Message 35, “Let’s Get Rich? Money, Money, Money!”, 10-3-10
© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
There is an old story about a fisherman who was relaxing one day by his boat. His wife was at his side while he laughed and played with his children. Several fish cooked over an open fire. A passer-by stopped and asked the fisherman why he was not out at sea fishing. He replied, “Well, I already have caught all the fish my family and I need for the day.” “But,” the passer-by answered, “If you caught more fish you could sell them and make enough money to buy a motor for your boat.” “And why would I want that?” the fisherman asked. “So you can go farther out to sea and catch even more fish to sell.” said the passer-by. “What would those fish bring me?” asked the fisherman. “Why, you could then buy another boat and, with time, you might even own a whole fleet of boats. My goodness”, exclaimed the passer-by, “you could catch lots of fish and make lots of money and you would be rich!” “Why would I want to be rich?” said the fisherman. “So you could enjoy life and have lots of free time!” the passer-by almost shouted in exasperation. “But that is exactly what I have right now.” replied the fisherman.
This quaint parable speaks volumes about our attitudes on money and life. It is wonderfully illustrative but, to be fair, there are several flaws to the fisherman’s approach. An ethic of sufficiency is good up to a point – but what about helping others? What about preparing for a future when he cannot fish? What about training his children how to fish? Even so, the parable points out the fact that there is almost nothing else that so much shapes our life decisions and our personalities as how we think about money. And, it is with that theme in mind that I begin an October series with the questioning title “Let’s Get Rich?”
I want to examine with you three different aspects of that theme this month. Today we’ll look at general attitudes towards money and wealth. How might we acquire real prosperity? Is money intrinsically evil, as some say, or are there healthy and more spiritual ways to define it and use it? Next week, we will consider how time and money often are in conflict. We tend to love money and seek more of it, while neglecting that resource of ours – time – which is limited. How might we manage our time in ways that reflect a spiritual approach to life? Finally, on the third Sunday in this series, we’ll explore the possibly frightening idea of giving away all our money to others. What roles do giving and generosity play in a balanced perspective on money?
In the Bible, Paul warns a young protégé of his, Timothy, about money. He wrote, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil….. But flee from these things and pursue faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.” Too often, people misquote this passage and declare that money is itself evil. But the Bible clearly says that it is the love of money which is evil. If this is so, should we instead hate money? Should we be indifferent towards it? Or might we instead have a more nuanced respect for it – neither seeing it as inherently negative nor as something to be worshipped?
Just as I advocate with all areas of thinking, I believe truth resides somewhere in the middle between two extremes. With regard to a spiritual approach to money, I don’t believe money and wealth are themselves evil and neither do I believe those who make lots of money are necessarily wrong. By itself, money serves a practical purpose. It allows for the easy exchange of goods and services without having to resort to barter or other simple economic systems. The paper we keep folded in our wallets and the numbers showing up in our bank accounts have no intrinsic value more than the paper on which they are printed. We agree to accept it, however, as a payment for labor or for manufactured items. Indeed, without money as a form of economic exchange, it is likely that most jobs and most forms of production could not exist. If all you had to exchange was the labor at which you are skilled, it would be very difficult to find many grocers or landlords to accept that as payment for your food and housing.
From an economic standpoint, then, money is a good thing. Using it to build factories and invest in manufacturing equipment, for instance, helps to create new products to enhance human life and to provide jobs. From a spiritual perspective, the same holds true as well. Money is to be used for productive purposes.
In his parable of talents, Jesus tells a story about three servants who receive sums of money – called talents in his day – from their wealthy boss who is departing on a long journey away from home. After his return, the servants are called to account for how they used the money. Two of the servants report that they had put the money to work – perhaps investing in land or flocks of sheep to sell – and thus had doubled the amount entrusted to their care. But one servant tells instead how he buried the talent of money in order to save it and thus return it to the boss. He is sharply rebuked, called lazy, and fired on the spot. The lesson of the parable story told by Jesus is that the Divine ethic is clearly NOT that making money is bad, but that hoarding it or putting it to unproductive use is negligent and, in the long term, wrong. Francis Bacon, the famous English scientist and philosopher, noted that money is like manure. It has no use except to be spread. Henry Ford further refined this Jesus money ethic by saying, “The highest use of capital is not to make more money, but to make money do more for the betterment of life.”
For that purpose, spirituality tells us that money is something we earn by our labor. It is not freely given nor should it be acquired by unjust means. The Biblical book of Proverbs tells us that, “Wealth obtained by fraud dwindles, but the one who gathers by labor increases it.” Furthermore, money must be paid equitably for hard work. Robert Bosch, the music equipment manufacturer and entrepreneur, said, “I don’t pay high wages because I have a lot of money. I have a lot of money because I pay high wages.” This is in the same spirit as Henry Ford who paid workers on his assembly line wages that were three times the average, while he provided an inexpensive product – the Model T car – that revolutionized human transport and improved life for millions. The Bible is once again enlightening. It admonishes that one must not muzzle an ox – prevent it from eating – while it works to harvest grain. In other words, we are to work for what we eat BUT, just as important, we are entitled to be paid fairly for our work.
