IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY

Woe betide you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed graves, which look very fine on the outside, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and uncleanness of every kind. That’s like you: on the outside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [Matthew 23:27-28 (NTE)]

yellow hawkweedAlong with proclaiming the Word of God, the young Church was committed to ensuring that there were no needy among them. As a result, many of the early believers voluntarily sold their property and shared their wealth with the rest of the church community. Barnabas, for example, sold a field he owned and generously brought the money to the apostles for those in need.

Immediately following the mention of Barnabas in Acts, Luke tells us about Ananias and Sapphira. Like Barnabas, they sold some land and brought the proceeds to the apostles but, unlike him, the couple retained some of the funds. But, wanting to impress everyone with their generosity without actually making a sacrifice, they claimed to have contributed the full amount. Peter, however, knew better and confronted each one about their deceit and they were struck dead in divine judgment.

This is a troubling story when we mistakenly think of it in terms of how much of our money we should give to the church. It’s important to remember that Ananias and Sapphira’s sin wasn’t in keeping some of the money; it was theirs to do with as they wished. The sharing among believers wasn’t compulsory and didn’t originate in the law. It originated in love and was completely voluntary. Rather than the sin of greed, the couple’s sin was that of hypocrisy; they wanted to impress the church into thinking they were something they clearly were not. They lied to the church but, worse, they lied to the Holy Spirit! Luke tells us that “great fear” struck the entire church when the learned what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. It should strike fear in us as well! The message, however, isn’t about money; it’s that God will not tolerate deception in spiritual and personal matters.

None of us manage to fully live up to our ideals and values; we’re flawed human beings who miss the mark in a variety of ways. That we fail to be the person we should be does not make us hypocrites; it’s failing to be the person we claim to be that is hypocrisy! Putting reputation before character, the hypocrite creates a public impression at odds with his or her true self.

The book of Acts relates how the early church was threatened by the world in which they lived: persecution, arrests, imprisonment, and even death. But it also relates how the church faced threats within its own community when the sins of a few (like Ananias and Sapphira) threatened the testimony of the church. Both threats continue today. I can’t help but wonder—if God dealt as severely with deceivers and hypocrites today as He did with Ananias and Sapphira, how many people would be left to fill our pews on Sunday morning?

The hypocrite, certainly, is a secret atheist; for if he did believe there was a God, he durst not be so bold as to deceive Him to His face. [Thomas Adams]

They declare that they know God, but they deny him by what they do. They are detestable and disobedient, and useless for any good work. [Titus 1:16 (NTE)]

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THE WRONG MASTER (Part 2)

You cannot be the slave of two masters! You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24 (CEV)

black vultureWhen writing about serving only one master, I thought of Gehazi, the scoundrel who tried serving both God and mammon. A servant to the prophet Elisha, Gehazi’s story is found in 2 Kings 5. When Naaman offered Elisha great riches in gratitude for being healed of leprosy, Elisha refused. It was God’s power, not his, that healed Naaman and, knowing that the only master he served was God, Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve. I will not accept any gifts.”

It must have irked Gehazi to see his master refuse Naaman’s offerings of gold, silver and clothing (worth around $750 million today). After eyeing those riches, the servant pictured the life of luxury he could enjoy with some of Naaman’s treasure. It seemed foolish to send all that wealth back to Aram. Wanting some for himself and thinking Elisha would never know, Gehazi secretly followed after Naaman’s chariot.

After catching up with Naaman, the servant explained that his master had sent him. His master, however, wasn’t Elisha; it was mammon! The deceitful servant concocted a story that Elisha would like a talent of silver (about 75 pounds) and two sets of clothing for two young prophets who had just arrived. Granted, the servant’s request was somewhat modest considering the size of Naaman’s initial offer; nevertheless, it was the equivalent of 300 years’ worth of wages! I suspect Gehazi was afraid a larger request might have aroused suspicion. Nevertheless, more than happy to find a way to repay the prophet, Naaman offered twice that amount of silver and Gehazi returned home with his ill-gotten gains.

