Tuesday, January 9, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 7: Wisdom's Wealth, Money's Madness

Address 7: Wisdom’s Wealth, Money’s Madness

I have been studying and teaching the theology of the Bible for many years now, but one of the more difficult questions to answer is how the Old Testament, especially in Proverbs, can be so positive about wealth and the New Testament, and even Jesus himself, can be so negative about Mammon.

Let me pose the problem in this way. Here are three typical proverbs of Solomon, all from chapter 10:

A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. (Proverbs 10:4)

A rich man's wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin. (Proverbs 10:15)

The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it. (Proverbs 10:22)

On the other hand, listen to the New Testament on the same subject.

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never fail you nor forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5) For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10)

It is often pointed out that the New Testament condemns the love of money, not money itself. But that is not quite right. The contrast of wisdom and money, i.e., silver and gold, is so frequent in Proverbs as to be a cliché: To get wisdom is better than gold; to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver (Proverbs 16:16). So it is better that we contrast wealth as a condition of virtue with money as a temptation to self-love.

Lady Wisdom, it seems to me, would counsel the person of wealth in these terms: “Be Committed to One’s Community”; “Be Content with One’s Wealth”; and “Be Compassionate to the Needy.” Let’s look at each of these counsels of wealth and keep in mind its distortion in the love of money.

Be Committed to One’s Community

First let’s look at the context of wealth. Proverbs lays out the following cause-and-effect formula for success in life: Honor the LORD with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. (Proverbs 3:9-10).

One clue to this rather straightforward link between piety and prosperity is its social context. The person portrayed here is not a money-changer but a landowner. We get a more detailed portrait of such a man in the book of Job. Let’s remember the way Job is portrayed at the beginning and end of the book.

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. (Job 1:1-4)

Job himself describes his former life in positive terms.

When I went out to the gate of the city, when I prepared my seat in the square, the young men saw me and withdrew, and the aged rose and stood; the princes refrained from talking, and laid their hand on their mouth; the voice of the nobles was hushed, and their tongue cleaved to the roof of their mouth. When the ear heard, it called me blessed, and when the eye saw, it approved; because I delivered the poor who cried, and the fatherless who had none to help him. The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. (Job 29:7-13)

Job is known for his wealth, not for his money. The Hebrew idea of wealth carries the notion of substance, dignity, weight. In rural societies, as I am sure you know, money is not the means of exchange. A person is known for his land or his cattle, not for his cash. There is a subtle difference between the two. Land and cattle involve relationships – relationships with family members, clans, and neighbours; money is abstract and can be used purely for things or for people unknown to the person.

Recently I went onto the Internet a purchased an airline ticket, using my credit card. I was issued an electronic ticket. As a result, no living human person will be aware of my flying on the airplane until I check in at the gate. Marvelous, isn’t it. Technology can do miracles. But it can also dehumanize. The Bible puts high priority on employing wealth in the context of social and civic relationships.

Let me suggest to some of you children of Africa that you not despise the wise men and women of the villages who may not have a bank account or a credit card or a mobile phone, but who dispense wisdom and care to neighbours in the way Job did.

Be Contented with One’s Wealth

One of the amazing facts about modern Western society is that people are richer than ever before in history and more discontented than ever before. A curious thing about Mammon, as opposed to wealth, is that he is never satisfied. Jesus told the story about a prosperous man who decided to pull down all his barns and build bigger ones (Luke 12:18). This decision may well have made good business sense. The problem is, Jesus suggests, that such thinking knows no limits. This man is not satisfied with his thousands, he must have his millions, and then his billions. He was building barns at age 35 and he is still building barns at age 75. What is wrong with that, you may ask? Well, he did not prepare his soul for the eternal accounting when God said: “Fool, this night your soul is required of you.”

The Old Testament commends wealth but also contentment with what you have. A famous proverb describes contentment this way: Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, "Who is the LORD?" or lest I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9). Contentment has both material content - a person needs enough to eat and enough to wear - and it also has spiritual content, gratefulness to God who provides. The problem with piling up Mammon, according to Scripture, is that it will make a person forget God and think he is the source of his own good fortune: For this very reason, Moses is concerned that the people of Israel will find the land flowing with milk and honey a stumbling block: Beware lest you say in your heart, `My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day.(Deuteronomy 8:17-18).

The opposite of a contented person is a controlling one. One of the truly sad things to witness is a “power broker” who is getting old and senile and losing control. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes describes his tragedy this way: There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction. (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2). And to be honest, that is true of everyone: you cannot take money with you, and you cannot control what those who follow after you will do with it.

The Compassion of Wealth

Jesus said bluntly: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). Notice he did not say: “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be.” His point is that treasure draws the heart just as a magnet draws iron filings. The question then becomes, what kind of treasure do you have? According to Proverbs, there is a test for treasure as accurate as any test for fine gold. The test is this: how have you used your wealth for the poor? Here are some sample proverbs:

He who despises his neighbor is a sinner, but happy is he who is kind to the poor. (Proverbs 14:21)

He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him. (Proverbs 14:31)

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed. (Proverbs 19:17)

He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13)

Now let me say that the man who is both prudent and merciful often faces dilemmas on how to help the poor and needy. If a person simply gave to everyone who asked him, he would quickly become impoverished himself and would not necessarily really help. Wealthy people often find their wealth a conscientious burden. Nevertheless, the true Christian must look at his poor neighbour and say to himself: “There but for the grace of God go I,” and “There I too will go when I lie naked in the grave.”

The New Testament differs from the Old in emphasis because our Lord Jesus Christ himself became poor for our sake, and there is thus a special honour attached to those who voluntarily “sell all they have to follow him.” Now that the Holy Spirit has come, we can speak more directly of inner riches. Hence Paul counsels Timothy: As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17).

But the Old Testament witness has enduring value because many Christians are called to live in the world as stewards of God’s treasure. Jesus’ stewardship parables all continue the Old Testament teaching on prudent investment of money. Therefore, we can take to heart the message of Lady Wisdom to Be Committed to One’s Community, Be Content with One’s State of Life, and Be Compassionate to those in need.

If you do this, you will be richly clothed on the Day of Jesus Christ.


SCRIPTURES ON WEALTH AND POVERTY


A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. (Proverbs 10:4)

A rich man's wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin. (Proverbs 10:15)

The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it. (Proverbs 10:22)

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never fail you nor forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5) For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10)

To get wisdom is better than gold; to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver (Proverbs 16:16).

Honor the LORD with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. (Proverbs 3:9-10).

Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, "Who is the LORD?" or lest I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9).

Beware lest you say in your heart, `My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day.(Deuteronomy 8:17-18).

He who despises his neighbor is a sinner, but happy is he who is kind to the poor. (Proverbs 14:21)

He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him. (Proverbs 14:31)

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed. (Proverbs 19:17)

He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13)

As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17).


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