Money and the Kingdom of God
Talking about money and materialism to about 250 university students, I held up a $10 note from which I had just cut off a one centimetre square corner. I was explaining that this one centimetre square was equivalent to the seventeen cents given to God from every $10 that all Christians around the world earn. I then cut a two millimetre square from the one centimetre square to illustrate the amount given to God that leaves the country of origin - about one cent from the seventeen cents.
"In terms of the Kingdom of God, where does the rest of this money go?" I asked the audience. There were a few murmured responses.
"Well, most of it is non-productive and is wasted in terms of God's Kingdom," I continued, and to illustrate the point I proceeded to set fire to the remaining part of the $10 bill. The response of the students was most interesting. Some were nearly frantic as they saw the $10 consumed by the flame.
Others gasped with astonishment - not at the illustration but at the destruction of the $10 bill. For some, it was all they could do to sit still and stop themselves rushing up to rescue the bill - after all they were university students!
Money is powerful stuff. People will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain it, protect it and keep it.
They will scheme and plan as to how they can get more of it. They will destroy relationships for it. They will work long hours and cripple family life for it.
They will steal and kill for it. They will risk life and limb for it. They will be driven to an early grave because of it.
They will make huge sacrifices to gain more of it. They will admire the pile of it that they have accumulated and they will never think that they have enough of it. Little wonder, then, that Jesus said so much about it.
Our lives are inextricably intertwined with the gaining and using of money and material possessions. We spend many thousands of hours of our lives earning money and many more hours getting, using and maintaining our possessions.
We think about ways of saving money and dream about things we would like to have, activities we would like to engage in and places we would like to visit. It would be a sobering exercise for each of us to sit down and try to calculate just how much time each week we spend in the pursuit and use of money and material possessions.
If the overarching theme of Christ's message was the Kingdom of God, then the single most talked about topic within that theme is our use of money and possessions. Any attempt to live within the principles of God's Kingdom will bring us face to face with this topic and will shine a spotlight on our attitudes towards money and possessions.
For many Western Christians, this topic causes considerable discomfort. We become defensive if someone suggests that we should be leading more disciplined lives in this area, and are quick to justify ourselves, our lifestyles and our spending habits.
Yet if there is an area which is tearing the heart and soul out of Western Christianity, it must be this one. Money and the getting of it absorbs our time and energy, placing pressure on families to keep up with the lifestyle of those around.
The acquisition of material possessions and the comforts of life make us soft and undisciplined and much of our current spiritual malaise in the West can be directly related to affluence. Material goods have become a substitute for faith and as John White so accurately points out, "Enslavement to the visible makes faith in the invisible suspect".1
If the pitfalls associated with money and possessions are great, then so also is their potential in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus told a parable about a shrewd manager.2 It is a parable that many have seldom considered. You may never have heard a sermon based on it, but it is a parable of profound importance in this day and age.
The parable goes like this. A rich man's manager was asked to give account of his boss's finances. The manager called in two debtors, asked them how much they owed the rich man, then told them they could finalise the bill by paying a reduced amount. The rich man approved of the manager's dealings and said he was shrewd in the way he had handled this matter.
Jesus uses this illustration to make some important observations. "The people of this world," he says, "are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light."3 In other words, the ways non-Christians use their money to further their causes are more shrewd than the ways Christians use their money for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God.
What he is saying is that 'people of the light' have yet to discover the enormous resource that God has given them for use in his kingdom. Jesus goes on to say that we should "use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings".4
We can turn money to our advantage. It will gain friends here and when we have finished with this life, these friends will welcome us into heaven. Why will they welcome us? Because we released our finances which were used to bring them to faith in Christ. What an incredible use of 'unrighteous mammon'! What a potential it contains!
Contrary to the way we so often feel about money, it is only a little thing, explains Jesus. If we can't be trusted with this little thing, who will trust us with true riches? "Whoever can be trusted with very little can be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?"5
In this passage Jesus doesn't explain what true riches are, but on the basis of other Scriptures, we assume that they have to do with things other than material possessions. Authority and responsibility in his Kingdom perhaps?
