Everyday Faith: Money
In a sense, the whole of the spiritual life is about learning to let God love us. I do not mean, as a mind-game, but in practical reality. We are so attached to looking after ourselves, keeping ourselves safe, fencing out the dangers of the world. But Jesus calls us to take down our defences – so we are safe, but only because God loves us. It is as we lean into God’s love, that joy and freedom start to suffuse our lives.
I am speaking this evening about “money”, very much from that perspective. There are so many aspects of economic ethics I could cover; but in fact, I aim only to tackle two fundamental questions:
• how does owning and spending money relate to who you are, as a child of God; and
• should I start thinking about changes in how I earn or spend my money?
Also, I am going to tackle those questions through a fairly tight focus, which is Scripture: what it says, what that might have meant to people at the time, and what it might mean to us today. Then we will have a change of pace – some practical exercises, in what I have called the Money Gym. And then, at the end, I will suggest a framework for taking these issues forward, based on St Thomas Aquinas’ teaching around the Common Good.
What the Bible says about money
Money is a massive topic in the Bible.
A man called Howard Dayton, back in the 1970s, went through the whole Bible, and counted and categorised all the verses in the Bible that deal in some way with money or possessions. He used a broad interpretation – covering not just money directly, but also themes like honesty, contentment, greed… On his count, there are 2,350 verses in the Bible that deal in some way with money . By comparison, there are 31,102 verses altogether, so that’s about 8%. And in Jesus’ teaching, money features one way or another in around half of the parables.
So, what does the Bible say about money? Well, as you might expect across these thousands of references, quite a lot of different things.
Go through quiz answers.
There are some broadly consistent key Biblical themes in this area. Here is a very brief list:
1. That everything is God’s. He creates it all, and it is created good.
2. That we are accountable to Him for it all. We are appointed as stewards of creation, not as owners.
3. That we are to work, and that if we do so, and live within God’s will, we may well prosper.
4. Remembering Job, we might not prosper! And in any case, prosperity is not always a sign of goodness. On the contrary, the rich are often idolatrous or oppressive;
5. That we should care for the poor; and
6. That we should be contented. Our safety is in God, not in money.
Those themes are, to a large extent, common across the different parts of the Old Testament: law and wisdom, prophecy and poetry. To some extent, they are shared between the Old and the New Testaments. There is, however, rather a shift of emphasis between the two Testaments, which I have tried to bring out in selecting passages for the quiz.
In the Old Testament, there is more of an emphasis on gratitude to God, and an acceptance that those who live quiet and Godly lives are likely to prosper. The quotes I included in the quiz recognise that God blesses us with monetary possessions, and encourage us not to set too much store on money, and to respond with generous giving. I could have included many more along those lines, and also any of a vast range of passages that enjoin the wealthy to take care of the poor and marginalised. This teaching is essentially about, on the one hand, contentment; and on the other, kindness; while being neutral to the question of how much one actually owns.
In the New Testament, the balance is rather different. Given limited time, I am going to focus on Jesus’ teaching in the synoptic gospels. (John and the epistles come at the topic, in a way that builds on the material in the Synoptics, but takes a different tack, so that would be for another time.) We might group Jesus’ mention of money into a number of categories.
First, Jesus teaches a good deal about contentment. “Consider the lilies of the field, ” type teachings, which tell us not to worry. The emphasis here is not on being rich or poor, but being spiritually detached from wealth. We should also bear in mind the general theme of Jesus’ teaching that it is not externals that matter to our standing with God. It is not what we eat that can defile us, but what comes out of our hearts. It is not whether we are a scribe or a publican, but our humility before God. From these passages, spiritual poverty seems to be Jesus’ key teaching which – as we have seen – is consistent with the OT approach.
On the other hand, the example Jesus offers Himself – and draws our attention to – is of actual poverty: the state of not having. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no-where to lay His head. ” This is also the status that Jesus urges on His disciples as they go out on training missions: in Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9 and 10 various groups of disciples are sent out for some on-the-job training and in each case they are instructed to go without money or belongings.
