Profit Margins

(Psalm 49:5-9; Mark 8:34-38)

As we’ve spent the last several weeks considering what Jesus has to say to us about money, we’ve talked about a number of things; among them are the effect of money on our worship, and the ease with which money can become an idol; the question of our priorities, and what our financial habits say about what really matters to us; whether our trust is in money or in God; and what it means that everything we have comes to us from God. This has not, I realize, been the most typical sermon series on stewardship; I haven’t gotten into any of the financial-planning-type stuff, or talked to you about the importance of tithing—or even made it clear that tithing means giving 10% of your income. (You may well have all known that, but I know there were folks in my last church who didn’t until I told them.)

As it happens, I think the question “Do Christians have to tithe?” is a dubious one; the attitude of the New Testament seems to be that we should be so inspired to generosity by the work of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we don’t need to be told to give only 10%. To ask, essentially, “Do we have to give that much?” isn’t the question of someone looking to honor God with their money—it’s the question of someone trying to justify giving as little as possible. Which, granted, is where we all are at least some of the time; but it’s not where Jesus wants us to be. Rather, he wants to pull us out of that mindset, to teach us to see our lives not from a worldly perspective, but from a heavenly perspective. As a writer, Isaac Asimov talked about the importance of “the backward look”—that you have to look at your story from the end to know how you’ll get there; we need to learn to look at our lives in much the same way.

That, I think, is the implicit question underlying our passage from Mark this morning, and the implicit challenge to us: what do you want out of life? What do you want to accomplish, what do you hope to gain? What’s worth living for—and what, if anything, do you believe is worth dying for? In financial terms, you take the money and time God has invested in you and invest them in turn in various ways; what profit do you hope to make off your investments? Logically, whatever goal you set determines the path you take to get there, and the choices you make along the way.

And here’s the kicker: when you get right down to it, we only have two choices. We can go all in on following Jesus, or not. This isn’t to say that anyone whose commitment to Christ ever falters or anyone who ever sins is therefore not saved—that would eliminate all of us, for none of us ever follows him perfectly for any great length of time. It is, however, to say that our fundamental commitment must be to following him and him alone, to taking his road and no other. Yes, we drive off onto the shoulder sometimes, and we often don’t do a good job of staying in the right lane, but those are all things which are correctable and recoverable. Trying to drive two different cars on two completely different roads going two very different places, isn’t. No one can do that; no one can serve two masters. You have to make a choice.

Now, some of you might be sitting there thinking I’m exaggerating; but just look at the text—Jesus puts this in even starker terms, almost paradoxical. He says that to follow him means, first, to deny yourself, to renounce yourself, to set aside your own claims and your own interest and your own agenda. It’s the state of mind Paul describes in Philippians 2 when he tells us that Jesus didn’t see equality with the Father as something to hang on to for dear life, but set it aside; he traded in the worship of angels who knew exactly who he was for the company of human beings who refused to recognize and acknowledge him, but instead treated him as a slave and a threat. To follow Jesus, we need to do as he did; rather than insisting on our rights, on our due, on our own way, on what we think we have coming to us—rather than designing our life to make things come out, as much as possible, the way we want them to be—we need to let go of all that and seek to serve others before ourselves.

More, we need to take up our cross. Our culture tends to use the phrase “cross to bear” to mean some irritation or annoyance, some unfair burden—but that’s not what Jesus means. This is the British judge pronouncing capital sentence: “that you are to be taken from the place where you now are to the prison whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.” The man carrying his cross was a dead man walking, disgraced and humiliated, shamed and debased, condemned not only to die but to supply his executioners with the very thing they would use to kill him. Jesus did it, surrendering his right to defend his life and voluntarily accepting death so that he might be faithful to serve God; and he calls us to do the same. If we want to follow him, that’s the road he walks, and that’s what following him looks like.

This, Jesus says, is the path to life—the only path to life. I should note, the NIV has a couple different words here, “life” and “soul,” but it’s all the same word in Greek—the word psuche; it’s most often translated “soul,” but what we usually mean by that is less than what the word really means. Jesus isn’t just talking about salvation in the sense of going to Heaven here, he’s talking about true life in every sense—the full and eternal life of God, which we have now in this world by his Holy Spirit, though we don’t experience it in the same way as we will when Christ returns. He’s talking about being fully who he made us to be. If our highest priority is preserving our own life—and along with it, our wealth, comfort, reputation, worldly success, and other things of that sort—then we may well have a longer and easier life in this world, but we will lose Jesus; and along with him, we’ll lose our true selves, and everything that makes life worth living.

And to that, Jesus asks, is it worth it? Some people think it is, and make their decisions accordingly; indeed, there are many who are perfectly happy to trade in the future to get what they want in the present. Like Wimpy, they would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today—and never mind what Tuesday will cost; like Esau, they will trade their birthright for a bowl of stew, because they’re hungry now, and what good is a birthright to satisfy their hunger? Without faith, if you don’t believe that birthright’s really worth anything, this makes perfect sense.

By faith, though, we know better—and because of faith, we have felt the blessings of God, and we have experienced his life. We haven’t fully received our reward in Christ, but we have tasted the firstfruits, and we have seen the faithfulness of God even in the midst of this lost and broken world. We’ve been given every reason to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. And yet—it’s easy to love the world, and it’s easy to let it distract us; it’s easy to focus on what’s right before our eyes, and lose sight of the bigger picture.

And so the key to stewardship isn’t percentages and budgets and duty; the key to stewardship is, as they say, to keep the main thing the main thing. It’s to change the goal toward which we invest our time and money and abilities, the organizing principle that sorts out all our priorities; in the end, it’s a very simple and very profound change in the way we look at life. The essence of biblical stewardship is to say, “I see the world, and I see Jesus, and I want Jesus.” Nothing more; nothing less.

God’s Investments

(Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 12:42-48)

“To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, each according to his ability.” A talent was a unit of weight, perhaps 80 pounds or so; when used without reference to anything specific, it was understood to mean a talent of silver, worth about 6000 denarii. Since a denarius was the usual payment for a day’s labor, one talent would be nearly 20 years’ salary for your ordinary working-class bloke; if you want to put this in terms of the current minimum wage in this state, $7.25 an hour, 6000 8-hour workdays at that rate would add up to $348,000. In other words, the master in Matthew 25 hands his servants a huge amount of money and tells them to have at it; and when he comes back, he judges them based on what they’ve done with it. And this, says Jesus, is what the coming of the kingdom of heaven will be like.

What do we make of this? What do we make of this related parable in Luke 12, with its bleak depiction of the judgment of the faithless? What does this tell us about the kingdom of God? Certainly Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God and its blessings are not to be taken for granted, that we can’t simply do whatever we like and get away with it; he makes it indisputably clear that God expects certain things of us, and has the right to. Everything we have is God’s, entrusted to us until he comes to reclaim it and to see how we’ve used it; there is nothing that is really ours to do with as we please. Everything is God’s, and he’s given some of it to us to use according to his purposes. Part of that, yes, is for ourselves, as this is one of the ways he provides for our needs; but he isn’t going to come back and ask if we had fun with what he gave us. Instead, he’s going to ask us what sort of return he received on his investment.

