It is hard to give away money. Think about it. What goes through your mind when you see a beggar on the street? My mind gets filled with so many questions, it is like a brain gridlock. How much will help? Will the money be used for alcohol or drugs? Is this person begging for him or herself – or are they a slave to human traffickers? Will money really help? Should I just buy him or her a cup of coffee? Or maybe something more nourishing? The list of questions is endless, and I end up decision-paralyzed.
If you think giving a few coins to a beggar is difficult, imagine how much harder it is to give away a lot of money. Let’s say I have 3 million to give away. (I don’t, but just go with me on this.) Who do I give it to? How do I know that a charity is trustworthy – not a front for a terrorist organisation, for example? Who will vet it for me? How am I going to have time to sift through the thousands of begging letters that have arrived in the mail? How much will it cost me to give this money away?
Soon after we moved to England, that country started a national lottery. Ten years later, there was a documentary on 10 of the winners about what they did with their windfall – and whether or not the money actually made them happier. Only 2 of the winners were ‘happy’ sort of. Those two had remained anonymous. They had also moved out of the country and lived where they could spend their money without questions asked, which they said felt like a ‘necessary exile’. Most of the winners had blown through their money – had as it were a whirlwind date with a wealthy lifestyle, but ended back in their original job and pre-lottery win lifestyle. One man tried to give his money away. He was the most unhappy of all of them. He thought he would be generous and pay off the mortgages of his family members. That sounds great, right? No sooner had he told them he was finishing off their mortgages than the fighting began, “But their house is more expensive than ours! That’s not fair. We want a bigger home!” The fight was so intense that it tore his family apart. Many of them won’t talk to each other now.
So what is money anyway? It is a representative tool. It represents something else. In cultures where there isn’t printed or minted money, families have to barter goods. So let’s say I have a dozen eggs and need some wool to knit a sweater. I go to the shepherd and ask him if I can trade my eggs for some of his wool. Now that works if he needs eggs. What if he doesn’t? What if he says, ‘Well actually I need milk.’ So I take my eggs to the milkman and ask if he will trade some milk for my eggs so I can buy wool, and he says, ‘Actually, I don’t need eggs, I need shoes.’ Money was introduced to make purchasing goods easier. It allows for a more complicated trading economy – an economy which we inhabit. Our church, like anyone else, has to use cash to pay its rent, lighting, salaries and missions. We send money to a children’s hospital and orphanage in Romania. Why money? Let me read a passage to you from the novel, Cutting for Stone. This is the story of a young man of Indian descent growing up in Addis Ababa, discovering his identity and his surgical talents. In this short passage, a man from a church in Houston, Mr. Harris, has come to visit the mission hospital in Addis. He is visiting with the woman in charge of the hospital, the Matron:
“Harris stared at the stack of Bibles by the wall. He hadn’t seen them when he first walked in.
“We have more English Bibles than there are English speaking people in the entire country.” Matron had turned from the window and followed his gaze. “Polish Bibles, Czech Bibles, Italian Bibles, French Bibles, Swedish Bibles. I think some are from your Sunday-school children. We need medicine and food. But we get Bibles.” Matron smiled. “I always wondered if the good people who send us Bibles really think that hookworm and hunger are healed by scripture? Our patients are illiterate.” (Verghese A., Cutting For Stone, p155)
We send money so that the hospital in Romania can buy fresh food and the right medicines and medical supplies in the quantities that they need. A cash economy allows us to do that.
Money is representative; it is also a tool, like a hammer. Which is why we don’t worship it. Can you imagine worshipping a hammer? ‘Oh hammer, you are so glorious. You make the most beautiful houses!’ (Well, in the right hands perhaps, in my hands, the hammer would just create a mess.) Money is just a tool, and like most tools, it is only useful when it is moving around. If money sits still, it is useless. You may say, ‘I have money sitting in savings’, but a)ctually it isn’t sitting. It is being loaned out to other people and businesses. Remember the movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when there is a run on the bank, and George has to tell the people he doesn’t have all their money in cash because it is in their neighbor’s homes, Joe’s Home, Mrs. Makeland’s home, the Kennedy House. It was loaned out to people as mortgages.
