For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. 1 Timothy 6:10 (NRSV)
This passage is frequently misquoted as “Money is a root of all kinds of evil.” The statement is that “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Money is an amoral entity. It is a store of value. Money is an amazing facilitator of trade, exchange, and retention of value. Money has the power to facilitate astounding good and the world …. and it has the power to facilitate equally astounding evil. Money in the hands of fallen human beings is both a wondrous and dangerous thing. Why is money so dangerous? Because empowers us to live by the illusion bought by Adam and Eve that we can become autonomous masters of our lives. It does this better than anything we know.
In the New Testament world, money facilitated advancement in patron-client relationships. Patrons did deeds for recipients that recipients could not repay, thus transforming recipients into clients obligated to serve the patron. Status was measured by the number of clients you had in your debt. High patron status was the most treasured social position of Greco-Roman Culture. I suspect that the rich man’s struggle to part with his wealth in Mark 10 was related to the impact giving all his wealth away would have on maintaining his patron status. Jesus also tells the parable of the man who isolated himself from others yet kept building bigger barns to store harvests he could not possibly use. So clearly the idea of hoarding wealth for personal security was a problem in the culture as well.
Patron-client relationships are largely gone from our Western culture. Our individualistic market economy presents us with similar but slightly different challenges. As I mentioned earlier in this series, the three primary uses of wealth are consuming, saving/investment, and giving to others. Depending on the person and the circumstances, each of these can be an outlet for idolatrous use of wealth.
To understand how this works we need to look at something called the Laffer Curve in economics. The Laffer Curve is employed to explain the dilemma of determining appropriate rates of taxation. If zero taxes are collected, then obviously government can not function. However, if the tax rate for income above a certain level is set at 100%, then all incentive is removed for people to earn beyond that amount, thus decreasing economic productivity, and thus decreasing the amount of income that would otherwise have been created and been available for taxation. The optimal level of taxation is somewhere between 0 and 100 percent providing the optimal funds for government and incentive to earn more.
This Laffer Curve effect can be seen with consuming, saving and giving as well. Neither 0% nor 100% is appropriate with any of these three categories.
Consuming – Consumption is an important part of exercising good stewardship of ourselves. Feeding, clothing, sheltering, and educating ourselves keeps us healthy and enables us to contribute our gifts to the well-being of family and community. Consumption for purposes of recreation (being at play with God and others) or celebration are other important reasons for consumption.
But the temptation for some is to find our pleasure in the gift instead of the giver. Consumption becomes a way to fill needs apart from God instead seeing our needs met by God through his provision. Conspicuous consumption can be the determining factor for our identity in the world. Consumption can lead us into the bondage of excessive debt, restricting options God may otherwise have had for us, and denying us the positive aspects of saving and giving. Yet an overly ascetic view of consumption can leave us ill prepared to be all that God would have us be in his service. We also miss out on the pleasure God takes in recreating, celebrating, and our gratefulness for God’s provision. Imbalanced consumption comes from false narratives we tell ourselves about our place in God’s narrative.
Saving – Saving is critical at the personal level to tide us over in times of crisis and in our twilight years. Saving is important at a societal level because it makes capital available for business and economic activity. Saving is another we exercise stewardship over our selves so that we may be free to serve others and not drain resources toward our support that could be used for other purposes.
Yet some of us are fearful of the future. We save because we do not trust God to provide. Our savings becomes our security in the world. We live more ascetic lives than we ought and/or we are stingy in our charity toward others. Some of us save because we envision the status our accumulating wealth will bring us. Others of us feel guilty about saving because that seems somehow selfish to us. Imbalanced saving comes from false narratives we tell ourselves about our place in God’s narrative.
Giving – Giving is our declaration that we trust God for our provision. It acts as a check on the seductive power wealth has to divert us into finding our identity in consumption and in saving. It brings us into the heart of the triune God who is all about giving and being interested in the other. Giving strengthens the communities we live in as those in crisis or otherwise unable to provide for themselves are empowered to participate and contribute of themselves to the community. It provides ways in which we can jointly celebrate God at work in the world.
Yet for some, giving is a way of achieving status and recognition. It can be a way we buy friendship or establish an identity for ourselves. Some give out of a martyr-like reputation they believe giving brings them. Giving done to the neglect of appropriate consumption and saving may actually debilitate us from serving others in ways God would have us serve. Failure to give leaves us susceptible to the powers of consumption and saving to define our lives. It disconnects from participating in one God’s most powerful attributes. Failure to give diminishes our life together by diminishing our community. Imbalanced giving comes from false narratives we tell ourselves about our place in God’s narrative.
I wrote in the previous post about the importance of self-interested stewardship. I wrote that self-interested stewardship can only be realized when we see ourselves living within God’s narrative. But we can’t pass by self-interested stewardship without acknowledging the single greatest threat to cause us to wander into selfish idolatry: The love of money and wealth. It is the single greatest threat to thwarting our simplicity of focus on God.
But we must also recognize that our self-interest has purpose beyond ourselves. Our self-interested stewardship is what places us in a position where we can live out our greatest service to God: Other-centered community.