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If you were to visit the study of American President Thomas Jefferson in the newly constructed White House during the early years of his presidency at the beginning of the 19th century, you might be pleased to see a well-worn, and obviously poured over Bible prominently displayed on his desk. However, if you were to be so bold as to open Jefferson’s Bible, you might be shocked at what you found between the covers. During those years, Jefferson had engaged himself in a project to re-craft the Bible in his own image. He took a razor to its pages, rearranging the Gospel narratives, removing entire sections, and even re-writing some passages to give the “correct” reading. Jefferson did this because he believed that the ethical and philosophical teachings of Jesus had been obscured by the supernatural and, he thought, superstitious stories about Jesus. He sought to remove any reference to miracles, to the deity of Christ, to resurrection power, to the Holy Spirit – and be left with the pure ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously, followers of Jesus have always taken issue with Jefferson’s approach, for once we set ourselves up as the final authority as to what or what isn’t proper to God, we come out with a God that looks very much like ourselves and a Bible that no longer challenges us beyond ourselves.
My point in telling this story is not to deride those who edit out the power and deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. My point in telling this story is to ask whether we in the modern church unwittingly do the same thing. Jefferson edited out the supernatural to leave the ethics – do we do the opposite? Have we taken our razors out and left behind a virtue-less faith? We glory in our correct doctrines, but do our hearts and our hands lag behind?
Last week we flipped through a lot of scripture to make one point: that our faith calls us to one consistent and coherent approach to engaging the city around us. We don’t run away from the city like hermits, or seek to overturn the city like zealots, or seek our own personal gain from the city like the tax-collectors, but as benefactors that seek to bless the city through an intentional strategy of good works, which will shield us from those who would shame us, point to the glory of the Father, and open up opportunities for witness.
To do this, we need to rethink money. That means that we’ve got to look hard and long at some of those passages we’ve unwittingly clipped out of our bibles, and what we find may surprise you. Before we jump in to the Bible, though, it might be helpful to paint a picture of current practice and ideas. We tend to fall into two extremes when thinking about money: we over-secularize it, and over-spiritualize it.
We over-secularize money when we remove it or isolate it from the rest of the spiritual life in Christ. We somehow take Jesus’ maxim of “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” and use it as a justification for our compartmentalization of our lives into secular and spiritual, so that my work, my money, my taxes, my giving are somehow separate from the rest of my spiritual life. This compartmentalization leads to disastrous results as times. According to those who new him well, Kenneth Lay was a devout Christian who gave generously to his church, yet when Enron fell, Lay’s name became synonymous with corporate abuse and accounting fraud. To be frank, pastors are intimidated to talk to people about their money or work ethics. There’re a couple of reasons for this: 1. We make our living off the generosity of others and we are only too aware of the perceived conflict of interest this may suggest. 2. We usually don’t have experience dealing with a lot of money and the power and influence those who have it wield, and frankly, are at times intimidated. 3. The sacred/spiritual compartmentalization affects us too: I struggled this whole week about the legitimacy of preaching on money – shouldn’t I be preaching on God’s greatness? So what often happens is that the well-off believers in our midst are never fully discipled, which is a tragedy because they are the ones who could be doing an enormous amount of good in the community through the resources at their disposal. We can’t over-secularize money because the Bible doesn’t allow us to, for it speaks more on money than nearly any other topic combined. Christian financial expert Larry Burkett says there are 1600 verses in the Bible that have to do with money or finances. Half of Jesus’ 39 parables deal with greed, generosity, or giving. A person’s approach to money is a presented in the Gospel’s as direct indicator of their spiritual life: compare the sad response of the rich young ruler to Jesus’ challenge to show his faith by parting with his wealth, to the response of Zacceus the tax-collector, who upon his repentance devoted himself to generosity, prompting Jesus to say, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” We can’t over-secularize money because it to do so is to leave large areas of our lives outside of the Lordship of Christ. You spend 18-25 years of your life preparing for employment. As adults you spend 40-60 hours a week in your job. Most of the decisions of where you will reside, what sort of house you’ll have, how you’ll retire, what activities you’ll be involved in are economically driven. How much debt will you have, how are you going to use credit cards, how much will you save – in the modern world, nearly every decision we make is concerned with economics. We dare not secularize and separate these from Christ. Turn Jesus’ words around to see how foolish this would be: “Give to God what belongs to God and Caesar what is Caesar’s” What belongs to God? Everything. Everything. This is not compartmentalization – this is integration. I give to God even as I give to Caesar, “for there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).
A second error we fall into is that we over-spiritualize money. And we tend to do this two ways:
Prosperity Theology: Sees wealth as an indication of spirituality. God is happy with you and therefore is pouring out his blessings upon you [A strange theology for a religion that follows a murdered homeless guy]. It would be laughable if not so influential: according to a 2006 TIME article, 17% of Christians considered themselves a part of such a movement.
Poverty Theology: the flip side of prosperity theology may be referred to as poverty theology. In this view, money is shunned as evil for it may lead to idolatry, hoarding, greed, violence. The poor are venerated as being more moral or spiritual than the rich – simply because of their poverty.
