Jesus and accumulating money
Jesus said some plain, serious and challenging things about the accumulation of money or wealth. He did not condemn money as such, but warned against money becoming our master, making us a slave to wealth.
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:24)
It was not the use of money he warned against, but the accumulation of money, or possessions which he called ‘treasures’.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
Let us look at what this means for us in the 21st century.
- Should we save for a rainy day?
- Should we contribute to a pension for provision in our later years?
- Is it legitimate to invest money in a business?
- What if we inherit some money, what should we do with it?
- How do we avoid the trap of serving money as our master?
What is money?
Money has been around for thousands of years. What did we do before money was developed?
- We had to barter or swap goods or services. For instance if you had a surplus of grain but wanted a clay pot you could strike a bargain with the potter, assuming of course that he needed your grain.
- Or we might come back from a successful hunting trip and share our game with other families with the hope that they will also share with you when circumstances change. (This is rather like being invited for a meal and, though we would not dream of paying money, we might feel obligated to return the invitation in the future.)
As communities developed, and many people lived in cities, bartering or a system based on sharing became impractical and the concept of money was developed. Coins were produced either from precious metals or those coins represented a fixed value of other goods, such as cattle or quantities of grain. The British Pound as originally meant to be worth silver weighing one pound. Before long there was no fixed relationship with any material value, paper money was introduced, and now our bank accounts are purely electronic data on computer systems.
Paul and the love of money
Money can simply be a means to an end to make our complex lives more simple. In itself it is neither good nor bad. But accumulating money can become an end in itself and we can so easily switch from using money as a tool, to becoming the servant of money or a slave to money.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, in their eagerness to get rich, have wandered away from the faith and caused themselves a lot of pain. (I Timothy 6:10)
Note that it is not money which is at fault, but the love of money. Paul does not condemn riches themselves but says that the rich should be generous and share what they have.
Tell those who are rich in this age not to be arrogant and not to place their confidence in anything as uncertain as riches. Instead, let them place their confidence in God, who lavishly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
They are to do good, to be rich in good actions, to be generous, and to share.
By doing this they store up a treasure for themselves that is a good foundation for the future, so that they can keep their hold on the life that is real. (I Timothy 6:17-19)
Jesus did not tell us to do anything he didn’t live out. He did not accumulate any wealth. He and his disciples lived a simple life, sharing a common purse and giving to the poor any excess. Judas who was in charge of the common purse said:
“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” (John 12:5)
Jesus once said to a rich man:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
There is an important key here. We can’t do it all on our own. If the rich man had sold all, and followed Jesus he would have been a part of Jesus’ community. So with us today. If we are asked to sell all to follow Jesus we need to be a part of a community of followers that care for each others needs.
Storing up treasures on earth.
Jesus said quite plainly that we should not store up treasures on earth. Treasure is a heart thing. It gives a false sense of security, because possessions are subject to decay, destruction or theft. A few years ago I held a (very) few shares in the Royal Bank of Scotland. These became virtually worthless overnight as the banking crisis took hold. Fortunately, they were not too important to me, and I shrugged off the loss because my heart wasn’t in those shares.
Is our house a treasure? Well, for a start, it is our home and therefore it is not just stored up for a rainy day. I don’t think that Jesus would regard us owning a home as ‘storing up treasure’. If we owned a second home however, we might find the words of Jesus challenging. The early church certainly took Jesus’ words seriously.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
People who run their own businesses use money to invest in the venture and make a profit to support their families. I don’t think Jesus would condemn this. The difficulty comes when success leads to sitting back and relying on invested capital as security.
Jesus told a story of a story of a successful farmer who planned to Iive out the rest of his life on the possessions that he had accumulated.
Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
While this farmer grew his crops there was no problem. It was for putting his heart and trust in his success that he was called a fool.
We would be well advised to follow the example of Bill Gates. For years he built up the Microsoft Corporation and had a vision of making things easier for millions of computer users. He amassed a vast fortune, but his heart wasn’t in the money. He saw his fortune as a way to help others, and has given away huge amounts to charity.
As people’s life expectancy increases, it is prudent to provide for retirement. This is not wrong, but we need to be very sure where our security lies. Many of us have been in company pension schemes and hardly given the matter much thought. For many people in the world struggling to provide for the present, there is no possibility of providing for the future!
Years ago, I contributed to a pension scheme which was effectively stolen by the groups major shareholder. I stood to lose quite a lot of money when I got older. The money was eventually recovered by the scheme’s lawyers but I had to learn that what I had laid up for me could be lost.
I have now effectively retired (financially at least), and live off a government pension and bits and pieces of company and private pension schemes. The challenge to me is: “Have I stored up treasures on earth?”
Again, it is a heart thing. Is my security in my pension income, or is it in God who has promised to provide? I cannot go back and try to opt-out of pension schemes, but I can make sure that my heart is in the right place.
A Slave to money
The love of money is very subtle. Money can be our servant and allow us to work, and earn enough to buy what our family needs. It is the accumulation of money that is so often the problem. We may want to save up to put a deposit on a home for our family. We may need to use money to carry out a business to provide for our family. It may be prudent to put money aside in a pension scheme to provide for our later years. The moment, however, when the accumulation becomes an end in itself, we change from money being our servant to becoming a slave to money.
We are all different and God speaks to us individually. We can’t lay down definitive rules about these things. Some are called to community living and a want to share and hold all things in common. Some are called to run businesses to plough back the profits into the Kingdom of God. Some are called to simply live, earn and provide for their families without the possibility of accumulating wealth.
There is a great cost to the love of money. Paul says that it leads to problems of faith and causes much pain to the money-slave (and other people!). Jesus said that we cannot serve God and money.
It is very subtle. We may think that we are holding on to possessions lightly and the find that our attitudes slowly change. Whether we are poor or rich, have very little in the way of possessions or have become wealthy, it is a constant challenge to guard our heart and not allow ourselves to become a slave to money.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)