The Money Conundrum
October 23, 2019 by Rev. Dr. Bill Enright
Editor’s note: Rev. Dr. Bill Enright preached at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., on Sunday, Oct. 13. He is a thought leader on stewardship, money and philanthropy in churches and religious contexts, and a retired Presbyterian pastor, and his sermon presents some key thoughts on stewardship and sufficiency. Heard a great stewardship sermon? Drop a line to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing for the Presbyterian Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may feature it here.
Luke 12:1-3, 13-23
Luke 12:15: “Beware! Even when someone has more than enough, his possessions do not give him life.”
Today I want to talk with you on one of Jesus’s favorite subjects, money. It’s my sense that we’re not very good when it comes to talking about money in the church. We mention the subject only when we need it or during our once-a-year fundraising effort when we timidly ask for more. Ironically, fundraising and asking for money was not something Jesus talked about. Why then did Jesus talk so much about money? Why did money matter to Jesus?
In our Gospel lesson Luke gives us a clue. As Luke tells his Jesus-story, he is looking back some sixty years. Christianity is beginning to be a presence in the Roman Empire. The audience Luke addresses is urbane, more worldly savvy and more culturally diverse. His audience is also curious: What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? How do people who call themselves followers of Jesus handle money? You see, it was Christianity with its focus on almsgiving that was beginning to change the face of philanthropy in the Greco Roman world by turning acts of mercy and care for the poor into a public virtue. (Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire)
Luke’s Jesus understands the money conundrum; it’s a puzzle, a challenging reality with which we all live, be we rich or poor. As Jesus sees it, you and I can’t talk realistically about life without talking about money. Neither can we talk about money without talking about what it means to live life well, with purpose and fulfillment. As one of my conversation partners once put it: “In a money economy if the church has nothing to say about money, it probably has little of importance to say to the world.”
As Luke sets the stage for our story, a large crowd has gathered to hear Jesus. Jesus is talking about the importance of telling the truth, of being honest and transparent. In the audience are people for whom religion is but a pious cover-up for bad behavior. Jesus has a name for such people, he calls them hypocrites or religious play-actors. (12:1) Jesus then reminds his audience that “What people do and say in the dark will be heard in the light and what people whisper behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” So Jesus says, “Don’t be intimated by bully talk. Remember, everyone is ultimately accountable to God.”
In the audience is a young man, what today we might call a millennial. As he listens to Jesus talk about telling the truth and the scam of onerous backroom deal-making, the resentment sitting deep in his soul begins to simmer. His father has died, his conniving big brother is trying to defraud him of his part of the family inheritance. Then, it happens; before he can muzzle his emotions, he hears himself blurting out loud: “Jesus, tell my brother to share the family inheritance with me.” You can almost taste the silence. The money conundrum. How do we acquire it? How will we manage it? How do we spend it?
Note the deftness with which Jesus shifts the conversation and cuts to the bottom line. Refusing to play the role of mediator he focuses on the insatiable human desire for just a little bit more, a desire that lives in most of us. He simply says: “Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.” (12:16) Then, Jesus does what he often did when confronted with a prickly question, with a twinkle in his eye he says: “Let me tell you a story.”
Once upon a time, there was an old farmer who at harvest season was blessed with a bumper crop leaving him with more than he ever had before. His abundance, puts him in a quandary: what is he going to do with his “more than enough.” He does what of many of us would do, he begins to dream.
Do you, as do I, on occasion find yourself playing the money game; imagining what you would do if you won the state mega million-dollar jackpot? On occasion I play that game with my grandsons; almost always it leads to a conversation about values and life priorities.
“Ah,” the old farmer says: “I know what I will do, I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones. I’ll make new investments, diversify my holdings and secure for myself a care-free life for tomorrow.” And then it happens. Plump in the middle of his dream God pops up with what is the punch line of the story. God says: “Fool! What will happen to all this money when you die?” Jesus then concludes: “And that is how it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Why does Jesus describe the farmer as “fool?” Not fool because he’s a bad person. Not fool because he is doing something wrong with his money in his desire to secure for himself a comfortable retirement. Jesus calls him fool because he has confused the means of life with the ends of life. Money has become the endgame for which he lives. Fools confuse money with security, stuff with success, assets with self-worth, abundance with health. The cunning of the money conundrum.
In a short story entitled The Wallet, John Updike tells about a retired stockbroker named Fulham. Fulham is a man blessed with more than enough. Retired, he settles into a routine schedule. Every morning he patters upstairs to his office with the Wall Street Journal in one hand and a cup of decaffeinated coffee in the other to manage his investments. One day his world turns topsy-turvy; he can’t find his wallet. He looks everywhere: under chairs, beds, he goes through pockets of suits he has not worn in months. At breakfast he announces to his wife that he knows what happened: “Someone slipped into the house while we were sleeping and stole my wallet.” His wife, taken aback by the rawness of his emotions replies: “Fulham, I’ve never seen you like this, you’re acting crazy, wild!”
