In the story of God’s promise never to destroy the earth with a flood again, God sets a rainbow in the sky as a reminder that God cares for his creation. The promise God makes — the Noahic covenant — is a promise to Noah, his descendants, and to every living creature with Noah, and ultimately to the earth itself. This covenant reminds us that God has plans for his creation and that we have a responsibility to care for it until God makes “all things new.”
Have you ever been told that the Parable of the Talents meant you should use your own individual talents for God? Well, that is certainly true, but the meaning of this parable goes far beyond that narrow application. Here’s the sermon I’m preaching on Sunday, November 13, 2011, from Matthew 25:14-30, The Parable of the Talents.
Our Responsibility For Managing God’s Gifts
Matthew 25:14-30 NIV’84
“Again, it [the kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talentsof money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’
21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
22 “The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’
23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
24 “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The Story of a US Treasury Bond and a CD
When I turned 16 I received several presents from my family, and some from Debbie. I probably got my usual complement of sweaters. I always got at least one sweater, and usually from Debbie. That tradition has continued down through the years, and we now have a collection of about three dozen photos from birthdays, or Christmases, in which the subject and pose is the same – me holding up my new sweater.
But on this particular birthday I received a gift from my Aunt Betty Jackson, my father’s youngest sister. Aunt Betty sent me a United States Savings Bond with a maturity value of $25. The savings bond was enclosed with a note that said that my father, who is about 10 years older than she is, had given her a $25 savings bond on her 16th birthday. She was returning the favor and continuing the tradition.
I think her note went on to celebrate the importance of saving, and how in only 8 years or so I could cash the bond in for its full face value of $25.
I of course took all that to heart, including the very touching story of how her older brother, my father, had sent her a savings bond, probably while he was still serving in the Air Force during World War II.
I also read with interest my aunt’s counsel to start saving now, and to use that bond as the beginning of a life of frugality and thrift.
But, of course, I was 16. Debbie and I probably had a date for that Friday night, and my financial condition was in its usual state of insolvency.
You have to remember that in 1964, when I turned 16, both of us could have dinner at Shoney’s, see the latest feature film at the Tennessee Theater in downtown Nashville, and get a banana split afterward for less than $15.
So, of course, I cashed the savings bond. I remember the teller counting out $18, and I also remember thinking that I would have had to wait 8 years for another $7 bucks!
But there’s more to the story. When our oldest daughter, Laurie, was a teenager, she began working part-time jobs at places like McDonald’s, and then the local dry cleaners. Laurie was very frugal with her money, and we kidded her about being so cheap.
One day she told me that she was going to take some of her hard earned cash and buy a CD. I instantly thought “compact disc” and assumed that like any teenager she was going to buy her favorite band’s latest album.
But when I asked her which album she was going to buy on CD, she quickly corrected me by saying, “Not that kind of CD – a certificate of deposit!”
To this day, we do not know where she got those genes, but needless to say Laurie was always the one in our family who had money. She still is.
A Story About Financial Management in the First Century
Which brings us to our story today. This parable is commonly called the Parable of the Talents, although Luke has a version of it also in which some translations use the word “pounds” to describe the amount of currency the servants received.
But for our discussion today we’ll stick with Matthew’s story. Jesus tells the story of a man going on a journey for a long time. This man is obviously quite wealthy, and before he leaves he calls his servants together.
To each of three servants the master entrusts his property. The implication is that the master gives them most of his estate. While the term “talent” doesn’t mean much to us, those in the first century who heard this story would have known immediately that it was a tremendous sum of money. A talent was the equivalent of 20 years’ wages. So when he gives 5 talents, 2 talents, and 1 talent to each of the three servants, the master is putting them in charge of about 160 years’ worth of wages.
Obviously this is a sum that none of them will be able to make good on should their stewardship fail. Matthew tells us that each receives according to his ability, so the master is sensitive to the fact that some can handle more responsibility than others.
Matthew says that “after a long time” the master returns to settle accounts with his servants. We don’t know how long a “long time” was, but it was time enough for them to have managed the assets entrusted to them, and to receive a return.
You know how the story goes. The master calls the servants and asks for an accounting. The servant who was given 5 talents reminded his master that he had received 5, but then also reported that he had earned 5 more, for a total of 10 talents. That’s a 100% return on investment, which is great by any measure.
The master is thrilled. “Well done. You are a good and faithful servant. Enter the joy of your Lord.” Which is a very first century way of saying, “Way to go, dude!” Or words to that effect.
The second servant, who has received two talents makes the same report. “You gave me two and I have earned two more.” Again, the master gives him a high five, and a well done, and invites him to share his joy at this report. But note also that the master makes no distinction between the first servant who earned 5 talents, and the second one who earned 2. Both achieved a return of 100%, both are praised, and both are invited to celebrate with the master.
But then the third servant has to report. He had received only 1 talent. But instead of reporting on his stewardship, he begins to talk about the master himself.
‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
This is not what the master wanted to hear. The master replied, “Oh, you knew that I harvested where I did not sow.” The implication in the master’s observation is “Of course, I harvest where I do not sow…that’s why I have you!”
Then, he commands that the servant who has buried his 1 talent and produced nothing by way of return, be thrown outside. But, not until after the one talent he still has is confiscated, given to the servant who now has 10. The master also calls the servant wicked and lazy for failing to produce any return on the master’s investment at all.
Doesn’t that strike you as strange? I mean, in this day of uncertain economic conditions, with the Greeks, and now possibly Italy about to default on their international debt, shouldn’t this very conservative servant at least get the benefit of exercising caution? Why does the master treat him so badly? After all, he didn’t steal the one talent, he didn’t lose the one talent, he just failed to double it like the other two servants had done.
The Meaning of the Parable Then
Okay, let’s look more closely at this parable. Usually we talk about this parable as one that encourages us to use the individual gifts God has given to us. I have heard preachers say things like, “If you have the talent to play the piano or sing, you need to be using it for God.”
