Money and Inevitability
A few years ago, I had a sore jaw, and I went to the doctor about it. My normal GP wasn’t available so I saw one of the others in the practice. He recommended I get an ultrasound scan of the jaw. I was cautious about the cost so I asked him how much it would be. He casually said – oh not much, they’re quite cheap, and sent me off to the Mercy clinic. When I arrived, one of the radiographers saw me, and we discussed the scan. I asked him what the cost was, and he said $200. I burst into tears on the spot – blurted out that I simply couldn’t afford that, and ran away. This incident threw me for days. Each time I thought about it or spoke about it I would cry. I actually had tears in my eyes at my computer while I wrote this.
It’s clear to me that the shock of that moment isn’t about the $200. I know that if my jaw situation had felt life-threatening, I would have found a way to afford the scan. But there was something in that situation that pressed a very deep button about my relationship to money and security. Partly, there was the sense of having been misled by someone whose financial perspective was obviously vastly different from my own…. Partly there was the sense of vulnerability –my financial status suddenly felt more precarious than I had imagined it…what if I got really sick? How would I manage?
But I also feel that there was something else going on: my very deep, emotional, irrational relationship to money (or rather, the lack of it), that has been forged over many years. This relationship has nothing to do with what I can actually afford in terms of life’s basics. It’s not based on genuine realities of whether I have enough to eat today, or is my phone going to be cut off next week. It’s to do with the picture I carry of how much money I should have, would like to have, and a deeply held image of the ‘good life’ that has to do with financial security above all things. What I have learned from my emotional reactions to things concerning money is that money operates in my life, and in our culture, as a symbol. That is, its meaning goes far beyond what is practically needed to furnish the basics of living – food, shelter, transport. And symbols can pretty quickly become idols, and demand the kind of attention and emotional investment that I want to give only to God.
This is a sermon about money. And so I want to say right at the outset, that it’s not about some people having more money than others. And it’s not about asking for money for the church. What I want to do is explore how money operates in our culture, and in our hearts, and how that relates to the Christian gospel. It seems to me that the differences in wealth between us, in our community, are rendered meaningless if you compare any of us to someone living in a situation of starvation, sickness, and overcrowding. I often feel like I’m struggling financially, and compared to some of my peers, I am…but I’m not in danger of running out of food. The struggle I have is in relation to my expectations, not my physical wellbeing. I often find that those who feel a comparative lack of wealth actually talk and think and behave more obsessively about money than those whose relative comfort allows them to relegate money to a secondary consideration in their lives. Money can be a greater hurdle on the idolatry front for those with less, rather than those with more.
Money is a spiritual issue. I’m sure we’ve all heard the bible verse ‘the love of money is the root of all evil’, and numerous sermons either espousing, or trying to wriggle out of the sentiment. But more emphatic is the importance given to the topic in the gospel narratives. In the gospel of Luke alone (which I’ll admit, has more of a thing about money than some of the others), there are at least 15 separate teaching instances or narrative examples about money. And all of them are to do with some kind of reversal of values or assumptions about money and wealth.
Here’s a quick run-down of some of the instances in Luke:
Mary’s Magnificat, where great reversals of high and low, rich and poor are announced. The teachings of John the Baptist – ‘whoever has two coats must give one to someone who has none’, ‘Do not extort money from anyone’ ‘be satisfied with your wages.’ Jesus’ announcement in the synagogue – he has come to give good news to the poor. The beatitudes – blessed are the poor, woe to you who are rich. The parable of debts forgiven as a teaching to understand gratitude. The parable of the sower, where one soil represents those whose love of the gospel is ‘choked by cares and riches and pleasures of this life’. Chapter 12 has the warning ‘take care! be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’, which is followed by the parable of the rich man who built extra large barns to house his surplus, and died that same night. Then in the same chapter the ‘do not worry’ passages, with their promises of God’s provision and the exhortation not to be consumed with security, but to sell possessions and give alms. In chapter 16, the famous ‘you cannot serve both God and wealth’, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, whose life-after-death scenarios are a reversal of their experience in this life. Chapter 18 has the story of the rich man coming to Jesus to ask what he must do to be saved, and going sadly away…the famous ‘camel through the eye of the needle’ analogy. In Chapter 19 we have Zacchaeus, who repents of his fraudulent relationship with money after an encounter with Jesus, and then the parable of the pounds. And then there’s the observation about the poor widow’s two copper coins as a gift most honouring to God.