Moreover, there are also a number of teachings that quite clearly suggest that being poor is better than being rich. Jesus says quite straightforwardly that the poor are blessed. He says this in Luke 6, and goes on to say “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your consolation.” The equivalent passage is in Matthew 5 which adds the words “in spirit” i.e., blessed are the poor in spirit. Some try to suggest this refers to spiritual detachment from wealth, rather than not having money. However, since Jesus goes on in the same passage to suggest a fairly concrete programme of giving your stuff away, I think we should read Matthew’s version as meaning basically the same as Luke’s. It is better to be poor than to be rich.
The reasons why this might be true are suggested in other places. In the parable of the sower, for instance, which appears in each synoptic gospel , the thorns that grow up to choke the gospel in a person’s heart are in each case identified as wealth, or the cares of wealth. Then, we have the instance of the rich young man or rich young ruler – who loves money too much, so he is incapable of following Jesus’ advice to throw off their burden so that he can follow Christ.
We can flesh out further Jesus’ view of riches by considering the role they, and rich people, play in many parables. Of the many parables that mention money, some are not strictly relevant for our purposes because they use financial debt as a proxy for spiritual debt, which is to say, sin. I mean parables like the workers in the vineyard or the unjust servant , or the parable of the talents . It is probably best not to regard these as directly about money at all. In other cases, though, rich people act as stock characters, with predictably negative characteristics. They fail to get the spiritual plot: they place their trust in the wrong place (like the Rich Fool who builds bigger barns ); they are selfish and blind to others’ suffering (like the rich man who fails to care for Lazarus and ends up in hell ). And then we have lived parables, like the encounter with the Rich Young ruler, who is too attached to his money to be able to follow Christ. Overall, the themes are contentment and kindness – but the point is that rich people predictably fail to show these qualities.
There is a great richness of material here. Can we summarise it? Well, as always, Christ’s teaching builds on the Old Testament material, but goes beyond it. So Christ repeats the OT themes of contentment and kindness, teaching that our goal, whether we have a lot or a little, should be detachment, gratitude, reliance on God.
However, what I think is distinctive about Jesus’ teaching, relative to the OT, is the stress on how hard this spiritual poverty is to achieve. We poor creatures are so easily distracted, and we so much want to take the controls. That, in my view, is the meaning of Jesus’ saying about the camel and the eye of a needle. It is not that God does not like rich people, as that riches are hugely toxic to the human spirit. The rich are routinely and predictably seduced by their money. The idea that you can be rich and yet blithely assume that spiritual poverty is nevertheless available to you, is like believing you can walk around with a kilo of plutonium in your pocket without having to worry about cancer.
So I would like to add to my list of biblical themes about money one further item: which is, that if you have riches, then you should feel a real sense of jeopardy.
How to Read the Bible
Now, a brief interlude about how one should read the Bible. I was taught at college that it is a three-stage process. First, make sure you know what is the correct text and that you know what the Greek or Hebrew means. Second, understand what it meant to people when it was written. Third, consider what it might mean to us today.
In some instances, the first part can be very important: ancient manuscripts offer different texts; and they use vocabulary whose exact meanings are hard to pin down. I do not, however, think that we need tarry over these issues this evening. There are just so many texts about money that we do not need to worry about individual ones too much; and I am not aware that any of the main texts has a contested reading.
However, I am going to dwell on the second and third stages: comparing what the text meant at the time to what it means to us. I am going to suggest that we do have to think a bit about the nature and role of money, then and now, because two things have changed, which might mean our natural reading of these texts is different now.
First, that accumulated riches were in the C1st AD inherently the result of an unjust social structure, in a way that is not so obviously true today.
Second, that what money actually is – and, therefore, the role it plays in human societies and in each of our lives – is different now to what it was in the C1st AD.
Let us begin by considering the origins of wealth in Biblical times.
