God’s Economy

Money comes up in the Gospels more frequently than one might expect for writings that are supposed to be “spiritual.” Just last week’s Gospel featured a parable about financial mismanagement on the part of a roguish manager. The Gospel before that included a short parable about a lost coin. Maybe that wasn’t mismanagement, but just carelessness. Sandwiched between those parables was a parable of a son who asked for his share of the inheritance and then lost it all, another case of financial mismanagement. Money and wealth come up yet again today in the parable of the Rich Man and the beggar Lazarus. Since the Rich Man was successful with money, one might think that mismanagement wasn’t his problem, but maybe his wealth itself was the problem. The roguish manager, after all, ameliorated his circumstances by reducing the debts of his master’s clients, which made him more generous than his master, and much more generous than the Rich Man who ignored the poor man at his gate. Actually, the Rich Man didn’t ignore the beggar altogether. After all, he recognized him resting in the bosom of Abraham and apparently was used to giving the beggar orders without giving him anything in return. If so, not paying his errand boy would indeed be a misuse of financial resources.

The writer of the First Epistle to Timothy famously says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Tim 6: 10) More dramatically, the author warns that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Amos denounces the wealthy many times, sneering at people who “lie on beds adorned with ivory” and “dine on choice lambs and fattened calves.” (Amos 6: 4,5) Sounds the Rich Man in the parable. In the preceding Parable of the Roguish Manager, Jesus uses the term “dishonest wealth “ several times, suggesting that it is the only kind of wealth there is. That this is so is capped with the warning: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Lk. 16: 9-13)

But isn’t money in itself neutral, and it’s a matter of how we use it? After all, God’s creation is good, meaning that material goods are good as and we only need to use them well. Yes, but how do we use money and material goods well? It is our desires, of course, that distort the use of material goods. Desiring so many butterscotch sundaes that one gets sick is a distortion of desire. But more precisely, it is our desires in relation to other people that tend to get distorted, such as “needing” to have more butterscotch sundaes than somebody else. However, money is not a material good in the sense that wheat and lambs are material goods that one might consume. Money is the medium of exchange that connects us to each other as we negotiate our desires. That is., money itself is created straight out of our desires in relation to other people. Transactions can indeed be fair and charitable exchanges, but they easily degenerate into competitions where we each try to outdo the other.

When being wealthy is an end in itself, as it seemed to be for the rich man who wouldn’t even give Lazarus a scrap from his table, then there is indeed a “great chasm” in our human relationships created by the discrepancy of wealth. The rich man’s placement in Hell is not the act of a vindictive god; it is simply the reality of the rich man’s alienation from humanity, not only from Lazarus’s humanity but from his own as well.

It is true enough that one needs some material goods in order to survive and that normally one needs some money to obtain these goods. The warnings in scripture about money are warnings of a lust for wealth, a lust that destroys human relationships. The author of First Timothy suggests that we be content with the necessities of food and clothing. (1 Tim 6: 8) This sort of contentment and a concern for other people go together. When we are content with what we have, it is not necessary to have more than others. On the contrary, our contentment will make us all the more concerned that others also have enough for their basic necessities. As Jesus stresses time and again in the Gospels, serving God is tantamount to serving other people and God’s creation. That is why it is not possible to serve God and wealth. Only if we stop serving wealth as our master will we serve God through serving God’s people. So, it is indeed the case that our use of money has much to do with spirituality.