Of course, that’s true. But that’s not what this parable is about. If it’s not about using our individual talents responsibly, what is it about?
Let me answer that question this way. First, this is another parable about what the kingdom of heaven is like. Jesus’ announcement of the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven is made at the beginning of his earthly ministry.
Secondly, we have to read this parable in light of all the other things Jesus has said, particularly in these closing chapters of Matthew, because Jesus is now in Jerusalem and will be crucified before the end of this week in which he tells this story is over.
I believe the parable of the talents can be understood like this: God is the master, and God has gone away from the nation of Israel. And, because the Roman army occupies the Promised Land now, it must seem like God has been gone a mighty long time from his people.
Third, the idea that God will come back to Jerusalem, back to the Temple, was a prominent theme in the preaching of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus is the incarnation of Israel’s God who has returned to Jerusalem, and to the Temple.
But instead of Jesus’ coming as Messiah being a glorious event, an event that Israel could look forward to, this coming of the Messiah is one of judgment.
Remember what Jesus has already done? He has cleansed the Temple of its corruption and defilement by driving the money changers from its courts.
And, Jesus has roundly criticized the religious leaders of his day as corrupt, evil, hypocritical, full of dead men’s bones like painted tombs, and he has also accused them of misleading the nation who depends on them for interpreting God’s Law to them.
So, God is the master, and the religious leaders of the day are the one-talent servant. The servant with one talent is the one who receives the most criticism and to whom the bulk of the parable is directed. Perhaps these are the Pharisees, or all the religious leaders. Jesus has expressed his outrage with their hypocrisy and self-serving religious performance before.
Perhaps the Essenes represent the servant given 2 talents. This servant has limited ability, and perhaps the limitations are self-imposed. The Essenes were really big on righteousness, but so much so that they had moved outside the city of Jerusalem, and had given up marriage to live pure and righteous lives. Many believe that John the Baptist was an Essene himself. But, obviously, their movement would not last long if it never produced any offspring.
But whether or not I have the other two servants right, there is no doubt about the servant with the 5 talents.
Who then was the servant that had 5 talents, produced 5 more, and then got the 1 talent taken from the unfaithful servant? These are the followers of Jesus. They are the ones who get the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God.
They not only get it, they share it, and by doing so double their wealth, and their reward.
The Parable Today
So, here’s my take on this. The parable is told about Israel, the people of God. God is the master, God’s people are the servants, and some do a much better job than others of providing the master with a return on his gift.
This basically is a parable directed to groups, or communities within first century Israel. Each of these communities has their own belief system, their own theology, their own mission.
But the real mission is to do what the master expects – to produce a return on the master’s investment.
To put is plainly, we as the modern day people of God are God’s servants. And while it is certainly not wrong to say if you have musical talent, or any other kind for that matter, you are to use it for God’s glory, there is a bigger message and caution here for us as 21st century followers of Jesus.
Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God growing like a mustard seed – from the tiniest of seeds to the largest of trees in that area.
He also spoke of the kingdom of God permeating society like yeast permeated bread dough. It goes all through it until it leavens the whole lump of dough.
And, he also spoke of the kingdom of heaven like light which by its very shining dispels darkness.
All of those images point to the fact that the expectation of the rule and reign of God is that Jesus’ followers will do what he did – announce, demonstrate, and live out the kingdom as a contrast society in this world.
God had given the religious leaders of his day a position of responsibility, the Law of God, and the Temple. With those “talents” the Pharisees and Sadducees should have been able to produce the equivalent of doubling those who understood that God was the creator and ruler of all creation, that the God of Israel was the God of the Nations.
Its interesting to note that medieval mapmakers, working long before cartography became an exact science, often depicted Jerusalem as the center of the globe, with all the continents revolving around the City of God.
Their maps were obviously drawn as theological statements rather than geopgraphically-correct documents. But the idea that God was in charge, to use N. T. Wright’s phrase, was evident in their mapmaking, even if their maps were not very useful for actual navigation.
That is what we are to do today as well. Draw the maps of our lives with the kingdom of God as the center of our being. With God in charge, with the kingdom of God as the guiding principle of all of creation.
While God gave the first century religious leaders the Law and the Temple, we have so much more. God has entrusted us with the story of Jesus, with the Bible as the record of that story, with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, and with the insight of 20 centuries of Christian witness. Our responsibility is greater than that of the Pharisees of the first century, or even Jesus’ first century followers.
If they are given the equivalent of 5 talents, and they produce 5 more, we must have been given by God the equivalent of 10 or 20 talents. We know more, understand more, have the benefit of history, the mistakes and achievements of others, and the energizing presence of the Holy Spirit to both guide and empower us. We have more, and yet often do less than the first disciples.
But that can and must change. The kingdom is not our exclusive possession, nor is it our exclusive destination. We have been given a gift to share, a gift to give away, and as we give that gift away it produces a return of 10-fold and more. Our reward will be God’s joy that out of all the centuries, and all his people, that this generation understood what it meant to act so that God’s gifts were not merely preserved for the few, but announced to the many. Only then will we hear, Well done, good and faithful servant!
Sadly, we in the 21st century have fallen into some of the same errors of the religious leaders of the 1st centry. We confuse our limited understanding of God, which we call doctrine, with the God of all Creation, and limit ourselves in effective kingdom work with our own shortsightedness and misplaced self-assurance.
We are warned not to inhibit the growth of the kingdom, but to encourage it by our own actions. In doing so, we earn the reward of hearing God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
Here’s the sermon I ‘m preaching tomorrow from 1 Timothy 6:6-19, titled “Wall Street and the Apostle Paul.”
Wall Street and The Apostle Paul
1 Timothy 6:6-19 NIV
6But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
11But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.