The older Hebrew scriptures essentially reflect the values of a patriarchal, agricultural society, organised on a clan basis. Such a society generates a fairly limited amount of economic surplus – mostly, it eats what it grows. As with all subsistence farming, the food supply must have been erratic from one year to the next, and the main reason to save would have been to iron out such fluctuations. In any event, opportunities for conspicuous consumption were quite limited. It was an economically egalitarian kind of society. It was not equal in other ways, but its inequalities were based on other factors, not money.
In this context, the blessing of prosperity mainly equated to food security, confidence that one will avoid starvation. The huge flocks that Abraham or Jacob accumulate are signs of God’s blessing, and they provide security for the future. But, by and large, this kind of wealth did not make a difference to the kinds of food they ate, or the clothes they wore. They still slept in tents, like ordinary people, and were no more protected from weather or disease than the people who worked for them.
However, with the foundation of a centralising monarchy, things started to change. As the prophet Samuel warned the people, before he consecrated the first king, monarchs tend to tax away the surplus of the land. More generally, the age of the prophets saw Israel slowly turning into a society that was both urbanised and aristocratic. Impoverished peasants worked for hire, rather than tilling their own land. Social structures like that tend to show: increasing inequality; growing debts owed from the peasants to their landlords; growing poverty in the countryside while cities thrive as centres of consumption.
This kind of social structure is inherently unstable. It is not particular to ancient Israel. This pattern, and its tendency to collapse, has been repeated many times in different places since the first emergence of urban societies around 10,000BC. It was this kind of social structure that undermined even a highly stable society like China in the 19th and 20th centuries. Still today, we see such structures in many societies – rural India, for instance.
The instability arises basically from low productivity. In our world, if a small farmer borrows money, she does it so as to boost productivity – to buy a tractor, say. Next year’s crop is much bigger than this year’s, and the surplus allows her to pay off the loan. But the idea that one can dramatically increase agricultural productivity by spending money is relatively modern – it arose part of the agricultural revolution of the C18th which underpinned the industrial revolution. This is not an historical norm. The norm through human history has been basically flat productivity for many centuries at a time, punctuated by short periods of rapid improvement. In a world of flat productivity, what your fields produce is enough to provide seed for next year, and to keep you alive, and that is all.
In this kind of world, you only borrow, if you really have to – if your crop fails, say. But next year’s crop provides no surplus, so you have no means to pay off the debt. In this kind of society, lending is inherently predatory. Only those who are desperate borrow. And debt is basically not paid off; it just grows, and eventually produces a society where agricultural labours as a class are bond-slaves.
Scroll forward a few centuries from the time of the prophets to the time of Christ. We still see an aristocratic pattern of land-holding, combined with an oppressed peasantry. Then, add in the impacts of colonisation. I have seen an estimated breakdown of the household budget of a peasant family of Jesus’ day . The share given over to paying taxes and tithes of one sort or another is about the same as the food budget. Tax, military confiscation, temple coinage and so forth – these factors loom large in the lives of oppressed people.
This is the context in which the rather more negative NT attitude to money emerge. In their society, to be wealthy was inherently to benefit from social arrangements that were unjust and oppressive.
I will leave you to consider whether this is true in today’s world. I think this can be argued either way. On the one hand, many of the poorer countries in the world are poor because their resources were stolen for centuries by European empires and, into the bargain, their capacity to govern themselves well was often disrupted.
But, on the other hand, much of the wealth of Europe or North America has arisen from innovation, intelligent investment and a willingness to defer consumption; all practices which one might think deserve to be rewarded. Technology has enabled productivity to increase massively, so that our society creates enormous amounts of wealth. In such a world, to end up owning quite a bit of that wealth is not necessarily the result of theft or oppression.
Here, then, is a first way in which I think our reading today of Scripture might be different to that of a person at the time they were written. At that time, the only way to get rich was to participate in injustice; so a blanket condemnation of “the rich” was perfectly reasonable. Today, some riches arise from injustice, but by no means all, and so we might need to distinguish cases more carefully.
