Bible readings: 1 John 3: 16 –18; Luke 16 : 1 – 13; Acts 4: 32 – 5:4.
‘Tell me what you think about money and I will tell you what you think about God’
It’s not a subject of daily conversation: how we deal with our money and possessions, or how we help one another to give. There is some kind of taboo about it. We talk less about our income and expenses than about our sexuality. I haven’t heard many sermons about this subject. The risk is that we know it better for someone else than for ourselves. The risk is that the preacher thinks he knows it better than the congregation, and invites the people to a place where he himself is not. Still we cannot escape this subject! ‘Tell me what you think about money and I will tell you what you think about God’, said Billy Graham. The way we deal with money (or lack of money) in our churches, has everything to do with our spiritual life. Luther said that we need to be converted three times: first in our heart, next in our intellect, and thirdly in our wallet. Jesus talks twice as much about how to use money and property than about relationships and sexuality. The apostle Paul calls greed the root of all evil in 1 Tim. 6:10. Greed means you keep more money for yourself than you strictly need. That gives rise to all kinds of evil amongst people.
In 1 John 3 verse 16 -18 we see a special encouragement to open our heart to brothers and sisters who live in poverty, when we are well off. He, Jesus, gave His life for us. What He gave was unconditional love. He didn’t want something in return to enrich His life, because He gave His life. Thus, said John, we also need to give our lives for the brothers and sisters. That’s quite a thing. Anyway, John wants to say we shouldn’t ask for certain compensation, whereby we can enrich our life, also not in secret. No, if we make our life available, we cannot secretly make it richer or more important. Unconditional love is rare among people. Think for example about your visit to the bakery. You buy bread and maybe something else you need. The baker is friendly, smiles at you. Maybe it’s just his charming personality, but it is likely that he also thinks about his clientele. ‘Kindness binds costumers’, he thinks. ‘When I treat the people kindly and politely, they keep coming back.’ When we give something to someone we still expect (mostly in secret) something in return, may it be an expression of gratitude, a sign of appreciation, or maybe it just feels great. It’s a little reward for your give-behaviour. But Jesus gave without reservation. He gave to people from whom He could not expect anything in return. He gave His life. When His love is in us, we also can give without reservation, without expecting something in return, without getting something back to enrich our life. That’s pure generosity, that’s what John mentions here: give your life for someone else. How can this become real and concrete for us?
Invest in something that has lasting value
Let’s first see how the first Christians put this into practice. In Rev. 4: 32-37 we see how the Christians share their possessions. There’s no shortage for anyone. The rich take care of those who are in need. They are one in heart and soul. Let us not consider this some kind of communistic ideal. The communists said: ‘yours is also mine, let’s share it together’. The Christians said: ‘if you need it, mine is also yours’. That is a big difference! The early Christians could keep their possessions if they wanted. Look at Acts. 5 verse 4. Peter says to Ananias and Sapphira: ‘You could have possessed it in all freedom’. But they didn’t put a claim of ownership on it. When it was needed they easily sold a part of their possession and shared the income with the community.
Now you can say that in our economic situation it doesn’t work like that, say that we don’t have to read this as a prescription. But we can’t make it that easy on ourselves. There is a clear reason why the Christians did this. There is a principle behind what today could be really important. Therefore we need to go back to the teaching of Jesus. In the story about the shrewd manager (Luke 16) Jesus made it clear. Money isn’t unprejudiced; money is an evil power, an addictive capacity. It’s a god from which people expect everything, god Mammon, but which can deeply disappoint you. Money doesn’t make friends, rather enemies. It alienates people. It can make you incredibly lonely. And it alienates you from God. Jesus doesn’t say that you have to avoid the money however, no, you can’t. But you need to use it prudently. Use that mammon to make friends, so they will welcome you into eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9). I.e.: invest your money in the things you can’t buy with money, like friendship, community, a treasure in heaven, in eternal dwellings. These dwellings are a picture of the coming Kingdom, as the Israelites imagined it: a large harvest festival in tents.
That’s what the first Christians did. They obeyed the teaching of Jesus: be prudent with money, sell what you have; give the money to someone who needs it and you will have a treasure in heaven. Imagine that your money will have no value anymore next week because of a decision of the Dutch or European bank taken soon. What would you do with your savings? You probably would say: ‘I will try to exchange it for something of lasting value, a house, land, or a painting. So I won’t lose my possession.’ Well, we can be sure: our money, our stocks and shares will lose their value sooner or later. That already happened in the latest financial crisis. That’s why Jesus says: ‘Deal wisely with it, invest in the good that doesn’t fade away, in a possession in heaven.’ Augustine says in a sermon about Psalm 37: ‘Give your money in custody to the poor! God will take care of it. He is a much better treasurer than all banks together. Those can overturn, but God is reliable. He will pay you back in an abundant measure in His time.’
You are connected with that to which you give
So those first Christians invested in the community (koinonia). They were committed to that. Why did they do so? You will not have any doubt that those people were just like us, just as economic. It’s simple: you are connected with that to which you give. And because they had gotten a deep relation with Christ through the grace of God, they also would do anything for His body. The cross meant so much to them: the vertical beam of the connection with Jesus, which bears the horizontal beam: the connection with the brothers and sisters. The unity of brothers and sisters has been given to us in Christ. At the same time God asks for our effort for it. So that it will be visible that we belong together. This is beautifully formulated in question and answer 55 of the Heidelberg Catechism: ‘You have gotten many treasures and gifts in Christ. Because you’re His belonging, your property is also His, you share it with Him in a way. That’s why you also can – willingly and with love – share it with others (your gifts, your time, your studies, your money…).’ Actually it’s Christ’, but you may enjoy it and also let others enjoy it.
