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Money Matters - Part III:

"Economics According to the 10th Commandment" by Bob Weber - Elder and Evangelist, Chatham Church of Christ

If you think envy is not a powerful emotion think about any wealth redistribution program based on the notion that wage earners are obliged by law to share their money with those who have less. At its heart such a program purports to care about the little guy, but in reality the motive for sharing is envy not altruistic concern for the poor. As the theory goes, deprivation drives them to despair and the inequity brought about by some members of society having more than their share of wealth creates an unhealthy sense of want in the poor. Such a system can’t stand the notion that someone might have more than someone else and insists that others should have what they didn’t earn. The inequality is deemed an economic injustice, but ultimately envy drives the system.

Disparity of wealth has often driven crime. From robbery to embezzlement to cheating on taxes people want more of what they don’t have regardless of whether it can be legally obtained. For those not bold enough to engage in illegal activity, envy can still bubble up from below the water line. The economic division between the haves and the have-nots often provides rebels with fodder to bring about rebellion and unrest, and though sometimes we can trace the disparity to genuine injustices, envy provides the fuel to ignite the disparity into a conflagration. It is economics according to the Tenth Commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…wife…or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).

Lazarus Rewarded - Jesus does not shrink from addressing and condemning the hardness of heart often associated with economic disparity. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) a rich man passes by a poor man, Lazarus, who regularly sits by the rich man’s house begging. Despite his abundance, he fails to help Lazarus. After each dies, Lazarus is comforted whereas the rich man is in torment. The tables are now turned on the rich man as he begs for relief from his agony. The retribution of the story hinges on this request for although the poor man had longed even for some scraps from the rich man’s table, he made no attempt to provide even a miniscule gift. Now it is the rich man who longs even for a tiny portion of what Lazarus possesses in abundance.

The story opens the door for a discussion on the nature, causes, and answers to the problem of poverty. More to the point it raises the specter of divine retribution against those whose hearts are not moved with compassion to share even a small portion of their goods. A later New Testament writer insists, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17) How easy would it have been for the rich man to share even a small amount of his goods? The scraps from his table would have been more than Lazarus had.

God is concerned with the plight of the poor, and in the next life they receive a just recompense for their suffering here. However, in the wrong hands this story becomes a diatribe against personal ownership and economic oppression rather than simply an example of hardness of heart. The Bible never teaches that it is wrong for one person to possess more than another, and it never systemizes the wholesale taking of wealth from those who have it and giving it to those who don’t. Whenever wealth distribution occurs in the Bible, it is done from a free will moved by compassion not by legal compulsion. Furthermore, the deeper issue involves what has already been said in the first two installments of this series of articles: first, God measures abundance differently than man for life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions; second, the worldly view of wealth impedes the Christian life since the world esteems what it possesses and brags about what it does.

True Abundance: Godliness with Contentment - 1 Timothy 6:6-19 provides the most extended treatment of money in the New Testament outside of the Gospels. In this segment of Scripture the Apostle Paul writes to his young, pastoral protégé named Timothy to guide him in those virtues that will most benefit the spiritual development of the churches under his care. In this section alone he has provided Christendom with numerous quotable statements. “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” “For we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it.” “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (This last is the more accurate quote of what we usually hear, “Money is the root of all evil.”) These are significant because rather than regulate how we spend money, they regulate our value of it. Like its view on many other things, Christianity presents a whole new way of looking at money.

First, abundance is defined as godliness with contentment. It does not take a rocket scientist to observe that wealth by itself does not produce contentment. If anything it creates anxiety over how it is spent, how it is maintained, and who gets it after we die. The Bible recognizes this danger. It says many have “pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10) over money. Much of the world uses money to foster contentment, but it can be nothing more than a false substitute for the real thing. Contentment has to do with an inner quality that reflects the nature of God in virtue and holiness and settles the heart with rest and peace. It takes the mind off of things that are fleeting and fastens it on gain that cannot be bought, sold, or stolen. It is accessible to rich and poor alike.