He says that our handling of money is a yardstick by which God measures our trustworthiness."No person can serve two masters. Either we will hate the one and love the other, or we will be devoted to the one and despise the other. We cannot serve God and Money."6
A disturbing statement. It places money in direct competition with our allegiance to God. Devoted to one, despising the other. Hating one, loving the other.
How do we serve money? Is it by being preoccupied with it and seeking to get as much as we can?
Is it the financiers or the super-rich of this world who are the money servers? Maybe both. But we cannot deflect this question from ourselves this easily.
We serve money whenever we let it make decisions for us. Say I need to buy a new car, what is my first consideration? Normally it is: What can I afford? Who then is making this decision, me or money?
Suppose I can afford a $10,000 car, does this make it right to spend that much? Perhaps God would have me buy an $8,000 car and give the rest to him. Or maybe I believe it is in God's purposes for me to get a $10,000 car and I can only afford $7,000. What about trusting God for the balance?
The question 'Whom do we serve?' can be rephrased 'Who makes decisions for us?' I suggest that we all serve money much more than we are aware. And when we serve money we are not serving God.
Luke describes for us the religious leaders' response to Jesus' teaching.
"The Pharisees, who loved money . . . sneered."7 Lovers of money are mentioned several times in the New Testament.
Elders of the congregation are to be people who do not love money.8 I wonder how often this test is applied before the selection of leadership?
We read that in the last days people will be especially characterised by their love of money.9 Christians are urged to keep themselves free from the love of money10 and we are told that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.11
Money has an enormously powerful hold on society and individuals. In fact it is possibly the most powerful of a triad of addictive forces that affect humanity, these being - sex, power (over others, such as political, military, physical, economic) and money. Money, I believe, is the most powerful for three reasons:
· It is all consuming - no area of our lives is immune from its influence or demands.
· It affects those of all ages: both young and old can be ensnared in its beguiling web.
· It caters to our need for security, the most demanding need human beings face.
Unfortunately, becoming a member of the Kingdom of God does not immediately release us from its hold. We need to deal ruthlessly with its demands on us, but more on this later.*
Jesus' response to the sneering of the Pharisees is interesting. "You are the ones who justify yourselves," he says.12
Money has that power over us. We become uncomfortable whenever we are challenged about our use of it. Such is its hold, that it will often keep us from facing the truth. Rather than doing this we prefer to justify ourselves.
Jesus told the Parable of the Shrewd Manager in order to illustrate what a powerful resource money is. Such was the deception of the Pharisees that they missed the whole point and attempted instead to soothe their troubled consciences. How often do we respond in similar ways when confronted with this issue?
What a disturbing illustration Jesus gave that day. Money is unrighteous mammon. It can compete directly with God himself for our allegiance!
People can become obsessed with it and justify themselves because of the way that they handle it. God detests the love of it.
However, it can be a powerful resource for the Kingdom of God. It can be used shrewdly. We are to effectively utilise it to bring people into God's Kingdom.
The question is: How well is the Christian church doing in utilising this resource for the Kingdom of God? Estimates by David Barrett13 indicate that the combined personal income of all Christians around the world during 1997 was 11,500 billion dollars. Total giving to Christian causes that year amounted to 200 billion dollars and of this amount global missions received 10.4 billion dollars.
It is clear that the Christian church is not being very shrewd! To be giving only 1.7% of our total earnings to God is miserly in the extreme. To be spending 19 times more on our own spiritual needs than on the enormous needs overseas must be an outright crime.
Most of this fault clearly lies with Western Christians, as they have the greatest earning power. It is obvious that something is very wrong and the work of God languishes because of the selfishness of affluent Christians.
What could be done if we released more money to the Kingdom of God? Could we make a greater impact than at present? There is obviously much room for improvement.
The words of Jesus come echoing down through the centuries: "If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?"
* Part 2 of this article (which will be published in the October/November issue of Reality) will suggest some practical ways in which we can bring money under control.
Brian Hathaway is currently working full time with VISION New Zealand and is also chairperson of the Bible College of New Zealand Residential Board. This material is partly taken from Brian's two books Living Below With the Saints We Know and Beyond Renewal-The Kingdom of God.