17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
Wall Street Meets The Apostle Paul
We’re in Paul’s first letter to young Timothy again today. Remember last week we talked about Paul’s instruction to Timothy’s church in this letter; and his encouragement for Timothy and his church to pray for everybody when they gathered, and everybody included the emperor and all who were in positions of governmental leadership.
Well, today we have another timely topic straight from this letter of Paul to Timothy. The entire letter of 1 Timothy is, as we noted last week, instruction to Timothy on how to handle various situations in his church. Today we come to the topic of money. And we find out that human nature hasn’t changed that much.
In a kind of Wall-Street-meets-Saint-Paul mashup, Paul speaks not only to first century concerns about how Christians should deal with money, but also 21st century concerns. I’m picking on Wall Street today a little because I was horrified when the chairman of Goldman-Sachs said that his investment bank was “doing God’s work.” And, amazingly he said that in the midst of the world’s financial crisis, right before his firm paid millions of dollars in bonuses to some of the same people that helped create the crisis. But, my point is that Goldman-Sachs illustrates the very thing Paul is telling Timothy to avoid — the love of, and misuse, of money.
But, we really can’t pick on Wall Street too much today because Paul is writing about Christians, not Roman citizens in general. Paul could no more control the greed of first century Rome than we can control the greed of those who deal in millions each day on the world’s financial markets. Interestingly, some of the richest people of Paul’s day were politicians, so things haven’t changed. But back to this business of Christians and money.
Of course, Jesus said a lot about money and possessions to his followers. Jesus said things like “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” and “don’t worry about what you’re going to wear or eat because God clothes the grass of the field and feeds the birds of the air.”
And, Jesus indicated that we are to be good stewards — “give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” Of course, everything is God’s which was Jesus’ point that day, I believe.
But here we come to some really practical advice for how a young pastor is to deal with money and with people who have money, people who are rich. So, let’s take a look at Paul’s advice to a young pastor on the subject of money.
The Gospel Isn’t A Get-Rich-Quick Scheme
We have to go back and pick up a couple of verses that precede what we read in today’s lectionary reading for this to make as much sense as it should. Here’s what Paul has said before verse 6 —
“If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” – 1 Timothy 6:3-5 NIV
The first thing Paul wants Timothy to know is that the Gospel isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. Apparently there were those who were teaching and preaching false doctrine, and thought that because they were preachers, they deserved to get rich.
And, we have the same problem today. I recently watched a YouTube video of a Baptist pastor explaining to his megachurch congregation that their church didn’t really own its own private jet, as the local TV station had reported. “No,” he said, “we just lease it.” And of course, from time to time they had to charter other private jets to fly the pastor various places in the world.
Then there was the incident when the head of a major missions agency was flown to London for the premiere of a movie. The tickets cost about $12,000. Of course, the movie had a Christian theme, but it still boggles the mind.
Rich preachers and ministries have even attracted the attention of the United States Congress. Conservative Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, in 2007, announced an investigation into the finances of six major TV evangelists — Bennie Hinn, Paula White, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland. Only 3 of the 6 replied, and the others cited constitutional arguments against complying with the Senate Finance Committee’s request. It is the same Eddie Long who is now in the news accused of inappropriate physical relationships with young men in his congregation, traveling on worldwide trips where they stayed in luxury hotels.
Creflo Dollar, appropriately named, preaches a gospel of prosperity, and drives a Rolls-Royce. He said, according to Bloomberg BusinessNews,
“But when your church congregation — 20,000 at that time — come to you and say, “Pastor, we want you to drive the best,” I’m not going to turn that down. It would be a dishonor to the people that gave it to me.”
And even mainline churches are not exempt. The famous Riverside Church in New York, where Harry Emerson Fosdick preached, the church founded by John D. Rockefeller, lost their pastor last year because some members of the congregation didn’t think he should make over $600,000 per year.
So, this isn’t just a first century problem. It’s a human nature problem.
The Real Source of Contentment
Paul says that the real source of contentment is “godliness.” That’s the great gain that Timothy needs to look for, not an increase in his 401K. Paul goes on to say that if we have food on the table and clothes on our backs, then that’s enough. Of course, it isn’t in today’s world, but Paul is talking about the necessities of life, the basics. Which sounds very much like Jesus’ reminder that God clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds. Again, food and clothes, and we’re content.
And why should we be content with food and clothes? Two reasons: 1) we didn’t bring anything into the world; and, 2) we aren’t taking anything out. And in verse 17, Paul says,
“17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
Again, echoing the words of Jesus, “Put your hope in God,” Paul says, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”
Who Are These Rich People Paul Is Talking About?
But we need to pay close attention here, because there is something we must not miss. We must not miss the people Paul is talking about. Paul says, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant or put their hope in wealth…”
Remember that Paul is telling young Timothy how to manage the church, how to deal with church folks. Paul is talking about rich church members in Timothy’s church.
And guess who that includes? Us. All of us. Me, you, your neighbor sitting beside you today, the choir, everybody here. We’re all rich.
Of course, we may not feel that rich. But compared to the first century, we are extremely rich. And compared to the rest of the world, we are absolutely rich. And that’s what Americans are known for — being rich.
When I was working in China a lot, the factory in Nantong that I was working with sent their chief electronics engineer to the United States for a 3-week trip. It was my job to pick him up at the airport, and then spend the next three weeks traveling with him in the U.S. to visit our customers.
I remember picking him up when he arrived at Chicago’s Midway airport. I had flown from Nashville to meet him there, and I had hired a car to take us to our hotel. That’s pretty standard practice out of Midway, and you usually get a Lincoln Towncar. But that night we got a stretch limo for the same price.
When Mr. Gu got in the limo, he looked at me and said, “America, number one!” And then he asked me to take his picture sitting in the back of this luxurious car.