And bear in mind here, we are his investments. It’s a striking story that Matthew gives us. The master is a very rich man, but in a time and place in which land was the primary form of wealth, he had a lot of money lying around—but he doesn’t stick around to manage it. Indeed, he doesn’t even leave specific instructions as to what is to be done with his money while he’s gone. Instead, he distributes it among his servants—and note this, he gives each a different amount according to what he knows they can handle—and leaves it to them to determine how best to use it. Those who take this as an opportunity go out and double his money, and are blessed for it; the one who responds with mistrust and fear—not trusting the master’s gift, fearing his judgment, not being willing to risk doing anything—buries the money and goes off to do his own thing, and is judged for it.

In the same way, God has given us everything we have: life, to begin with, and the gift of each new day; our material wealth—and we are rich indeed, as even the poorest person here is richer than over 95% of the people in this world; and all of our many talents (a word taken by the church from this parable in Matthew to describe all the abilities and skills God gives us), which we use to make our way in life. He has given us all these things, with no visible strings attached. And more than that, not long after Jesus told his disciples this parable in Matthew 25, he would give them the greatest gift of all—the gift of the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone through Christ alone—and leave them with it to use for his purposes.

He left them as his greatest investment in this world, as the beginning capital out of which his church would grow. He left them to use all the other gifts he had given them, of money and abilities and each new day as it came, in the service of that greatest gift of the gospel. To be sure, he didn’t leave them to do that work alone, but gave them his Holy Spirit to guide them and to give them power; nevertheless left the work in their hands, to be passed on from generation to generation, and now to us and through us to our children. We are God’s investment.

Think about that. Each one of us is a gift from God to the church, which in turn is his great gift to the world; each one of us is an investment by God in his great plan of redemption. We have each been given a particular set of gifts; we have been given the money and the abilities we have and placed in this particular time, given this day and each hour, in order to do the work he has given us to do that we may bear the fruit he intends for us to bear. We have not been given more than we can handle, or less than we need, but each according to our ability—and God knows our ability far better than we do; and we won’t be judged on the basis of another’s gifts, but only based on what we do with what God has entrusted to us.

We are God’s investments, fearfully and wonderfully made, each of us created and gifted in his infinite wisdom to be a very particular blessing to his people and to the world; he knows us for all of who we are, our weaknesses as well as our strengths, and he uses both in our lives and in the lives of others. We don’t need to be afraid that we aren’t good enough, because he has given us his Holy Spirit; we can’t serve him faithfully in our own strength, but by his Spirit he is able to do in and through us everything he gives us to do, and he doesn’t make any mistakes about that.

This means two things. In the first place, we have no reason to be afraid; we don’t need to follow the third servant, who buried the talent he was given out of fear that if he tried to do anything with it, he’d blow it. We can take all the talents we’ve been given and use them boldly in God’s service, giving away our money and our lives with faith-driven generosity, trusting that he will bless us and provide for us; we can take risks as we feel his leading, secure in the knowledge that God is at work and he is in control, and that even when we do blow it, he is capable of redeeming our mistakes.

Second, it means that giving is not an onerous duty but a life-giving opportunity. God has blessed us each with a part to play in his plan to redeem the world, he has invested us in his work here on Earth, and he has empowered us by his Spirit to save and to bless others. He has given us work and opportunities of eternal, life-changing significance. When we choose to use the time, talents and money he’s given us merely to please ourselves, we turn away from the great adventure of discipleship he’s offered us in favor of something smaller, perhaps more fun in the short term but far less satisfying in the long run. In giving our money and our time freely to his church in all its ministries—many of which, to be sure, are outside what we think of as “the church”—rather than keeping them for ourselves, in using our skills and abilities in his service rather than what we perceive to be our own, we aren’t really denying ourselves, though we may often think so. Rather, we are opening ourselves up to receive greater blessings than we could ever manufacture in our own strength. Giving is the path to blessing.

I encourage you, therefore, my brothers and sisters: whatever you’re giving to God, give more. Give lots more. Give until you don’t see how you could give any more—and then look for more opportunities yet. Invest your money wherever you see the gospel proclaimed and the ministry of Christ at work—and yes, if you participate in this congregation, I do think this is the proper place to start giving more, but don’t stop here; and where your money goes, let your time follow. Take the talents God has given you and use them to serve him, in your work—whatever it may be, whether it seems “Christian” to you or not, for you are his minister wherever you may go—and in the church as you see opportunity, and in all the other things you do. Live as God’s investment, so that you may fully experience his reward, for his reward never fails.


(Joshua 24:14-15, 1 Kings 18:20-21; Luke 16:9-17)

In the latter part of my time in Colorado, one snowy February, the summons went out for a special presbytery meeting. From the letter, it was clear that something significant had happened, something bad, and so I made it a point to get down across the mountain to be there. I was glad I did, because it truly was a major deal: the presbytery treasurer had embezzled a significant portion of the presbytery’s reserves, and so it was necessary to discuss the financial ramifications of his actions—particularly the effect on new church plants—as well as the legal situation.

The treasurer, it should be noted, didn’t take the money for himself, but for his company—he was an executive in a small Denver corporation; in fact, he always insisted that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that he had merely found the presbytery a better investment opportunity. It might have been a more convincing argument if he’d asked permission first instead of doing it underhandedly; but while I don’t know about interest, he did repay all the money in the end.

Still, what he did was wrong, because he lost track of whom he was supposed to be serving: he used his position with the presbytery not to serve the presbytery but to serve his company. He had been entrusted with money by the presbytery for a particular purpose, but chose not to be faithful to that purpose—instead, he took it on himself to use the money for a different purpose, to serve his own ends and his own plans with it instead of those of the presbytery. This is true even if he really did believe he could make the presbytery more money by going his own way, because that wasn’t properly his call to make—not on his own hook, anyway. It was not his place to make his own plans for how to use the presbytery’s money, regardless of what he thought he could do with it.

Understanding this is the key to understanding Jesus’ message in Luke 16:9-13—which is not, by the way, an explanation of the parable of the crooked steward in verses 1-8; actually, it points forward to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that concludes this chapter. We tend to think of money as something that’s ours, that we have the right to use as we see fit; but Jesus wants to bring a radical change in the way we think about money, and so he challenges that view in a couple different ways.

First, note that he talks about two kinds of wealth. The NIV reads “worldly wealth,” some of your translations have “unrighteous wealth,” and I recall seeing someone translate this “dirty money.” Literally, what it says here is “money of unrighteousness,” and I think the NIV’s on the right track in understanding this: it’s not that money is itself unrighteous, but that it’s so woven through all the evil things we do, and there are so many evils done for money, that it’s contaminated. Jesus sets this in contrast to “true riches,” and also to “the eternal dwellings”—there’s something better for us, and our purpose should be to use the wealth of unrighteousness, which will eventually fail, to gain that something better. We should seek to use the money we have not to bless ourselves or keep ourselves secure, but to bless and serve others, and to carry out God’s will and purposes, not our own.

