Posted on / by liz

What Is the Point of Money?

Money splits the church. It is no surprise; money splits our society too. It is one of the primary causes for divorce and motives for murder. Yet, given the church is to be the “light of the world”[1], inheriting Israel’s call to bless all nations[2], you would expect the church to answer, not exemplify, the mess. Instead, we are just as split, seeming broadly to believe either the Prosperity Gospel or that money is the root of all evil[3].

It is hard to avoid when the Bible itself appears confused on the issue. The early church held “all things in common”[4] yet Paul, in Timothy, encourages them to provide for their own households[5]. The same church that sold their possessions[6] met in the houses of wealthy individuals[7]. Ananias and Saphira die for withholding proceeds from selling their land[8] but Peter infers they need not have sold in the first place[9]. Jesus himself, who “[had] nowhere to lay his head”[10], was likely funded by wealthy widows and reclined with tax collectors. The story of Zacchaeus strikingly plays to both crowds. After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus gives away half his goods, but only half, and Jesus never directly commands him to do so[11]. So, which is it? Are possessions wicked or blessings?

We could look to the Rich Young Ruler for an answer. Jesus’ command is unequivocal: “sell everything you own”[12]. In the Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer shames us for “excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience” to this command. Bonhoeffer’s words carry weight – unlike a sickening majority of the German church, his single-minded obedience lead him against Nazi rule to imprisonment and death. But, looking at the early church and Jesus’ life, there is more nuance to the command than Bonhoeffer allows. I suggest that the Parable of the Shrewd Manager[13] can untie our Gordian knot.

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager often confuses Christians. In it, a rich man fires his steward for dishonesty. In response, the steward cooks the books, reducing the amount of goods owed by his master’s clients. The rich man then confusingly praises the steward for his wisdom, as does Jesus. It bewilders Christians: if the rich man is God and we are the steward, are we to be dishonest? Is Jesus encouraging duplicity?

The confusion is easily explained: we often over-spiritualise parables. We forget Jesus was teaching to real people, about real issues, in a historic context. Parables have spiritual meanings, but it is secondary to (and better understood by) reading the teaching in its own moment. The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard[14] is a prime example. Usually read as teaching for ‘going to heaven’, we make ourselves the workers, receiving equal pay (heaven) regardless of working hours (when we

were saved). But Jesus taught this parable to first century Jews: a vineyard was a common image for Israel[1]. The workers joining late and earning the same are non-Jews welcomed into God’s Kingdom, sharing Israel’s mission. As he approaches Jerusalem, Jesus is pointing ahead to the consequence of his crucifixion and resurrection, not expounding a homily on heaven.

Applying this to the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, we can solve our conundrum. Tom Wright points out[2] that olive oil and wheat, the goods owed to the rich man, were used to lend in kind. The Old Testament prohibited lending for interest[3]; the rich man is corrupt and certainly not God. Rather, the parable focuses on the steward. When the steward reduces the clients’ bills, he removes the interest and leaves the principal. The rich man’s only option is to praise him. Yet, Jesus does not draw a moralising lesson against moneylenders.

“Make friends for yourself by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”[4] The primary lesson is to be shrewder, like the “sons of this world”[5]. While we still cling to an overly spiritual interpretation, the lesson is still obscure; how does gaining friends by unrighteous wealth earn me “eternal dwellings”? Consider then, that Tom Wright (more accurately) translates “eternal dwellings” as “homes that last”[6]. Jesus is speaking to an immediate concern; in Luke’s gospel, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he continually prophesies the city’s destruction. In line with many parables, the Shrewd Manager is a warning in this vein: destruction is coming (as it did in 70AD), your wealth is a tool to survive it.

The parable of the Shrewd Manager’s lesson to us is simple: wealth is a tool. The church is often divided because it asks the wrong questions about money. We ask how much money is right and answer either with poverty or overabundance. The Bible’s concern is not the amount but its purpose. Money is not the root of all evil: “love of money is the root of all kinds of evils”[7]. Like wood or stone, money is neutral until we craft it into an idol. Either answer is an idol. For the Prosperity Gospel, money is God. And, when money becomes the great evil, we give it the fear worthy only of God.

Rather, like the Shrewd Manager, money is a tool for other purposes. For him, the purse-strings are loose to win friends. His mind is not on the tool but its aim. Similarly, the Jerusalem church sold their possessions to serve the needy; wealthy individuals kept their houses to host churches; Ananias and Saphira die neither for keeping or selling their land, but for purposelessly doing neither; and, on meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus realises the pointlessness of his wealth and returns it to the poor. The concern of Jesus and his followers is never the amount of wealth. It is that wealth becomes a tool in the service of God’s Kingdom.

What is the point of your money? It is that you shrewdly steward it in line with the values and purposes of God’s Kingdom: serving the poor, sharing the gospel and giving to the renewal of all things through art, music and all forms of creativity. And, if you ever make it an idol, if money prevents your “single-minded obedience” to Christ, the answer is simple: “sell everything you own and distribute it to the poor.”[8]

[1] Isaiah 5

[2] In Luke for Everyone

[3] Deuteronomy 23:19

[4] Luke 16:9

[5] Luke 16:8

[6] Same reference, in Tom Wright’s (and John Goldingay’s) Bible for Everyone and Luke for Everyone

[7] 1 Tim 6:10

[8] Luke 18:22

[1] Matt 5:14

[2] Gen 12:3

[3] 1 Tim 6:10. My phrasing is a common misquote; we will return to it.

[4] Acts 2:44

[5] 1 Tim 5:8

[6] Acts 2:45

[7] E.g., 1 Cor 16:19 and Col 4:15.

[8] Acts 5:4

[9] Ibid.

[10] Matt 9:20

[11] Luke 19

[12] Luke 18:22

[13] Luke 16:1-9

[14] Matt 20:1-16

[15] Isaiah 5

[16] In Luke for Everyone

[17] Deuteronomy 23:19

[18] Luke 16:9

[1]9 Luke 16:8

[20] Same reference, in Tom Wright’s (and John Goldingay’s) Bible for Everyone and Luke for Everyone

[21] 1 Tim 6:10

[22] Luke 18:22

This article was written by Ben Gregg – for other articles by Ben see https://medium.com/@minipotgregg/

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