When Elisha asked where he’d been, the servant foolishly lied to his master. The prophet, however, was not deceived and told his servant that it was a time for worship, not a time for financial gain. As a result of his greed and deceit, Naaman’s leprosy became Gehazi’s and would afflict his descendants forever. The exact nature of his disease is unknown since leprosy in the Bible referred to Hansen’s disease (leprosy) as well as any other skin disease like psoriasis, alopecia, impetigo or dermatitis. Although his punishment didn’t threaten Gehazi’s life, such a skin disease condemned him to life as an outcast. Having served mammon instead of God, Gehazi expected the power, comfort and luxury promised by riches; what he got was life as an untouchable pariah.

There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men. [Billy Graham]

People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain. [1 Timothy 6:9-10 (CEV)]

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THE MONEY TREE (Part 1)

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. [Matthew 6:24 (RSV)]

money tree - pachira acquaticaWhile walking through the botanic garden recently, I looked up to see the showy flowers of the Money Tree (Pachira aquatica). Although the tree is said to bring good fortune and prosperity, no money was hanging from its branches. Nevertheless, its name reminded me of my father’s frequent caution that money didn’t grow on trees! Perhaps it’s because money doesn’t grow on trees that we frequently seem so obsessed by it.

I’ve read claims that Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. His mention of money, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that was His topic. Although the parable’s good Samaritan gave the innkeeper two coins and promised to pay the injured man’s debt, the parable isn’t about money any more than the Hidden Treasure parable is about investing in real estate or the parable of the Loaned Money about loan sharking! Even though Jesus may have mentioned money when speaking, it seems that He was far more interested in the topics of God’s Kingdom, faith, salvation, and forgiveness than money.

Jesus, however, did tell us that we can’t serve two masters—we can’t serve both God and wealth. The word translated as serve was douleuō, which meant to serve as a slave or one in bondage, and the word translated as master was kuriois, which meant one who possesses uncontested power and absolute ownership and authority over another. In Jesus’ world, the slave had no rights and the master had complete control over him. The master owned both the slave and all of the slave’s possessions including every minute of his time!

Because Jesus’ words make it clear He was speaking of servitude, we mustn’t make the mistake of substituting “work” for douleuō or “employer” for kuriois. For example, as a consultant, my daughter works for several employers at once. Unlike a slave, however, she is free to pick and choose for whom she works and how she divides her time between them. One who serves a master, however, has no such choice because a master demands total commitment and allegiance.

The two masters of which Jesus was speaking are God and mammon (often translated as money or wealth). Nowadays, mammon has the negative connotation of filthy riches or ill-gotten gains but, to Jesus’ listeners, it didn’t. The word used was mamōna, a neutral word encompassing money, possessions, property, earnings, and riches of all kinds. The rabbis even had a saying, “Let the mammon of thy neighbor be as dear to thee as thine own,” which meant we should care for others’ possessions as carefully as our own. Like many things in life, mammon is neither inherently good or bad; how it is regarded and used is what makes it good or bad. Rather than saying wealth is inherently evil, Jesus is telling us that we can’t serve both wealth and God; at some point, the two masters’ interests will diverge.

There is nothing wrong with having a home, car, job, business, fine jewelry, or investment accounts—what is wrong is allowing any of those things (or the desire for them) to own us! We can enjoy them as long as we understand that God alone is our master and all of our possessions and time belong to Him. Although He’s loaned them to us for the time being, we are to serve God with them. When we set our hearts on money or things, however, we’re serving another master. We must never crave wealth more than we desire God, put our trust in money rather Him, love possessions more than we love Him, or choose to serve mammon rather than serve God. We cannot claim Jesus as Lord if our allegiance is to anything or anyone other than Him. He, alone, is our master and He is the one we serve!

Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master. [P. T. Barnum]

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay 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 will your heart be also. [Matthew 6:19-21 (RSV)]

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RICH BEYOND BELIEF

wild geraniumYou know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. [2 Corinthians 8:9 (NLT)]

Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life. [John 10:9-11 (NLT)]

Psst! I’m rich but, please, don’t report me to the IRS. If you tell them, they’ll want their ever-increasing percentage and it’s simply nor theirs to take. The riches I have won’t pay politicians’ salaries, build highways, or purchase helicopters. My true wealth has nothing to do with bank balances, investment strategies, crypto-currency, or real estate holdings. It can’t be held in a bank or brokerage account nor can it be spent at Saks or on Amazon. Better yet, my riches are never-ending; I simply can’t run out of them!

I have a sense of peace that far surpasses anything one gets from having enormous assets at Fidelity or Charles Schwab. I have a joy far greater than one could ever get from being listed as one of Forbes magazine’s richest people. I have a better future than someone possessing a hefty IRA or annuity fund. I am loved better and forgiven more than the richest person could be by his ever-hopeful heirs. Indeed, I am blessed beyond belief.

You see, I’m enjoying the riches that come from a relationship with God. Moreover, I don’t have to concern myself with the Dow Jones average, fret about P/E ratios, read Barron’s or The Economist, or worry about capital gains or volatile markets. All I have to do is realize my need for God, admit my sinfulness, and receive Jesus Christ as my Savior.

My faith isn’t in the dollar, Bitcoin, or yen; my faith is in the Lord. Rather than regularly calling my broker, I keep in touch with God through daily prayer. Instead of poring over The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek, I regularly read God’s word. Rather than listening to and following my financial advisor’s advice, I listen to (and obey) the voice of the Holy Spirit. Instead of having servants, however, I am expected to serve, but it is a small price to pay. If I do all of that, not only will I maintain the riches I already have, but my riches will continue to increase (and all with no tax consequences)!

Want to be rich? Count your blessings! [sign in front of a local church]

It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, not according to what he has. [Henry Ward Beecher]

The blessing of the Lord makes a person rich, and he adds no sorrow with it. [Proverbs 10:22 (NLT)]

Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)]

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GLEANINGS FOR THE POOR

When you harvest the crops of your land, do not harvest the grain along the edges of your fields, and do not pick up what the harvesters drop. It is the same with your grape crop—do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God. [Leviticus 19:9-10 (NLT)]

field scabious - beeIn a series of negative commands regarding the harvest found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, we find an ancient form of social justice/economic equity. A landowner was not to return for an overlooked bundle of grain left in the field, olives trees were not to be beaten more than once, grapes vines were not to be repicked after the first fruit was gathered, the edges of the fields were not to be harvested, and any produce dropped by the harvesters or fruit that had fallen or separated from the branch was not to be taken. As the remainders of the harvest, these gleanings were left for the poor.

Immediately following the law about not fully harvesting the crops of the land in Leviticus 19:9-10, we find two more laws: “Do not steal. Do not deceive or cheat one another.” The rabbis interpreted the laws’ juxtaposition to mean that not leaving the gleanings actually was stealing from the poor. Moreover, the poor should not cheat others by taking any more than was necessary.

Although the difference is slight, the landowner didn’t give these gleanings to the poor; he left them. God didn’t ask him to give the gleanings because the harvest wasn’t his to give; the harvest, like everything else, belonged to God! These laws reminded the Israelites that God is the source of their blessings!

We get a picture how this system worked in the Book of Ruth. When widowed and poor Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem, Ruth went out to gather grain in the field owned by Boaz. As she walked behind the reapers and gathered whatever was left behind, she was taking what the law said was rightfully hers. When Boaz instructed his workers to pull out some stalks from their bundles and leave them for her, he went over and above the law with an act of charity for the young widow.

1,400 years later, Jesus told the Parable of the Rich Fool—the rich man whose land produced so much that he couldn’t store all of his crops. Deciding to keep the excess for himself, he planned on tearing down his barns to build bigger ones, but he died that very night. The parable pointed out the fleeting nature of wealth and the man’s foolishness in providing for himself when he should have been making provision for his soul. Jesus’ audience, however, would have known the ancient agricultural laws and gotten even more from the story.