Second, in conjunction with this, Jesus describes money as a test. On the grand scale of things, he suggests, money isn’t all that—it’s just a little thing, of no enduring importance; and if we can’t even be faithful with such a little thing, if we can’t be trusted to handle it with integrity and in a way that benefits others, then why would anyone give us anything better? Money is less important for what we can do with it—even for the good things we can do with it—than for what it reveals about us, about our character and the state of our hearts. God has far better things to give us than money, but as a rule, he won’t give us the greater blessings if we misuse the lesser ones, or turn them into idols.

We always need to test our hearts on this. I’ve wondered at times, as we’ve asked ourselves why this congregation isn’t growing the way we’d like it to, if perhaps God is waiting to pour out greater blessings on us because we can’t quite be trusted to be faithful with the ones we have. It’s as tempting for churches as for individuals, after all, to put our trust in money rather than in God; if increasing our numbers, both in terms of people and in terms of giving, would lead us to trust even more in money rather than to give God praise for his provision and trust him even more recklessly, then why would he give us more? One wonders if that was the problem with the Pharisees—if their rise in importance had gone to their heads, had turned them to love money more than God.

If we want God to bless us, we need to take our eyes off the blessing—whether the one we want, or the one we already have—and just focus on him; we need to trust him that all will be well whether he blesses us or not. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and then—then when you’re not really worrying about all these things anymore—only then will all these things be added unto you, because then it won’t be the things that you’re after.” If we want God’s blessing, we need to want him more.

As we’ve talked about before, this matters a great deal because the core issue isn’t how we spend our money, but why—what matters most to us, what or who we love most; it’s about our worship. Jesus comes back to that point again here, asking us this time not where is our heart, but whom we will serve. We tend to think we have the choice to serve God, to serve someone else, or to serve ourselves, but Jesus says no: if you think you’re living to serve yourself, all that means is that you’re a slave and don’t even know it. If your life is directed toward money—making it, spending it, investing it—then it’s really money that’s calling the shots; it’s not serving you, you’re serving it.

And here’s the kicker: that’s absolutely incompatible with serving God and following Christ. You cannot serve two masters, because the time will come—probably quickly—when they’re pulling you in two different directions, and you’ll have to choose between them. You’ll have to decide which one you truly love, which one you actually trust to take care of you, and which one you’re really committed to following; and you’ll have to cast your lot, one way or the other. Following Christ will mean being called to do things that don’t serve your money, as it will mean giving up certain pleasures, as it will mean letting go of power and control—for the same reason that for Abraham, following God meant putting his son Isaac on an altar on Mount Moriah: to force us to choose, in the starkest possible terms, whom we will serve. It’s not that God doesn’t know what choice we’ll make—but we need to know, and we need to make that choice.

And the only way to make that choice is to come to it, to come to the point where God calls us to do something that doesn’t make good financial sense, and to love him and trust him enough to let go of the money and do it. That’s not an easy test, but Jesus doesn’t just give us the easy ones. He doesn’t say, “The good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is allowed to make up their own minds about it”—no, he says, “everyone is forcefully urged into it.” (I know the NIV reads “everyone is forcing his way in,” but I think that’s wrong.) There’s an urgency to God’s appeal here, because there’s only so much time left, and we don’t know how much; and so he gives us the hard challenges on the big issues. He doesn’t call us to live by just a little faith—he calls us to put everything in his hands, to go out on the tightrope, where either we let go of our idols, or we fall. He calls us to live by a simple commitment—“Heaven or Bust”—and to use our money accordingly.

Security in God

(1 Kings 3:5-14; Luke 12:22-34)

If you were here for the first two weeks of this series, as we were looking at what Jesus had to say about money in the Sermon on the Mount, you probably recognize that this is mostly the same material. It’s arranged a little differently and worded a little differently, but most of it is essentially the same. Some scholars like to take that and argue about what is “original,” assuming that Matthew and Luke changed stuff to suit them; which is kind of stupid, because it assumes that Jesus only talked about all of this once. In an age before newspapers and magazines, to say nothing of videocameras, TV and the Internet, I’m sure Jesus gave his sermons many times apiece; indeed, even today, people on the speaker’s circuit do that all the time. How many times did the President use his Slurpee line last year? As such, contrary to some of my academic brethren, I figure what we have here in Luke is a different version of the same message, which makes it worth our time to take both the similarities and the differences seriously.

First, we see again the emphasis on not being anxious, on trading in worry about what we have and don’t have for trust that God will provide for us, as he does for the birds and the flowers; given that he’s the one who gave us life, and he’s the one who created out bodies, it’s absurd to think that he can’t provide all the lesser things we need as well. More, given his wisdom and goodness, it’s equally absurd to think he doesn’t know what we need, or that he won’t provide for us if we depend on him. Jesus here is giving us essentially the same challenge God gave his people through the prophet Malachi, in a passage we’ll be reading in a few weeks: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse . . . and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” Just trust me, he’s saying; you’ll have everything you need, but without the worry.

Of course, if we’re honest with ourselves, a lot of our worry isn’t really about having what we need, is it? Most of us could do with less than what we have; it’s about what we want, the way we want to live our lives, what we’re not willing to do without. Most of us could live more simply than we do, and I certainly don’t exempt myself from that; and I’m sure we can all think of people we know who got themselves into financial trouble because they spent way more than they could afford on houses and cars and other things that were far more expensive than they needed, just because they wanted them. I’ve been thinking lately about the sister of one of my secretaries back in Colorado, who was overextended and in deep financial trouble even before the housing market started to crash; I wonder whatever happened to her and her husband and their two kids.

The truth of it is, as we talked about two weeks ago and see again here, the core issue in all this is idolatry: where is your heart? Who or what is really your first love? What are the priorities that determine everything else in your life? It’s not bad to have more than we need, but if love of money—or fear of not having enough—is calling the shots in our lives, then that’s our idol, that’s our treasure, and we need to cut it down. “Sell your possessions and give to the needy,” Jesus says, and immediately we start asking, “Sell how much? What do I get to keep?” We start defining the limits and trying to figure out what’s the least we can do to be good enough—it’s law-based thinking, and I caught myself doing it as I was writing this sermon; and it’s completely wrong way round. The real question is this: if we cared more about storing up treasure in heaven than in accumulating treasure on earth, if our hearts were really set on Jesus and he were truly our first love and our first priority, then how much would we want to keep, and how much would we gladly give away?