What is money, anyway?
I also want to suggest that our thinking about the ethics of money needs to take account of what money actually is, and the role it plays in life.
One kind of wealth consists of things, which people use. That kind of wealth tends to predominate in low-productivity societies, and has done right down to early modern times. Until the modern era, most wealth was not in cash, but in stuff. This was true both of poor people (whose might just have clothes, pots and pans, a few tools) and of the wealthy (who might have lots of expensive bedding or hangings, equipment for brewing, farm machinery). Setting aside holdings of land and buildings, most people’s wealth mainly consisted of stuff, which enabled one to live and, perhaps, enhanced one’s quality of life.
There was cash, in those days, of course: gold and silver coinage. But times when that kind of cash is plentiful have historically been rare. They tend to be after periods of warfare, when lots of gold and silver has been looted and melted down. These periods recur regularly through history, but are the exception. The historical norm is for gold and silver cash money to be in short supply. Most wealth was in the form of useful objects.
In our society, however, money is quite a different kind of thing. We hardly use gold and silver as money at all, nor sea-shells nor salt nor anything else that is valuable either because of beauty or usefulness or even scarcity. (The bitcoin phenomenon is an interesting attempt to re-introduce a currency based on scarcity, but it appears now to be spiralling towards irrelevance.) Mainly, our money is based on confidence in our government. If you take a £10 note out of your pocket, you will look at a piece of plastic paper, which has almost zero intrinsic worth. However, it has written on it the magic words: “I promise to pay the bearer…” That promise is as good as the person making it – in this case, the value of your £10 depends on the confidence we all have in the UK government’s ability to pay up.
That, however, is only the notes and coins. The total stock of notes and coins circulating in the UK is worth around £80 billion, which is a large number. However, the UK’s total net worth – all the money, in other words – is around £10 trillion, ten thousand billion. So notes and coins are less than 1% of all money in the UK. What on earth does all the rest consist of?
Well, in one sense the answer is: noughts and ones in a computer. There is a real sense in which all this money does not exist. It consists merely in an agreement that we will all act as if it did.
In another sense, what most of this money represents is debt. In a modern economy, money is not created by governments or even by central banks. The vast majority of money is created on the balance-sheets of privately owned banks. When a bank lends out money, it creates that money.
This might sound like science-fiction, but I promise, it is true! The reason is that banks are allowed to loan much more money than they own. So when they sign a new loan for, say, a million pounds, they are not handing over money that is taken from a pile in a vault, or even from a different entry in a ledger. They are lending out money that did not previously exist: a new million pounds is created, that did not exist before.
I do not have time to enlarge on the very interesting questions of money supply and economic stability. The central point I am making is that modern money is social. It does not mainly exist in the form of pots and pans, or stores of grain against a future famine, or a second-best mattress. It does not even exist as a concrete amount on a bank’s books – an amount which, if spent or loaned out, is used up.
Rather, modern money takes the form of a network of social relationships, and in turn it represents and enforces these social relationships. Modern money is mainly about how we relate to one another. It is not mainly about having stuff, or having access to stuff.
Of course, this is not a universal truth. There are still a lot of societies in the world where most people still lack the basics of decent life – but ours is not one. There are people in this country who struggle to feed themselves, or who do not sleep in a bed in a warm room. But they are a small minority, and I do not think that most of you are in that category. For you, here, now, your money consists mainly of a set of markers within a web of social relationships.
What these markers keep track of is, fundamentally, status. By which I mean things like; how easy you find it to be accepted by others; or whether you get to choose what happens to you. Of course, most societies are unequal in their attribution of status. I noted earlier that patriarchal Israel was not an equal society. But its inequality was not about money. It was rather about birth, or perhaps military prowess. But for us, money is a gateway to status.
