Sermon 49



Don’t Love Your Money

James 5:1

October 11, 2009


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today let’s think about money – and what the Bible has to say about it. I know we would rather talk about our underwear! – than about our money. But the Bible won’t let us off the hook. So what do we learn when we listen to the Biblical teachings on money?


Two Ditches

The first thing we learn is that there are two common errors we regularly make regarding our wealth and possessions which we need to avoid. The first is that money is evil – and because of that the best thing we can do is take vows of poverty and foreswear all wealth and property. But nowhere in the Bible are we told to do that. No wonder, then, that God made Isaac exceedingly rich (Genesis 26:13) and made the rich Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) and Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60) disciples of our Lord Jesus. This would never have happened if the Bible thought that money was so evil. And neither would we thank God at the Eucharist “for our selves, our time and our possessions,” if money itself was such a blight on us [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) pp. 67, 87, 108].

     But this doesn’t mean that money is benign and that we don’t have to worry about it. If that were the case we would never have words like these in the Bible, from James 5:1-3:


Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire.


Like fire? – that’s hardly benign! And those cries of misery aren’t benign either. From this we learn unequivocally that wealth can inflict real damage on us – the same rot and rust Jesus warned us about (Matthew 6:19). So our second error or ditch into which we can fall is when we underestimate money by imagining that it would never harm us at all. But that’s just not true – or at least so the Bible says. Money can make fools out of us (Luke 12:20-21)!


Slamming that Door Shut

And when it does, what’s all that weeping and wailing about? What exactly is the nature of the damage that money inflicts on us (Luther’s Works 14:305, 345)? This is explained in the Biblical image about the camel and the eye of the needle (Matthew 19:23-25):


And Jesus said... “It will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?”


So the damage couldn’t be any greater! For in this passage we move from difficulty to forthright impossibility. So money keeps us from getting into heaven. And nothing could be worse than that! For in this passage we’re hearing the door slamming shut on us into heaven – the same door that terrorized the five foolish maidens who missed the heavenly marriage feast (Matthew 25:10). Money can do that to us. It can send us away dejected (Matthew 19:22). It can rob us of the heavenly joys we so desperately long for.


Loving Money

But how is that possible? How does money keep us from getting into heaven? How can money slam that door on heaven for us? If money isn’t in and of itself evil, then how does it have such a deleterious effect on us? 1 Timothy 6:9-10 explains:


Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.


Ouch! – what a blistering Bible passage that is. Can you imagine these words being foisted on the financial centers of American or on Wall Street? These words don’t so much condemn the vast accumulation of wealth as they do the earlier, simpler, and more benign appearing temptations to bring in such great wealth! Just think of it – it’s only the temptation that’s dangerous! Now why is that?

     It’s because we’re tempted to love this great wealth. And when we end up loving our cash, or even the thought of having it, our souls rot. What profit is it, then, if we gain “the whole world” and lose our souls (Matthew 16:23)? We run that risk because we cannot love with impunity. That’s because loving is dangerous – and precisely so when we adore what’s inappropriate. For instance, loving the world is bad for us (1 John 2:15), as is loving our very selves (John 12:25). And the same goes for idols (Hosea 13:2; 1 Corinthians 8:1). This is because when we love such things, our love shuts us down. So loving in and of it self isn’t always good. When we love the wrong thing, we no longer can love God and our neighbors as we should (Matthew 22:36-40). That’s because our love of such things leaves us self-absorbed. And in that self-indulgence there is spiritual, psychological, and emotional death.

     But if we use our money – and don’t let it master us (LW 21:192), then we’re safe. That’s because it’s precisely in the loving of our money that we are endangered. And that only happens when money masters us because we have degenerated into loving it. For the money itself can’t hurt us – it’s only our love of it that does. So use your money but don’t love it or let it use you. Don’t find your worth in how much money you have. Don’t think it’ll keep you safe (LW 51:139). Don’t feel good about yourselves just because you have thousands in savings and a fist-full of twenty dollar bills in your pocket. Luther further explains this key distinction:


To give up tangible things for words and the Scripture is truly a big order. And people do not do this unless they have died to all material things, at least in their feelings, even though in practice they still use them out of necessity rather than willingly. These are the Christians who have heard the statement of their Teacher: “Whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33). They are “those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Corinthians 7:31), and they do good works as though they were not doing them. For they do all of these things to God, whom they serve in all of these matters, seeking nothing of their own in them (LW 25:516).