This has been a hard one for me in the last few years, because I never thought of myself as materialistic; indeed, I would have strongly resented the suggestion that I was. I could rationalize all the stuff I have—and pastors can be great rationalizers, as this cartoon shows; and it’s not like we’re particularly extravagant or buy things for which we have no real meaningful use. But as I was coming to realize the degree to which my life has been driven by fear and anxiety, I began to see that I did have a fear issue when it came, not to money, but to material things: fear that I would need something and not have it, and that if I didn’t have this particular thing, at some future point I would be inadequate, because I wouldn’t have the whatever-it-was that I needed. Trying to prepare for contingencies, to get a leg up on the future, by piling up stuff, rather than trusting God to take care of it—that, I think, is my main issue here. It’s stupid, and it’s twisted, and it’s not at all what Jesus wants from me; but it is, I think, all too sadly human.

And it all really flows, in the end, from us wanting what we want, rather than letting God teach us to want what he wants. We look for security in earthly things, even as untrustworthy as they are, because our hearts are set on an earthly security with earthly rewards. Why else would we use the word “securities” to mean stocks, bonds, and other investments? They’re not secure at all—just look at the New York Mets, who bought “securities” from Bernie Madoff; now they’ve been hit with a $1 billion IOU. Stocks, bonds, they go up, they go down—on the whole, they may do well by you, but you can never be sure about tomorrow. It’s all in God’s hands, none of our own. But we call them “securities” anyway because we want to believe that they can give us the security we want: enough money and things to kick back and live the good life, however we define that, without having to work any harder than we want to.

It’s a pleasant vision, but even if we get there, it could still all go splat at any time—financial crisis, medical crisis, family crisis, you can think of all the ways; and even if it doesn’t, is that really enough for us? In the end, human experience seems pretty clear: no, it isn’t. That desire for more, that we can be so prone to try to fill with ever more material things, is the surest sign that material things will never be enough. To find what we really need, we must look beyond the kingdoms of this world; and so we have this little verse, unique to Luke, that ties this whole passage together, verse 32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Note that. He doesn’t say, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to make you rich”; those sorts of financial blessings may come, or they may not. Instead, he tells us two things. One, if we seek his kingdom, we will receive it. There’s certainty there. If we seek for material wealth, we may find it or we may not—there are many who have gone broke trying to get rich—but if we seek the kingdom of God, we will get what we seek. And two, what we will get will be better than anything else we could ever find.

No, we may not have all the things we want—we probably won’t—but while God may not give us anything more than we need, he won’t give us anything less, either; and more than material things, he’ll give us his love, his peace, his joy, his hope, his power, his strength, and most of all, his life, and those will do more to bless us through the difficult times in this world than all the wealth of the Americas. And that’s just in this world, which will end, and maybe all too soon for some of us; when this world dies and is raised to new life as its maker died and was raised to new life, and all those things that were merely temporary markers of position have passed away, when all that remains is the kingdom of God—then that kingdom will be ours. Totally, without exception. Forever.

A Living Trust

(Proverbs 6:6-8; Matthew 6:25-34)

Wired magazine published an interesting article this past summer on the effort, led by a biologist named Robert Sapolsky, to develop a vaccine against chronic stress. That might sound strange, but while stress doesn’t cause any diseases—we used to think it causes ulcers, but it’s turned out that’s not really true—it can have devastating effects on every major system in our bodies, making us far more vulnerable to disease, and making every disease we develop worse. As the article says,

The list of ailments connected to stress is staggeringly diverse and includes everything from the common cold and lower-back pain to Alzheimer’s disease, major depressive disorder, and heart attack. Stress hollows out our bones and atrophies our muscles. It triggers adult-onset diabetes and is a leading cause of male impotence. In fact, numerous studies of human longevity in developed countries have found that psychosocial factors such as stress are the single most important variable in determining the length of a life. It’s not that genes and risk factors like smoking don’t matter. It’s that our levels of stress matter more . . . the effects of chronic stress directly counteract improvements in medical care and public health.

The article goes on to cite a public-health survey called the Whitehall study, which has been tracking tens of thousands of British civil servants for over 40 years; they’ve found that even after you control for all other known factors, people at the bottom of the hierarchy died twice as often between the ages of 40 and 64 as people at the top. Why? Primarily because those at the bottom have considerable stress from the demands of their jobs, but absolutely no control over those demands. They can’t choose what they’re going to do, they have no status to defend themselves from those above them—there’s nothing they can do but to endure, and it’s literally killing them.

In other words, Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said, “Which of you by being anxious can add even a single hour to his life?” Anxiety is corrosive, and erosive: it wears away our energy, our character, and ultimately our lives, and eats away our relationships, dissolving the bonds between us. Chronic stress makes us more susceptible to the effects of stress, making us more anxious and more likely to perceive things as threats; the more anxious we are, the more anxious we’re going to be, the more mistrustful we become, and the harder it is for us to relax and rest.

This is the story of our culture, because ours is an anxious time. Part of that, of course, is the down economy, but that’s not all, by any means. Part of it is the tenor of our politics, which are very much anxiety-driven; that’s not the fault of all those high-powered political consultants running around, but they’re still doing their best to make it worse. I remember being struck during the 2000 political campaign by polls showing that over a quarter of the electorate professed to be “terrified” at the prospect of Al Gore becoming president, with a similar percentage saying the same thing about George W. Bush; and then, just as that was all settling down, along came 9/11 to give us all something to be terrified about. It certainly wasn’t going to get any better from there.

In times like that, people tend to look for comfort in what we think we can control; which was probably one of the things driving the housing bubble. There were plenty of people around talking about the dream of home ownership, and real estate as the safest investment, tying in to the deep emotional association between home and security; to have that go bust for so many folks was like having their legs kicked out from under them, like being hit from behind. I would say that’s the sort of thing that sends anxiety through the roof, except the roof isn’t there anymore—that’s part of the problem.

The reality here is that this kind of thing inevitably happens when we’re trying to be the ones in control. That’s really the root of anxiety: we’re carrying the weight of our lives on our own shoulders—we’ve given ourselves the full responsibility for making our lives happen and making everything work. We put our trust in things because we think we understand them, we believe we can control them; we think we know what they’re worth, and we trust in our own understanding and our own abilities.

Ultimately, we see ourselves as our own providers; at the practical level, we make ourselves the little gods of our day-to-day lives. As long as circumstances are favorable, we can pull it off, and we feel pretty good about it; but when circumstances turn, as they always do, it all comes crashing down, and we become anxious—we worry—because our little gods have failed. That’s why the New Testament scholar Robert Mounce declared, “Worry is practical atheism and an affront to God,” and it’s why Jesus calls us to something better.

The opposite of worry is trust, and the opposite of anxiety is faith; it is to release our lives to God and leave them in his keeping. It’s the spirit captured in Psalm 46:10, which commands, “Cease striving, and know that I am God.” Of course, this doesn’t mean to stop working and just laze around; the wisdom of Proverbs 6 has not been repealed. We are responsible to use the gifts God has given us to do our part in taking care of his people, and that includes being prudent to work to meet our own needs as much as we are able; this is part of the way he provides for us, through the abilities and opportunities he gives us. The point is not to stop working, the point is to stop putting our trust in our own work; it’s to do what God gives us to do and leave the rest up to him.