So, that’s what we’re known for around the world. When I was in Hong Kong, I ate at a restaurant called Dan Ryan’s. Dan Ryan’s was a Chicago-style restaurant that served good ole American food. After a couple of weeks in China I was ready for something familiar, and Dan Ryan’s was famous for barbecued ribs.
But as a disclaimer to their Hong Kong patrons, the restaurant had this warning printed on its menu — “We serve American portions.” Which meant, “sit back because you’re about to get a lot of food!”
So, we’re the rich church members Paul is talking about and talking to. What should we do with our comparative wealth?
Rich in Good Deeds, Generous, Willing To Share
Here’s what Paul says to Timothy about his rich church members:
18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
We’re to do good with what God has given us. Now that sounds pretty simple, but let me tell you a story to put a human face on how hard this might be.
Chris Heuertz and his wife are the International Directors of Word Made Flesh, a Christian organization that ministers with the poor in 11 developing countries. On a visit to India, Chris and his wife were in the home of an Indian family. Sujana, one of the daughters in the family, noticed Chris’s red-checked shirt. She said that she had stitched a shirt just like that in the factory where she worked.
She asked Chris if she could see the label. Sure enough, it said, “Made in India.” With some pride, Sujana explained that her factory made his shirt. Then she asked Chris how much the shirt cost in the United States. It was a shirt Chris bought at The Gap.
Embarrassed, he told her it cost $40. Forty dollars was more than Sujana made in an entire month. She earned less than $1 a day, working 10-hours a day, 6-days a week. And it took her income combined with her brothers and sisters, and her mother and father to eke out a meager livelihood in their village.
Chris said he recalled the words from Isaiah, “The plunder of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” Those words from Isaiah 3:14 convicted Chris of his misuse of money.
Chris decided that he would buy stock in The Gap, hoping it would go up, so he could give the profits to Sujana and her family. Unfortunately, the stock went down, and Chris lost money.
But then he decided that he would impose on himself a Personal Retail Equality Tax — he called it a PRET tax — everytime he bought clothes from a store that he knew Sujana’s factory supplied. So, he added 12% to the purchase price of each item, then banked the money. At the end of each year, Chris sends the money to Sujana’s family. This has enabled them to move into a home with indoor plumbing and to send some of their children for further education.*
My point in telling that story is this — how we handle what we have, our wealth, demonstrates our contentment with godliness, or our attachment to our stuff.
I like Paul’s advice to Timothy — “tell people to be rich in good deeds, generous, willing to share.” That’s good advice to us rich Christians.
* This story is from Friendship at the Margins by Chris Heuertz and Christine Pohl.
I am presenting this message tonight at a meeting of pastors and lay leaders who are concerned about the economy. I’d be interested in your comments.
Toward A Theology of Economics
1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
3Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”
5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Thinking About The Economy
We don’t have time today to review the almost countless articles, books, interviews, YouTube videos, podcasts, newscasts, newspaper reports, and other media all saying pretty much the same thing — the economy is in big trouble.
Unemployment is approaching 10%, and the government has promised us that, “Yep, before this is over it will hit 10%,” or more. And that’s just the latest bad news.
I’ve been following the economy with more interest than understanding for months. I bought several books, read Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times, subscribed to Nouriel Roubini’s economics website, and engaged in long conversations about the economy with a member of my church who is a former international banker, responsible for financing international business deals in South and Central America.
My conclusion from all of this reading, listening, and talking is this — the economy is in big trouble.
So let’s see what sense we can make of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, securitized assets, and the like. Actually, we’re not going to make any sense of any of those things, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what those terms, and the other 1,000 terms like them, really mean. I’ll leave that to our other guests this evening.
But what I do want us to do is this — I want us to think about the economy. But not in the ways that all of us, pundits and non-pundits alike, have been trying to think about it. I want us to think about the economy differently tonight. I want us to think about it theologically.
Of course, we can’t think about every facet, nuance, and detail of the economy, even theologically-speaking, so I have titled our time together, “Toward a Theology of Economics.” The idea being that the word “Toward” means we’re heading in the right direction, but we probably are not going to get there, at least not in the 20-minutes or so we have to think together.
Moving Toward a Theology of Economics Means Thinking Differently
One of my favorite books of the last 5 years is the book, Freakonomics, subtitled, A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything. Apparently, Steven Levitt was a rogue before Sarah Palin took the title. Anyway, Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago, and is a wunderkind of sorts among economists. Levitt’s particular gift is looking at things in society differently.
His co-author of Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner, writes,
So, Levitt asks interesting questions, such as, “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” Now that’s a pretty interesting question, and as you can imagine the story that provides the answer is both fascinating and too long for me to tell completely, so get the book.
But, the short version is that Sudhir Venkatesh, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, began interviewing members of the Black Disciples gang for a research project. In the course of those interviews, one of the gang members, their bookkeeper actually, gave Sudhir several spiral-bound notebooks containing the gang chapter’s accounts — income, expenses, salaries, overhead, cost of weapons, and so on — things all respectable gang businesses had to keep records of.
Sudhir talked to Levitt, and together they analyzed the contents of the gang’s books. What they found was that first, the gang was organized pretty much like a McDonald’s franchise — owners, bosses, workers, and wanna-be workers. Income came from the sale of drugs, club dues, and protection money paid to the gang by businesses. The head of that unit, or that particular gang franchise, made about $100,000 per year. But the guys next on the gang organizational chart made about $7/hour, and the street dealers made even less — about $3.30/hour. Thus answering the question, “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?”
So, the first lesson of our theology of economics is — Things aren’t always what they seem. That is especially true when you’re developing a theology of economics.
What Do We Mean By ‘Economy?’
Okay, let’s back up just a minute and ask ourselves, “What do we mean by economics?” Because if we’re moving toward a theology of economics, we might mean something different than what a Steven Levitt or a Paul Krugman or a Nouriel Roubini might mean when they use that word.
