Money, Money, Money, Money
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler
For most people, talking about money in church is almost as fun as talking about politics at Thanksgiving dinner.
I’m not sure exactly why we shy away from talking about money in church; my experience of talking frankly about money with many of you has felt almost like a relief—like we all are secretly wondering how our relationship to what we have impacts our relationships with God and with each other. And we secretly wonder about this because we modern Americans have such a conflicted understanding of possession, wealth, and ownership.
But Jesus never shied away from talking about money. In fact, he talked about money A LOT. He knew that our relationship to what we have directly impacts our relationships to God and to the world around us. Which, in my mind, makes church the perfect place to have the tough conversations we need to have about…money.
Curiously, in this season of gratitude, our assigned gospel reading for today is all about money. Money, money, money, money: the parable of the talents.
You know the story. A man carefully selects three slaves in whom
he entrusts a certain amount of money, then he leaves town. He’s gone a long time—a long time, but eventually he returns to examine the result of his great experiment.
Two of the three have taken the ball and run with it, made some risky investments that paid off. The third one carefully guarded the money he was given, sure to be able to return to the man the original amount.
The master commended the first two slaves for taking a risk, investing what was entrusted to them, putting it to work. The third slave, well, unhappy would be an understatement for the way the master felt about him. His decision to hide the money he was given sent the master into a rage, and he threw the third slave into hell, the end.
There are many ways to interpret this parable, of course, and it’s usually likely that the easy interpretation is the wrong one. Scholar Amy Jill Levine says that we have a tendency to domesticate Jesus’ provocative parables to ensure our own comfort, and I think she’s right. I’ve decided to go this morning with the traditional interpretation of the parable, where the master is God and we are the slaves, even though I have my doubts about whether Jesus intended the story to be interpreted that way. I wonder about this primarily because the master in this story is a terrible man: he’s greedy and selfish; he’s unkind and doesn’t think twice about using systems and power to hurt vulnerable people. To me, that doesn’t sound like God—honestly it sounds more like the president. Still, there’s plenty in this traditional interpretation to make us think hard about how we live in the world with what we have, and it’s good every now and then to do just that.
Let’s begin here. Imagine the people standing on the hillside listening to Jesus launch into yet another “The kingdom of God is like…” story. Years of listening to this parable may have numbed us to what must have actually happened when Jesus began telling this story, because you and I likely don’t fully appreciate the vast amount of money Jesus was talking about here. A talent was the largest measurement of money there was in Jesus’ day. An actual, physical talent was a big chunk of metal that took several people to lift, about the equivalent of a million dollars to you and me. Jesus’ listeners’ eyes would have widened in amazement as he talked; they would have been almost unable (as would we) to get their minds around the idea of someone walking up to them and handing them 15 years of salary—not to mention the two other who received unthinkable, lottery-sized allotments.
Maybe Jesus did that to jar his listeners with an adjustment of perspective. And I sure think you and I could use one, too. Just for fun I logged onto an Internet site the other day called Global Rich List.com. On that web site you can put in your salary and you are automatically ranked on a scale of all the people in the world—you can see instantaneously where you fall in the mix.
I would never immediately think of myself as rich—I have bills to pay and two kids in college and I worry about money more than I should. So imagine my surprise then, when I discovered that, with the salary I earn, I fall within the top .1% of the entire population of the world in terms of income. In other words, there are 5,989,122,435 people in the world who are poorer than I am. In still other words, there are over 4 billion people in this world—4 BILLION—who live on less money per day than the couple of bucks that I often drop on a cup of coffee several times a week.
I wonder about the slave in Jesus’ parable who surveyed what he had. As his boss laid the check in his hands, he glanced out of the corner of his eye at the other two slaves. Sure, he had one talent, but look at what THEY had! Compared to them, well, he was downright poor! Never mind that what he held in his hands was more money than almost every other person in his community could even imagine having all in one place at one time . . . all of the sudden the amount he held in his hand seemed frightfully small. And that perception of scarcity just shut him down.
Which is why our holy texts talk so frankly about how much we give away—because giving is a spiritual practice that shapes and forms our hearts and lives. It’s a biblical standard called tithing—giving 10% of our income back to God. That’s a lot of money, and I know the defensiveness we’re all feeling because the average American gives 2% of her income to charity—to all charities, not only to the church—per year.
Well, times are hard here. “Exorbitant” is a kind word for the price of housing in this town—try “obscene” or “criminal.” Have you seen the price of health insurance? And, with the viability of social security looking more and more dubious, it’s incumbent upon all of us to save for retirement like we never have before.
And, all of these things are true. But you and I are paying for rent and saving for retirement here, in one of the richest countries on this planet. We have sinfully, yes, sinfully restructured our reality in terms of what we perceive that we DON’T have, instead of the incredible abundance with which we’ve been showered.
Note that we are not paying rent or healthcare premiums in a village near Darfur, Sudan, where our days would be filled with worries more like: I hope my kids have something—anything to eat today, or I wonder if my child will ever be able to go to school, or I know I will die very soon because there is no possibility for me to find medication for my AIDS infection.
We have so much money, so many things. We have so much more than we need. But, like the third slave in Jesus’ story, we’ve managed to bury it . . . in “necessities” that we use to define our lives but which, in the end, add up to a whole lot of nothing.