Now, you might say this is harder in difficult economic times like these, but I’m not really sure that’s true; it’s just a different challenge, that’s all. Right now, we’re most of us anxious about having enough—about being able to pay the bills, keep the house, put food on the table—and we’re driven by fear of going without and losing what we have. When the economy is better, that’s not so much of a question; but when there are more jobs to choose from, we have more opportunity to choose based on what will make us the most money rather than on what is most pleasing to God. Whatever the circumstances, the Devil’s going to try to use them to get us to put our trust in money instead of God.

If we let him, it’s a tragedy, because it makes us less than God wants us to be; and more than that, it’s foolish. As Jesus says, we have every reason to trust God—just look at the way he takes care of the rest of his creation. We try to find security through planning our careers, saving our money, and making investments—all wise things, certainly, but not what we make them out to be; the birds don’t do any of that, but they still have enough to eat. And look at the flowers—they don’t work at all, but they’re still more beautiful than any human being. Why? Because blessing comes from God, and only from God. Our own labors are necessary because God asks them of us, because he gives us work to do as a part of our own growth—he gives us the dignity of responsibility in our own lives, which we need—but their results aren’t truly in our hands; they are in God’s, and God’s alone, as the one who created all things and holds all things together.

This means that all our anxiety is ultimately for nothing, because putting our trust in anything other than God is doomed to fail; whether we rely on him or on the money we have in the bank, he will determine our success either way. All we can accomplish through our mistrustful worrying is to make ourselves sick, take time off our lives, and lose a lot of our enjoyment of them in the process; we can’t do anything to make them better than what God has planned for us, because it’s beyond our ability and the breadth of our understanding. God alone is able to guide us perfectly through the choices we make and the challenges we face, because he alone knows perfectly what we need and what is best for us, he is powerful enough to give us perfectly what we need and what is best for us, and he absolutely desires to do so; we can’t do that, and we’re the worst kind of fools to try, because all we ever manage to do by our own efforts is to get in the way.

What we hear Jesus saying here is what we hear God saying so many places in Scripture: “Just trust me.” Just lay down your anxiety, just lay down your striving, just lay down your frantic efforts to get things for yourself when I’m trying to give you something better. I know what you need, and I’m not going to fail you—I will take care of you, as I always have. Don’t worry about yourself—just put me first, make serving me your top priority, and I’ll provide for you, everything you need to do what I’ve called you to do and be whom I’ve called you to be. Don’t worry about the future—just do what I’ve given you to do right now, care for the people who are before you this moment, and let the future take care of itself, because I’m watching over it, too. Just let go, Jesus tells us, lay down the weight of your life, and let God be God; he’s better at it than we are. Give generously, live freely, and don’t worry about keeping yourself up—trust God to do that. He’s faithful, and he will never let you down. Never.


(Proverbs 19:17; Matthew 6:19-21)

I’m sure you’ve all heard “two kinds of people” jokes—they aren’t up there with knock-knock jokes or light-bulb jokes as a genre, but there are a lot of them around. There are two kinds of waiters in the world—those who can remember what you order, and those who bring you what you order. There are three kinds of people in the world—those who can count, and those who can’t. There are two kinds of people in the world—those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t. And so on, and so on.

It’s exaggeration for effect, of course, as so much humor is; but when it comes to money, it’s no joke, there basically are two kinds of preachers in the world. On the one hand, there are those who talk about money all the time, usually because they want your money to become their money; of such preachers are media exposés made. And on the other hand, there are those who try to avoid talking about money out of fear of being mistaken for members of the first group.

And through the crack in between falls the gospel. And no, that’s not an overstatement, for effect or anything else. It’s not merely that Jesus talked a lot about money, either, true though that is; that means that if we aren’t willing to talk about money, we wind up shying away from a lot of Jesus’ teaching, which is a bad thing, but that’s not even the biggest concern. There’s something a lot deeper going on here, but we tend to miss it—and unfortunately, those of us in the pulpit all too often make matters worse when we do start talking about stewardship and giving. To understand why Jesus talks so much about money, we need to really dig into what he had to say about it, and so that’s what we’re going to be doing for the next several weeks; because no matter how hard we try, one way or another we will end up talking about money, and if we don’t let Jesus set us straight, we’re going to keep right on starting in all the wrong places.

Perhaps the most popular wrong place is to start from the budget: “We need this much money, so you need to give more.” It’s understandable; I’ve never met a church that couldn’t use more money, and I’ve known a lot that could have done wonderful things with a bigger budget. I’m proud of this congregation and all the ministry we do, and we’re running off of investments to keep most of that going; God has provided for us in some wonderful ways, which I take as a sign that we’re being faithful to do what he wants us to do, but it would be nice to be able to make our budget out of congregational giving, so that we didn’t need to sell stock to keep the operation going. That would give us a lot more flexibility to be creative in reaching out and ministering to our community. But you know, “we want more money” isn’t the main biblical reason God calls us to give.

Beyond that, of course, we can just hammer on giving as a requirement, our duty to God; which at least has the advantage of pointing out that giving is about God, not about the church budget. Unfortunately, it also pitches us headfirst out of gospel and into legalism—and quite frankly, all the way back to paganism, which is all about buying the favor of one’s preferred god or goddess so as to be able to claim favors. What’s more, it turns the whole thing into an exercise in religious manipulation and guilt-tripping, which is pure anti-gospel in its own right.

A far better approach is to talk about giving as part of our grateful response to the work of Christ: it isn’t something we do because we must, it’s something we do because we love Jesus and want to please him. In connection with this, we can also talk about the importance of giving generously for our spiritual growth, and about how that involves more than just money. It’s all true—Jesus calls us to be good stewards of all the gifts he’s given us, our time and abilities as well as our material wealth—and it’s all quite important, and we’ll be spending some time on that later on in this series; but it isn’t the place to begin, because it isn’t the fundamental issue.

The fundamental issue when considering our giving—what we give, how much, and so on—is an issue of worship. That might sound strange, because when we think of worship, we tend to think of formal services and singing and all the things we do here on Sunday mornings; but these are acts of worship, corporate expressions of worship, they aren’t the whole of worship. Indeed, they’re only worship at all if they’re expressive of the deeper reality of our hearts. Worship at its core is about who or what we value most, the people and things that determine our priorities; as Minneapolis pastor Rick Gamache put it, “Worship is my response to what matters most to me.” The original form of the English word is actually “worthship”—it means to ascribe worth to something, to treat something or someone as being of great importance to you. What you worship is what you prioritize, and vice versa; the priorities we set and the choices we make show us and those around us what we truly worship, and they also shape the worship of our hearts.

This is the critical point in this passage. Jesus offers us a practical reason to use our wealth and our abilities to serve him rather than ourselves—in so doing, we’ll earn a reward which is eternal and indestructible rather than one which is temporary and all too easily destroyed—and we’ll talk more about this later on; but he doesn’t stop there. Why is it possible to use earthly things to win heavenly rewards? Because God needs our stuff to carry out his plans? No, because it’s not about our stuff at all: it’s about our hearts. Because while we don’t always put our money where our mouth is, we do consistently put our money where our heart is; and because the more we put our money there, the more it will anchor our heart there. If we put our treasure in this world, we ensure that our heart will be in this world with it; no matter how many times we come on Sunday and sing about how much we love Jesus, our true worship will be of our career, our income, our investments, our possessions, our pleasures, whatever it is we treasure.