Christianity esteems godliness as great gain because it carries implications for the next life, and this brings up the second point: you can’t take it with you. We learned in the first article that Jesus criticized the Rich Fool for his inability to see that his life passed away before his wealth, and he could only leave his accumulations to someone else. We spend inordinate amounts of time and energy building up wealth while the Bible addresses our lives with an economic equation that defies the whole process: we brought nothing with us; we’ll take nothing with us. The enjoyment of wealth cannot be taken to the grave. Such thinking results in an entirely new way of looking at what we possess.

Third, money is powerful and dangerous. We sense its inherent power. We say, “Money talks.” Wealth can purchase our way out of legal predicaments, and monetary gifts are often used to obtain political favors. Among those who value what it can purchase money gives its owner the power of influence. It is prized for the status and power that it wields. Yet the Bible observes that this love of money results in many evils. One who loves money is the epitome of someone thoroughly attached to the things money can do. He has at his disposal a tool fraught with dangers and pitfalls but is too in love with what it can do to fear its consequences. As with much of what has been said, an underlying attitude is addressed. This is a heart issue, not an economic one.

Wisdom for the Wealthy - As we might expect the advice given to the wealthy has mostly to do with maintaining the right attitude toward wealth. The Bible never binds on them a regulation for social welfare; rather, it instills in them a love for God and for generosity. Wealth cannot be trusted because it is fleeting, and the wealthy are charged with putting their hope in God rather than money. Furthermore the rich are expected to be rich in good deeds and generosity (1 Timothy 6:18). They are called to do what the Rich Fool in Jesus’ parable should have done, namely, by their good works they should be rich toward God and store up treasures for themselves in heaven (1 Timothy 6:19).

Focusing on the next life provides the key. Jesus himself said, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal,” (Matthew 6:20). Because of the life to come perspective on the things of this life are transformed. Making the shift from wealth accumulation in this life to building equity for the next life assures the rich that they will “take hold of the life that is truly life,” (1 Timothy 6:19). This is a shift in perspective with enormous implications for what we do with our money and how we look at it.

Such demands get to the heart of money matters. Being rich toward God is more valuable than the abundance of possessions. Two distinct value systems toward money compete with one another: the world’s and the Christian’s. One values possessions as a means of pride and accomplishment while the other values the inner qualities of a godly life that brings peace and contentment. The Bible’s advice to the rich is therefore to trust in God, not wealth and to be rich in good deeds and generosity. Money matters eventually fade into insignificance once the Christian views on money are adopted.

Money thus becomes something not to be envied but something to be invested in eternal things. Because of its inherent danger, it is not even something to be desired, and it is certainly not something to be loved. Love creates an attachment; the heart grows fond of money, and such a love affair can be broken only with great heartache. Stewardship for the person of God becomes the prime directive: use what God has given us for the betterment of others and for building equity in eternity. This dramatic shift in perspective makes a life of contentment and peace.

Epilogue - In 2006 Arthur C. Brooks wrote a book, Who Really Cares: the Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism (Basic). He researched the giving trends among liberals and conservatives. On the whole he discovered that conservatives give, on average per household, 30 percent more than liberal households despite the fact that liberals overall earn more. For our discussion the most important finding of his was that religious conservatives give 28 percent more than secular conservatives. To put it into perspective even further he also found that people who attend church every week and reject the idea of governmental income redistribution give, on average, 100 times more money to charity that do people who never attend a house of worship. He concludes that religious people are more charitable than non-religious people.

If there were such a thing as a scientific study to demonstrate the efficacy of the Christian principles regarding money, this would be a pretty good one. We offer this study not for the purposes of patting ourselves on the back but to demonstrate that Christian views on money matters prompts generosity like nothing else. Apparently those in the Christian community who have riches really do put their money where their heart is.

 

(c) Copyright 2007, Chatham Church of Christ