God & Money

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Time to come clean. How many of you have preached a sermon about money without asking for any? I raise this question for three reasons.

First, and as I’ve alluded to before, I believe our traditions are declining in part because we too rarely address our faith to the concrete and daily issues that concern our hearers. All too often, what our people hear on Sunday has precious little to do with what concerns them on Monday through Saturday.

Second, I know of few people who do not struggle to think faithfully about issues of money — how much to spend, to save, to share; what to spend it on, where to share it, and so forth. Our use of money is intimately connected with our priorities, values, and faith, and most people I know would crave some help from their church in thinking about all this.

Third, I honestly believe that if we can help people connect their faith to their everyday, pressing, real life concerns, then most of them will give generously and faithfully because of the difference their congregation makes to them.

With these three things in mind, I think this week’s gospel reading (and next week’s too, for that matter) provides an excellent opportunity to address this central concern and thereby apply the gospel to our daily lives. I say that with a little trepidation, I must confess, given the complexity of the passage at hand. But maybe that’s not all bad. That is, it may help to alert our people to the fact that there is no single biblical view on money. Rather, the Bible has a number of things to say about money from which we can craft a theology that may guide some of our financial decisions.

This week’s passage, for instance, has surprisingly little to say about using our wealth to care for those in need, a consistent theme in Scripture and especially in Luke. (Don’t worry, however, next week’s passage will have plenty to say on that score!) It does, however, suggest that a certain financial savvy is not to be despised, and perhaps should be esteemed. What makes this parable particularly sticky, of course, is that the manager Jesus praises is dishonest. Does Jesus really want us to be deceitful, cheating others to protect our own hides? Of course not. Why then, does Jesus praise the dishonest manager?

Truth be told, we can’t be sure. But I have a hunch that Luke tells this particular story of Jesus in order to urge his congregation to greater wisdom in the ways of the world. According to Luke we cannot, to borrow the contemporary adage, be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good. Plenty of people develop financial savvy and business acumen, and not all of them put it to good use. And so Jesus praises, not the manager’s dishonesty, but his shrewdness, and therefore holds him up as an example for us to follow.

Is Luke suggesting that if more Christians were financially savvy we’d have more money with which to advance the kingdom? Perhaps, though this needs to be laid side-by-side with the realization that the security wealth provides is fleeting, even for those with the greatest financial acumen. The manager is riding high one day, only to be cast down the next, only to employ his shrewdness to make a way for himself and then be commended. Money can be used for many things, but it cannot promise security, at least not for long.

For this reason, money is to be used, but cannot be worshipped. Which is the second message in today’s reading. We cannot worship both God and money. Either our money will serve our faith, or our faith will serve our money. This does not, however, make money evil. In fact, it provides a perspective from which to think more faithfully about money. If we worship the living God, then how should we use our money, how should we use our financial savvy, how should we use our business acumen to held this world that God loves so much? These are a set of questions that most congregants would be eager to discuss. And among those most eager would be the business people of our congregations, those who regularly report that it feels like the consistent message they get from the church is that money is dirty, even evil…until, that is, there’s a stewardship campaign, or the boiler breaks, or the roof leaks and the pastor comes asking for money.

Might we make room to engage the business leaders in our congregation to share their knowledge and experience, to help us think about the way money works in the world? Might we refrain from assuming that the only faithful use of money is to give it away, but recognize that capital investment, productive commerce, and fair and lively trade are also ways in which money has been used to create and share wealth with all of God’s people?

Now, I know as well as you do, that these are complicated issues and sometimes arouse strong political as well as religious passions. So we must tend these conversations with care. But, goodness gracious, I’d rather have folks talking about how our faith lives and our economic lives connect with some heat rather than not talk about it all.

So please, Working Preacher, consider a couple of sermons about money — in all of its complexity — without asking for any. And consider that the conversation started from the pulpit might continue in the fellowship hall, the Adult Forum and, if we’re lucky, in the homes and businesses throughout our communities.

Thanks for all you do, Working Peacher, and for your stewardship of the preaching office and pastoral leadership in particular.

Yours in Christ,