“Wild” he cries, “but it’s my wallet … without my wallet, I am nothing!”
Earlier this year, I discovered that there is a Fulham living in me. It was Saturday night. My youngest granddaughter was with us and we had taken her to the movies. Returning home, I went into my study to read and watch the evening news. Then, as I was getting ready for bed, it happened. I reached into my pocket to put my wallet on the dresser and it was gone. I returned to my study and turned my easy chair upside down. I went to my car in search of my wallet. No wallet; I went crazy. My wallet had a little cash, but it also held my credit cards and my drivers license. My wallet held my identity. It was past midnight when I drove to the movie theater, my heart was racing, my blood pressure off the charts, I was breathing heavily, my shoulders were aching. I thought I was having a heart attack and I ended up in the hospital ER. No, I was not having a heart attack, just a reality-sobering panic attack. The pinch of the money conundrum; how it catches us at life’s turnings.
In his recent book For the Life of the World, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf observes that modern culture is very clear as to what we must do if we are to have a good life; so we focus on the means to the good life. We invest our time and energy in securing the resources we think we need to live the good life. A degree from the right school; and I think of the recent college admissions scandal! A home in the right neighborhood so our children can attend the right school; and I recall the Great Recession with many family homes ending up under water! A job that carries prestige and makes more money; and I think of some of the people I talk with who have money but no job satisfaction. Why are they doing what they do? Because of the money. Volf writes: “When the means for life become the ends of life, we become like a dog chasing its tail.” And a gnawing emptiness begins to shrivel our souls. (pp. 26-27)
As Jesus puts it in our text: Things/possessions do not give life. When the means become the end, life loses its balance.
That old Presbyterian patriarch John Calvin used an apt phrase in describing the money conundrum: he called it a slippery slope. A slope tilting on the one end toward suffocating poverty and on the other end toward self-indulgent consumerism. The trick is learning how to navigate this slop. Calvin writes: “use God’s gifts for that end to which they were created, for our good, not for our ruin … Not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer.” Money is not evil; but it is a challenge and a temptation. (Institutes of the Christian Religion: 3/10/1-2)
If money is a means, what then is the end for which we live? The old Presbyterian catechism answers that question this way: “The chief end for which we live as Christians is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. What does that mean? To glorify God is to use the good gifts of creation in such a way as to put a smile on God’s face. To enjoy God is to use the gifts with which we have been blessed in such a way that they put a smile on our face. The key is to pay attention; to pay attention to God and what God might be about in neighborhoods and the world where we live. It is to use our gifts and possessions for the flourishing of others as well as for our own well-being.
In 1996, an 86-year-old washerwoman living in Hattiesburg, Mississippi made the front page of The New York Times. Her name was Osceola McCarty, her picture showed her sitting at her table her Bible open to 1 Corinthians 13: Love is generous, love is kind. She did not make the front page because she read her Bible every day. She was headline news because of a six-figure gift she made to the University of Southern Mississippi.
Where did she get the money?
Every month, from the time she left school in the sixth grade to support her family, she put something away in a deposit account at the local bank. One day, her banker knowing that Osceola was up in years called to ask her if she knew how much money she had and inquired as to what she wanted to do with that money; it was over $250,000.
When Osceola came to meet with the banker, he realized that she had no idea as to the value of her savings account. To help her get her mind around the situation the banker took ten dimes and placed them in a row on his desk. He then asked Ms. McCarty how she might want to spend the dimes. She said, “I’d like to give three to my church, two to my family and five to the school down the street from where I live.”
“You know,” she continued, “those people have been so good to me. Even though I could never have attended that school when I was a girl because I was black, they brought me their clothes to wash and mend. So, I’d like to do something that would help black girls like myself go to that school.”
The banker replied, “That’s so thoughtful and generous; but, don’t you want to keep some of this money for yourself, give yourself a present or two, take a trip?” “Oh no,” she replied. “I’m happy with what I have; you know, in life there is a difference between wants and needs. I don’t need any more than I have.”
It would be presumptuous for me to tell you how to live with the money conundrum. So, I leave you with two take-home questions for you to ponder.
First, are you using what has been given to you to put a smile on God’s face?
Second, how do you see all that you have; does the use you make of what you have leave you with a smile on your face?
Dr. William Enright is the Founding Karen Lake Buttrey Director Emeritus of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving in Indianapolis. Dr. Enright is a former Senior Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis. He is a graduate of Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois; Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California; and McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and holds three D.D. (honorary) degrees from Hanover College (Hanover, IN), Dubuque Theological Seminary (Dubuque, IA), and Anderson University (Anderson, IN).
He has authored several books, the latest being Channel Markers, and lectured at numerous colleges, universities and theological institutions as well as for business associations such as The Young Presidents and World Presidents organizations. In July 2005, he served as “preacher and chaplain” for the Chautauqua Institution in New York. In 2007, he delivered the annual John Conley Lecture on Medical Ethics to the American Academy of Otolaryngology which was later published in the Academy’s journal.