August 19, 2007

The Wise Person’s Money: Value of Money
Proverbs 15:16-17; Matthew 6:19-21

Sometimes it seems as though everything in life revolves around money. Just flip for a moment or two through the local newspaper. In the front section you find articles describing damages incurred in natural catastrophes, the state of our health care and social security systems, and the global economy in general. The local section keeps us posted on escalating property taxes, hold-ups in nearby mini marts and tuition rates at area colleges. In the sports section you discover the outrageous salaries that professional athletes earn and the exorbitant prices that we must pay if we wish to watch them play. The classifieds list employment opportunities with related salaries as well as various goods and services that are for sale. In the real estate section, you find listings for houses, apartments and condominiums as well as up-to-date information on interest rates. And in the business section, you can follow the welfare of local and international companies and keep an eye on many of your own investments. And I haven’t even mentioned the pull-out advertisements, which inform us of all of the scintillating bargains waiting for us in local stores. Virtually everything in life, or so it seems to me, relates in one way or another to money.

The Bible has a great deal to say about money as well. Jesus, in fact, said more about money than he did about missions. And in particular, the book of Proverbs, a book so thoroughly concerned with helping people like you and me live in accordance with God’s rhythm in the world, offers considerable insight on the subject. Proverbs provides a balanced perspective that includes words or caution as well as constructive suggestions.

The book of Proverbs includes, as we might suspect, warnings concerning the dangers of money. Two such dangers are particularly noteworthy. Money, first of all, fails to satisfy our deepest longings. It promises to do so, of course, in any number of ways. Money will transform your identity, restore your broken marriage, renew your social life, remove your greatest fears and anxieties, and brings your dreams to pass. Money will fix everything. But these are all empty promises that have proven to be false time and time again. Proverbs 15:16-17 phrases it this way:
Better is a little with the fear of the Lord
than great treasure and trouble with it.
Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is
than a fatted ox and hatred with it.
With enough money, you can buy your dream house, but not a home; a fancy car, but not meaningful connections; the latest fashions, but not a clean heart; a crowd of followers, but not true friends; refrigerators full of food, but not fellowship. Money, all of its enticements notwithstanding, simply cannot satisfy our deepest longings.

Money, furthermore, blinds us to our need for God. Like excessive sweets deadening genuine hunger or drugs drowning out our truest selves, so money often leads to what we might call spiritual hallucinations. From the earliest pages of the Bible, a common thread highlights the fact that we humans are to find in God our strength, our support, our confidence. He is to be to us an ever-present help in times of trouble, our shield against the onslaught of evil, and our provider in times of want. The Psalmist put it this way:
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
Saint Augustine, in a now familiar quote, phrased it in these words: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts never find rest until they find rest in you.”

An attachment to money, however, gets all of this out of whack. Notice Proverbs
Proverbs 18:10-11:
The name of the Lord is a strong tower;
The righteous run into it and are safe.
The wealth of the rich is their strong city;
in their imagination it is like a high wall.
Money has the capacity to lull us to sleep and create in us a sense of false security. With enough money, we can purchase adequate insurance, buy our way out of threatening situations, and assure ourselves of a stable and predictable future. With enough money, we can sleep well at night and be confident about the future. Instead of finding our security in God, we increasingly find it in wealth. And we wake up one morning, comfort at home and money in the bank, and wonder why our spiritual appetites have been deadened. We wonder, to quote Karen Durbin, why we have stopped dancing. Money offers us a high wall of security and protection, but as Proverbs 18:11 reminds us, it is an imaginary wall. It is feeble and prone to attack. Money blinds us to our need for God.

The book of Proverbs, however, does more than provide simple warnings about the shortcomings or dangers of money. Money, after all, is certainly not evil in and of itself. On the contrary, money possesses considerable value and has great potential to affect our lives to the better—if we use it wisely! In general, the book of Proverbs describes three fundamental benefits that money offers, and they fit together in an ascending sequence.

Money, to begin with, spares us certain temptations. We often think of the many temptations that money encourages, but less so about the temptations that money helps us avoid. According to Proverbs 30:8-9,
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that I need,
or I shall be full, and deny you,
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?”
or I shall be poor and steal,
and profane the name of my God.
With sufficient financial resources, we are less likely to steal bread from the store or a shirt off the back of our neighbor.

Money, furthermore, provides us with various opportunities in life that we might not otherwise enjoy. Proverbs 12:9 captures this idea in a rather odd sort of way.
Better to be despised and have a servant,
than to be self-important and lack food.
Two people are envisioned here. The first is a person of modest means who nevertheless enjoyed the services of a single servant. The second is a self-absorbed person, stuck on himself, but lacking even life’s basic necessities. In the economy of ancient Israel, even a single servant provided much-needed assistance and a certain sense of relief. I suppose the situation was somewhat similar to what one finds in various third-world countries today. When we lived in both Kenya and Zambia, for example, we had house help—local people who worked around the house for a modest but socially acceptable wage. House help freed us up to use some of our time in various other activities.

Most of us here do not have house help. We do, however, have various technological equivalents—dishwashers, computers, washers and driers, microwaves, cars, and so on—that at least in theory offer to create more free time in our lives. Most of us here also possess sufficient funds to pursue further education, travel to distant places, and even enjoy various leisure and recreational activities virtually unheard of throughout much of history. Money, it goes without saying, opens up doors for a wide range of experiences that we might otherwise not enjoy. The question is, how will we use these opportunities?

Here is where the third benefit of money comes in. Money enlarges our ability to model godliness. In an article entitled “Does God Manage Your Money?” Bruce Waltke points out that, in Proverbs, the word righteousness means “to disadvantage yourself in order to advantage others in God’s universal kingdom.” Christians should earn and invest money, Waltke continues, “to enrich others, not to retire to a self-indulgent lifestyle.” In the same way that God gives and gives and gives—he does not cling to what he has—so we who follow Jesus are called to do the same. Note the wording of Proverbs 11:24-26:
Some give freely, yet grow all the richer;
others withhold what is due, and only suffer want.
A generous person will be enriched,
and one who gives water will get water.
The people curse those who hold back grain,
but a blessing is on the head of those who sell it.
Money enables us to act righteously by giving generously. Frankly, I know of no more telling way to take our spiritual temperatures this morning than to examine the extent to which we cling to or release our money.

Sometimes it seems as though everything in life relates in one way or another to money—how to get it, keep it, and spend it. In this money-oriented world of ours, a magazine advertisement that appeared a decade or so ago offers simple advice that matches up well with the counsel of Proverbs. In that advertisement, a picture of bank wrappers around wads of dollar bills appeared. Under the picture, the caption read: “It’s put more Christians at the stake than Nero. Through history countless Christians have fallen victim to the power or money. So if you’ve been struggling to find balance between finance and faith, remember this: real security is not a matter of what’s in your pocket, but what’s in your heart.”