Money is not bad in itself
Christians can sometimes keep their finances ‘at arms length’. Perhaps they seem irrelevant to our faith, or perhaps taking too much interest in money and investment seems distasteful to us. But the Bible tells us that it is the love of money that is the problem –money is not bad (or good) of itself. ‘Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.’ (1 Timothy 6:10). Jesus was supported in his ministry by wealthy men and women, and rich people were not all required to give up their wealth when they came to faith (e.g. Nicodemus in John 3, or Joseph of Arimathea in Matthew 27:57).
However, wealth does come with clear spiritual warnings attached!
For all this, money does present problems to many people’s faith. In the gospels, money is often a barrier to the Kingdom of God. The rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-30 chose his wealth over following Jesus, and the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21 futilely devotes his life to accumulating riches, without thinking about what will happen to him or them. In the Old Testament, the prophets frequently accuse the rich of oppressing the poor (e.g. Amos 2:6-7, Isaiah 3:14-15).
James writes that, although we are saved by what we believe and not what we do, how we act is still a measure of how seriously we take our faith (James 2:14-26). What we do with our money is a good example. Martin Luther talked about three levels of conversion: the conversion of the mind, the conversion of the heart, and the hardest: the conversion of the wallet. How we save, spend and invest can be seen as a barometer of our faith.
Money and work are about stewardship
How we think of money will be connected to how we think about work –what we do to earn money. In Genesis 2:15, God puts Adam in the Garden of Eden to ‘work it and take care of it’. Work is primarily about stewardship of Creation, and so is money. We can be good or bad stewards of what God gives us. We can use (or not use) wealth to further justice and healthy relationships, or to hinder them. Rarely can money be used neutrally –there is always someone on the other side of the transaction, even if we can’t see them.
We are responsible for what and by whom our savings are used
The way we use our money has real consequences for other people. It can either help people or harm them. Sometimes, we give control over this to others (for example, many people do not know what their bank does to generate interest on their balance, or the choices that their pension fund manager makes on their behalf). In many cases, decisions will be taken solely to maximise the interest or return on the money. However, just because we do not know what is being done with our money does not mean we are not responsible for its effects.
Dealing with money as a Christian
Read the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19:11-27)
Jesus requires justice in all our financial transactions. The master in this parable is ‘a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’ (v. 21) ‘Reaping where we haven’t sown’–collecting a return that our money hasn’t really earned by producing anything useful –might stretch to a number of activities financially. At the extreme end of the scale, it might include gambling; short-term speculation in shares or commodities may be a less obvious example.
Note that just because another party consents to an exchange doesn’t make it fair. The point of many such transactions is to saddle someone else with a loss so that you can gain. Buying low and selling high are not wrong in themselves –the Bible does not limit the amount of money we are allowed to make. But it is interested in the relationship between buyer and seller.
In the case of the parable of the minas, this injustice is applied to collecting interest. The Old Testament banned interest in almost every case. It was seen as a form of injustice, a way by which the rich extracted money from the poor (e.g. Proverbs 28:8). In this parable, Jesus confirms that collecting interest is just the kind of thing a ‘hard man’might do, reaping where he hasn’t sown.
This is an enormous and impossible challenge for us today! Our whole economy is based on debt and interest, and so it is practically unavoidable (especially with inflation, which was not a factor in biblical times). However, we must still remember that financial returns have to come from somewhere. They are not just the product of an impersonal market: somewhere, at the other end of the chain of transactions, there are real people. For example, we often shop around for the best rate on bank accounts and credit cards, without even asking what the bank is doing to produce that level of interest.
3. Playing an active role
This parable suggests that we should take an active role in what is being done with our money. The master, a self-confessed ‘hard man’, argues that the lazy servant –one who plays no part in managing his master’s money well –should still have put his mina on deposit to collect interest. Just as his response is in character for a ‘hard man’, since collecting interest is something a hard man might do, it is in character for the irresponsible servant, who need take no further action.
This ongoing management is linked to responsibility. In terms of biblical principles, there is a huge difference between, for example, investing in buy-to-let housing and short-term stock market speculation. In the first case, the owner assumes overall responsibility of the building (e.g. for any damage, maintenance and perhaps a mortgage), which is rewarded by the tenants’ rent payments. In the second case, there is no benefit to the company, its employees, customers and other investors –quite the opposite, since the purpose is effectively to remain at a distance, skimming value off the company and leave someone else with a corresponding loss. (There are other arguments around this idea that you might want to weigh up, such as that some of these practices help give a more realistic picture of the worth of a stock; the challenge is assessing these objectively rather than using them to confirm what you would like to believe!)
With all the biblical requirements, it might seem easiest to do nothing with your money and keep it under the mattress... but unfortunately, hoarding isn’t an option either! The master in the parable instructs his servants to ‘Put this money to work’–not to hide it in the ground. The point was not just to make money, but to learn how responsible each of his servants was. When he returns, the first two servants are each put in charge of several cities, because they proved trustworthy and capable with the amount they had been given. The message is that God expects us to act responsibly with what he gives us. (Note that just because the master in the parable is a ‘hard man’ doesn’t mean that God is too –not all of their characteristics have to be the same. Parables tend to make an overall point rather being than a detailed analogy –just think of Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to yeast or a mustard seed in Luke 13:18-20.)
Exercise 3: Mapping your finances
Draw a pie chart or table of where your money goes in an average month–particularly the amount that is left over after all the bills and other basic expenses are paid (both amount and percentage of discretionary spending). For example:
- Debt repayment
- Investment (where, and what is being done with your money?)
- Clothes, fashion
- Alcohol, entertainment, etc
- Holiday and travel
- Electronics, luxury goods, etc
Are there any surprises? If you feel able to, discuss some of your choices with others.
Bible tells us that money is not inherently bad, but does come with clear spiritual warnings. We have a responsibility to steward our money well, and cannot ignore this by entrusting its care to others who may not share our concerns. How we spend and invest can never be neutral; it can either bring about justice or harm others. Finally, the Bible is critical of ‘reaping where we haven’t sown’ –something extremely challenging in our modern economy.