Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Jesus and money

The contents of my wallet today
The word we commonly use for money is currency which means "money in any form when in actual use as a medium of exchange, especially circulating paper money" [1].  If I expand on this definition a bit, I find several characteristics of money: 1) it is temporary, subject to change, hence the link with the word "current." Presently we use paper bills, but people have used shells, beads, or grain to represent value; 2) it usually has no real value in itself, but represents things that have value; 3) it is meant to be used, spent, or given in order to obtain something else.  In this way, it is a tool. Tools are not meant to be collected, but used in building something.  If I have one or two hammers, that's cool.  If I have 10,000 of them, you might wonder what my problem is.  I am clearly spending too much time on ebay buying hammers instead of using the ones I have to do something useful like build a house.

Let's take a quick look at two stories where Jesus interacts with people who are identified by their monetary status. First, there is the poor widow mentioned in Mark 12:41-43.  Go ahead and read it first in order to get the whole story. Here we see Jesus in the temple, observing people making donations.  He sees the rich throw in large amounts, and then he notices a poor women toss in two small copper coins (pennies). Jesus calls his disciples together and tells them that this widow (being a widow meant that she had no visible means of income) put more into the treasury than all the others.  And why?  Because she gave everything she had while others gave out of their wealth.  Here are the basic points of the story:
1. Jesus sees her.
2. She is generous.
3. She is an active participant in worship and service to God.
4. She is an example to others.
5. She holds nothing back from God.

Now let's look at the story of a rich man in Mark 10:17-22 (read it first if you like).  This rich man approaches Jesus and, addressing him as Good Teacher, asks Jesus what he has to do to secure eternal life.  Jesus questions him about the use of this title, then goes on to mention the commandments.  The rich man indicates he has kept all the commands from when he was young.  Jesus looks at him and feels love for him.  Then Jesus tells him what is lacking: he must sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The rich man, saddened, walks away because he owns much property. Here are a few observations from this story:
1. The rich man wants something that Jesus has access to.
2. The rich man starts with the language of negotiation by using a term of respect (similar to saying to someone, "Hey, you look great today!" and the person replying, "Okay. What do you want?").  Jesus chooses to continue the conversation as a negotiation.  He's smart, that Jesus!
3. The rich man is confident of his accomplishments and what he has to offer.  He has set his career path carefully, making no mistakes.
4. Jesus loves him.
5. The rich man lacks treasure in heaven (things of lasting value).
6. Jesus tells the rich man that he must hold nothing back for himself and he finds this difficult.

So what can we learn from these two stories?
1. Jesus sees those who are overlooked.  If I am a follower of Jesus, I must treat the poor and neglected people in society (widows) like Jesus did.  This means that I must see them, notice them, and recognize that they have something to teach me.
2. Jesus loves the prominent and wealthy.  If I am a follower of Jesus, I cannot treat the rich with disdain, I must not exploit them for my own benefit (try to get something out of them), and I cannot harbour jealousy toward them in my heart.  The example Jesus sets is to love the rich.
3. The example of the poor widow is one of generosity, of holding nothing back for herself. In my limited experience with the homeless, I have noticed that often they are very generous, willing to share what little they have. In contrast, the rich man approaches Jesus to get something for himself (eternal life) to add to everything else he already has. The first approaches God humbly with a gift, the second comes backed by vast resources, hoping to make an exchange which will grant him his desire.
4. The poor widow, by freely giving what she has to God, is storing up treasure in heaven (using her tiny hammer to build something lasting).  The rich man has spent his whole life building up his wealth and his reputation (collecting a barn full of hammers).  However, he is the one who is lacking real treasure, Jesus says.

These stories illustrate two different economies (or ways to manage resources): the gift economy and the exchange economy. We tend to equate money with power (if I had a million dollars, I could change my community) or freedom (if I had more money, I wouldn't have to work so hard, I could travel).  But money is only a tool and a means of exchange. Because we are so used to dealing with money in our everyday life, we transfer this idea of exchange onto the kingdom of God and it doesn't work.  The kingdom of God has more to do with love and generosity than with negotiating and exchanging one thing for another.  The problem with trying to apply the exchange economy to the kingdom of God is twofold:  1) we believe we can get what we want by negotiating, and 2) we think we have something of great value to negotiate with.  Both of these ideas are basically useless in the kingdom of God.  God does not work by exchange.  You might argue that Jesus gave his life in exchange for ours, but this was hardly a balanced equation; it was a truly generous gift.  God begins with love and generosity, holding nothing back. And if we are followers of Jesus, this is where we must begin as well.

These two stories also illustrate that the gift economy is generally better grasped by those who realize they have very little of value (the poor).  Surrender is a shorter step for those who feel they have nothing to lose. This is why Jesus says it is virtually impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The rich tend to get trapped in the exchange economy which means they run in opposition to the kingdom of God. However, this is a gifting God we are talking about, so what is impossible in the economy of this world is generously available in the economy of heaven.  Thank God for that!

This is the last installment of blogs based on a series of talks I gave in our faith community on "Jesus and the Other." You can read the rest here:  Part 1 (Who is the Other?), Part 2 (Jesus and Sexuality), Part 3 (Jesus and Political Power).

[1] From www.thefreedictionary.com.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

" The kingdom of God has more to do with love and generosity than with negotiating and exchanging one thing for another. The problem with trying to apply the exchange economy to the kingdom of God is twofold: 1) we believe we can get what we want by negotiating, and 2) we think we have something of great value to negotiate with. Both of these ideas are basically useless in the kingdom of God. God does not work by exchange. "

I think this is correct, the Kingdom of God does not work by exchange. The Kingdom of God is more than generosity. Revelation forces recognition of the illegitimacy of all systems of exchange, of all economic, political, religious, and social forces that bestow prestige or power.

Jesus not only sees those that are overlooked. He rejects the means by which the "overlooked" are created.

This is why the early Church held all in common. There was no generosity. Instead, there was no conception of private property, no recognition of the legitimacy of the systems that create inequality and injustice.

The poor have a different set of traps than the rich, those traps may be "religious" or "spiritual" in nature. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs not only to the poor, it belongs to the poor in spirit, those who do not bank or hoard their righteousness.