So on this corrected view, wealth only has instrumental value. We have money to get things done and not to make us happy. Money isn’t a therapy for us. It’s a tool to be used – and nothing more.


The Protestant Work Ethic

But we regularly twist this simple distinction all around between the love of money and its utilitarian use. One of the worst distortions of this is in what became known as the Protestant work ethic. This was formulated by Max Weber, in his celebrated book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), to explain why so many Christians felt driven to work so hard and earn large sums of money. They did this, Weber argues, in order to find out who were going to heaven. The idea was that only the predestined were going to be saved (Romans 8:29-30), but knowing whom God had picked to go to heaven was impossible. So to escape from this ignorance, it was theorized that God would bless with earthly wealth those whom he had picked for heavenly bliss.

     But it couldn’t be left just at that. These Christians didn’t just sit around waiting to see if a windfall of earthly wealth would come their way. No, they had to force God’s hand instead, and build up wealth as quickly as possible to prove that they were going to heaven and that God would have to love them – precisely because they were rich. So predestination was turned on its head, and rather than it being God electing whomever he pleased, we did it for ourselves. So why not love wealth if it’s your ticket into heaven?!


Winning Big

No wonder, then, that so many of us hope to win the lottery – thinking that if we do, all of our problems will be solved – to say nothing of the threats of hell. That longing runs deeply in us all. I remember that feeling when my wonderful father-in-law, William M. Harty, Sr. (1920-2002) – God rest his soul – gave us an envelop with twelve post-dated checks in it for a $100 each, one for each month of the year, to help us through our sparse student days back in the middle 1970s in Minnesota. He did this because earlier he had said that sometimes the difference between a good time and a bad time is just a little cash. That was very sweet, kind and generous of him. And I know he did it with the best of intentions – which was always his way. But this gift made too much of money – linking it too closely to happiness. But we all do this anyway. Even though the New Testament tells us that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15), we still think it does! And so we hope, and sometimes even scheme, for abundance and winning big. No wonder, then, that Luther, in his Large Catechism (1529) calls “money and possessions” the most common idols on earth [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 365]. And our deep longing to win the lottery only shows that this is so.

     Therefore even though our government-run lotteries say that it’s good for us to play them (see Shayne Jones, Lottery-Winner’s Guide, 2006), the facts don’t clearly support that advice – to say nothing of the Biblical teachings themselves against gambling (Exodus 20:17; Psalm 146:3; Proverbs 13:11; Matthew 7:12). Again and again in the sociological studies we hear about lives destroyed by winning big (“Powerball Winner Says He’s Cursed,” ABC News 20/20, April 6, 2007; Keith Morelli, “Winning Lotto Numbers Not Always the Ticket to Dreams or Success,” Tampa Tribune, October 1, 2009). Huge windfalls end up ruining our families and friends – because they get mad at us for not giving them as much money as they want. And then the winning goes to our heads, as well, and we think we are lucky by nature, because we’ve won the lottery against huge odds, and so we gamble everything away – confident that we’ll eventually win again if only we keep at it – being lucky by nature now. No wonder President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) long ago warned that “the get-rich-quick theory of life” will destroy our country [The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. H. W. Brands (2001) p. 615].


Saving Our Money

When you love your money you go wild over it – as can be seen in such cases of compulsive gambling. You end up living beyond your means. This we usually do by borrowing money to keep up our spending habits – which we so dearly love. It’s all part of loving money – which we must not forget is the curse. For loving your money is what gets you off on the wrong foot to begin with.

     Now what can we do about this penchant of ours? One thing we can do is pit savings accounts against our wonton use of money. Saving money used to be a virtue in America – even being taught in our public schools on bank day, of all things (see Tony LeVene, The Money-Saving Handbook, 2008). Now over-spending our credit cards is the way to go. But savings accounts can break our love for money and living beyond our means. And those accounts are also good for the larger economy by providing money for building projects and the like, which banks lend out to get the jobs done. So breaking the hold that the love of money has on us, does more than just keeping the doors of heaven from being slammed shut on us.


Draw Near to God

But even so, we still falter. The good that we would do, we don’t do, and the evil we would just as soon avoid, we end up doing (Romans 7:19). Nasty! How wretched of us! What a sorry state of affairs our lives are. Does this mean, then, that we’re finished? Are we written off? Will our wild love for money send us straight to hell? Well, not if James 4:8 has its way with us. There we’re told to draw near to God and he will draw near to us. But how so?

     Drawing near to God is not some mystical feat, suitable only for the spiritually high-minded. No, it’s not a matter of communing with God on the basis of our intrinsic value. No, it instead has to do with thanksgiving and repentance – which are quite the opposite.