So young people buy, say, trainers which tell others they are one of the “in crowd” (or whatever is the right phrase these days!). Older people buy cars or houses, which do the same thing. But older people, unlike teenagers, may never grow out of our status-markers. We buy the status-marker house, and then we become friends with our neighbours (who are also winners, owning status-marker houses); we settle in and this conspiracy of status grows into our home environment. In time, we no longer know anyone who isn’t in our “bracket”, and we start to regard ourselves as normal and others as different.
I am discussing this in terms of status and respect, but there are also of course concrete consequences to these patterns of social relationships. Because society’s decisions are strongly influenced by those who are respected by the community, much less so by those of low status. So being short of money affects your life practically, in lots of ways.
For instance, money is necessary in order to participate properly in society. Cultural goods, for instance, are more often for sale, than they are provided as part of the public realm. If you want to know about cinema, books, music, but you have no money – well, you will struggle. (A shout-out here for All Saints’ programme of free concerts!) Similarly with sport – there are some free or subsidised facilities, but most are made available on the basis of payment.
Then, lack of money makes you invisible. Not so much in the countryside, but the way our cities are built, poorer people tend to live in relatively remote places, that also tend to be ill-served by public transport. As a result, the people you see walking through city centres tend to be the better-off. The poor are nowhere to be seen in city centres.
Then, lack of money makes you powerless. Ask the residents of Grenfell Tower: their elected representatives placed greater weight on the wishes of the wealthy, and little on those who were poor.
And money keeps you safe. In my experience, it is a myth that poor people are bad at managing money. But it is true that the lives of the poor are precarious. Illness, relationship breakdown, unemployment, arbitrary action by unaccountable government officials – these things can easily upset the careful balance of a household’s finances. And poorer households tend not to save – not because they do not want to, but because they can’t.
I suggesting that we might read what the Bible has to say about money differently to the way it struck its first readers, particularly those in the C1st AD. This is for two main reasons.
First, we live in a high-productivity economy, not a low-productivity one. In a low-productivity world, the game was zero sum. That is, the size of the pie was fixed; the only question was who got what share. Riches were accumulated by skimming off the value-added from the work of peasants, whose lives were as a result harsher and less secure. But in our world, where technology and globalisation enable extraordinary large efficiency gains, the game is not zero sum. Huge fortunes can be amassed which are created not at anyone’s expense. So the unspoken assumption behind some of the Bible material – that the rich are necessarily predatory and hard-hearted – may be less true.
Second, however, the nature of money today has changed. In a low-productivity world, questions of money were about whether everyone has a bed to sleep in, food for tomorrow and enough pots and pans to cook it. In today’s world, however, money marks out who gets treated like a full human being, and who does not: who is respected; who feels secure in life; whose views count.
In that sense, a biblical ethic of money does not only need to bring to bear the biblical sayings about money. It needs to draw on the full gospel, which tells us who we are, how we relate to one another and to God.
Introducing the Money Gym
Participants are invited here to do the Money Gym. This consists of two exercises:
Exercise 1 is The Weigh-In. This is about where you stand. Do you think of yourself as rich, or poor, or middling? Do you know where you stand relative to the average? No judgement is involved, just a way to help you start with truthful information.
Exercise 2 is The Weight-Loss Plan. This involves a thought-experiment, that you had to manage on less money. It is not suggesting you should, but inviting you to consider how you would: to consider priorities; and to think about how free you feel you are, in relation to money.
Money at the Service of the Common Good
I am well aware that I haven’t given you nearly enough time to resolve the numerous tricky issues that the Gym has invited you to ponder. I thought I would finish by setting out a framework for thinking about money, which might help as you take them away. This framework is drawn from the writings of Thomas Aquinas. He is one of my favourite theologians, because his writing is so clear, and so practical, and so positive.
Aquinas begins with God. (He always begins with God!) God is love, and God creates in love. Therefore, not only is creation good in itself, but it has been created with a loving goal. That is, everything created has the capacity to draw us towards God. Our relationship with any given thing is most properly ordered when it is being used for that purpose, to draw us to God.