But you can’t hoard what you have and keep it forever like the third slave tried to do. And do you know why?
Because it isn’t yours to begin with.
It’s God’s. God has placed in our hands unbelievable gifts of generosity and grace, of riches and abundance. We could choose to live gratefully, embracing the opportunity to be instrumental and life-changing partners in the work of God. Or, we could shackle our hearts to the rock of ownership and live our lives desperately fearful of losing what wasn’t even ours to begin with.
There was a man who lived his life, really, on the edge of poverty. He’d worked as a plumber his whole entire career and now, nearing 75, he was still hard at work, full time, to eek out a living. One evening he was coming home from work when his car was stopped on the highway. A Wells Fargo armored truck had overturned in the middle of the road and the sight before him was chaos. Money was everywhere, flying through the air, bags of money spilled all over the highway. The man hurriedly scooped up one of the bags and headed home. When he got home he opened the bag and found $100,000.
He stacked those bills up on his scratched Formica table and began to think about all the things he could do with that money. His unreliable truck that motored along with almost 200,000 miles could be replaced. He might even be able to take a real vacation—the first he could ever remember. Retirement was beginning to look like a real possibility for the first time ever.
All night long he tossed and turned with the moral dilemma. Out of all the people who could have found that money, he was really a rather deserving guy—lived a good life, hadn’t really been able to get a leg up not matter how hard he’d tried. He could really justify keeping that money.
But as the morning dawned the man finally got up out of bed and gathered the money together sadly. While he could really use it, the fact of the matter was that the money in that bag belonged to someone else. So, he set off to return the money to the police station down the road.
The man brought the bag of money to the police station, where he learned that while all that money had spread all over the highway, not one person had come forward to return any—he was the first. When the Wells Fargo representative walked in the man handed him the money explaining, “I knew I had to return this; I knew it didn’t belong to me.” Thanking him profusely, the Wells Fargo manager took out the money and counted it as the plumber began to leave. Then, the Wells Fargo manager stopped the plumber and matter-of-factly handed him $90,000 in cash and said, “You know, we were only expecting to recover 10% of the money. The rest is yours. Thank you for your honesty.”
One day that man had nothing. The next he had $90,000 out of the blue.
What if we lived looking at what we have like that?
What if we really lived, fully knowing the truth that everything we have belongs to God.
How would that change things? All of the sudden the amount we have left after giving 10% to God will look like a whole pile of undeserved abundance. Which, of course, it is!
So welcome to church, where this morning we’re talking frankly about money. Money, money, money, money. If you are giving nothing back to God, you need to go back and read again the parable of the talents. Each one of us has been entrusted with gifts far beyond our need. Take a dose of reality and face the fact that nothing you have belongs to you. God is waiting for your response.
If you like to come to worship; you like the service and the people; you’d like for things to continue as they are and you will affirm those feelings by reaching into your pocket to pull out a couple of bucks as the offering plate passes you by, well you might be giving with a degree of self-interest that indicates you are not being honest about how much you have. You are buying into a sort of fast-food religion—cheap food, questionable nutrition, convenient service. In and out and it doesn’t hurt all that much—but then, not all that much in your life is changing, is it? You’re not eating at McDonald’s—the possibilities are so much more for you! Steak EVERY NIGHT! Look around you and start to be realistic about what you have, then respond with thanksgiving.
If you are giving regularly, a generous amount, you have reached a stage where you realize on some level that God has given you many blessings. You are finally getting the picture of that extreme generosity of God and the excess with which your life is marked. You are giving in gratitude and recognition of those blessings, but your dose of reality is that you might be still struggling with ownership. You’re giving a sizable amount, yes, but that amount is controlled by you and dictated by the financial limitations your life imposes. Last time you checked God’s name was not on the signature line of your mortgage, and you have car payments and other important expenses to take care of. Guess what? None of it is mine anyway. I don’t REALLY own any of it. What a sense of freedom I could have if I actually started to live as if that were true.
If you are tithing—giving away a full 10% of your income or more—then you have reached a level of giving out of obedience. How much you give is not an agonizing decision every month; rather, your giving is a regular commitment, a spiritual practice. You know how very much you have and you know it belongs to God. Your regular tithe is a discipline of faith. And perhaps you are beginning to get a glimpse of the fact that there is only more possibility for what God can do with what you have.
If we could learn to see what we have and who we have in these terms, well then, fear would no longer drive us; we would live with spiritual vision and foresight. We would be free from the oppressive constricts of scarcity and fear; we’d have no illusions about ownership: it all belongs to God anyway, and participation in the vision of what can be in this place, in God’s community here, seems like a more worthy investment than anything else we could possibly think of.
Everybody hates to talk about money in church, but I think we need to do more of it. Because God is waiting, just waiting, for us to loosen our grip on the tiny bits of this vast and wonderful world that we think we own, to become part of something so much bigger and better, so vast and far-reaching, so abundant and full of promise, so that we are controlled not by our money, but by all the possibilities God dreams for our world.
As you’re thinking this week about gratitude, take some time to think about what you have and how the fear of losing what you have limits God’s work in your life. If you do, you’ll feel uncomfortable, which is exactly what Jesus intended when he told the parable of the talents. And if you allow yourself to be changed by that discomfort, well, just imagine how the kingdom of God might begin coming to real and radiant life starting right here, right now.