There’s a word for that, in Scripture: idolatry. Don’t store up treasure on earth, because in so doing we create idols, false gods on which we set our heart even though they cannot endure and will not save. Where you put your treasure is where your heart will be, so give your treasure to God. It’s not just about the old saw about hearses not pulling U-Hauls, which I understand Dr. Smith used to repeat—this isn’t just a matter of choosing the right investment plan. Rather, it’s about this question: are we truly worshiping Jesus Christ, or is something else guiding and determining our decisions? Because if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, but you don’t give him your money because you have a standard of living you want to maintain, then in reality, your bank balance is Lord. Your money is your treasure, and it’s an idol.

Maybe that’s a new thought to you, since the idea of money as an idol isn’t a common one in the American church. At least, that’s true on the conservative side, where we’re all good capitalists who pretty much regard money as a good thing—and to be clear, Jesus isn’t saying there’s anything wrong with having money. What’s wrong is when money has us, when getting and having and spending and saving is what drives our lives; which is all too common a problem, both for people and for churches, in our consumeristic, materialistic, individualistic culture. We cannot truly worship Jesus, we cannot honestly claim to be his disciples, if our decision-making is mostly based on money.

The fact is, Jesus’ call to let go of money, to let go of building up treasure on earth, is unsettling, as any call to lay down our idols is unsettling; money may not be all that trustworthy, really, but it’s what we’ve been taught to trust, and it works a lot of the time. Jesus came to set us free from idols so that we could love and worship the one true God with a whole and undivided heart, but like any sort of real freedom, it doesn’t come easy. To choose to put our treasures in heaven rather than on earth is to live by faith in a deeper and more radical way than most of us are used to doing, because it means that if God doesn’t come through for us, we’re ruined. But that’s what Jesus asks of us, and as unnerving as it can be, that’s good news, because God truly is faithful; those who put their trust in him will find hardship on the way, but they will never be put to shame, and in the end, their victory is secure, for Christ has already won it. In this is treasure greater than anything we can find in this world; it only remains for us to choose it.

Gotta Serve Somebody

(Malachi 3:6-15Luke 12:22-34Luke 16:10-13)

I took the title of this sermon from Bob Dylan. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is the best song on a great album, Slow Train Coming, which unfortunately has been largely forgotten because of its explicitly Christian character; and while I think Dylan’s reputation as a poet and thinker is somewhat overinflated, his song makes a pretty important theological point: no matter who you are, how low or how high, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” That’s a truth we don’t often want to hear. In the Bible, those closest to God are described as his servants, but it’s easy to see that as a negative thing, in part because we see it as serving God versus being free, serving no one.

What Scripture understands, and Dylan saw, and we too often don’t is that this is a false picture, because everyone is serving somebody; it’s just that some know it and some don’t. Without God, we aren’t free—we’re slaves to sin. That might look like freedom, because the desires which enslave us are in some sense our own; but just try to break a habit, just try to rein in one of those desires, and most people discover just how free we aren’t. If we vaunt our independence and our freedom to do whatever we please, it just shows that we don’t realize that “whatever we please” is really running the show—which means we’re at the devil’s mercy, because we’ve given him lots of strings to pull.

This is just as true of money as it is of anything else—and maybe truer, since money is essential to the fulfillment of most of those desires. That’s part of the reason Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money is the root of all evil”—yes, that’s hyperbole, but still: between evil acts committed to gain money, and evil acts which require money, that’s a pretty high percentage of the evil that people do. And then you get into the rest of life, because there’s not much these days that doesn’t require money; I know they say “the best things in life are free,” but whether that’s true or not, the basic things sure aren’t. Food, clothing, shelter, gas, none of that is free. The result of all this is that most people’s lives are dominated by money; the great poet William Wordsworth wrote in 1807, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” and it’s at least as true now as it was then. Too often, it’s money that drives our decisions and sets our priorities.

Over against this, God calls us to serve him with our money, and with all the other gifts he’s given us. We talked about this two weeks ago, that everything we have, we hold in trust for God, and he has instructions for us as to how we’re to use it. I suspect that a lot of the time, we don’t take that very seriously, as the Israelites didn’t; but God did, and does, and we need to remember that. It’s easy to think that what we do with our money isn’t a spiritual issue, but it is, because of what Jesus says in Luke 16:13: “You can’t serve both God and money.” In the last analysis, either following God is going to be a higher priority than having, making, spending money, or money will be a higher priority than God; and for us as Christians, it had better be the former. 

Tithing is a way of making sure that that’s the case, disciplining ourselves to make sure that we put God first in the use of our money by setting aside part of it for his use before we do anything else with it. If we don’t do that, if we don’t give at all or we just give whatever is convenient—which is to say, whatever amount doesn’t affect all the other things we want to do with our money—then we’re really putting money, getting it and spending it, ahead of obeying and serving him; which means that in the last analysis, we’re serving money, not God.

The irony in all this is that God wants to take care of us and bless us, if we would just trust him to do so and be faithful to put him first; if we aren’t willing to take the “risk” of tithing because we don’t feel we can afford it, then we don’t give him that opportunity. It’s not easy to depend on God to provide; I spent long enough making little or no money, I know how hard it is. I confess, to my shame, that I didn’t tithe then, because I was afraid of not having enough. I still believed up here that God would provide for us if I did, but I didn’t believe it down here enough to act on that. I trusted him, but not that much, and I still regret that. God provides for the ravens, who were the most despised of all birds, and he provides for the grass, which is here today and gone tomorrow; why didn’t I trust him to provide for me? Why didn’t I have the faith God gives the flowers?—they don’t conserve themselves, they simply bloom, spending their beauty extrava-gantly on all who pass, and trust him to take care of them. That’s the sort of faith God wants us to have, that we will give beyond what’s convenient, even beyond what seems safe, and trust that he will provide for us—and that we will live richer lives as a result.

It should also be said that God will not reward unfaithfulness and disobedience; if we decide to use the things he’s given us to bless ourselves, rather than being faithful to use them as he calls us to use them, he’s not going to bless that. If we remember that everything we have is God’s and use it accordingly, if we’re faithful with worldly wealth, then he’ll give us the riches of the kingdom; but if we aren’t, he won’t. This doesn’t mean we won’t be saved, but it seems clearly to mean that our reward will be less than if we had used our gifts faithfully to serve God rather than ourselves.