And that’s just the direct references. Regardless of how we might interpret these passages, it seems clear that our relationship with money is an important aspect of what it means to follow Jesus. I believe that Jesus’ vision for human social existence rests on a radically different sense of what is important, what is a ‘good life’ than that held in the West today. The images in our culture that shape our desires, and our expectations for our lifestyle, I suggest, bear very little relationship to Jesus’ vision – because to achieve them, we need to put earning and saving up money in the primary place in our hearts and minds. To live ‘the dream’ exemplified by celebrities, or even just ordinary middle class families on TV, requires us to devote a significant proportion of our energy and time to increasing our wealth. Our wants, our fears, and the grids by which we evaluate our happiness and worthiness are all formed in this culture. Unless there’s some kind of alternative influence, it is possible for our entire emotional world to have money at its centre. By money here I don’t just mean dollars in the bank or wallet, but the things that money buys, and achieves for us, in terms of the products, services and activities we can access.
One question that could provide an indicator to assess where we’re at with money is to ask ‘what do I worry about?’ When I lie awake at night fretting, or when I feel that my life is not on track…what is at the source of that stress? I don’t think it’s just me that spends a decent chunk of my worry time on how to manage life financially. And yet Jesus directly addressed that very issue. Knowing how financial concerns take time and energy and wellbeing away from serving him in the world, he says ‘do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.’ I don’t think this is a statement about genuine poverty. It doesn’t address world hunger issues. It’s about the relationship between money and security in our hearts. When money replaces God as our source of security, we are more likely to worry about whether we have enough of it.
In an environment where money and possessions are at the core of our sense of wellbeing, spirituality can only be an accessory. The real god is wealth, and so worship and spiritual development become add-ons to the main event, which is accruing wealth. The burgeoning ‘spirituality industry’ in our culture shows how for those with cash, spirituality can be purchased as a commodity, in the form of props, books, classes, and sessions. These things may well lead to a sense of peace, to a more positive and fulfilled life, to personal insight. But the kind of spirituality that relies on the dollar cannot afford to challenge too seriously the worldview that supports it. So it will never lead people to question the extent to which their relationship with money and their relationship with God might be in conflict. Jesus, on the other hand, constantly raises this question, constantly insists that Christianity is not just personal, and not just inward, but is moral, social, and political. And part of its character is to challenge the kinds of social norms and structures that seem natural and neutral, but are in fact undermining to the vision of the kingdom of God.
I think there are many reasons why the gospels warn about money. I only want to consider one today. And that’s the notion of ‘inevitability’ or ‘givenness’. That is, the sense we have that the way things are, is the way they have to be: ‘there is no alternative.’ The stories and images in our culture that tell us what is needful, what is important, and how to be happy, are powerful generators of ‘inevitability’. And I think that a large part of Jesus’ mission and identity were about reversing and undermining ‘inevitability’. On a grand scale, he subverted the inevitability of death itself. The last great ‘givenness’, the thing that our modern technology enables us to put off, but not finally to defeat, was overturned by Jesus’ resurrection. And within this over-arching inversion, his life and teaching exemplified a number of smaller inversions – sickness to health, outcast to community member, sinners and righteous, weak and powerful…. and rich and poor.
I like this quote from John Fowles’ novel A Maggot: ‘Christ’s kingdom is not must. If a thing must be, it is not of Christ. A harlot must be always harlot, is not Christ. Man must rule always over woman, is not Christ. Children must starve, is not Christ. All must suffer for what they are born is not Christ. No must by this world’s lights is Christ. It is darkness, ‘tis the sepulchre this world doth lie in for its sins.’