I am sure you all know this, but for the record, our English word “economy” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which meant “the management of the household.” But, it also had the implication that the manager was managing the household for another, meaning the master of the household.
You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Economics is more than money. Economics encompasses everything about managing the household, including, but not limited to money. And a theology of economics has to be more than “how can we get our members to give more?”
Okay, in the interest of time, let’s go ahead and define what we mean by “household.” Since we’re headed toward a theology of economics, let’s assume that the household, the enterprise being managed is God’s created order. Everything God made, over which God gave humankind dominion.
So, this is God’s household, this creation of God’s. And, we are the managers. We’re God’s economists.
So, the second lesson is — economics is the management of God’s household, and we’re God’s economists.
What Are We Supposed To Do?
So far, we’re making good progress. We’ve determined that things are not always what they seem, and that economics is really the management of God’s household.
But, it’s right here that we have to ask, “What are we supposed to do?” How do we manage God’s household exactly, and where do we find some guidance for doing it?
Well, we could get some help from financiers and global economists who tell us that economic growth is the goal of all economies. This year the US economy is expected to grow by about 2%, but China’s by about 9%. And so on down the roll-call of nations and growth rates. But, aren’t these the same guys who got us into this mess? The-growth-is-the-goal crowd, who like Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, taught us that “greed is good.” And so, they gave us the greatest economic crisis since World War II, and a near-miss at another world-wide depression. Maybe we need to look elsewhere for guidance.
We could also look at the global business managers who continue to move production from developed countries to developing countries, looking for the lowest labor costs in places like China, Viet Nam, and other developing nations. I used to be one of those — I ran a small manufacturing company that produced goods in China. I told myself that low wages were better than the subsistence farm life Chinese workers endured.
I told myself that until I toured some of the factories and saw the horrific working conditions that existed. OSHA would close those plants in a nano-second because workers’ lives and health are endangered every day. And some of those workers are involuntary or underage workers.
Do you know what the big deal about Chinese New Year is? Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year as they call it in China, is a period of two-to-four weeks just before spring when all the factories close and production stops. But, do you know why this is so important? Because hundreds of thousands of workers from the rural areas of China will travel from their factory dormitories in Guangdong or Wuxi or Nantong, back home to visit their families.
This is the only time of the entire year that most have to see their loved ones, who include wives, parents, and even their children. The dorms in which they live crowd dozens of workers together in barracks-like settings that are usually under-equipped with restrooms, showers, drinking water, and the simple comforts of home. I am no longer a globalist, as you can imagine. So, maybe we need to look elsewhere for our model to manage God’s household.
An Example From Nature
Of course, both Scripture and nature give us ample examples. Actually, Jesus used nature as the example of God’s economy. Jesus said,
28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
So, this is God’s household, but God also provides everything we need, including food, drink, and clothing. And, to worry about this stuff is to act like a pagan — one who doesn’t believe in the One True God.
A Characteristic of Economics: Extravagant Abundance
Debbie and I have had a vegetable garden for the last two years. And the words of Jesus we have just read were illustrated in our garden. We planted about 25 or so tomato seeds, and set out about that many tomato plants this year. But, on each plant, dozens of tomatoes grew. And when we cut those tomatoes open, thousands of seeds came gushing out. As a matter of fact, we had about a dozen volunteer tomato plants from last year because tomatoes fell on the ground, and rotted, but the seeds fell onto good soil and sprouted. (That’s another parable, by the way.)
God’s household, the natural part of it anyway, exhibits an extravagant abundance.
And that’s the first characteristic of our theology of economics — extravagant abundance. God did not plan for shortages. We have more than enough oxygen to breathe, more than enough water to drink, more than enough sunshine to fall of the earth.
We do not have a shortage in God’s household, we have a problem with distribution. Some of us have more that the rest of us. Now I realize that capitalism is based on just that idea — some people get rich, and some don’t. But remember, we’re moving toward a theology of economics, not a politics of economics.
God’s economy is not a giant, finite pie with only so many pieces to go around. There is an extravagant abundance, if we manage it correctly.
Unfortunately, there are too many examples of how we are not managing it correctly. Climate change, global warming, poverty, disease, and so on. But, let me give you an example a little closer to home, from the Lowe’s store in Danville.
Every spring we make the trek to Lowe’s to buy plants — flowers, mostly, because we grow our vegetables from seed.
Lowe’s has a great variety of both annuals and perennials, and it’s convenient for us to shop there. But this spring, I picked up a pot containing a plant which read — “Unlawful to propogate this plant. Copyrighted by….” whatever the name of the company was.
Some bio-geneticists have figured out how to produce a strain that has some unique characteristics. And, they’ve decided that they want to keep all the profits from that discovery for themselves. They want to sell you a new plant every year. You can’t share a clipping with a friend or fellow-gardener, or even root another for yourself.
That isn’t extravagant abundance, that’s greed.
Another Characteristic: Exceptional Generosity
Okay, we’re making progress. The second characteristic of our theology of economics is exceptional generosity.
Not only does God provide the food, the drink, and the clothes we need, in other words, our necessities, God provides it to everyone.
Jesus said, “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” So, if you’re a bad, wicked person, it will probably still rain on your garden. The sun will still shine on your tomato plants.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus healed all their sick. (Matt 12:15) Not just some, or even many, but all. Everyone who was sick got healed that day. Exceptional generosity.
Of course, the cross stands at the center of our theology of economics. The cross is God’s best example of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity.
Little children learn a verse that captures both the idea of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity — John 3:16.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
God gave all God had — his only Son — that is exceptional generosity. God gave God’s only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Extravagant abundance is all the salvation we could ever need, made available to anyone, everyone, all who believe — without limit, without qualification, without hesitation. There is enough for all, and it is available to all.
