Tag Archives: Wealth

Matthew 6: 19-34 Wealth, Anxiety and Righteousness

Evelyn De Morgan, The Worship of Mammon (1909)

Matthew 6: 19-34

Parallel Luke 12: 33-34, Luke 11: 34-36, Luke 16: 13, Luke 12: 22-32

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Following three practices of righteousness (acts of mercy or giving alms, prayer and fasting) we encounter a set of interconnecting proverbs connecting the relationship of the disciple to wealth and the anxiety encountered around possessions. From the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve seen an emphasis on possessions, giving to those who beg and not refusing those who want to borrow and doing acts of mercy in this kingdom of heaven where the poor in spirit can be blessed. This kingdom of God that the disciple is to seek depends upon the abundance of God’s provisions rather than the disciple’s ability to accumulate wealth, power and property to secure their own future. Their treasure rests with the God they serve and their trust in God’s provision frees them from the anxiety produced by the cares of the world and the lures of wealth.

Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment where the disciple is to, “fear, love and trust God above all things” (Luther, 1978, p. 13) taps into the same wisdom as these sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. Love and trust in God are bound together and placing trust in something other than God, like wealth, interferes not only with the trust in God but also the disciples’ ability to love God. If the kingdom of heaven is approaching, like the Sermon on the Mount assumes and Jesus’ practice of sharing the table anticipates, then images like the image of the banquet in Isaiah 55 probably shape the imagination of Jesus’ hearers. As Isaiah can state:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Isaiah 55:1-2

I’m convinced that the great idol in the United States is security. People are told to attempt to secure the future for their retirement, for their health, and entire industries are engaged in helping people achieve this illusory security they seek. Yet this displacement of joy and happiness to a future time, or the inability to secure one’s own security is a source of anxiety for many people. The accumulation of wealth on earth can provide moments of happiness and treasures and wealth are not bad things, unless they are placed in a position of prominence where they become the meaning of our life, the thing that we serve. Yet, there is a note of hope in this passage because how we use our wealth can help lead us to the life we desire to live. As Mark Allan Powell can state,

Jesus does not want us to give from the heart. He wants us to give according to where we believe our hearts should be, to give according to where we hope our hearts will someday be. Give of your treasure and let your heart catch up. (Powell, 2004, p. 140)

The proverb about the eye being the lamp of the body may seem out of place in between two proverbs talking about treasures or wealth, but when paired with the other two proverbs (and the longer saying about anxiety and possessions) we can see the orientation of the eye towards wealth or possessions is the darkness spoken of here. The culminative effect of this group of sayings is to encourage the disciple to make the wise choice of looking (or seeking) first for the kingdom of God. In contrast to the kingdom of God which is light, seeking the ways of this world is the unwise way of darkness.

Jesus is calling his disciples to trust in God and not to have divided loyalties. As he will later share in the Parable of the Sower those who are ensnared by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth will choke the word that has been sowed among them and make them yield nothing. (Matthew 13: 22) One can trust in wealth or one can trust in God. The NRSV translates mammon as wealth, and while this is correct it misses the way in which the text personifies wealth into an entity which is able to possess and demand allegiance. Mammon becomes an alternative, and an attractive one for many people, to trusting in God to provide security.

After these three proverbs which point to the wisdom of trusting and serving God rather than attempting to secure our own security by hoarding or serving ‘wealth’ we are told therefore not to be anxious about our life and the things we need.  The Greek merimnao which is translated worry by the NRSV has the meaning of anxiety or even obsession about the object of concern. (Allen, 2013, p. 77)  Food, drink and clothing can become objects of this anxiety when one begins to adopt the worldview of providing one’s own security and provision. God takes care of the birds of the air, the grass of the field and the righteous will be provided for as well. In a world which seeks to ensnare the righteous in its snares and the lure of mammon the disciple of God is called to trust that God has given them enough, that God will provide daily bread and drink and clothing. They are to be different than the nations, to embody a different relationship with the fruit of their labor. The disciples do not abandon sowing or working, but instead this sowing and working is a part of their life before God instead of their own struggle to secure their own future. The future will bring worries of its own, but the God who is faithful today will also be faithful in the future. They live seeking righteousness knowing that they will be filled with the bread and drink of the banquet of God’s kingdom. They seek the security and wealth of the kingdom of God even though they may be the poor in spirit or those persecuted for righteousness sake.