And Buddhists echo the same message. While most assume that Buddhism abhors money, such is not the case. It is an instrument designed to meet and provide for human needs. Hoarding and being a miser were strongly deplored. The Buddha encouraged human contentment in all things. Living a simple life with few possessions is the path to nirvana and true happiness. Indeed, being frugal but not miserly is a high ethic, according to the Buddha.
Islam proposes an equally practical perspective on wealth. The most excellent jihad, according to the Q’uran, is one that conquers the self – and in this regard money is to be used not to meet excessive desires of the self but it is to be shared with others and to be put to use.
I often shake my head at the continual emphasis, by some Christians, on supposed Biblical injunctions against so-called sins of the flesh – like sex, drinking or abortion. In truth, however, the Bible and Jesus in particular spend more time discussing money issues than any other topic in the Bible. There are over 800 verses about it. And virtually all of them warn against attitudes of greed, love of money and unproductive uses of it. Most people have heard Jesus’ declaration that it will be harder for a rich person to enter into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Such a statement gives wealthy Christians fits and many try all sorts of ways to re-interpret it. Jesus issued this declaration after a rich young ruler had approached him asking what he could do to get into heaven. Jesus looked him over, probably discerning the young man to be arrogant and lavish in his use of wealth, and simply told him that to be right with the Divine One, he must give away all that he has. The rich young man was shocked, shook his head sadly and walked away. He loved his wealth too much.
While I clearly believe that the Divine heart is with the poor, the outcast and the sick, such love is also open to all persons – rich and poor alike. Jesus gave us the amusing image of trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle but then quickly added that as impossible as that sounds, with the Divine One, all things are possible! In other words, even the rich can get into heaven.
My point in that regard is not to offer comforting words about wealth. Instead, I believe the Biblical message – and overall spiritual message – is that people can have wealth…………but wealth must not have them. Jesus said at one point that “No-one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and wealth.” And we know from other verses in the Bible that the way to serve god – the Divine One – is through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, healing the sick and fighting the unjust.
Extending the idea of a moral attitude towards money, it is surprising to note interesting and perhaps ironic characteristics of America’s millionaires. In a 2008 study by the Spectrum Group, there are 6.7 million millionaires in this country. A huge majority of them work. Many own their own business. On average, they do not own new or luxury cars, on average they do not buy name brand food, clothing or household items, they invest over 20% of their annual income, they charitably donate a greater percentage of their income than does the middle class, and nearly 90% gained their wealth on their own – in other words, it was not inherited.
My point is again not to say that millionaires are good and others are bad. It is to simply point out, again, that wealth is not necessarily evil. Indeed, we might say that on average, one has a better chance of becoming a millionaire with a healthy perspective on money than if one does not. Overall, we see that most millionaires – not all – worked for their money, they put it to productive use, and they are frugal in their spending. Even so, as Jesus implied many times, money brings with it lots of dangers for one’s spiritual health. No matter how much money we have, whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, we are warned about our attitudes towards it. Indeed, I believe those who have little wealth can have as much of an unhealthy attitude towards money, how it is acquired and how it is spent, as can a rich person.
How can each of us, in our own hearts, think about money in ways that exhibit simplicity, selflessness, hard work, generosity and productivity? What purpose does money and wealth serve for us? Does it control our lives? Do we obsess over it? Do we use it for selfish purposes? Do we use it to only meet basic needs and do we use it for productive purposes?
I must daily challenge myself in regard to these questions. As I have spoken before about dying to myself, how I spend money and how I earn it is a clear indicator of whether I have truly done that. I talked to you a few weeks ago about my own spiritual awakening around ten years ago, the epiphany when I realized my purpose in life is not to serve myself but to think of others first. Transformation came for me with regard to money – and is still a work in progress – as I learned to be less concerned about the balance in my checking account. I grudgingly adopted a more giving perspective with money – realizing that certain portions of my income should be given away – to causes and organizations that help to change the world for the better. I still have a long way to go in adopting a more spiritual outlook on money – I need to accept the value of my own labor while I also need to continue growing in my generosity.
An old proverb, by some long ago anonymous author, says that “If you want to feel rich, just count the things you have that money can’t buy.” And Mother Theresa once said, “Let us more and more insist on raising funds of love, of kindness, of understanding, of peace.” It might be simplistic to assert that we should focus more on our spiritual bank accounts than on our stock portfolios. But, I believe we all know such is truth. Can we seek to build a spiritual abundance of contentment, generosity, productivity, love, trust, and simplicity? Might we find that money has its purpose – to meet our basic needs and to grow for the sake of improving the lives of all humanity – and leave it at that?
In my messages last month, I spoke about the time all of us will face when we know that our days and hours are almost over. Are money and things what we will value most at that moment? Will we have found our life meaning in them and in a relentless concern about wealth? Or will we find peace in the knowledge that our lives and our money mattered – that we built loving and close relationships with others, we served and gave to others, we lived simply, we lacked selfishness, we forgave?
Our attitudes about money are a crucial test for us. To the Divine One at work in our universe, we ask for wisdom and guidance with regard to it. We ask for continuous spiritual surgery on our hearts – may money have no control over our lives and may we work diligently and wisely so that we have more to give away for the betterment of all creation….
I wish you all peace and love.