The cross is God’s comment about economics. The cross is God’s object lesson to the world about giving. The cross is God’s acceptance of all who will stand in its shadow.
The same Jesus who died on the cross, God raised from the dead and has made him both Christ and Lord. Now, we have no problem believing that Jesus is Lord of the first century, or that Jesus is the Lord of heaven. But, we need to realize that Jesus is also Lord of the economy, the real world in which we live.
Which brings us to our final theological characteristic.
A Third Characteristic: Eternal Consequences
A third theological characteristic of managing God’s household is this — our management of God’s household, God’s economy, has eternal consequences. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 25 —
34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The interesting thing in this passage is that both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous were totally surprised that their managing of God’s household had eternal consequences.
I wrote about this passage last week in my blog under the title, “Foolproof Evangelism Needs No Training or Budget.” My point was, this is something every person knows how to do, and can do immediately. I got some amazing responses. One respondent said,
You call this EVANGELISM!? No wonder America sinks in its depravation and sin! How about: …faith comes from H-E-A-R-I-N-G THE MESSAGE, and the message is heard through THE WORD of God.
My reply was, “These aren’t my words, take this up with Jesus.”
But, my point is this — how we manage the economy, God’s household, has eternal consequences.
Back To Ananias and Sapphira
Which brings us back to Ananias and Sapphira. I really like this story.
In the brand new church of the book of Acts, believers were practicing this theology of economics that we have been discussing. They realized that while some had more than others, that all would have enough if they pooled their resources. They recognized the extravagant abundance of God’s blessings. They just had to solve the distribution problem.
So, they sold what they had, and pooled the money. Those who sold property brought all the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Everybody had plenty, an abundance, because they were generous with those who needed it most. From abundance to generosity the early church experienced God’s favor and blessing.
But, Ananias and Sapphira decided they wanted the same recognition others had enjoyed. So they sold their property, but they decided not to give all the money to the church. They would keep back some. Rather than see abundance, they saw limit. “This is our only piece of property,” they must have said. “We deserve some of the money for ourselves.”
So, when Ananias brought the money to the apostles’ he said the same thing everyone else had said — “We sold our property, and we are giving the proceeds to the church.”
Peter knew Ananias was lying. So, Peter said,
“Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.
At that, Ananias fell down dead. They carried him out.
Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira arrived at church. She probably expected to be greeted with cheers and hugs for their generosity, but instead Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter rebuked her just as he had rebuked Ananias, and she falls down dead.
An amazing story, that’s also a little scary, but what does it have to do with a theology of economics?
Just this — Ananias and Sapphira believed in one economy, but lived their lives in another economy. They wanted the benefits and blessings of believing the right thing, without really having to do it.
And that’s where we find ourselves today. Living one economy, but wanting the benefits of God’s economy. Especially when the economy we live in is in big trouble. Peter said they were lying to the Holy Spirit. Their theology of economics had eternal consequences for Ananias and Sapphira. What about ours?
It is not enough for us to figure out what to do in this economic crisis. It’s not enough that we find something that works. Our understanding of economics begins with God.
For if we understand that God provides all we need, we can live our lives out of God’s extravagant abundance.
And, when we realize that there is plenty to go around if we share with one another, then we are practicing exceptional generosity.
Our actions will not only have immediate effect, but more importantly, our actions will have eternal consequences.
But, the protest is always, “But in the real world, things don’t work like that.” “No one else will act like this.” But isn’t that the point, that we, the followers of Christ are different? That our confidence is God, the God who made heaven and earth. So, even if no one else manages God’s household like we do, we can still do it. After all, we’re reading about first century Christians in the book of Acts, not because they failed to change the world, but precisely because they did change the world. But remember, in economics things aren’t always what they seem.
Materialism: Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
18A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”
21“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
26Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
27Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
28Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
29“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Has Jesus Lost His Mind?
Okay, imagine you live in the first century and you pastor a new church in Jerusalem. So far the only members you have attracted to your congregation are 12 guys who, to say the least, are not the cream of the crop. Several of them are fishermen, which is a smelly, messy business. One is a tax collector, or rather former tax collector, because he left a fine source of income to follow you. One is a domestic terrorist, Simon the Zealot, and he’s on the “no fly” list at the Judean Department of Homeland Security. One of them, Judas, is a self-taught accountant — at least that’s the story he told every one. Actually, all of these men, all 12 of them, are technically unemployed. They all left their jobs — fishing nets, tax collection booth, accounting, what have you — to follow you. Which is great, except the offerings have been down for some time now.
So, one day a really nice looking, extremely well-dressed young man comes up to you. He addresses you in polite and polished Aramaic, not the slanguage of the fishing village that most of your guys speak. And, he graciously calls you “good master.”
But, it’s his sincerity in asking his question that really gets to you. “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” So, this is a serious young man, too.
Here is a prime candidate for discipleship. He’s rich, young, and he’s a leader. Luke calls him a “certain ruler,” which probably meant he led a synagogue or was a leading member of a religious party with authority over others. In any event, he’s the best looking, wealthiest, and most articulate person who has questioned you.
That’s the situation that Jesus found himself in. Mark’s Gospel says everything that Luke’s does, plus it adds that this man “ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees before him.” So, the young man was not only rich, and powerful, but urgently seeking some answers to his spiritual questions.
Jesus replies by saying, “You know the commandments,” and Jesus begins to recite them:
- Do not commit adultery,
- do not murder,
- do not steal,
- do not give false testimony,
- honor your father and mother.
Now, what do you notice about this list of commandments that Jesus quotes? Well, first, these aren’t all the commandments. Jesus only quotes 5 here. There are 5 more, which is why the original list is called the Ten Commandments. But, why these five?
You might remember the Ten Commandments, but if not, let me give you a quick run-down from Exodus 20. Here they all are:
1. You shall have no other gods before me.
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol…
3. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God..