Unlike a tithe, God never specified how much of a field should be left uncut; it was a matter between the landowner and the Lord. A man’s generosity could be seen by the amount of field left for the gleaners. Jesus’ listeners probably suspected the man’s extreme wealth was because the uncut edges of his fields were measly (or non-existent), fallen fruit was picked up, or his olives and grapes were double harvested. Jesus’ audience would have thought the greedy landowner more than a fool; they would have thought him a thief who’d kept provisions for the poor to himself!

In a fallen world, there always will be people in need so what do these ancient laws mean to 21st century Christians? In his commentary on the laws of gleaning, 16th century Rabbi Moses Alshikh wrote the following as if it were God speaking: “You shouldn’t think that you are giving to the poor person from your own property, or that I have despised him by not giving bread to him as I have given to you. For he is also my child, just as you are, but his portion is in your produce.” Rather than the edges of our fields, our checkbooks indicate our priorities and, just as it was with the Israelites, that is a matter between us and God. As John Wesley said, the question is, “Not how much of my money will I give to God but how much of God’s money will I keep for myself?”

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

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JUST DOING OUR DUTY

When a servant comes in from plowing or taking care of sheep, does his master say, “Come in and eat with me”? No, he says, “Prepare my meal, put on your apron, and serve me while I eat. Then you can eat later.” And does the master thank the servant for doing what he was told to do? Of course not. In the same way, when you obey me you should say, “We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.” [Luke 17:7-10 (NLT)]

swamp lilyWhen one of his congregation suddenly stopped coming to church, a pastor friend asked him about his absence. The man angrily explained that he’d stopped attending because the pastor hadn’t suitably (and publicly) recognized his large donation to the church’s building fund. My friend assured the miffed man that, had the money been given to the pastor for his personal use, he would have thanked him profusely. But, he added, the money hadn’t been given to him; it was given to God! While the church truly appreciated it (and had acknowledged it in his contribution statement), the issue of both the donation and any recognition or thanks really was between the donor and God. A similar experience was shared by a friend who is in charge of the care ministry for her church. One of her volunteers quit because she felt the church had failed to sufficiently appreciate and publicize her service.

To avoid such complaints, perhaps, along with official greeters, we need official “thankers” in our churches. Of course, if the church had members whose official job was to thank everyone for their service, who would they get to thank the thankers? I can see the makings of a Dr. Seuss book in which the last little Thankaroo, whose job is to thank you and you, after asking who’d thank him, gets in a snit and declares he’s through! Who will thank the last Thankaroo?

It’s only human to want to feel appreciated and acknowledged but, if we’re looking for recognition and honor from people, we’re bound to become disappointed and disillusioned. Let’s remember that we don’t serve mankind; we serve God. Our service does not put Him in our debt because we are saved by grace not works.

Jesus addressed this very issue in His parable about the master and the servant. At first His words seem somewhat harsh, but He wasn’t demeaning the work of a servant; He was emphasizing the correct servant attitude. Servants of Jesus are believers who willingly live under His authority. A good servant knows it’s an honor to serve, willingly does one task after another, and doesn’t expect thanks, praise, or recognition for doing his duty. His obedience to his master is not commendable; it is expected!

We serve God out of love, not out of expectation of public recognition or reward. We certainly should not feel self-righteous about anything we’ve done in His name because all we’ve done is what is expected of us!

As God’s servants, we serve inconspicuously, willingly, and joyfully. Humbly admitting we’ve done no more than is our duty, we don’t serve to get thanks but rather to give thanks to God for the blessings of this world. Not expecting to be singled out for praise by our fellow man, we are thankful to serve. Hearing the Lord say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant!” will be far better than any other recognition given to us in the here and now!

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. [Matthew 6:1-4 (NLT)

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