First, both prosperity theology and poverty theology have their merits. There are passages that speak of the Lord’s blessing through material means and passages that warn of the dangers of wealth. Second, even though they look like two ends of a spectrum, both take the same approach to wealth. Wealth is an indicator of God’s blessing. To the prosperity theologian, the presence of wealth is an indicator of God’s favor. To the poverty theologian, the absence of wealth is the indicator of God’s favor. Third, even if we don’t go to these extremes, a lot of what we do supports this over-spiritualization of money. We clothe our giving to the church in robes of fancy ritual, like we are Old Testament saints bringing our offerings to the temple – the result is that other means of generosity may seem less spiritual. We so quickly hold up a saint such as Mother Theresa who sacrificially give her life serving the poor, yet many of us have never heard of the billionaire John Templeton, whose foundation invested tens of billions of dollars from affluent North Americans into developing countries, and of whom The Economist once said had done more for the world’s poor than the Calcutta nun. We legalistically impose a spiritual standard of giving upon ourselves that the New Testament never specifies, then hold ourselves or others in judgment over it.
So here’s where we are at: many of us make too little of money, over-secularizing it so that our faith doesn’t really touch it, while others of us make too much of it, over-spiritualizing it to the point that it becomes the marker of spirituality. Thank the Lord that his word is more freeing than the traditions of men! His grace and his kindness are liberating, for there is another way. Instead of prosperity theology or poverty theology, the approach of the New Testament might be referred to as “benefactor theology”. As opposed to last week when we blew through the New Testament, this week I want to narrow in on one key passage. In your notes I have listed a number of key passages which develop this “benefactor” theology so you can study those on your own this week. For today, open up with me to 1Tim. 6:17-19
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
- There are rich in the church who need to be taught how to approach their wealth. Apparently in the Ephesian church there were some well-off Christians who needed special instruction on how to value and what to do with their money. Notice that Timothy was instructed to identify the rich and give them specialized discipleship. Why is this? In order for the church to be a benefactor community (one who seeks to bless the city through our good works), we need individual benefactors to seriously understand their wealth as part of their calling in Christ. It was these rich benefactors who supported most of the ongoing expansion of the early church. The believers in Jerusalem who opened up their own homes and gave of their own possessions, feeding and sheltering the 3000 new believers who remained in Jerusalem to learn more about Jesus. Men like Barnabas who sold their personal assets to meet the needs of the community so that there would not be any needy among them. Wealthy landowners like Philemon who opened up their homes so that the growing churches would have places to meet. Independently wealthy women like Lydia who housed and fed and clothed the missionaries. Yes, Paul writes to the Corinthians that not many were wise by the world’s standards, or powerful or of noble birth – but in saying so Paul is affirming that some were – and some still are!
- The rich need to be warned of the deceitfulness of wealth. There are so many lies we believe about ourselves and others because of wealth. Here’s what we need to keep in mind: wealth is uncertain. You are not well off because you worked harder than others: others work just as hard but did not get the breaks you had. You are not well off because you’re smarter than others: others may be just as smart but it just so happens that you have found people to pay you better. Did you ever see the show Undercover Boss? What a humbling show. The CEO’s that make millions are routinely shown up by minimum wage workers, who work harder and honestly at times display more intelligence and common sense than they do. The CEO’s are in a sense “lucky” that they live in a culture that places a value on their management work to the level of hundreds of times greater than that of the laborer. So if you’re well off, thank the Lord! But don’t think yourself as being intrinsically greater than others.
- Be grateful to God and enjoy your wealth. Here is the rebuke of poverty theology. Did you catch that? “Set your hopes on God who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” See we think of god as being stingy. God is rich. God is the wealthiest benefactor in the universe. God gave man every fruit-bearing tree to enjoy. God formed a perfect environment to give us as our home and sat back and rejoiced in it – look at that! It’s so good! Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights and we gratefully receive all things from his hand with thanksgiving and blessing and prayer. Do not legalistically judge people for enjoying their riches and do not raise up those as saints those who deny themselves pleasure. The religious older brother who wants to deny his brother the feast is the one singled out as not understanding God’s love. Celebrate God in the times of prosperity and set your hopes on him in times of poverty.
- Give all you can. Be rich in good works. Be ready to share. You can invest in eternity. John Wesley summed up the Christian approach to wealth in three phrases. Make all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can. This is how the rich take hold of life.
So here is the summary of where we are at so far:
- Make All You Can
- Seek good occupations
- Be Industrious
- Manage your income well
- Save All You Can
- Live simply but joyfully
- Gather assets to assist [others] in times of need.
- Give All You Can
- Use your wealth to build up people, church, and city.
- Give regularly and wisely
This approach to work and wealth will allow us the resources to engage the city as benefactors with a disciplined intentional strategy of good works, so that people would see that lifestyle of good works, observe us and ask us of our convictions and we could give an answer that points to our generous, giving, God who is rich in mercy.