It is not possible in God’s Kingdom for some people to have everything and some to have totally nothing. Because we belong to one community (koinonia). The koinonia consists of the brothers and sisters close to us in the first place. In Galatians 6 verse 9 and 10 the apostle Paul says we have to do well to others, but especially to the fellowship of the saints, to the ‘roommates of faith’. Hopefully we give with love to our church here. But the dimensions of the koinonia are much wider. We belong to a worldwide community, in which richness and poverty are still unevenly divided. Jesus says: ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers, you did for me.’ (Matth. 25:40). Imagine whether Christians in the 22nd century would say this about us (if Jesus hasn’t returned yet). Will they say: ‘those Christians were known for their generosity!’ or will they say: ‘it’s unbelievable, those rich Christians in the West didn’t give anything, while in other parts of the world people had to bite a piece of wood?’
Does the proclamation of the Gospel depend on generosity?
In Acts 4 verse 33 we read that the apostles testified with great power about the resurrection of Jesus. Where did they get their sustenance from? Probably they lived from the hospitality and generosity of the people among whom they were working. Later it became some kind of right: they were exempted to proclaim the Word of God and the Christian community supported them. The apostle may use that right. It also was a command of God and a tradition in Israel that the priests and Levites should live from the tithes which the Israelites gave. They didn’t have to cultivate land from which to earn their income. So let us be generous to people who lack elementary necessities like food and drink, education, health care, and rights (diaconate), but let us be likewise generous to the church: so that the proclamation can go on.
Still it is remarkable that the apostle Paul didn’t want to use his rights. He wanted to care for himself and not to burden the congregation. That’s why he combined his ministry with the making of tents and leather processing. He could do this handicraft anywhere. I came across this practise in Romania, especially among the Baptists. where some preachers work halftime in a church with over a thousand people, and work halftime for their own income. The church there does not depend on paid professionals. The lack of money isn’t an obstacle to the service of the Gospel and the growth of the community, on the contrary!
Guard against losing your soul
What was the sin of Annanias and Sapphira in Acts 5? Couldn’t they freely have kept their possession? Yes they could! (vs 9). The point isn’t that they kept something for themselves, but that they were lying, lying to the Holy Spirit. The deepest reason is that the god of money had more to say in their lives than they wanted to admit. God is jealous about His honour. It’s so risky to go against the will of the Holy Spirit. We read about Annanias and Sapphira that ‘their soul left them’ (Greek: ekpsuchè). That’s a word which says that they lost their soul, and behind that is the anger of God at the deceit. He wants to keep the community high and holy. The dramatic moment isn’t when they lost their life literally, but the moment they lost their soul when they fell under the spell of Mammon. ‘Say me what money does to you, and I will say to you what you do with money, I will also say how to deal with God and people…’ We can hardly understand how risky it is to keep clean appearances. To do as if the Spirit guides us, but take our own pathway regarding financial matters. We are at risk when our spending pattern doesn’t match our pious words. Especially how we deal with money and property.
The Bible says: what you sow, you will reap. If you sow frugally, you will reap little. Give, so that you will receive. Have you ever tried this law of the Kingdom? It’s much more blessed (happier, nicer) to give than to receive. You and I are invited by the high King to do it differently. First sowing: let us look at our gifts as soon as our salary has arrived, before all other spending. Let us not share from the surplus, of what we can do without, ‘not the lame and affected animals of our livestock, the cast-offs’ (of which the prophet Malachi complains). Let us not be afraid of depriving ourselves by giving. Give it away, throw your bread out over the water and you will find it after many days, the Bible says. Test God about this ‘law’ of the Kingdom! Your hands will not be empty, on the contrary. He will reimburse you richly!
Imagine what should happen if we all did it differently. Recent research shows: Christians give 2,3% of their income to the church. Imagine that the same percentage is spent on other charities, then you have 5%. Imagine if it became 10%, there would be a lot of money for the service in Gods Kingdom again! For diaconal support, for evangelism work, for projects for new churches…
God tests us!
You may ask yourself: what is a good measure? How much should I give? The good measure is the one of love. We will need a heart that is touched, that has changed from the inside. The Old Testament knows the rule of tithing (this was under the ‘old’ ministry of the law). The tenths were brought to the priest, but the bringer was also able to enjoy his gifts together with the priests (see Deut. 14-16). If we give 10% of what we earn (and you can deduct a lot from taxes), where would we feel it? Could that 10% be the lower limit? Doesn’t real love give more? Because we are under the new ministry of the Spirit and of grace. In 2 Cor. 8 (verse 8 and 9) the apostle Paul tests the generosity of the Corinthians. He says: I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love. Don’t make me feel embarrassed. Because you still know what Jesus did?’ Here we see such an encouragement. He was unendingly rich, incredible: He shared in the glory of the Father, the worship of the angels, the power over this world. But He let it all go. He became poor to make us rich.
‘Tell me how you think about money and I will tell you how you think about God’. We have a few things to think about and to pray about and maybe with the help of God to change: invest in the community, try it out: give away and you will get back abundantly. Let us do it because Christ gave everything for us, because we live of His love.
Niek Tramper. IREF, 4 May 2014