Now, since God calls us to tithe for the sake of the work of the church, this all places a heavy responsibility on me, on our elders, and on all those whom God has chosen to lead his people. We are accountable, not just to you but to God, for how we use your gifts. We’re responsible to pray, to seek his will, so that we use the gifts you give in ways that honor his name and build up the church—which is to say, each of you, and all of you together; and if we were to spend the money you give unwisely, or in ways which were counterproductive or dishonoring to his name, then we would be guilty of sin and accountable to God for our actions. It’s a heavy responsibility indeed; and while we aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I’m proud of our elders for the way they carry it out. We want to do more than we’re doing, of course—there is always more to be done, and we could always do it better—and as we have more resources to work with, we will do more; but though like all people, we make mistakes, in general, to the best of our ability, I believe we’re faithful to the charge God has given us.

If that sounded like a commercial for this church, I suppose it was; but note well, if it’s a commercial for this church, it’s a commercial for each of you—and for good reason. I believe in you. I see what you’re already doing and how much more you have the potential to do; I see what you have the ability to accomplish in your lives and in the life of this community. And if I tell you I believe in this church, it’s for exactly that reason, that I believe in you; I’m calling you, as God is calling you, to open your hearts, to take risks, to trust him enough to give freely—of your money, of your time, of your gifts, of yourself—because I believe you’ll be amazed at what will happen. You’ll be amazed, and maybe you’ll even amaze me, at what you can accomplish for the kingdom of God, and what an absolute blessing that will be; but you know what? God won’t be amazed, because he already knows what you can do, and what he can do in and through you, if you’re only willing to let him.

Of course, to take that step, you have to believe that God is going to act; that’s where the Israelites of Malachi’s day fell short. They had already made up their minds that whether they kept his commands or not, it didn’t matter, because he didn’t do anything either way. They thought his commands were irrelevant and obeying them was useless. From that perspective, it’s no wonder they didn’t tithe—why would they, if they didn’t think it would make any difference? They didn’t even understand why they were offending God, because they weren’t talking about him at all; they failed to realize that that was precisely why he was offended. God said, “Test me—bring in your tithes, and watch me bless you,” but they had already concluded that he wouldn’t. I suspect that often, when we don’t give, it’s for something of the same reason: we really don’t believe that God will keep his promises if we do. To that, he simply says, “Try me. Try me and see what I will do”; and we need to step forward and do just that.

We need to do that, because the bottom line here is simple: are you serving God with your money, or are you serving your money? Jesus tells us there are only the two choices. Are you building up treasures for yourself in heaven, where they’re eternal and you’ll enjoy them for eternity, or are you storing them up here on earth, where a flood could wash them out and you’ll have to leave them behind when you die anyway? No, there’s nothing wrong with having things; God commanded the Israelites to give 10% of their income, not 100%; but is that where your treasure is? Because if it is, then that’s where your heart is, and that’s what you’re serving. Store up treasures for yourself in heaven, in the coming kingdom of God, for it is the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom—the whole thing; store up an unfailing treasure in heaven, with him, by giving freely of all that you have and all that you are, by serving him freely with your earthly treasure, your time on this earth, and the talents you have been given; for where your treasure is, there is your heart.

Where Is Your Heart?

(Malachi 3:6-15Matthew 6:19-242 Corinthians 9:6-12)

It’s funny, the things that stick in the back of your mind. I remember, for in-stance, going to a sleepover for the birthday of one of my classmates, Robert Gelinas; it was maybe sixth grade, and I have no idea why I was invited. We weren’t friends particularly, and I really don’t know why I was there. I enjoyed it, though. I remember we watched a couple of movies—Fletch, and a Richard Pryor movie called Brewster’s Millions—and that we went out at some point; I want to say it was to Pizza Hut, but I wouldn’t swear to that. I remember that particularly, though, because it was as we were getting ready to leave that Mr. Gelinas made a point of telling me (and maybe one other kid) that there are three things you don’t talk about in public: religion, sex, and politics. Now, I can assure you I wouldn’t have been talking about sex, but back then I was just a trifle opinionated, and I think maybe he didn’t trust me on the other two, because he made it very clear they were off limits.

These days, you’re probably more likely to get away with talking about sex in public; religion and politics, maybe, but if you pick the wrong time, the results are likely to be a lot worse. My dad lost one of his oldest and dearest friends a couple years back when he unwisely forwarded an e-mail that was political in nature. But even as conten-tious as political conversations can be these days, I don’t think they’re the biggest no-no out there—that would be one Mr. Gelinas didn’t even mention: money. I’m not sure there’s any bigger taboo in our culture than asking someone how much money they make, except under certain conditions. With a lot of people, you’ll get a better response asking nosy questions about their sex life than you will prying into their finances.

This affects how the church does business, too; there are exceptions, churches and preachers that talk about money all the time, largely so they can ask people to give them more of it, but they only make the rest of us even more hesitant to talk about it. After all, it feels personal, and pushy, and we’d all really rather believe that the Good Church Budget Fairy comes along and leaves the money we need under the nearest cabbage, since there are plenty of other things that we’d far rather talk about; but as much as we might like to avoid talking about money, we can’t do that. We can’t do it for two reasons. The first would be what Carolyn and Gene have told you recently; by my back-of-the-envelope calculation, it costs over $3500 just to pay for this service we’re having here this morning, when you figure in my salary package, and the salaries of everyone else who contributes, and the cost of having this building, and the cost of the bulletins and all the other materials we use, and we don’t take in anywhere near that much per week. Indeed, when you factor in the preschool and the other missions we support, we’d need to double our giving and more just to get to the point where we’re no longer burning principal on our endowment; to get to the point where our giving covered everything and we could begin using the interest on the endowment for new ministries, we’d have to triple our giving. Obviously, this is more than just a stewardship issue, it’s a growth issue—we need to draw in a fair bit more people to reach that point; but still, as a practical matter, we can’t avoid talking about money. We’re living on borrowed time as it is.

That aspect of things is Carolyn and Gene’s job to worry about, at least primarily, and you’re lucky to have them. My main concern this morning is the second reason we can’t avoid talking about money, which is that the Bible spends a fair bit of time talking about it, and for good reason. We spent a while earlier this year considering what it means to be the church, and part of what it means to be the church is that we’re all in this together, committed to each other in God and to what God is doing in and through us. If that’s a real commitment, if we’re really on board with that, then it’s not enough to stand and say the creed together, it’s not enough to stand and sing the words of our great hymns—we need to live out what we say we believe, and the way we use our money (and for that matter, our time, our abilities, and everything else God has given us) needs to reflect that. It’s not enough to say that Jesus is Lord—our bankbook needs to show it, too.

Unfortunately, there are a couple factors which tend to work against that. The first is our false understanding of our money—a false understanding which is inherent in the fact that we call it our money to begin with. We look at the money in our accounts and think it belongs to us to use for our own purposes, and thus that whether or not we give to the church, and how much, is our own decision, to be made on the basis of whatever criteria seem appropriate to us. That view of money breeds a lack of trust in God, because if our money really does belong to us, then it’s entirely our responsibility to use it to provide for ourselves. We might talk about trusting God, and relying on God, but in the last analysis, in our bank balance we trust. If that’s so, then giving is a luxury, something we can choose to do once we’re sure we can afford it and know how much we’re going to spend on everything else; it’s simply one more option for our money, depending on what we want to do and how much we feel we can afford given the standard of living we want to maintain. It’s purely our choice, purely a matter of our own priorities.

