Monday, August 25, 2008

God and Money

I dunno. I'm still wrestling with the sermon I heard yesterday that tried yet again to make the point about giving money back to God.

The preacher used the familiar image of the Sea of Galilee being fresh because water flows in and flows out, and the Dead Sea being dead because water flows in but it doesn't flow out. Therefore, he reasoned, we need to give money back to God in order to stay fresh and whatever. I simplify unfairly.

Nevertheless, I found this problematic for a number of reasons:
1) Money flows out all the time, not all of it in life-giving ways.
2) If we're talking about giving money to the church, I think we can agree that the church is not God. So how exactly do you give money to God?
3) Finally, I thought to myself, sitting there in the pew, I'm not sure that God gives us money.

Let me look at this last thought a little bit.

Here's the thing: if God gives us money, God does a really lousy job of it, distributing money in a completely inequitable way. Partly I think I am changed by my short time in Uganda, seeing up close and personal people with no money at all. But I am no longer so sanguine about this notion of God giving us money.

I understand the thinking behind it: God is the source of all good things; money is (or can be) a good thing; therefore, God is the source of money. But money seems to me to be a human creation rather than a divine creation and so I am not sure that the same principle applies. The thing is, I don't have a better theology or a more thought-through principle to offer. Just a vague uncomfortable feeling that this model doesn't quite work. Or at least it isn't working for me right now.


qoe said...

I have been thinking about this post. Your struggle resonates with my own on this subject. I have heard many homiletic distortions on the subject… I have to say that I continue to come to the conclusion that Jesus is not a Suze Ormon type of financial guru (although some would speak to the contrary).

When Jesus speaks of the widows two mites, he really IS saying that her offering was the greatest simply because it was all she had to give and she gave it all; in another story, the rich man Jesus “sent empty away” (and sorrowfully he did so) precisely because he was not at all willing to give all he had to give which was much.

On the subject of need, “Seek and ye shall find,” “knock and it shall be opened unto you,” “ask and receive” are three formulas of grace that I have actually experienced and can report on. The thing I love about these formulas is that they promise a return, but not a specific one; likewise, these require one to place oneself in a position of risk, vulnerability, lowliness, even if the only risk is rejection. Rejection is a difficult thing to face; there is a fear factor there, when one reaches out in time of need. It takes courage to ask.

When I have been in need, spiritually or materially, I have applied one of the three formulas to my situation, and have never come away without some positive transaction having taken place. But it was always JUST what was needed (even if all that I needed was a smile from someone), not some huge windfall, and so I would have to say that if there is a secret to the whole thing, that is it: only ask for what you need; what you need will always be provided.

Jesus seems always to encourage an unencumbered life, one without anything more than one needs. Jesus told the disciples not to have stuff, and only to take what they needed where it was offered freely. I read an article a few years ago about a tent city in Washington; one of the people interviewed said that if Jesus were alive, he would be living there, not in a suburban home, much less a luxury penthouse.

With regard to giving, the passage where Jesus speaks of the rendering of what is Ceasar’s unto Ceasar, what is God’s unto God, is an interesting passage for this reason: Jesus is pointing out that God does not make money and there is no money that has God’s image on it. Jesus is not at all telling people to tithe, he is telling us that God does not ask for or need money! (Have you ever heard that preached? I sure haven’t.) The implication that seems more proper is this: if God wants something from us, then what God wants is something more along the lines of giving of ourselves, with mind, body, spirit, where what we are or what we have is something needed to keep creation moving forward in a healthy way. We pay tribute to God by in the most consistent and holistic way by giving of ourselves when what we have is needed elsewhere in God’s Garden, even if all that is needed is a smile.

Matt 6:19-21 “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” is completely consistent with this notion of rendering.

Blindly giving money to a cause or coffer where one cannot see money answering a specific need does not serve this purpose of rendering ourselves and all our lives to God. The revolutionary implication Jesus makes in the story of the widow and her mites is that was sinful that she had to give them… someone should have been paying her tribute for her, so that she would not be rendered completely destitute. There were people there who could easily have done so.

When we tithe to the church, we must invest in the notion that keeping the organization running serves that requirement of giving of ourselves, a giving that is not just for us and our own benefit, but for the community at large, where our organized existence might serve to meet the needs of those who have less, or have nothing at all.

However, we must invest our treasure and our hearts to God where God is and is needed most, which is, of course, everywhere. Which is to say that there may be times when it would be better not to give money to the church, but channel it instead directly to a meet a need.

God knows us by what our hearts lead us to do with our good fortune, even if all we have to call "a fortune" is our smile.

Lmkazmierczak said...

I was taught that tithing was simply a tool that God provided His nation to teach them personal money management skills. How else to take control of finances than to be told to give one tenth of all you has to keep an exact tally all the time and because of that discipline one becomes very good at accounting and making more the Hebrews were blessed!
In today's money climate, money management is still a top priority (and a blessing from God) and while the institutional church needs money to function I'm not sure it needs as much as it wants.
Giving money to those in need is the only criteria for today's Christians, and it doesn't matter what percent of your goods you are comfortable giving(in my humble opinion).