     Thanksgiving. First we draw near to God by thanking him for his goodness and mercy toward us. Regardless of what we have and what we enjoy (Job 1:21; Ephesians 5:20), we thank God for his mercy and goodness. For even what we in fact have, also comes from God himself and not us – so he is to be thanked on that score as well. For Deuteronomy 8:17 warns us not to say that we have made our money by virtue of our own “power and might.” No, never. Just think of it. You might suppose that your wealth has come due to your intelligence and diligence, but think again. Where would you be without your health? And where would you be without the opportunities you have been given to earn your living? Much of that comes by luck, we say – which isn’t anything but a secular term for God’s grace (Wayne E. Oates, Luck: A Secular Faith, 1995). So let thanksgiving reign – and you’ll be drawn close to God. Let Luther’s theory of blessing control your thoughts – and you’ll again be drawn in close to God (LW 21:208):


The formula for good fortune and blessing should be: “Not by my seeking, but by His generosity; not by finding, but by chance.”


Being grateful, therefore, is a humbling experience. No wonder, then, that it’s supposed to control us (1 Thessalonians 5:18)!

     Repenting. But when we draw near to God to thank him and submit to his will, our sinfulness is also exposed by his radiant holiness and glory. In this startling contrast we are driven to repent of the wrong we have done. Some of that might be from cheating to gain our wealth. Luther, again, in the Large Catechism tells us that the most common theft is not done by pick-pockets, but by what he calls “gentlemen swindlers” who charge too much for their goods and services (BC, p. 396). So pray in Jesus’ name that God would forgive you for the wrongs you have done in gaining your wealth – if indeed you’ve been a swindler. And when you do, you’ll move closer to God, for repentance brings joy to heaven (Luke 15:7)!


How God Draws Near to Us

But there’s even more to it than that! We could never draw near to God if he didn’t also draw near to us. And that’s what he does in his dear Son, Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus draws us to God (John 12:32). In his death on the cross, he is the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46) that surpasses all of our wealth (Philippians 3:8). For it is by his blood, shed on the cross, and not with silver or gold (BC, p. 414) – that Jesus saves us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). He is punished in our place that we might be blessed by God – rather than condemned and tortured by him (Revelation 9:5).

     So rejoice in Christ, for he is our salvation. Not our money. Not our love. Not our spiritual efforts. They can’t save us. No, we are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Romans 3:25). This is because through Jesus – and through him alone (Matthew 11:27; Acts 4:12) – God draws close to us. And it’s no surprise that in the sacrament of his Son – the Lord’s Supper itself – he continues to draw near to us. How much closer could he be – eating of the bread and drinking from the cup – which are his very body and blood! “Food of the soul” – Luther calls it (BC, p. 449)! So come to the Altar so that your love for this pearl of great price may grow – a love against which there is no law, but only high delight.


The Command to Give 10%

Now, what better good work could there be for us today than to rejoice in the command of the Lord to tithe. In Deuteronomy 14:22 we’re told to “tithe all the yield of your seed” (Matthew 23:23). This means giving to the church 10% of all that we make (Malachi 3:8-10) – whether through paychecks or investments. But this won’t be easy – just as none of the Christian life is (LW 21:191).

     I remember when my mother taught me how to tithe. My allowance was 50¢ and my tithe was one-tenth of that – a mere 5¢. I remember flicking that nickel into the offering plate so easily, since all I could buy with it was a Sugar Dandy candy bar, but not much more. But when I got my first paycheck as a teenager for $125.00, working as a janitor at a neon sign company, then I clearly didn’t want to give $12.50 to the church! I could buy too many things for myself with that money. So I told my mother I wasn’t going to tithe – but she took my paycheck from me, cashed it herself, took out the tithe for the church, and then gave me the rest. That was that. But even though I now know that the Lord loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7), it’s still tough to tithe all these many years later.

     So when I teach the confirmation class about tithing – I tell them they can’t do it without a budget. So we do that. I tell them their paycheck is $2000. Yippee! they cry, and off they go on a spending spree! But soon they learn about rent payments and the like. Reality sets in. And so does the tithe. The tithe is just the right amount – but we need a budget to make it work, whether it’s easy for us or not.

     So be sure to call on the Lord to help you. Whether you give a full 10% doesn’t matter. All we want is for the Lord to help us love his command to tithe. For through that love we’ll be guarded from the dangers of loving our money. Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)