SCRIPTURE: Financial concerns … or idol worship?

Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners — the community and the magazine — and a best-selling author (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, among others) used to give a stump speech that included a much-told story from his youth that made quite an impression on me. He tells the story of being a seminary student, of taking his bible and systematically cutting out every passage in scripture that had to do with economics, wealth and poverty, money, et al. He then shares that once he had finished, the bible was just tatters, falling completely apart. The lesson he was demonstrating is that the word of God has something to say about the economic relationships between human beings, that it addresses wealth and poverty in depth — as a matter of fact, perhaps more than it addresses any other subject. And most importantly, our own relationship with money and financial security must be held up to the critique and judgement of God’s word. Questions about money and our culture’s virtual worship of it are central to our own understanding of God, discipleship to Jesus, the practice of our faith, etc.

So it should come as no surprise to us that as we get deeper into Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, shortly after Jesus teaches the disciples how to pray (6:9-15), he turns his attention to money, and the supposed security that money offers (chapter 6, verses 19-21, and 24-34). In verses 24-34, Jesus states very plainly and clearly that “mammon” (i.e. money, especially in terms of “wealth” or “property” that assures status, security and power) holds the possibility to master us, and that its mastery of us leads  us to serve it, rather than serve God. The juxtaposition is clear and stark: We do NOT master money; but it can and will master us, so that we end up being its servant. Jesus sets “mammon” up as in competition for us with God, personifying mammon, acknowledging it as a “god-like” entity, a false idol competing with God for mastery of us.  

We live in a time when talk about “idol worship” or “idolatry” might seem a little stilted, or language best left to hard-core fundamentalists maybe. But the truth is that we today worship at the altar of idols as much as or even more than our ancestors from long ago with their stone carvings and pillars and whatnot. Our idolatry has perhaps become more nuanced, or subtle, but it is there nevertheless. And it is most evident in our relationship to money and economics. We talk about “the market” as an entity, how “its invisible hand” guides our economy. We give our trust to it, profess our faith in it, and we acknowledge the power it has over our lives. The irony is that on most of our money it reads “In God we trust,” but trust in God often runs a far off second to our trust in capitalism, our bank accounts, and our 401Ks.

There is implicit and explicit in verses 25-34 a criticism of a culture which manufactures superfluous needs for us which they then, in turn, promise to fill. It addresses the cultivation of anxiety about not having “enough” which is primary to creating a feeling of insecurity, then finding security in our ability to buy enough clothes, or food, and so on. Such anxiety and concern about the various needs of our lives is especially dangerous, not because needing such things as food and clothing is ridiculous, but because our immersion in worry and concern for ourselves steals our attention away from what really matters. And what is it that is most essential, most primary for followers of Jesus? Verse 33 lays it out: “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” The business of followers of Jesus is not the business of seeing to all our various needs — real or manufactured; but rather, our business is seeking the kingdom of God. And the verse goes on to say, “and all these things will be given you beside.”

Bob Dylan famously said that everybody serves somebody. At the very least, these passages in the Sermon on the Mount force us to examine our own lives, especially in the light of money’s courtship of us, and ask who is it that we really serve.

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Posted on 05/13/2008, in SCRIPTURE STUDY and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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