4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
5. Honor your father and your mother…
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery.
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
10. You shall not covet…
The first 4 commandments have to do with our relationship with God, and the next 6 have to do with how we treat others. Jesus totally skips over the first 4, and goes right to numbers 5-9, not in the exact order, but he gets them all in there.
Isn’t that interesting? Wouldn’t you, if someone asked you how to obtain eternal life, wouldn’t you start with stuff about God, especially the first 4 commandments — no other Gods, no idols, no taking God’s name in vain, and keep God’s day holy. I would, but Jesus doesn’t.
Jesus, instead, focuses the young man’s attention on 5 of the 6 commandments that are pretty straight-forward, and that deal with how you relate to other people.
The young ruler’s answer is — I’ve done all that since I was a kid. He had honored his father and mother, hadn’t killed anybody, hadn’t committed adultery (obviously he was not the governor of South Carolina), hadn’t stolen anything (after all he was rich), and hadn’t lied in court.
Now, Jesus probably knew that he was a good guy, and that this was going to be his answer.
Because then Jesus says, “But you’re missing one thing.”
At this point, all eyes and ears are on Jesus. The rich young ruler especially is completely captivated. And I am sure the look on his face is a mixture of both relief and expectancy.
He’s probably thinking at this point — “Okay, only one thing, that’s good. Just one more thing, and I’ve got this in the bag.”
Then, Jesus says, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Silence. Dead still. Nobody moves. They’re all in shock, not the least of which is the rich young ruler.
The Bible says “When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.”
The young man turns his back on Jesus and walks away. End of story. But not quite.
Because the disciples are stunned. “If this guy can’t make it, who can?” they ask Jesus? Why did they ask that? Because first, he was a righteous man. He took the law seriously and thought he kept it. Jews in the first century did not have our false humility about “nobody can live up to God’s law.” They fully expected to keep the law, and to do so developed thousands of rules to explain exactly what the law meant, and how far you could go and still be “keeping the law.”
Of course, Jesus blew all that nonsense away in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said over and over, “You have heard it has been said…but I say unto you.” And he reimagined what it meant to keep and break the law of God. But, that’s a sermon for another day.
But, even more than the young man’s righteousness, was his wealth. If a person was wealthy, others assumed God’s favor on him. God blessed him with wealth, therefore God smiled on him. He was one of God’s favorites, and his wealth was the sign of God’s blessing.
Now we know that wealth is not necessarily a sign of God’s favor, but there are still thousands of folks who today think so. The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” movement is built on the idea that God will bless you materially, if you do certain things. Most of those things involve sending money to your local television evangelist, who promises you that your “seed faith” sown in trust will reap you a great material harvest. So, the idea that lots of money is a sign of God’s blessing is still with us.
The disciples are stunned. How can anybody be saved if those whom God has blessed can’t be? Jesus reply, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Then, Peter sees an opportunity to score some points, and he blurts out, “We have left everything to follow you!” In other words, “Hey, Jesus, look at us — we’ve left everything just like you told the rich guy to do. Pretty good, huh?” Jesus is not impressed, and doesn’t commend Peter, but he does say that “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” So, you are going to be rewarded in this life and in the life to come no matter what you give up.
But, back to our story.
If We Were Jesus
If we were Jesus, here’s how this conversation would have gone:
Rich young ruler: What must I do to obtain eternal life?
Us: Keep the commandments.
RYR: I’ve done that since I was a kid.
Us: Great! Sounds like you’re our kind of people. By the way, that’s a stunning tie you have on? Did you get that at Brooks Brothers?
RYR: Why yes I did. If you like it, I could get you one. They’re only a $100 each, so not really expensive. As a matter of fact, take this one, and I’ll get another one later.
Us: Well, thanks. Say, let me tell you about our plans to build the largest synagogue in the world. God has given me a great vision for reaching people, and you can play a big part in that. Here’s a donor card. Could I put you down for a lifetime membership for only $10,000. Of course, for just $5,000 more you could be in the Pastor’s Circle, a very special group of those who support the ministry.
RYR: And that will get me eternal life?
Us: Actually, no, but we can talk about that later. Of course, God will be very pleased with you if you’re a good steward of the things he’s blessed you with. Could I put you down for a gift today? Our books close on June 30, so you’ve only got a couple of days left. Oh, of course, it’s all tax-deductible.
RYR: Well, I was really looking for eternal life today, but sure, why not. Maybe this is a first step in the right direction.
Us: I’m sure it is.
Okay, you get the point. If we were Jesus, we would not have told this guy to sell all he had. Or if we had, we certainly would not have told him to give it to the poor.
Have you ever thought about how he would give it to the poor? Would he had out 100-drachma coins on the street? Would he build a new homeless shelter in downtown Jerusalem? Would he have people sign up, and make sure they qualified by filling out a lot of paperwork? How would he actually give this money away to the poor?
And if he gave all his money away, he would still be young, but would he be a ruler? Probably not. Why, because money is power. Always has been, always will be. The rich young ruler knows that money is power, and asks “how can I obtain (get, purchase, acquire) eternal life.” He’s been able to parlay his wealth into position and prestige, now perhaps it will help him get a guaranteed ticket on the Heaven Express.
The Way We Handle Money Matters
I’ve heard preachers say, “Did Jesus really mean for him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor? Absolutely not, Jesus already knew he wouldn’t and so this was the young man’s ultimate test.”
And here’s where I’m going to disagree with those preachers. Jesus usually meant what he said. I think he meant for the rich young ruler to sell everything he had to follow Jesus. After all, why would he need it.
- Jesus had already told his disciples that the birds have nests and the foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
- He had taught the disciples to pray “Give us this day our daily bread” reminding them of God’s feeding the nation of Israel with manna while they were on their 40-year journey to the Promised Land.
