Money, Personal Priorities, and Changing the World
We live for money. Let’s be honest. Especially if we’re American. It’s in our blood. And despite all our insistence about living a life full of meaning and purpose, about being fulfilled, and not surrendering to the rancid materialism everywhere around us … we hold on to our debit cards like they were oxygen tanks under water.
Well, unless there’s a good sale going on at Macy’s.
It’s about priorities, after all, isn’t it?
But don’t worry. This isn’t gonna be some tirade about how we all need to make deep personal sacrifices to save the world. This isn’t going to be a sermon on “sell everything and give to the poor,” or even encouragement to tithe. (“Tithing?” Isn’t that Old Testament?) But if we’d just do a little, it would be enough. Stuff might actually happen. The world might become a better place.
Two things happened recently that bring this to a head for me. My friend Josh recently told me about his “adventures” helping out another mutual friend during a time of financial crisis. This mutual friend (I’ll call him Mike), had an unexpected emergency come up which put him in deep financial stress. His rent was due, and now he couldn’t pay it. His bank account was empty. Josh had a little extra in his account, so the burning question of the day was, Should he loan the money to Mike?
Loaning money, to friends or anybody else for that matter, is a risky business. That old Shakespearian saying proves true all too often: “neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend.” But we call ourselves Christian, and Jesus’ teaching on the matter is painfully clear. “If someone asks to borrow your coat, give him your shirt also…” Jesus constantly challenges us to look to God as our ultimate financial backer, and not worry about pay back. So, many people I know routinely consider every “loan” a gift. Can they afford to “give” the money away? If so, they let it go. If they get it back, that’s great. If not, well, God saw their hearts, he saw the sacrifice, and they leave it to him to sort it all out in the end.
Josh did have that little extra in his account that month, so he was able to help. But it would sting. It would deplete the “emergency reserve” he was trying to build up for himself. Should he do it? Could he afford to lose it if Mike never paid him back? Time passed, and Mike, the needy friend, started getting eviction notices for overdue rent. Josh wrestled with the decision for a few days, but during one sleepless night, he arrived at a decision. All night long, as he wrestled with the options, a phrase from the bible kept going through his head. “Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good …” (Acts 10:38). If he called himself a Christian, if he really wanted to follow Jesus’ example, he should choose to “do the good thing.” And in this case, he decided, that meant helping out the friend in crisis – regardless of the risk and potential loss. Maybe that isn’t the right answer every time someone wants to borrow money, but Josh felt like it was the Holy Spirit speaking to him about this specific case.
And he did it. He tapped his account and paid his friend’s rent.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story goes just the way you’re probably anticipating. Mike never did repay him, and it’ll take Josh months to save up enough to rebuild his emergency fund. But he saw the look of relief on his friend’s face when the eviction notice got torn up, and knew he’d done the right thing.
Was he a sucker or a saint?
This week, our church had its quarterly public meeting to open the books to the congregation. “Here is how much came in, here are our expenses, and here’s where the money went.” And sadly, all too frequently, the weekly expenses outweigh the giving of the congregation. And things have to be cut and staff doesn’t get paid. The harsh truth came out in a single statement. “Our average weekly attendance is __, and if every one of our regular attenders gave just $20 a week, our budget would be completely met.” Twenty bucks a week? Not $20 more, mind you, just $20 total. Never mind even mentioning “tithing.” Never mind special pleading from the pulpit, or sermons on promised prosperity to motivate believers to open their wallets. (Do we really need sermons on Sunday solely for the purpose of raising enough funds to keep the doors open on Sunday?)
Bottom line: Church functions and community services were being pinched because our own people weren’t taking ownership of them.
Here’s the simple truth:
The work of the Kingdom of God is done by the people of God. And that includes financial support. If the money doesn’t come in, the work doesn’t get done.
Even Jesus, with his miraculous powers to heal the sick, raise the dead, and speak the liberating truth of God’s love to unexpected people, even he was able to do ministry because people supported him financially (Luke 8:3).
That 20 bucks sticks in my mind. It’s not so much, not such a big deal for most of us most of the time. We all go through periods when every penny counts, but for most of us, those periods are short-lived, and we generally have the luxury of affording our daily Starbucks fix. Or maybe it’s an iTunes fix or getting that latest smart phone. I honestly do not believe God begrudges us those little pleasures. He’s not stingy. He’s not an old curmudgeon, demanding we forego our caffeine for the sake of “the poor.” But what does it say about our heart, about the condition of our “spiritual but not religious” priorities, when “good” isn’t being done because we won’t take financial responsibility for the work of the Kingdom?
What about the family next door whose kids live on peanut butter and grape jelly because mom isn’t bringing in enough money to put decent meals on the table – even if she had the time? Could we add a couple of extra items to our grocery basket and quietly leave a bag on her doorstep?
There’s that homeless guy who hangs out on the corner near work. Bet he’d appreciate a cold drink from the drive-thru on these sweat-soaking summer days. Or a cup of soup when winter rolls around. Will that break me once in a while?
Or when we see those commercials on TV about starving kids, and how “for just pennies a day …”? Yeah, we can’t bankroll every charity with a good cause, but maybe just one …
Jesus spent a good deal of time talking about money. And if we call ourselves his followers, maybe we should work on this area a bit more. Luke 16 records two parables he told, “The Shrewd Manager” and “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” both lessons in spiritual principles of money handling: “Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home.”
The alternative is a world of suffering people untouched by us, and a less than rewarding future for us who ignored them.
I admit it. I live for money. I hate even saying it. But most of my waking hours are spent earning it and then consuming it. What would happen if I altered my spending priorities just a little? What if I made “giving” my priority — using more of my earthly resources to benefit others — and my daily latte became the optional “if I can afford it” item? What if we all did? Would the world hold Christians in such low esteem if we put our money where our mouth is?
What would the world look like if we all did just a little? No huge sacrifice. No guilt-inducing sermons from the pulpit. No quitting our jobs and joining the Peace Corp, Vista or World Vision. And no need to respond to every request for help that comes our way. Just a little, here and there. Just a little bit more.
We all don’t need to be missionaries, visionaries, millionaires or martyrs to change the world. We only need to do just a little.
[box type=”bio”] STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.