To this idea, God says, “NO.” As we talked about three weeks ago, everything in this world belongs to him, even the clothes on our back—even our very bodies—because he made everything. It isn’t our money, it’s his—it isn’t our time, it’s his—they aren’t our abilities and talents, they’re his; indeed, everything we have isn’t ours, it’s God’s. Stop and think about that for a moment; let that sink in. Everything we have belongs to God. We aren’t owners, we’re stewards to whom God has entrusted his wealth, and in the end, we will have to give an account of what we’ve done with it. If we’re going to live lives pleasing to God, as individuals and as a people, we need to bear that fact in mind, and it needs to make a difference in what we do with our money.

Out of this truth flow three important points. First, giving isn’t optional. It isn’t up to us, it isn’t a matter of whether or not we want to, it isn’t something God would like us to do if we think we have a little room in the budget—God commands us to give. Indeed, the Old Testament law commanded the people of Israel to tithe, to give 10% of their income, to the temple—and that wasn’t supposed to be the limit of what they gave, but the minimum, which is why we have the phrase “tithes and offerings.” Again, this is based on the fact that all the world is God’s; he’s given his people everything they have, and he commands that they give back 10% of what he’s given them. To withhold some of that 10%, then, to give less than God had commanded, would be to refuse to give God what belongs to him—and that is nothing less than theft.

Now, does that mean that if we don’t tithe, we’re guilty of stealing from God? I don’t think so, since this commandment isn’t repeated in the New Testament, nor is Malachi’s language echoed anywhere. It’s hard to say for sure, since so many of the early Christians were either Jews or God-fearing Gentiles, and probably kept on tithing after converting to follow Christ; and we know from Acts that the first group of believers, in Jerusalem, gave far more than 10%, contributing great sums to the church for the sake of the poor and powerless among them. Still, if the early church had seen tithing as a requirement, I think we’d have something—perhaps in one of Paul’s letters—stressing the necessity of giving 10% of one’s income to the church; and that just isn’t there.

I wonder, though, if that isn’t the wrong question in a lot of ways. Saying, “Do we have to tithe, or can we get away with less?” isn’t the question of someone looking to honor God with their money—it’s the question of someone trying to justify giving as little as possible. It’s the question, we might say, of someone who doesn’t trust God enough to give freely and generously—who assumes that if they do, they’ll be poorer and worse off for it—and to that way of thinking, God says, “Try me.” Through Malachi, he tells his people, “Bring your full tithes, put me to the test; see if I don’t send rain to bless your crops, and keep back the bugs that destroy the fruit of your labors.” This isn’t an individual promise here, that if you, personally, tithe, God will make you rich; but if the nation as a whole will give God what he requires, he will bless the nation and everybody will have enough, without having to fight so hard to survive.

Then in 2 Corinthians, Paul takes this and develops it in a more individual direction. “You know how it works,” he says: “you reap what you sow. If you only sow a little seed, you only get a small harvest, but if you sow a great deal of seed, you reap a huge harvest.” Of course, with fruit, like olives, what you eat and what you plant are different parts of the fruit, but with grain, they’re one and the same; so there’s always the tension, especially in poor areas, between how much you eat and how much you sow back into the ground for next year. You can’t sow it all, obviously, or you’ll have nothing to eat this year; but if you eat too much of the harvest, then your harvest next year is guaranteed to be poor, because you can’t reap the benefits of seed you didn’t sow.

Giving, Paul says, is the same way. We need to remember, first, that God owns everything, including all that is ours to use, and thus that he is ultimately the one who gives us success in our labors, not we ourselves; and second, that not only is he able to bless us with all good things, he wants to do so. Thus Paul says in verse 8, “God is able to provide you with every kind of blessing in abundance, so that in every circumstance you may always have everything you need and still have ample resources for every kind of good work.” The word “blessing” here is the word kharis, the word “grace”; thus the blessings in view here aren’t only material but also spiritual. This isn’t a promise of material wealth, but it is a promise that those who give freely, generously and gladly to God will always have enough; and it’s a promise as well of all the spiritual blessings that make life good, and that empower us to do the good works God calls us to do.

Note again that “freely, generously and gladly” really does matter—how much we give matters, but so do why and how we give. Thus Paul tells the Corinthians, “If you really don’t want to give, or if you’re only giving under pressure or because you’re worried what others will think, then don’t; for it’s the cheerful and open-hearted giver that God loves.” The call is to give generously and gladly back to God from what he has given us, in gratitude for all the ways in which he has blessed us, believing that if we do so, he will continue to bless us and provide for all our needs. The key here is trust: are we willing to stake our lives on trust in God rather than trust in our own sweat and our own wits? That kind of trust, that kind of faith, is what God wants from us.

Finally, we need to understand our money the same way the farmer understands seed. Yes, we need to use some of it for food (and also clothing and shelter), but just as the basic purpose of seed is to be planted so that it can grow and produce a crop, so the basic purpose of money in this life is to be invested to produce treasure in the next, in the kingdom of God. This isn’t the investment plan the world recommends—the world, after all, wants things it can quantify, and the First National Bank of Heaven doesn’t send out bank statements, nor can one put a number and a label on the promises of God—but there are advantages; thus Jesus says, “Don’t store up your treasures on earth, where hurricanes, financial scandals, and stock market crashes can wipe them away, where floods can ruin them, or thieves can break in and steal them” (that’s a loose translation); “instead, store up your treasures in heaven, where they’re safe from all those things.” Our earthly investments might be quantifiable and might seem far more certain, but in truth, they are far more vulnerable to destruction; only God’s promises are truly secure.

Of course, giving to the church, in our community and around the world, is just a start; even if we tithe—as I believe we’re still called to do; Sara and I do—that doesn’t mean the other 90% of our income is ours to do with whatever we please, for it too belongs to God. Giving to the church is just the beginning of a biblical approach to money, one which involves making all our decisions—what we spend and where we spend it, what we invest and where we invest it, and so on—in light of the fact that it’s all God’s, and that in the end, we’ll have to turn all our books over to him for the audit of a lifetime.

So I would encourage you to start preparing for that audit: go home and take a look at your finances, and ask yourself if what you see there honors God. Does your giving honor God? Does it proclaim that you know that everything you have belongs to him, and that you trust him to provide for you—or does it say that you only give him the leftovers? How about your spending? Could you honestly say that the things you spend money on give honor to God and reflect his priorities, or would you have to admit that they don’t? If you have investments, are they investments which honor God and build up his kingdom, or is your money at work for other purposes? These are questions you need to ask seriously of yourselves, and which you need to answer honestly; and if the answers tell you that you need to make some changes, then I encourage you strongly to step out in faith, in trust, and make those changes, that you might be, that we all might be, faithful stewards of the great bounty God has given us.