Money is a funny thing. At times it’s empowering, and other times it makes you feel worthless. It either jingles in your pocket or is folded in your wallet or for many of us it is numbers on a digital screen. Some say it makes the world go round. Others say loving it is the root of all evil. Pink Floyd thinks it’s a gas. Whether it’s made of nickel or paper or it’s torn from a book or is a digital bitcoin, money is simply a means of making change.
If I have a cow and you have a chicken, and I need a chicken and you need a cow, then we might have a quick and easy trade. Except is a cow worth what a chicken is worth? If not, then someone is getting a bad deal. I can’t cut a deal with you because I literally don’t want to cut up my cow. Money simply is the means of making change so that we can trade cows and chickens more fairly. Money has held different values throughout my life. In Junior High I understood money in terms of Compact Disks. If I cut the grass I can buy two albums at the store. In high school it was tanks of gas. In undergrad it was cases of beer. In grad school is was pounds of coffee. As a parent it is packs of diapers, and I am eagerly awaiting what is going to be the next standard of measurement. Money is worth what our culture says it is worth. This system works fine until there is a dramatic cultural shift, for example the subprime housing market in 2008 or the Louisiana Oil Industry in 1985 or the American Economy in 1929 or the German economy after WWI and so on. When there is a dramatic shift in the culture what the culture values can also shift.
Pharaoh sent word to Moses saying, “Take your people and leave.” So the people got up quickly, not waiting for their bread to rise, though the did spend some time plundering the Egyptians on their way out, which will be relative in just a moment, and they set out to cross the Red Sea out into the wilderness to leave from Pharaoh’s mighty oppression (Exodus 12:33-36). They were filled with great devotion to God who loosened the bonds of slavery. Scripture says that they followed a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. In other words their sacrificing to God (a burning altar looks like a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night), their devotion to the Lord led the way through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21).
Even though their devotion to God was ever before them it wasn’t long before they were hungry and there was no food and they were thirsty and there was nothing to drink. The Ancient Israelites are experiencing a radical new way being a people. When there is a radical shift in culture, values can change. They started looking over their shoulder saying, “At least under slavery in Egypt we had food and water. We would rather die in Egypt than die out here” (Exodus 16:3). The riches they plundered from the Egyptians had no value in the middle of the desert. Moses said that the Lord would make it rain bread from heaven, and early in the morning when the dew had burned away the Ancient Israelites saw white, flakey stuff on the ground and said, “Manna,” which means, “What is this?” God had blessed them with “whatever it is” to get them through the day. Moses told the people to gather only what they needed, nothing more. Some gathered plenty, and others gathered little, but for those who gathered more than what they needed, the abundance spoiled. God offers us more than what we need, but there is a fear that even God’s abundance isn’t enough. It is difficult to trust that God can handle the abundance. There is a temptation for me to control the abundance, for me to be in charge of the lagniappe. It’s like God offering me an entire garden, but I have to harvest from all of the trees, even that one tree that God had set aside.
There is a great beauty in gathering enough, but how much is enough? The author of Proverbs 30 offers interesting reflection–“Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8). In other words, this obscure author (his name is Agur, son of Jakeh, but that’s about all I know) is crying out for enough. He doesn’t want too much because he knows that having great wealth tempts us into idolatry, assuming that one is no longer in need of anything or anyone including God. Likewise being caught in the cycle of abject poverty can lead one to a cynical place where mention of God’s goodness seems as believable as having a good night’s rest under an overpass.
C.S. Lewis describes Hell as a place in which one can have too much and not enough at the same time. In Hell you can have anything you can dream up. So, if I want a 100 inch big screen tv, I can have it. The problem is, the guy living next to me can have my tv too should he wish it. Eventually quarreling becomes so terrible that humanity becomes increasingly isolated. Stuff becomes our master. Hell is a place where we can have anything we want, but the stuff of which we dream leaves us lonely, isolated, and depressed. Of course . . . this is fiction . . . right?
How do I know if I have enough? The author of Proverbs 30 offers a clue. He begins by asking for God to “Remove far from me falsehood and lying.” In other words whether we have too much or whether we are in want, the point is to reflect truth: the truth that God makes it rain on the just and unjust, the truth that you cannot serve both God and money, the truth that valuing profit over people is far from God’s heart, the truth that the master invited the poor, the blind, and the lame to the table because the elite were too busy (Luke 14:21), the truth that Christ’s Resurrection changed the rules of the world and we are no longer slaves to the mammon of human hands.
Jesus in Matthew 6 says that you cannot serve two masters. You will either love the first and hate the second or hate the first and love the second. You cannot serve both God and mammon or wealth. Another way to frame it is, “You cannot serve Manna and Mammon.” Saturday morning we held a “Stuff Sale,” putting into practice our commitment to letting go of stuff. Folks would come and start browsing and we would share the normal Saturday morning garage sale conversation (how are you, the weather’s beautiful today, watching the game later), and then we would hand them a card with church information and say, “By the way, everything is already paid for.” Most would stop and look back at you with unbelief. “You mean it’s free?” “Yes, take what you need.” It’s almost if they could not imagine the concept. You cannot serve both God and money and the first step toward that truth is opening up our holy imagination a world in which money is not in charge. Money is necessary. Christ did not say “cut off the hand holding money and throw it into the fire.” Money is a means of making change, and when our imagination is open to the Holy Spirit, change can actually happen.
We re called to let go of Egypt, that comfortable place of slavery, so that our hands are open to the manna God provides. It is neither too little nor too much. It is the grace of God that meets us in the wilderness, the bounty that is offered in sacrifice and shared with each other, which is the pillar of cloud and fire leading the way to the heart of God. Money simply is a means of making change, and if we follow God’s heart change can actually happen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.