Wednesday, January 21, 2015

beautiful money

Abstract Painting by Jolina Anthony, image from fineartamerica.com
I was in the subway a few weeks ago, waiting for the train to come. We have a lot of subway musicians in Montreal, people showcasing everything from rap music to classical opera to electric guitar solos to saxophone riffs. As is to be expected, some are better than others. This particular afternoon, as I stood and read my book while I waited for the train, I heard a ukulele being strummed and it made me stop reading. That in itself is quite something. Then I heard a sweet voice singing to the strumming, and I was compelled to turn around and look at the source.

She was young, with long blond hair and baggy clothes. Her right hand was rhythmically stroking the strings, her eyes were closed, her face was tilted slightly down and to one side, and she sang a song that pierced my soul. I don't remember the lyrics, but I remember feeling like someone was showing me their most vulnerable, yet strong side. I stood there, a bit in shock, wondering if anyone else was witnessing this incredible moment. Most people just went about their business. I wanted to let the young musician know that I appreciated what she was offering, so I made eye contact and gave her a big smile. She returned the gesture.

And then I had this deep conviction that I needed to give her money. I immediately felt awkward. My train might show up at any time and I would have to dig around in my wallet to see what change I had, walk over to the place where she was... You know, just silly excuses. But I knew it was important, so I opened my wallet, grabbed some change, and dropped it in her ukulele case. I wish I could have listened longer, but my train arrived and whisked me away.

This encounter got me thinking about money. Why was there such a contrast between the two actions? The music was so beautiful and my act of donating a few coins seemed so crass. I wanted what I did with my money to be as beautiful as the music I was hearing. It made me think that perhaps money is like crayons or brushes and paint, creative tools through which we express ourselves. And as with any art form, one needs to develop skill with money, exercise a certain amount of discipline with money, but also make room for spontaneity and freedom and creativity and above all, strive for beauty with money.

I was reminded of the story of the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus's head at a dinner party shortly before the Passover (see Mark 14). When she did so, the dinner guests thought it was wasteful. Why, the rare perfume could have been sold for almost a year's wages and the money given to the poor! Jesus defended her, indicating that her act was an extraordinary show of kindness and a symbolic preparation for his upcoming death. After this event, Judas, the disillusioned disciple, met with the chief priests and arranged to betray Jesus in exchange for a monetary reward.

I find four different attitudes to money in this story. First, the woman acted out of the notion that money should be used to make something beautiful, to perform an act of worship which in some small way reflected the extravagant love that Jesus had for her. In contrast, the dinner guests, solid upstanding citizens that they were, had a more practical approach to money. Money was a tool to do the most good for the most people. Efficiency mattered. Reputation mattered. Third, we have the chief priests who recognized that money could be used to "grease the rails," to make things go a little smoother, to make sure that the right side had the upper hand. Fourth, Judas the opportunist thought that money was a way to get ahead, to better his situation. That didn't turn out too well.

What I see here is the principle that money follows love. Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6). Wherever our love is, the money will follow. If we love our families, our money will be spent on them. If we love ourselves, the money is spent on things we want. If we love our enemies, we won't think twice about lending them money or helping them alleviate a need. If we love God, we use the crayons of money to create beautiful expressions of worship which reflect the kingdom of God. Like the poor widow who placed two small coins into the temple treasury, we give freely, selflessly, as an act of gratitude and worship to the God of heaven and earth. We are compelled by love. Our money follows love. It is the way of integrity.

But what if we are short on love? If love is lacking, money will find something else to follow, some other strong force in our lives like fear, pride, insecurity, greed, unforgiveness, lust, etc. Money used for any other purpose but love brings many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6). We cannot judge others and how they deal with money, but we should certainly look at what kind of picture we are painting with our money. Do I see my use of money as an act of worship, a display of gratitude reflecting God's generosity toward me? Do I use my money to contribute toward a generous, benevolent community or am I mostly concerned with my own needs and desires? How does my money reflect my relationships, values, and goals? Do I live as if money has power or love has power? Does my money follow love? And if not, what does it follow? How does my use of money reflect the kingdom of God? Do I sow money like the farmer scatters seeds, knowing that some will land on good ground and some will never bring a return, but I freely sow anyway?

Let us paint beautiful pictures with the money we have in our crayon box, pictures which reflect love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, generosity, mercy, grace, and gratitude. What's in your wallet?

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