Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All, Jesus' Spirituality of Wealth (1): Pulling Strings

Luke 17:11-19 (children at the altar)

Matthew 6:1-4, 19-34 (message focus)

The Scripture we selected today is focused on the spirituality of giving. But it is interrupted, right in the middle, by Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Most of the time when we think about money, we think about it as solely a worldly thing, as having nothing to do with our spirituality. But Jesus teaches on money, takes a break to talk about prayer, and then goes back to money, or, more properly, generosity.

Here at Bethany, in our membership vows, we ask each person, “Do you commit yourself to consistent growth in a spirituality characterized as giving, faithful, and real?” Over the next few weeks, we will be exploring what Jesus says about wealth from a spiritual perspective. It is a spiritual thing. If it has nothing to do with God, then why would we want it at all? But we persist in a schizophrenic spirituality, keeping spiritual things in their appropriate box while we deal with the real life of work, paying the bills (or not), all completely separate from our faith.

Jesus talked about work, business, and money more than he talked about heaven. Jesus is concerned that all of our lives become fully devoted to God. We hear this, but mostly ignore it, because it seems so impractical.

So, let’s take this passage for starters. And, let’s look at one of the themes that Jesus teaches about wealth. He teaches us – and it should be obvious – that the exchange of wealth often comes with strings attached. Did anyone ever offer you a gift, but it really wasn’t free? They wanted something from you, something in exchange.

The old Latin expression quid pro quo describes this kind of exchange, meaning literally, “this for that”. I give you this. You give me that. A Non Sequitur comic (July 24, 2004, by Wiley Miller) showed a giant squid and a chef sitting at a booth in a seafood restaurant. The squid says, “So it’s a deal then .... I’ll provide the ink for your menus and you’ll take calamari off it.” The title: “Squid pro quo”.

This past week I heard a friend comment that politicians should be forced to wear their endorsements just like NASCAR drivers. Why? Because we all assume that the obscene amounts of money raised in presidential and other campaigns comes with certain strings attached. We become a bit cynical, and the campaign cycle is just getting started.

And, this past Wednesday in the men’s lunch group, we read Proverbs 22:7 – “The borrower is the slave of the lender.” Talk about a string – the borrower responds like a puppet on a string, the borrower feels like a person at the end of his rope. Ever been there?

Jesus teaches us that the exchange of wealth often comes with strings attached.

Like the teaching on prayer, which began with how not to pray, Jesus teaches on giving by teaching how not to give. Don’t give like hypocrites, don’t give to get the praise of people. If that’s all you want, if that’s the string you want to pull, you’ve got it ... but you’ve got nothing before God. That is not godly giving. Godly giving is not about me. Godly giving is not about increasing my prestige. Godly giving is not about binding the receiver to me in loyalty or devotion. Godly giving is about . . . binding ourselves to God. Godly giving doesn’t attach a string to the gift. Godly giving attaches a string to our souls and ties us to God:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

Some notes from the Greek text:

In verse 1, when Jesus warns us against righteousness done to be noticed by other people, the root for “noticed” is the word theathenai, the root for our English term “theater”. And the Greek word for “hypocrite” is a word for a performer, an actor. (See Bruner, 283, and Thayer Lexicon in BW6.0.) Our prayer is not to be theatrical. Our fasting is not to be dramatic. Our giving is not to be performance. It is all for God, all about God.

Such spirituality comes with strings attached. It is designed to get us noticed, to give us prestige points. But, the text tells us, “they have received their reward”, or, more literally, that “they have been paid in full”. It is a business term (Bruner, 284, and Thayer). And it means that there is no further payment coming. Performing for the crowds doesn’t get God’s attention.

But it goes even further. It is not just about performing for crowds. It is also about interior performances. Frederick Bruner writes, “Not only should there be no external trumpets, but there should not even be any internal music” (285). Jesus said it this way, “When you do charity, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Bruner’s translation of 6:3, p 284).

The language of performance is such a powerful thing in our lives. Get an “A” and get $5. Score a goal and get a Slushee. Put on a good interview and get the job. Buy a diamond and get a kiss, because “every kiss begins with ...” This turns every encounter in our lives into a transaction, a transaction that can be quantified, measured, by wealth or performance. Talk about performance anxiety, stage fright.

The question becomes not whether wealth comes with strings attached, but what strings shall we choose? Do we choose the God of “Mammon”, and seek to build up treasures here and now? Do we choose the God of the approval of others, of prestige or influence? These are demanding gods, gods that require our performance and offer very little in return, with no guarantees. Or do we choose the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ kingdom, a kingdom of grace and love?

Jesus wants us to cut the strings, the purse strings, that bind us to Mammon or Influence or Approval. He reminds us that those things fail – moths (nature at work), rust (time at work), thieves (people at work) (Bruner, 321). John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, wrote that those who want more aren’t able to enjoy what they have “by reason of not feeling confident about the security of them, and because with their whole mind they are intent upon what they have not yet seized” (Bruner, 320).

Jesus wants us to cut the strings and to tie ourselves to God, to “the Father, who sees in secret and will reward” by putting our treasure in the kingdom of heaven and anchoring our heart there. Sometimes we – caught up as we are in the economic exchange, in the worldly power of wealth – interpret this reward from God in pure economic terms. But this is no economic transaction. Jesus addresses God as Father, Jesus puts us in the family. (See Brunner, 285.)

I do not play goal keeper on a soccer field, but I do teach kids how to play. I tell them that when they are goal keeper, they have a super power – they can use their hands. When they use their feet to clear the ball, I remind them, “Good job! Use your hands!” One of the phrases that describes good goal keeping technique is to “lead with your hands”, especially when diving for the ball.

Jesus gives us a similar simple direction for discipleship in the area of wealth, for a spirituality of wealth. It is simple, practical, brilliant: Lead with your treasure. So often, we will tell ourselves to “lead with your heart”. It is not bad advice. Jesus just takes a step back and says that our hearts are where are treasure is. So, “lead with your treasure”. If your treasure is in your 401(k), then some of the recent years haven’t been very good for your heart. If your treasure is in a recently purchased home, the current market is bad news for your heart health. Now, planning for retirement and owning a home are wonderful things, but they must not be our treasure. If our treasure is in heaven, that is, with God, then . . . well, as Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

One of our children here at Bethany got this whole passage clearly. I have no idea which of the children in our church did this, but several months ago one of our kids prepared their offering envelope. On the “name” line they wrote “Dear Father God” – because it is not about us but about our Father who sees in secret. For “amount” they wrote, “25¢”. For “what special offering” they wrote, “Monies”. Because where their treasure is, there their heart will be also. “Lead with your treasure.”

There’s no performance anxiety in that spiritual practice. Instead, there is a link, deep and powerful, to a loving Father God. That’s the gift of giving, that’s why holy generosity does for a soul.

The amazing thing in all of this is that God’s treasure is with you and me here and now. We are worth so much to God, we are worth the divine life itself, we are worth the cross. In so many ways, we are not worthy. That’s in our own selves, that unworthiness. But from God’s perspective, it’s all worth it. That’s why we celebrate this holy meal today. (Holy Communion).

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