Finance First Friday: Christianity and Money

I invited longtime parishioner and Godly Play Storyteller, Jay Clark, to share his wonderings about money and Christianity. I hope his thoughtful reflections inspire you to consider the role of finances in your faith journey.

Christianity offers us much hope of love and peace, but at the same time challenges us to work for these signs of the new kingdom. I often wonder if I am up to this challenge. Am I handling the things that have made up and make up 20th and 21st century life in a Christian way? How do I take the guidance and wisdom of 1,900+ year old texts and apply them to the way our society is structured and works – not least of these being the accumulation, spending, and management of money?

For me, learning how to deal responsibly with money while being true to the Christian way has much to teach about being Christian in general. It brings up so many of those things that make us human and that we must deal with – how we read the Bible, deal with power, avoid idolatry and the tendency to never be satisfied with what we have.

I often wonder whether it is possible to be both financially stable/secure and follow the ways of the New Testament. In the extreme, must we be members of an itinerant preaching community, with only one set of robes and little in our duffle, depending on the hospitality of strangers for meals, and focusing on the imminent end of this world? In modern society, would this be irresponsible, placing a burden on others and failing to care for our family members?

I find approaching the Bible literally often provides little insight – looking into the transcendent message is necessary. In other words, does one focus on the statement or the meaning? Historical context is important, but we must also relate to our current context. If we follow only the words instead of the message, we will probably run into trouble.  [As an aside, read the book “The Year of Living Biblically – One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” by A.J. Jacobs for a take on this.]  While I find the historical perspective fascinating – showing us the timelessness of the human condition, we do not live in this type of world in which the overt prescriptions may not even be relevant.

The impact of money in our society and time cannot be understated and is driven home, for me, by those who experienced the Great Depression. I sense, the lack of money created lasting impact – for my father, I think the conditions of this period influenced every decision/choice he made. 

In last fall’s finance formation series, we read about the metaphor of our economic system as a behemoth which has swallowed us – we are surrounded by it. I found this a very useful construct in helping to understand our relationship with the financial system – even if we do not agree with it, we are part of it and must deal with it – we must acknowledge it and figure out how we will navigate it. 

Two points must be made here – first, I am not condemning our system outright, I am acknowledging it is not perfect or fair. I have personally done well financially in this system, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t think critically about it. Second, I think this construct is a good starting point, but we need to go beyond the model. Most of us are not completely helpless in this system. We do have some control here – we can make decisions about how we will function within this system.

For me, religion’s heart is about control of the ego and renouncing idolatry. Today, we must be actively engaged with money management, but we cannot let it become our obsession. We must trust, at some point, we are doing enough. We must trust that we have enough and not get caught up in the game of having the most “toys” or sacrificing the goodwill of others for accumulation. Money is not the end.

Along with this, we also need to understand that, in our current societal setup, money is power; therefore, we can use our money dealings to distribute power ethically. The Bible, both Jewish scripture and the New Testament, teach us about the trappings of power and how it can be misused – with David, the Herods, and Pilate as examples of how power can consume. Power is not, in and of itself, always negative and the Bible also shows us just exercise of power – the tolerance of Cyrus the Persian and the judgement of King Solomon. We must choose how we will exercise this power. We must respect that this condition exists even if we don’t agree with it. Work to change what we can, to mitigate the unfairness and negatives.

That’s a lot of heavy stuff and warnings. I must state that money can do good – it enables opportunities for us and others. Money, used well, can also enable joy. This is an area I have thought much about recently considering ours and the broader communities’ discussion of the impact of systemic racism.

In the end, I look to a contemporary of the Bible for direction. I think that Aristotle’s Golden Mean applies here – everything in moderation. Savings, consumption, charity all need to be in the mix – when one component gets too much attention then it must be confronted. This requires us to be engaged, to be thinking about our decisions. The key is to actively engage and make decisions as a Christian.

So, can the financially well-off be Christian – yes, I hope so, but it takes reflection and work. We must manage these resources responsibly and use them as a tool to achieve the kingdom (we are in this for the long term!)  In the end, money and power are not the way, they are there, but the way is love and peace. We cannot let other pursuits lessen or distract from this.

Thank you, Jay, sharing your insightful contemplations is a gift for us all!

Understanding and navigating our society’s financial systems as followers of Christ can be challenging. Maybe that is why Jesus talked about money and possessions more than prayer and faith. As with most spiritual practices, we gain strength when we share with and support each other. To write a post, offer resources, submit an article, or do an interview please contact Executive Administrator, Sarah Dull – you never know who needs to hear your story.

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