One final translation note that I think is important to hearing Matthew in a less judgmental way. In verse thirty we have the first use of the Greek word oligopistos which is almost universally translated ‘You of little faith’ which is a proper English rendering of this adjective which always appears in the second person form (mostly plural but once as a singular form because it is addressing Peter). This term occurs four additional times throughout Matthew[1], always addressing either a disciple or disciples. My struggle with the traditional translation is the statement, ‘You of little faith’ in English implies a biting and condescending tone. The more I’ve listened to Matthew’s gospel, the more I’ve read this term as ‘little faith ones,’ a term of endearment or compassion. Instead of upbraiding the disciples who are listening for not having enough faith or trusting enough, perhaps Jesus here, and throughout the gospel is encouraging his little faith ones who are gathered around him, encountering the struggle of seeking the kingdom of God while the snares of the world are still present.

A part of this translation of oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’ goes to the heart of my struggle with the way the Sermon on the Mount is often presented. If Jesus is the embodiment of the judgmental God who is setting an unrealistic perfectionistic standard, then being derided as ‘You of little faith’ makes sense within this context. Yet, I am an heir of the Lutheran reformation which began with one man’s search for a gracious God, and I know that informs my view of Jesus who we meet in the scriptures. It is a part of my search for a way of reading the Sermon in a way that goes beyond an individualistic and moralistically perfectionist reading. I understand this reading is going against the grain of established scholarship, but it is also done for the little faith ones, like myself, who go to the scriptures seeking wisdom and seek the kingdom while still struggling with: the anxieties of the world, having both treasures and hearts in the right place, having eyes turned toward the kingdom of heaven and feeling the pull of two opposing masters.

[1] Matthew 8: 23-26; 14: 28-31; 16: 5-10; 17: 18-20

Ecclesiastes 5-The Gift of Mortality Before God and in the World

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

 Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 Silence Not Sacrifice

1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. 2 Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

 3 For dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words.

 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake; why should God be angry at your words, and destroy the work of your hands?

 7 With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God.

Perhaps it is my skeptical nature but I’ve always been wary of those who knew too clearly what God wanted from them and others. I think that sometimes the quest for certainty fills that uneasy quiet space of waiting for God to speak. In our own time there has become more common for people to claim they are spiritual but not religious, where that organized religion for various reasons may not speak to them. There are times where Christianity has tried to model itself after the ancient mystery religions where you did certain acts to try to appease a god or goddess to act on your behalf, but the LORD the God of Israel’s ways are not our ways. As Amy Plantiga Pauw can say memorably, “God does not exist to satisfy human aims and desires. God is not a mascot for our favorite causes.” (Pauw, 2015, p. 166) There are many times when people have used their religious piety as a way of bringing glory to themselves or securing their own sense of place within the chosen people. Qohelet encourages us to enter into that space of silence and waiting to draw near and listen to God.

It is possible that the narrative of 1 Samuel 15, where King Saul uses sacrifice as a way to cover up his disobedience to God’s command in the defeat of the Amalekites, informs this portion of Ecclesiastes. Saul is commanded to utterly destroy the people and the animals but when the battle is won in addition to sparing King Agag’s life the people also spared the best of the sheep, cattle, and other valuables. Capturing the spoils of war was a normal practice but here the Amalekites are dedicated as herem where they are consigned to destruction. (For much more about the understanding of war, herem, as well as an ethical reflection on how to address texts like 1 Samuel 15 see my post on Deuteronomy 20). When the next day King Saul is confronted by Samuel he claims that these best animals are to be a sacrifice to God. Samuel informs King Saul that he has earned the LORD’s disfavor and states:

“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.” 1 Samuel 15: 22f

Guarding one’s actions before God also involves the words that we say and the promises that we make. The misuse of the name of God was a serious offense for the people of Israel, enough so that it became enshrined within the ten commandments. When speaking about vows in verse four, Ecclesiastes begins with a direct parallel of Deuteronomy 23: 21. Making promises before God is a serious measure, in discussing Deuteronomy 23 I mentioned Jephthah’s rash oath and since I have just been discussing King Saul there is his rash oath in 1 Samuel 14: 24 which puts his son Jonathan’s life in danger. Ellen Davis shares, “To vow something before the priest (NRSV: “messenger”) that one has not considered carefully or, even worse, has no intention of fulfilling is to mock God” (Davis, 2000, p. 165)

Ecclesiastes has been pondering the place of humanity with its mortality within the seemingly timeless nature of creation and the eternity of God. Humanity, with all its limits, is placed in the position of listening to the wisdom of the eternal one. Ecclesiastes has striven to pay attention in the present moment to the gifts that God provides. It may be a paradox but a part of wisdom is learning to be patient with the finite gift of time. Making space and silence to be in that place where our words and wisdom fade before the words and wisdom of God.

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, can take the words of Ecclesiastes a step further. Ecclesiastes stated it is better to not vow than vow and not fulfill it but Jesus says not to swear an oath at all. For Jesus all words were to be faithful to what is said, whether they are under oath or not, and as in Ecclesiastes our power to fulfill these vows is often limited by the reality that one ‘cannot make one hair on one’s head white or black.’ (Matthew 5: 33-37)

Ecclesiastes 5: 8-20

 8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But all things considered, this is an advantage for a land: a king for a plowed field.

 10 The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.

 11 When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes?

 12 Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep.

 13 There is a grievous ill that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owners to their hurt,14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture; though they are parents of children, they have nothing in their hands. 15 As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. 16 This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? 17 Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment.

 18 This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. 19 Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil– this is the gift of God. 20 For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.

 

Gratitude and joy are the gifts from God in Ecclesiastes, not wealth or wisdom (even though it is better than foolishness). Our desire for wealth, power, possessions, land, position, and numerous other things we think will make us happy is insatiable. When riches and status become the central quest in life they leave the seeker unsatisfied. Governments may be corrupt, the system may be unfair, riches may be lost suddenly and all may be vanity yet joy can be found.

Ecclesiastes can recognize the problems and corruption that are a part of government and bureaucracy and still believe they ultimately benefit the land and the people. The oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right are real, and a person may not be in a position to change these things. Yet, the author is no revolutionary. Even with all of the government of his time’s flaws he still sees the king (and by extension the rest of the government) put in place to serve the land and the farmer. The people placed in positions of authority may be motivated by a quest for greed or power, yet in the balance there is justice in the midst of the injustice, protection of justice and right in the midst of the injustice and ultimately even a bad government is in service of its people. Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature, not prophetic literature, so do not be surprised that it is invested in the maintaining of the way things are. Yet, there is wisdom in learning the balance of where one can invest in change and where one learns to live in an imperfect system.

Wisdom that is applied to the increasing of goods or the increasing of position and power is never satisfied. The human appetite for acquisition is insatiable. Riches can be hoarded and lost and never enjoyed. The future is never guaranteed, permanent security is never guaranteed, one’s position in society is never guaranteed. If one lives one’s life only for the future never enjoying the food and drink that one has, never giving thanks for the banquets one can be a part of or host, then one lives impoverished. If one spends one’s nights continually plagued by insecurity over one’s possessions or plotting how to increase one’s wealth or stature, one lives an impoverished life. If one never is given the gift of enjoying their labor and their time of leisure, one lives an impoverished life. The paradox of Ecclesiastes wisdom is that it is by embracing one’s limits-one’s mortality, one’s possessions, one’s position, and one’s companions that one is able to be thankful. Gratitude and joy is a gift of God in the midst of our brief days, our limited resources, our imperfect situations and governments and in our families and friends. Ecclesiastes is not, as I once thought, dismissive of life but actively seeks to embrace life as it is lived in the present.