Where is your treasure?

Nick Spencer, September 2003

Money promises much; the way we spend it reveals much. It is no surprise that the allocation of it is at the heart of the political process

Money promises much; the way we spend it reveals much. It is no surprise that the allocation of it is at the heart of the political process

Our society has an odd relationship with money. We like to denounce our 24/7 retail culture, and yet still shop ‘out of hours’ in our millions. We lament the estimated £800 billion consumer debt we have accrued, but wait nervously for the next consumer spending figures. We are torn between wanting more and needing less.

The consumerism which is so often blamed for this confusion is, in reality, no more than a symptom of the real problem. Albeit unconsciously, we calculate our time, possessions, homes, future, security, and even relationships, in monetary terms. Money has become the measure of all things.

It is a strange fact that long after we have lost our familiarity with Scripture, the British still like to quote the Bible’s many monetary aphorisms. ‘The root of all evil’ and ‘the eye of the needle’ are still heard in conversation. Yet, contrary to the way such phrases are usually quoted, biblical teaching does not simply reject money and advocate penury for all. Instead, it has a more complex and subtle perspective on the subject, embracing money but at the same time restricting it within that embrace. Around every well-known biblical monetary soundbite there are at least five circles providing essential context.

Creation is good

The first, or outermost of these is that creation is good. Genesis chapter 1 repeatedly affirms this and even the Fall does not change it. The land to which Israel is delivered is lovingly described in the Torah. The human body is never seen as a prison to be escaped, as in later Platonic thought, but as part of God’s good creation, waiting to be redeemed by him. ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’ When one recognises that money is, in effect, nothing more than an abstraction from creation, a language by means of which we control and manipulate creation, the fact that creation is good becomes very important. Money cannot be intrinsically evil because creation is not.

Creation is to be enjoyed

The second circle is that this good creation exists to be enjoyed. Israel’s national life revolved around three annual celebrations and feasts. The law was to be obeyed, not to make life tough for the nation, but ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey’. (Deuteronomy 6:3) As with the nation, so with individuals: ‘when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God.’ (Ecclesiastes 5:19; 8:15; 11:8) Inasfar as money is the language of creation, it too is to be enjoyed.

Wealth is contingent on God

Within the second circle, however, lies a third which reminds us that wealth, like everything else we have, is contingent on God. Our enjoyment of money can all too easily become a dependence on it or a belief in our unassailable right to it, and neither view is healthy or enjoined in Scripture. Nowhere is this better seen than in David’s consecration of the Temple in 1 Chronicles 29. Having listed the enormous quantities of gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood, onyx, turquoise, precious stones, and marble which had gone into the construction, David declares:

‘Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand….as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple…it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you.’ (1 Chronicles 29:14–16)

It is an astonishingly unassuming proclamation, given the speaker and the circumstances, but one which captures the Hebrew worldview perfectly: the pleasure gained from the luxury and artistry of creation is contextualised within an awareness that everything they have is effectively on loan to them from their creator God.

The contingency of wealth entails duties

Being contingent on God involves certain responsibilities, which brings us to our fourth circle. Just as Israel’s tenancy of Canaan came with certain conditions, so the contingency of her and our wealth entails duties. Money is on loan to us for a reason. Trade and ‘wealth creation’ should not become goals in themselves but remain subservient to their proper objectives.

These proper objectives are best summed up in Jesus’ summary of the law in Matthew chapter 22: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.…And…love your neighbour as yourself.’ Money is to be used so as to enable all to enjoy the fruits of just, equitable and joyful relationships with one another, with creation and with God.

Time and again this balance is seen in certain individuals and situations. The book of Proverbs lauds the ‘wife of noble character’ because ‘she work[s] vigorously [and] her trading is profitable’,and because she ‘opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy’. (Proverbs 31:10–31) Paul wrote to the Ephesians advising that ‘he who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.’ (Ephesians 4:28) And to the Corinthian church he insisted on his and Barnabas’ right to financial support for their work which he refused to exercise so as not to ‘hinder the gospel’. (1 Corinthians 9:1–14) In each of these circumstances money is embraced and then made subservient to a higher call.

Warnings about loving money

Biblical teaching is nothing if not realistic, though, and the recognition that this ‘higher call’ is easily obscured by money’s intoxicating effects provides the fifth and final circle. This is the point – after having recognised that creation is good, its enjoyment is advised, its contingency should be remembered, and its responsibilities must be exercised – at which we can engage with Scripture’s undeniably severe warnings about money.

This severity derives from an awareness that money is particularly alluring. It is uniquely versatile, easily transported, long-lasting, and, in stable societies at least, highly reliable. It has the ability to procure virtually anything, from consumer goods to old-age security, and even, through life insurance, to soften some of death’s sting. Money promises to satisfy an almost endless range of human needs and wants.

Jesus’ words on the topic are often particularly sharp, perhaps because he, more than any other biblical figure, recognised these perils. ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth’, he declares in the Sermon on the Mount. His initial explanation is that no earthly banking system is truly secure: somehow or other, whether through moths, rust or thieves, treasures decay. But he then shifts tone for a more profound explanation. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 6:19–21; c.f. James 5:2) The question of money, Jesus recognises, is ultimately a question of love. Money is dangerous because it influences and changes who and what we love.

And it is exactly this point which is so often omitted from the most famous biblical monetary aphorism. When Paul concluded his first letter to Timothy, he wrote not about money but the obsessive pursuit of it.

We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:7–10)

The real issue, Paul recognises, is not about money but about love. What we do with our money is ultimately a subtle yet powerful expression of what or who we love.

Nick’s booklet, The Measure of All Things? A biblical perspective on money and value in Britain today, explores these themes in detail and can be ordered from the report section of our website.

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Category: News and Reviews

September, 2003

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