Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Money is a Spiritual Issue (Jul-Aug 2002)

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by Rubel Shelly
July – August, 2002

According to Jesus, money may well be the clearest index to the status of any believer’s spiritual life. Yet most of us appear to have been trained to think of money as relatively unimportant to spirituality.

If you question the claim that Jesus made money and its use a critical element of authentic spirituality, how would you interpret the following sayings from the Gospel of Luke?

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes (16:9).

If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? (16:11).

You cannot serve God and wealth (16:13).

These statements all appear in a context where Jesus is exploring the possibilities of money. They conclude the Parable of the Shrewd Manager (16:1-8) in which a certain slave-administrator is praised not for his dishonesty with money but for his shrewd preparation for the future. He reduced the bills of certain clients in order to win a degree of obligation to himself in days to come. It is a challenging parable to interpret, but whatever interpretation one places on it needs to be consistent with the three application points from it cited above.

First, Jesus taught that his disciples ought to use money so that friends made through those applications will be waiting to welcome us into heaven. This is only a slight variant of Jesus’ appeal that we “store up treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20). Better still, perhaps it is an explanation of how to send the wealth of this world ahead to heaven. When I try to envision such a scene, I picture a sick, cold, or imprisoned person who was blessed with someone’s sharing of her wealth to pay for medicine, buy warm clothing, or take the gospel into a jail. That soul is greeting a new arrival to heaven and thanking her for the difference it made. He says, “I am here because of your unselfishness back in June of 2002. Thank you for what you did. I’m so excited to finally meet you.”

The visualization I have just described probably traces as much to Ray Boltz as to Jesus. His “Thank You for Giving to the Lord” is a touching song that imagines one meeting a variety of people in heaven that were helped – if not rescued or brought to salvation – by generosity on earth. I recall the first time I heard the song years ago. Michael Puryear sang it to the church before I preached on giving. I was barely able to follow it. There was a huge lump in my throat. It was far more effective than anything I said that day in my sermon.

We don’t “buy” salvation. It is a gift of grace. But people who understand their own redemption through the gift of Christ’s blood are quick to show love to the poor and vulnerable among us. They invest their money in heavenly futures by feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, etc.

Second, Jesus startles us by asserting that believers who are not faithful in their financial dealings are unworthy of being trusted with things of ultimate spiritual significance. The “dishonest wealth” (unrighteous mammon, KJV) of Luke 16:11 is not necessarily to be equated with wealth attained through fraud, theft, or some other dishonest means. It stands in contrast to “true riches” that endure for the sake of God’s glory. To be sure, wealth gotten by unethical means is a spiritual curse. But wealth achieved by the most honorable of means is both “dishonest” and “unrighteous” for the promises that often come attached to it. The assurance of security or peace or being in good hands by virtue of money is simply a false assurance.

I began this editorial calling money an “index” to our spiritual lives. Luke 16:10 is the source of that claim. Anyone who is (or is not) faithful in “very little” (i.e., money) is judged to be faithful (or unfaithful) in “much” (i.e., things of spiritual significance).

Third, either God is sovereign over you, your money, and your stuff, or material wealth has become your god and you are serving it. If you have a long list of things you want that can be bought with money, you are in spiritual danger of the first magnitude. If you spend irresponsibly and create stress for yourself and your family, you are entangled in sin. If your obsession with an image associated with money and its trappings has you maxed out to creditors, you are an idolater. Yes, the language is strong. But the accusations come directly from what the Bible says about money. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (Col. 3:5).

Jesus had a negative attitude toward wealth and the accumulation of possessions. In fact, I cannot find anything positive that he ever had to say about it (cf. Matt. 6:19-34; Mark 4:19; Luke 12:13-31). To be a child of our consumer culture and its greedy desire for more, more, more still is to embrace a lifestyle that is toxic to spirituality. To be controlled by money rules out the possibility of participating in the kingdom (i.e., sovereign rule) of God.

I am tired of the sorry teaching being done about money in the name of Jesus that promotes greed, offers the gospel as a ticket to prosperity, and teaches Christians to pray for enlarged portfolio territories. How did we ever deceive ourselves into thinking that the Exemplar of our Faith who lived always on the edge of poverty would be pleased with materialistic followers?

I am sick of hearing preachers manipulate the biblical text – and their hearers – with this phony promise: “You can’t out-give God! You give him this or that as a ‘seed gift,’ and he will multiply it to you in kind!” The truth of the matter is better summarized this way: “When the Spirit of God sets you free of a covetous spirit, you will learn to give generously and cheerfully. And when you learn to give, God will give back. He will give you freedom from the tyranny of selfishness.”New Wineskins

Rubel Shelly

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