- Jesus had shown them the power of God to provide by feeding 5,000 people with a boy’s lunch.
- Jesus had sent them out 2-by-2 and commanded them to take nothing with them, and the disciples returned amazed at how God had provided.
- Jesus had already told them to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
- Jesus had healed people for free, fed people for free, cast out demons for free, and preached to the crowd for free. In God’s economy, God is the source of all supply whatever the need.
Suppose Jesus were to ask us, “Sell this church and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Our insurance company tells us the buildings and furnishings are worth about $3-million. Not a small sum, even in today’s economy. We could do that.
I read recently of a church in California that abandoned plans to build a multi-million dollar building and instead began to meet in homes. All the money they were going to spend on building and maintenance they decided to give to feed people, clothe people, and help people.
The decisions we make about money cannot be hidden under the “we’re doing this for God” excuse. God doesn’t need our money or our buildings or our wealth to accomplish his purposes. God needs our obedience.
The Current State of Our Economy
According to the American Almanac, even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we consume 26% of the world’s energy. Well, of course, we do. We have to in order to run our air conditioners, our washers and dryers, our TVs, our DVD players, our computers, our hot water heaters, our microwaves, our refrigerators and freezers, our electric lights, our stereos, our cell phone chargers, our answering machines, our electric razors, hairdryers, curling irons, treadmills, and soon our electric cars.
So, our economic status separates us from the rest of the world. Because we use 26% of the world’s energy, we are leaving only 74% of the world’s energy to the remaining 95% of the world’s population.
And, do you know what the developing world tells us when we say to them, “Wow, we’ve made a mess of this planet, let’s all cut back and conserve energy.”
They say to us, “We want the same thing you have. No fair cutting off the power before we get to have our own cars, microwaves, TVs, computers and so on.” In other words, they want to be just like us.
I was in Shanghai, China very close to Christmas one year, and I was amazed. The Chinese malls and shopping districts were decorated for Xmas. Santa Claus was pictured, presents were wrapped, Christmas songs like “Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer” played over the PA systems. It was just like being in the US during the Christmas shopping spree. Of course, no Jesus, but hey, they had everything else!
The United Nations last week announced that now over 1-billion people are officially listed as being hungry, not having enough to eat. 1-billion, while we battle obesity here in the United States. Forgive another China story, but Americans eat such large servings, Dan Ryan’s restaurant in Hong Kong has a disclaimer that says, “We serve American portions.” Translation: you’re going to get a lot of food!
The Church World is No Different
But, you might say, those are all stories and statistics of the non-Christian world. Unfortunately, the church world is no different. Michael Spencer quotes the Charlotte World as saying,
As they say in the ginsu knife commercial, “But, wait, there’s more!” Beliefnet, which claims to be the world’s largest spirituality site, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Zondervan, one of the oldest and largest evangelical publishers, is owned by Harper/Collins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Beginning to see a pattern here? Obviously, Rupert Murdoch, an Australian billionaire and media mogul, believes there is big money to be made from the Christian market.
But suppose we quit buying “Jesus Junk” as Michael Spencer calls it. That would free up $4.5-billion annually for hunger relief, education, medical missions, and anything else you could think of.
Suppose our call to “sell all you have” just means quit buying useless stuff, even if it’s Christian useless stuff?
Economics divides the world into haves and have-nots, and the have-nots are usually not courted by our churches because they can’t contribute financially to the church budget. Years ago, I heard Rick Warren talk about the type of church member that Saddleback Church went after. Warren called him, “Saddleback Sam” and his complete demographic included the following profile:
I am happy to tell you that since Rick Warren’s runaway bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, Warren has turned his attention to the world’s poor, particularly those with HIV/Aids. But “Saddleback Sam” is the kind of person almost every church wants — young, rich, professional. A modern day rich young ruler.
But are we telling these rich young rulers that Jesus says to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him? Nope, we’re asking them to give to our budgets, our mission programs, and to buy our Christian products. In short, we who follow Jesus have forgotten that God’s economy is not the world’s, and that Jesus came to make all things new, including how we handle possessions and money.
We who follow Jesus must model a different economic reality for the world to see. An economy that is based on trust in God, care for God’s children and creation, and a new sense of what is enough in light of the need of the world. An economy where there is an abundance of resources, and those resources are shared with others so that no one is lacking.
Our new economy must reach out to those who struggle and bring them along with us. Our new economy must build lives, not monuments to our own pride. Our new model must put possessions in proper perspective, and we must see the “stuff of our lives” not as material to be hoarded, but as a blessing to be shared.
Our new model must reflect our belief that whoever gives up “home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will not fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”
Today the stock market fell another 500 points. Iceland may go bankrupt, NPR reported today. Euro-countries are aligning their financial strategies so they speak with one economic voice. Government leaders are already talking about more federal dollars, in addition to the $700-billion just voted by Congress. And the bad news keeps coming. Churches, I pointed out yesterday, will feel the fallout from this economic meltdown. But, is there an upside? Not to trivialize the situation, but yes, I think there is an upside for churches in this economic turndown.
- Churches will be forced to focus. We’re cutting our church budget this year by about 10%. To do that, we have to look carefully at what is really important to our mission and message. That kind of attention and discipline will make us more effective in ministry.
- People will turn to churches for help. Plan now for ways to help those who need money for utilities, food to feed their families, and warm coats for the cold winter. This preparation must go beyond the typical food pantry, clothes closet that most churches have, although those can be a good starting point.
- Communities will pull together. When Katrina hit, our church called together the entire community to discuss ways we might help. People want to help others, and churches can unite the community in that effort.
- Church can demonstrate an alternative to the consumer society. If church is an alternative community living out the message of Christ, what better example is there than living out an alternative to the current consumerist approach that drives the global economy. Generosity, hospitality, sharing, sacrificing, giving, saving, stewardship of resources are all attributes of a Christian lifestyle.