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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Storing up Treasure

Many Christian today have learned that we are to have good money management skills, save up, plan for the future, set ourselves up for success… Though this message is heard many places, Focus On The Family is one group that comes to mind as being real big on the idea. Most young adults are strongly encouraged to save so they can get their own place, get a good job, buy their own home, and start up a family. Though this isn’t really unique to Christians, many of us have taken this practice and incorporated it into our religion. These are not bad steps to take – they seem to be the responsible things to do. But if we look at the teachings of Christ, it's hard to find much basis for making it part of Christianity.

Take, for example, today’s Gospel reading (Mt 6:24-34) - or what would have been the reading had it not been the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This is packed full of interesting and provocative messages – especially for comfortable Christians living in the U.S. like ourselves. The main message of this passage is dependence on God – not money.

Just a few verses earlier, Jesus tells us “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” And then goes on to say “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Immediately after this, he says “Therefore I tell you…” making the clear connection between our money and our dependence on God: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or about your body, what you will wear. […] If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?” Here Jesus seems to say that our storing up treasure out of concern for the future indicates a lack of faith.

I’ve been trying to think of other scripture passages that might indicate otherwise. Only two have come to mind that are related to the subject – the first of which only confirms what was already said. In the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16-21) a man decided he would save his bountiful harvest so he wouldn't have to worry about the future, causing God to take his life that very night. Jesus finished this story by saying “Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasures for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

The only new testament scripture I can think of (I may well be missing some) that applauds material and financial planning for the future is Luke 14:28-30: “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’” But in context, we see that the point of this story is that we are to count the costs of discipleship before we begin the journey. It is Jesus saying in effect “Here is what you’re getting yourselves into. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?” In fact, he finishes that lesson by saying “In the same way, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”

I am starting to think that this Christian endorsement of “financial responsibility” is an example of the wisdom of the world making its way into our religion as one of the unofficial values of the faith. In our first passage, Jesus even said “All these things the pagans seek.” (Mt 6:32) I believe that this adopted attitude has largely been ignored by most Christians because the ways of the world make more sense to us and often we would rather follow them than the way of Christ. It is hard to put our faith in God, trusting that He will provide for all our needs. Sometimes our savings account seems like a better bet.

Make no mistake – this is a big challenge for me too. I’m still struggling with what this means for me and how God is calling me to be a true disciple. At this point I have more questions than answers, but I’m pretty confident about one thing: we are not to live out our faith by following the status quo. We, as Christians are to be different than the rest, set apart as people of faith, driven by our love for God and love for neighbor – even if that means being considered odd, irrational, or irresponsible by others.


Aaron said...

Probably the greatest call to Christian financial responsibility comes from the whole notion of stewardship, the idea that we have been entrusted with the good things we have from God, and that therefore we should use them well. And this notion of stewardship comes straight from the Gospels and the parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25:14-30 (and in the other Gospels). To the servant who invested his master's money, the master says "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master's joy."

In Matthew's Gospel, this story is preceded by the parable of the virgins. Some come prepared and bring extra oil, but some do not. The ones who do not have enough oil are not provided for like the lilies of the field; when they end up at the banquet late - having had to make a trip to the market - they are told "Amen, I say to you, I do not know you." So that seems to confirm the importance of good planning and such.

However, the parable of the talents is followed by the judgment of the sheep and the goats, where they are judged on how they treated others. ("Lord, when did we see you naked?" etc.) Take all three stories together and it seems to me we learn several interrelated lessons: YES, the Christian is called to be responsible with his time, his money, etc. But why? Because they come from God, and are to be used for His purpose (which include feeding the hungry, etc).

And this is where prudence comes in: what is God asking of me in my life? Like the servants in the parable of the talents, we will have to give an accounting for what we've done with God's resources, so it's a very important question to ask. For some, they are literally called to give everything to the poor and live in poverty; it's not a waste of the master's money, if that's how He's asking you to spend it. For others, they are called to pour out their time, energy and financial resources loving and serving a family. They're not being stingy, they're using the master's money for the purpose to which He has called them. For most of us, our lives will involve elements of both. But there is no single formula. And that's why it's so important to remain close to the Lord's heart in prayer, so we can ask, "Lord, what do you want of me?" and we can listen to His answer.

Aaron said...

This reminds me of an issue a friend and I were discussing with regards to vocational discernment. A person might say, "I am good at X and would enjoy doing it." Is that natural talent and inclination proof that God wants them to go in that direction? Or is God asking them to give up the easy and enjoyable way and take up a life of sacrifice?

There are certainly passages of Scripture which point to the latter interpretation, among them Christ' injunction to "take up your cross and follow Me." But before we all jump on the sacrificial bandwagon, let's stop and think about this. If it were an absolute principle, then we should always and everywhere choose that which makes us most miserable, so that we can make sacrifices to God. But few of us feel very called to do that. Even the most radical saints who lived in extreme poverty rejoiced in the beauty of creation. To gouge out one's eyes in denial would not be an act of sacrifice but a rejection of God's good gift.

So returning to less extreme examples: is someone who is good at something and enjoys it called to do that, or called to give it up? When it comes down to it, that's a matter for discernment. There are great examples of both among the saints of the Church. (There's a joke that if the Benedictines find out you're good at something you'll never do it again, so as to keep you humble; if the Jesuits find out you're good at something they'll push you until you become a world-renowned expert.) St. Thomas More, for example, was a highly skilled lawyer and became the chancellor of England. And there are other examples where something given up is returned. I can't think of one from among the saints, but G. M. Hopkins basically gave up writing poetry when he entered religious life. Only after he made that sacrifice was it returned to him, many years later, when he was encouraged to take up the practice again.

Matthew said...

Great comments, Bro!
Thanks for bringing the parable of the talents to the conversation, as that's one that I had forgotten. It helps to give another angle and provide us with a better, more complete understanding of the issue.
And the whole point about the need for discernment is a good one too.
Thanks for your input!