I think that in our world, the ideas and stories and images that are shaping us have set out some pretty strong ‘musts’ about what constitutes a good life, and how much money or stuff is needed to maintain that life, and therefore the kind and amount of work that is needed to provide it. The problem here is not with the standard itself, or how much money we have – it’s the unfreedom to imagine that any other kind of lifestyle is desirable. Freedom from the power of mammon is about emancipation of the imagination. It’s about the space to put God in the centre of my decision making, my hopes and dreams and vision, not my anxieties about how I will afford the things I want. And it’s about learning to trust God, and God’s provision rather than feeling as though I have to stand always on my own two feet.
I struggle so hard with this stuff. My anxiety and my desires for certain kinds of expensive things and experiences are right down deep within me, and need to be frequently challenged by encounters with Jesus, and his words in the gospels. I know that the path to freedom for me is to let God create in me an alternative vision, a picture of a ‘good life’ that has God at the centre, and for my deep self to become as invested in that vision, as the one that I normally carry around. I’ve found that there are some practical things that help in this process.
Firstly, perspective. Where I put my brain and my eyes dictates to a large extent how I feel about the life I’m living. If I put myself in constant contact with TV shows with glamorous characters and environments, or magazines full of nice stuff, then I feel dissatisfied. If I meditate on the gospels, or read a Tear Fund magazine, or watch a documentary set in the developing world, then I feel grateful, and rich. It’s quite simple.
Another suggestion is to set about changing the metaphor for how we come by our wealth. Only in a very limited sense do we earn it. In the broader scheme of things, it’s a gift. From God. Just as are the faculties by which we learn and work, the environment we live in, the air we breathe, and the love and care of those around us. We can take too much credit for what we are able to achieve, because the very means of our achievement – our birth, our starting position in society and the world, our parents, our health, our skills – these are things over which we have little or no influence. And as we have received what we have as a gift, our relationship with money needs to be that we, in imitation of God, give to others. That’s why I don’t find the idea of tithing particularly helpful. It assumes that God is interested in only 10% of our wealth. When, actually, all of it is for us to hold in trust and distribute to ourselves and others, along principles informed by prayer and seeking God’s wisdom.
The third thing that helps with questioning my approach to money is to talk with others about money and how I spend it, and how I feel about it. I grew up thinking that conversations about money were taboo. What you earn, and how you spend it, are private affairs. If you’re in financial strife, make sure nobody else knows, because that’s a cause for shame. But the idea of money being private buys into the idea of money being ‘mine’ – that is, not a fluid resource that is shared between me and others according to need, but to be kept for the benefit and security of myself and my family. In this church, we talk of sharing our lives, of being the body of Christ, of being a community. It would be radical indeed if our talk of community extended to being able to talk about how we’re doing financially, and including each other in our financial decisions.
And the last thing is to cultivate an alternative system of valuing. It helps me to hear of things that people do, for their own sake, because they enjoy them, not because they’re part of the story about what is valuable in our culture. What are things that I can participate in that bring freedom, and strengthen relationships, and engage my imagination, that aren’t part of the great chain of consumption? I know that going for a swim, or reading a library book, or walking with a friend, or getting together with others to sing – these things feed my soul and are all part of my ‘good life’, none of which requires of me that I earn anything or buy anything. I want to support those things in our world that emphasise a broader sense of our humanity than our involvement in commerce. Art, literature, drama, play, worship, sport, music, parties, social engagement, the natural environment…these dimensions of human living, while they are often enmeshed in the market as the means of their production, still point to a larger vision of what it means to be alive, to be human, to be in community with others.
Jesus was not really into caution, or self-protection – he lived and spoke in ways that got him killed. God’s model of living is kenosis – the pouring out of self for others. These are not fashionable values in our risk-averse, security conscious, money driven world. But they are the pattern of the Christ that we follow. They are the pattern of the life that he calls us into. And that’s why money is a spiritual issue. Because as long as we need to protect our wealth, or our earning capacity, or our lifestyle, we cannot embark on that alternative pattern. As long as our minds are held captive by the ‘inevitabilities’ of our culture, we will be serving money, not God.