[Trinité - American Cathedral in Paris] Money is what the Old Testament called a demon: a force that if mastered can be a force for good, but if it becomes your master it enslaves you. Today, when one looks at the content of our conversations or the pages of our newspapers the subject of money – of spending it, or saving it, or printing it, or taxing it – is omnipresent. We work for money more than in any other society, we call people who make a lot of money “masters of the universe” and make movies about them. God comes, if He comes at all, after money. At most we devote to Him part of one day. How often have I sacrificed a Sunday at Church for a business trip? That is a reflection of our priorities, and it is a sin of idolatry. Dusty McDonald, a previous Interim Dean, had this definition of idolatry: “Taking something that’s important and making it all important.” Jesus gave his followers a perspective on this sin when he said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21]
We all inevitably have a relationship with money – a relationship that is largely unexamined. It behooves us to become aware of how it affects us deeply and to give it its proper place – a secondary place behind that of God, or the yearnings of our Soul for meaning. Money can buy almost anything, but it cannot buy meaning.
How did we come to put money above all else? The accumulation of money and advances in science are the two main reasons why modern society needs God less than it used to. We can take care of ourselves, relying on science to protect us from illness and insuring ourselves against unforeseen circumstances. Seven lean years might be unpleasant, but we will survive them. In fact, accumulating goods and money cannot help but foster the feeling of self-sufficiency.
All of it is not negative, quite the contrary. Money can do a lot of good in the world: It can restore our Cathedral, relieve poverty, build schools and hospitals, educate and protect our kids. It touches most everything that we care about.
On a personal level, our desire to accumulate often stems from very noble sentiments. One starts a career with the purpose of building a nest-egg so as to provide security for one’s family and be able to contribute to the community. As time passes, we seem to lose our way. Accumulating becomes a goal in itself as opposed to a means to an end. We figure that a bit more will make us more secure, will buy us a little bit more stuff, and make us happier. We justify it with thoughts like “I don’t want my kids to feel they are lacking…”or “I want to make sure that I never have to ask others for charity …”Unfortunately, as we carry on, we find ourselves using money to define our success and that of others.
On a societal level, we believe we need to secure more oil, more land, more control of the seas. There never seems to be enough resources to make us feel secure. We can see the effects of unbridled excess on our lives –we’re too busy to be with each other – and on the environment and the state of the world. If we seek relief from this dreariness, advertisers will suggest shopping. It will make us feel better. Forms can range from a friend telling another, “Let’s cheer ourselves up this afternoon, and go to the mall”, to a more technical discussions about the latest flat screen TV or iPad. Shopping has become a drug.
In sum, we hold a basic unexpressed belief about money: There is no such thing as having too much money. And more is always better.
Yet, is it? Money has a dark side. It is the single reason we don’t pursue what our souls long for. We stay in careers that erode our souls, telling ourselves that we will do good in the later acts of our lives. We focus on accumulation and consumption, becoming hamsters pedaling ever harder, or squirrels endlessly counting our acorns. Like the hamster we become addicted to non-stop work and feel guilty when we are idle. If we lack money, we feel we can’t afford anything. Every decision requires energy. We focus on the gap between the rich and the poor and it becomes the focus of our political conversations.
As a Christian, the Church requests that you give ten percent of your earnings. It is not a suggestion. It is a privilege and a duty to give. It should be a proportional and sacrificial part of your money.
The essential parable about money is Luke 18, in which a good ruler who followed all the commandments asks Jesus what else he needs to do to gain eternal life.
22: When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 23: When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24: Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25: Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Let’s get serious here. I have sympathy for the ruler. If I give all my money away, I will be poor and nobody will care about me. I know that in Luke 12: 22-23 Jesus tells us: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” Still, we worry.
Money worries occur because we cannot give accurate answers to the following questions:
- What is important to me and my family?
- How much money do I need to do that?
- How am I going to earn this money?
How much is enough? This is perfectly measurable if you put your head to it. This is a joint exercise with your spouse. Without going into to the detailed mechanics, it requires you to calculate how much money you need to sustain your lifestyle, which determines the capital you need to accumulate. Most people don’t calculate that number and that is a grave mistake. Knowing this number will set you free. In sum, we need money to live and satisfy our needs as we define them, and any amount above this number is a surplus and should be used as an instrument to do good deeds in the world, and become wiser in the process.
Still, some of you might say: Why should I give anyway? The real world is unfair and the strong will eat the weak. While you might be proud ofthis realistic stance, it also is a position of resignation and capitulation. It allows unfair practices to go on, such as slavery, discrimination, corruption, injustice. In fact, it makes us accomplices to them.
Jesus Christ and other religious figures have told us that giving was better than receiving, that it is the path to personal fulfillment. We do feel closer to God when we are generous. We feel we are part of something bigger, part of our Church, our community, our city, our world. We don’t have to take Jesus’s word for it. Numerous recent MRI studies on the neuroscience of emotions have shown that altruistic love and giving rank among the most positive emotions human minds can experience. We feel at peace. We do not miraculously grow confident that things will turn out all right, but we do realize that we will be able to handle adversity when it comes – calmly and with the help of God and our friends.
On the other hand, when we adopt a mindset of scarcity, we create a feeling of fear and insufficiency. Fear that there is not enough for us and our loved ones. We need to protect ourselves and hoard things. To mindset is not a true choice, it is the prevailing default setting of our world, the dominant voice in our culture. Listen to our politicians anywhere, they are talking budgets, austerity, etc. This is the voice of fear. It is all pervasive. When we let these fears into our heart, we become small. We scramble. We feel powerless, victimized, and our horizons narrow. We feel alone and isolated.
The real choice we have as human beings is to choose to live a life of sufficiency and abundance or to let the feeling of scarcity take over our lives. Showing gratitude for what we have, all the time, at every moment, helps us feel that we live in a generous world.
Are you satisfied today with what you are giving? If you are, chances are you are not giving enough.
Episcopal News Service, October 22, 2013