Aquinas writes in a pre-capitalist, low-productivity society. For him “money” stands primarily as a proxy for stuff: food, clothes, houses, and so forth. These things can draw us towards God in a number of ways – by being beautiful, for instance – but he writes elsewhere about beauty. While he is writing specifically about money, he emphasises the way that it enables our common life together in society.
This teaching is part of a wider theology of human society. Some theologians have seen human societies in quite negative ways: with human greed and violence as dominant forces. They tend to see law as something that has grown up since the Fall, so as to control such greed and violence. But Aquinas thinks that God has made us sociable and reasonable creatures. He thought our tendency to create orderly social structures is part of how we were made in Eden, not part of our fallen nature. The proper ordering of society, which enables the flourishing of the people who live within it, can be called justice – and it is the collective version of love.
This positive approach to social relationships leads him to understand the purpose of money as being to enable us to love and care for one another. To care, in other words, for the common good.
The common good is a central concept, for Aquinas and for the whole tradition of social teaching that has followed him. It has many aspects, which I do not have time to discuss now. For now, let me just clarify, it does not mean that we hold everything in common. On the contrary, Aquinas thought that God created the institution of private property, in part for the practical reason that it would lead to humans caring for the world better. But also, because it helps us to grow as virtuous moral beings, when we have control of resources and can use them to care for others. Aquinas stresses that we should use the things we own not to serve ourselves, but to serve the common good.
Let me repeat that, because it is the central hinge: we should use the things we own not to serve ourselves, but to serve the common good. Pope John Paul II called that the “social mortgage”: the common good has a right to the things you own. You do not own them for your own good, but for the common good.
How, then, can we serve the common good? Well, first, we can meet our own needs. This might seem paradoxical but, of course, if we cannot care for ourselves then we become a burden on others. There is, moreover, a question of dignity. That people can meet their own needs – can achieve the dignity of financial independence – can gather sufficient means as to be able to house and raise and care for a family – these are all aspects of the common good. This is also part of Aquinas’ understanding of how private property fits within an overarching theory of society as an enactment of love. In his vision, people find the dignity of independence, not so they can then ignore others, but because this gives them a platform from which they can act as free moral agents to care for others.
Moreover, providing for one’s own as part of the common good should extend to making sensible provision for the future.
On the other hand, the social mortgage implies that, once our own needs are met, then the rest of our goods should be available to meet the needs of others. The concept of “enough” is vital here.
And this is perhaps where it gets tricky. How do we work out what is “enough”? In Aquinas’ own day – a world, as I have described, where wealth mainly related to things that one used in one’s daily life, or to tools and implements, the concept of “enough” was not so difficult. In a low-productivity world, the call to deploy one’s surplus to the benefit of others was – if not palatable – then, at least, clear.
However, as I discussed earlier, money in our own day essentially provides a series of social markers; our wealth consists mainly of access to tokens that say we are among the winners, those whose opinions count, those others wish to be like. Or, to put it another way, the experience of not having enough money is not mainly one of actual starvation or destitution; but is rather one of not mattering much, of being excluded from culture or politics, invisible, shut away with other poor people into parts of town that the rich do not visit.
In such a world, deciding what is “enough” is basically the same as deciding who I believe I am. Or who I want to be.
What is at stake here? Well, in practical terms, this is about how much one spends on sustaining your lifestyle. And this is the reason for the Money Gym. The exercises posed questions that are simple, but hard.
First, you were asked to consider where you stand in the pecking order. What proportion of the population has an income higher than you, and what proportion has less coming in than you. The information sheet I gave out is a bit rough-and-ready; if you want more, I have given the address of a website (run by the Institute for Fiscal Studies) that can offer a more detailed breakdown. However, I think rough-and-ready is enough, because I would like to suggest the following conclusions.
