girls right out of high school who become celebrities in the porn world. And they are making hundreds of dollars a day simply by having sex. 

But it starts to take a toll on them. There is the constant testing for STDs like HIV. There is the wear and tear on the body. It is harmful not only physically but psychologically. One girl finds a boyfriend who says he understands her choice but has an increasingly hard time dealing with the nature of her work. There is also the problem of breaking it to the family. In the age of the internet family usually finds out. The girls also start to experience the inherent misogyny in the business. They begin to realize that they are just fresh meat in a highly competitive business. Most of these young women are out of porn in 3 months, only to be replaced by naive newcomers. As Jesus said, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world at the price of one's soul? How can you buy back what you've lost?

But as we've said, while the Bible sees acquiring wealth as a spiritually risky venture, those who have riches can protect themselves from its deleterious effects. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty...” Arrogance is a huge temptation when you have a lot of money. You tend to forget how fortunate you are. For every person who is financially successful, there are thousands who don't make it. Even if you inherit your wealth, just one bad deal, just one terrible investment, just one product failure, just one market downturn and you can suffer a major reversal of fortune. I am always surprised that more successful people don't acknowledge the role of chance in their rise to riches. Oddly enough, most movie stars do, knowing that they were lucky to get cast in a certain great role, sometimes simply because some other star dropped out. Humphrey Bogart, for instance, owed many of his iconic roles to George Raft, who turned down the leads in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. But few other millionaires will admit that they were just lucky. They cling to the myth that they were entirely self-made and just smarter or harder working that ordinary mortals.

Arrogance, the self-assurance that one doesn't need the help or advice of others, is the chief of the so-called seven deadly sins because such people are reluctant to acknowledge their dependence on God as well. It is, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the complete anti-God state of mind. And because wealth gives you more power over your life and the life of others, it can lull the rich into thinking they are totally in control of what happens to them. Paul warns such people not “to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Humility and gratitude for his gifts are more appropriate than thinking we are the masters of our fate.

They are to do good, to be rich in good works...” Wealth is power and used rightly it can do a lot of good. Bill and Melinda Gates are using their $44 billion foundation to increase healthcare and reduce extreme poverty in the world, among other things. The largest faith-based charity is Lutheran Services in America with an annual operating revenue of $21 billion. It serves 6 million people, about 1 in 50 Americans, especially low income children, youth, seniors, those with disabilities, the homeless, veterans and refugees. 

So one thing a person with excess wealth can do is use it to help others. In fact, the rich man in today's gospel (Luke 16:19-31) is suffering because he couldn't even be bothered to help the poor man who lay at his gate. Seriously, if you had a poor starving guy, who had sores that the dogs licked, right at your door—I mean, you practically have to step over the guy when you go in or out of your house—and you didn't even give him your leftovers, much less have someone tend to his wounds, could you blame God for being angry with you? The man is in Hades, not because he is rich but because he is an uncaring jerk. The least he could have done would have meant a world to poor, hungry, sick Lazarus.

So Paul says the well-off should be “generous, ready to share...” We are having problems right now getting our granddaughter to share with other kids. But she's 2 and an only child. Less forgivable is an adult who makes more money in an hour than most people do in a year and yet who can't share his wealth with others through a charity. I mean there are tons of them out there and many are quite specific in what they do. So you can make sure you are supporting education, or housing, or food for the hungry, or support for veterans, or disaster relief, or help for the mentally ill, or fulfilling the wishes of dying children, or cancer research, or healthcare in general. You can provide help across the globe or here in the US or in your local community. And there are websites that will tell you how much a prospective charity actually spends on helping people. So there is no excuse not to give.

Paul says, when people do this, they are “...storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future...” Successful people are often driven by a vision of the future, although it's usually a future they create. But this is a future God is creating. And it is about things that will last, unlike wealth which is ephemeral. We brought nothing into this world, Paul says, and we can't take anything out of it. When the things of this world go away, what's left is eternal. One of the bittersweet lessons of this life is that we can't really hold onto anything. And I'm not just talking about money or possessions. I understand how young mothers, like my daughter-in-law, want their newborns to stay little forever. But babies grow into toddlers, toddlers into children, children into teenagers and teenagers into adults. We change and grow older. We gain mastery in certain areas of life and then gradually lose them. The mantra of our culture is don't live in the past; live in the present. But the present becomes the past with each second. And if you are just thinking about this life, you have to acknowledge that it will end.

By using the present to serve God by serving our fellow human beings, we are laying a good foundation for the future. And what is that future? To “take hold of the life that really is life.” Too often wealth gives one ways to avoid really living life. If you have enough stuff, you can distract yourself from everyday life. You can bypass some of the hard work and unpleasantness of life but you can also miss out on wonderful moments. You can't stop and smell the roses when you are running from meeting to meeting or working late into the night because markets on the other side of the globe are open.

It can also make you jaded toward simple pleasures. Why go for a walk through the woods when you can experience the exhilaration of speeding around in a really powerful car? Why read to your child when you can simply install an entertainment center in their bedroom that will give you more time to pursue your own interests? Riches can remove you from real life. When you are on your deathbed you are not going to regret not working harder, nor are you going to wish you had played more hours of golf or video games. You may regret not being there for someone when they needed you, however unpleasant that may have been at the time. You may regret missing certain special moments with loved ones, because of busyness or self-indulgence. What you will regret are missed opportunities to love. The best parts of life are steeped in it—the love of others and the love of doing something meaningful, that is, something that will have a positive impact on others.

Fortunes come and fortunes go. The true treasure is everlasting. It is being included, enfolded in the eternal life shared by our heavenly Father, Jesus, his Son our savior, and the Holy Spirit of love that unites them as one. It is becoming part of the divine life of our beneficent God, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” God doesn't want to take all your toys away from you; he wants you to share them with others. When you truly love someone, you say, “What is mine is yours.” God says that to us everyday when we open our eyes and once again enjoy life, love, nature, our bodies, our families, our friends, our talents and all the other gifts he so graciously showers upon us.

In a few minutes we will enter into the mystery of God's greatest gift—his loving presence made real in his son our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose body and blood we will partake. When our hoarding and fighting over and misusing God's gifts poisoned our lives, Jesus said, “What is mine is yours” and gave us his life. Every week we, the Body of Christ, share the Body of Christ. We come forward with empty hands to receive what he so freely gives. But I like to think that we are actually offering him our poor, empty lives and receiving his rich, full life in exchange. It's a poor bargain on his part, as the world reckons things, but that is because you cannot measure or monetize love. You can however receive it and return it and you can still pass it on. Because there is no limit to God's love. You cannot corner the market on it because its source is endless. Nor can it be contained. It overflows all vessels as it overflowed even the life of Jesus, the fountain of living, refreshing, life-restoring water. So let's stop trying to hoard it. Let's be extravagant with it. Let's pour it out on everyone we meet, baptizing them, soaking them with God's love. Because it springs from a well that will never run dry. 

No comments:

Post a Comment