March 7, 2021
In the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, which appears in all 4 gospels, Jesus is angry. I saw a video about 15 or 16 years ago, based on the gospel of Matthew. In it, Jesus was a pleasant, friendly, laid back sort of teacher. So, this scene, which is near the end of Matthew, really stood out. He’s turning over tables, and yelling. The sight of those merchants and money changers on the temple grounds made him lose his cool. In John’s version, although it’s a little different from the others, he seems just as angry.
What I’ve been thinking about is, what does Jesus want us to do about money? Spoiler alert: no answers here. But I think the questions are important. And as Barbara said last week, it would be nice if this could be a discussion.
As we are often reminded (usually around November), Jesus talked about money a lot. The sayings that jump out at me, besides this one, where Jesus condemns the use of temple property for conducting business, are:
You cannot serve God and wealth
Store up your treasure in Heaven
It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of Heaven
It’s easy to see where Christians got the idea that they shouldn’t really have anything to do with money, especially if you add in that saying of Paul, money is the root of all evil. But wait, he actually said, the LOVE of money is the root of all evil. Why do people so often leave out those two words? It seems like a pretty important distinction.
Money is necessary in any culture that’s too big, and too complicated to function on bartering. So, isn’t Jesus really saying that the problem is when money becomes an end in itself? Or is he?
It’s complicated, money. And I’m pretty sure it’s a lot more complicated now than it was two thousand years ago. As I understand it, in Jesus’s time, there were people with more money than they needed, and people with less than they needed. There still are. But, if I’m not mistaken, nowadays there are a lot more of us in the middle. Most of us have credit cards, which can fool us into thinking we can afford more than we should spend. Many of us have investments of some sort, either personal or through some sort of retirement plan. Do we know what the people who are managing our money are doing with it?
If we’re lucky enough to have enough to give some away, there are a thousand charities and nonprofit organizations fighting for whatever we can give them. They’re all very good at convincing us that their cause is worthy, urgent, and likely to fail without our contributions. It’s pretty clear that none of us can give to all of them, and there are ways, like Charity Navigator, to check if these organizations are legitimate and financially responsible, but each of us still has to decide which ones are most important to us, and how much we can give. That’s the hardest question for me.
Because, if I have enough to give away, it also means I have enough to buy things that I don’t really need. And boy, does our world offer us things! And experiences! All shown to us in beautiful photographs, described by reassuring voices, telling us that if we buy this stuff, we’ll be healthier – happier – better looking; our lives will be easier! I know it’s pretty much all a lie, but, like a vaccination, that knowledge is not 100% effective against the constant exposure to advertising. I know I don’t need any more stuff, but there are always things out there that it seems like it would be nice to have. So, where’s the line between charity and self-indulgence? I tell myself that I’m not extravagant, and I try to be generous with gifts and donations, so I’m OK, right? Or am I?
Even decisions about what we buy to meet our basic needs can be fraught with ethical considerations. How are the companies who make this product treating their workers? What about the environment? What are they doing with their profits? And on and on….
I think about all these things, and try to make the best decisions. But I know I don’t always get it right, and I wonder if anyone does. There are so many reasons for not making the “perfect choice.” Maybe it’s beyond your budget. Or it doesn’t meet your needs. Or maybe there is no perfect choice, because the company that’s doing excellent work in the humanitarian area is shipping their products in a ton of plastic. A scene in a recent TV series has a character saying that no one has been admitted to Heaven in the last 500 years, because the world has become so complex that everyone is complicit in evil.
I could almost believe that. But I don’t, not the part about no one getting into Heaven. I’m not sure exactly what Heaven means, except being with God. I believe that God loves us, and if God loves us, why would God punish us, or cast us away, for not doing things perfectly? Surely God knows, after all these millennia, that humans aren’t very good at perfection. But surely, God must want us to keep trying. Isn’t that the pattern of human progress? Try. Fail. Learn. Try again and do a little better this time. And it never hurts to ask God for some guidance.