• If this exercise shows you that only about 10% of households similar to yours live on an income less than yours (so 90% have more than you)… then I think you can say that broadly speaking you have enough to live on, but not more than enough.
• But if 30% or 50% or 70% of households similar to yours have an income that is less than yours – but you know that those people get by, they manage – then you can conclude that you have more than enough.
I am making a simple point. If other people live on less, whose households are like yours, and who live in the same part of the country… then perhaps you could too. And if you could, then you should.
Because if you did live on less, then you would free up resources with which you could serve the common good. What would such a life be like?
Well, that would depend on how you freed up resources. You might still earn the same, but then have more spare cash that you could give away to good causes. It is actually very nice to be able to give money away, but otherwise, your life might not change that much. However, you might earn a lower income by working less. So your service to the common good might involve spending more time with your loved ones, or more time participating in clubs and hobbies, time caring for those in need or volunteering. That actually might be quite an attractive proposition to you – it might look like a greater degree of freedom than you have now. And this should perhaps not surprise us. Aquinas suggests that participating in social life draws out of us the Christ-like people we are created to be. So living on enough, but not more than enough, is potentially a path towards a life that is less anxious, more creative, healthier and more joyful.
The second exercise in the gym, the weight-loss plan, was intended to help you to consider how, practically, you could spend less on sustaining your life. This is a question each of us can really only answer for ourselves, but it might relates to issues like, where do I live? How would it be if I lived in a much cheaper house? You all know Oakham as well as I do – you know which areas are expensive, and which less so. Or what if I rented instead of owning my house? Do you drive a nice new car – what if you drove one more than 10 years old? Of if you used buses, rather than driving a car? What if I had fewer and older clothes? If I didn’t get away on holiday?
As I say, the fact that a life requires less money to sustain it does not mean that it will be a less pleasant life. The opposite could well be the true. However, such a life will probably involve less social status. If you embark on a path on which, year by year, you spend less and give away more, then you will probably need to face up to two painful questions:
“Do I have enough to ensure that my friends and neighbours continue to see me someone like themselves?” If your car is old, if you downsize into a house much smaller than theirs in a less smart street, if you do not have the same stories to swap about holidays… the answer to this question might hurt.
Even more so: “Do I have enough to make sure my children and grandchildren will also be seen as winners?” In an unfair and unequal world, can I make sure that those I love will come out on top? For many of us, this is the rub.
You see, working out what I “need” in today’s society – what I spend on self, before deploying the rest of my resources to the common good – cannot be separated from the basic questions about life that we touched on before the money gym. The questions that are marbled right through the Bible, that in one sense are the chief substance of Christ’s teaching:
1. Who are you? Do you know who you are because you are like the people who live with – your friends and neighbours, perhaps your family – who have roughly the same amount of money as you? Or do you know who you are because the gospel tells you that you are God’s beloved child?
2. What keeps you safe? Are you safe – not just physically, but mentally and emotionally – because you have enough money to keep your environment stable? Or are you safe because you are God’s beloved child?
3. What call does love place on your life? Are you fenced in by your money? Or does it build bridges for you to cross so as to meet people who need you, and who will love you?
I suggested at the beginning that God’s invitation to us, through the Scriptures, is to contentment and kindness. To put this in other words, it is an invitation to allow ourselves to be loved. Letting God love us is the apprenticeship of a lifetime. Slowly, slowly, we learn that the more we strive to control our own lives, the less we achieve. But we also learn that He will keep us safe, put food on the table, give us work that is fit for us, and the friends who can show us more of Christ.
But I also pointed out Our Lord’s teaching that relying on love is exceedingly hard to achieve, when one has a lot of money. Throughout Christian history, people have in fact given away much of their wealth, so as to become literally poor. They have not done this because there is an inherent virtue in the second-hand over the new, over travelling by bus rather than in a new car. But because they have learned that their money is in the way, an obstacle, even a cage.
Ultimately, if we are to let God love us, then we must come to rely on that love – and not on money.
Everyday Faith: Money