The worst thing you can do with money – is bury it. That renders it completely useless to everyone. That is why in the parable of the talents (which was a currrency), the master is so upset with the servant who buried his ‘Talent’ (money. Not only was the servant distrustful and even fearful of his master, he took what value the money had and removed it completely. It is as if you gave me a beautiful crystal vase, and the moment you walked out the door, I smashed it on the floor so no one could use it. Money has to move around to have value.
Okay, now let’s look at today’s parable in Luke chapter 16. This parable is not very well communicated to a modern audience. There is context missing, which – like a Shakespeare play alludes to something that was well-known to its current audience, but is lost in time to us. Again, you have a master of a large estate and his financial manager or bursar. The master has learned that his bursar is dishonest and tells him he will be fired. While the master is looking through the financial books, the bursar goes to the villagers who owe his master goods or money and reduces the amount owed. Now that sounds to me like it would make the master more angry. We don’t know if the reduction was short-changing the master or was simply the lowering of interest that the Bursar would have pocketed in any case. He was probably indulging in usury, charging interest way over the top – like loaning out 6 jars of oil, but demanding 18 in return. In any case the master praises him for his ‘shrewdness’ because the bursar knew he was going to need the mercy of those same villagers after losing his job. There wasn’t an unemployment office for him to turn to for sustenance, he was going to be relying on the local villagers for food and shelter. Basically, the bursar was buying mercy. And Jesus says, ‘Okay that kind of shrewdness may be acceptable here on earth, but it doesn’t work in the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Verse 9 is about as close to sarcasm as scripture gets: “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.” Mercy can’t be bought there. Then we have a statement, which comes like a Greek Chorus at the end of the parable, ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little, is also faithful in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?’ (vs. 10 and 11)
I worked for 14 years in the development office of a christian college in a major university in England. In my desk, I kept a newspaper article about a church congregation in the USA which had inherited a lot of money. An elderly member of the congregation who had been in a care home for many years, passed away and left his entire estate to his local church – $30 million at today’s rate. What do you think this congregation chose to do with the money? Any ideas? (build a church?, a mission hospital?, a school?) Well, you would think those are good ideas. No. They fought. They fought over the money so much that the church dissolved. The money reverted back to the estate and was distributed as the executor of the estate saw fit.
For years I thought this was an example of being given too much money. But actually, over time I saw that I was wrong. The amount of money wasn’t the problem. The spirit of the congregation was the problem. Donors give money to institutions and causes that touch their hearts – and that makes great sense when you think about the representative aspect of money. This money represents the sweat of our brows, the stress of hours of work and achievement. We want it to matter. At some point in time, that congregation must have meant a LOT to him for the donor to leave his entire estate to it. What happened? Over time, the congregation had shrunk in size. Usually, that means that a core of people in the church had taken their eyes off of the Lord. They completely lost sight of their raison d’être. Instead of a spirit of generosity and love and acceptance, they had developed a spirit of meanness and control. The amount of money only excerbated the already existing desire for power that had developed amongst the handful of families still in the church. They had already shown themselves to be unfaithful with a ‘little’, and therefore, could not handle the ‘much’.
Today, I want to ask the question, ‘What kind of a congregation are we?’ Are we faithful with a little? Can we be trusted with a lot? Earlier in Luke, we find the words, ‘give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be put into your lap;…’ Those words are speaking not about money, but about forgiveness. Yet they exemplify the magnitude of God’s generosity. Throughout scripture we are reminded of God’s abundant giving nature: ‘The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the Lord.’ (Psalm 33:5) ‘For of His fullness we have all received grace upon grace.’ (John 1:6) ‘…the riches of His grace He lavished upon us.’ (Eph 1:7-9) ‘For God so loved the World, He gave his only begotten son.’ (John 3:16)
When people give to us whether it is money, goodwill or forgiveness, will we give back a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over? Will we reflect the immense generosity of our God, a god who gives so very freely and who entrusts us with his Kingdom here on earth.
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. AMEN.