You cannot be a slave of two masters; you will hate one and love the other; you will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
[With these words Jesus continues to teach about the Law of Moses as the Sermon on the Mount continues. He takes some of the most important topics and explains to his disciples, in specific terms, what it means to be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires” (See Day 23)].
This is the first of several scriptures dealing with materialism.
Back in the day…
When I was growing up I heard a lot of preaching about the evils of money. I heard an awful lot about how rich Americans were compared to people in third world countries and how we were hypocrites and didn’t give enough. I remember getting the impression that everyone in the church was probably too rich to get into heaven. They didn’t say it outright, but the implication was there; the seed was planted. It looked pretty hopeless to me, because even though I didn’t think my family was rich, we probably weren’t giving enough to the church to get into heaven. Not rich, but doomed nevertheless. The worst of all possible worlds.
My mom discouraged me from bringing my friends home; she didn’t think our house measured up. All of my friends lived in either tidy little ranch houses in town or ample, well-maintained farm houses that were decorated like those in the magazines and on tv. Our house wasn’t like that. The furniture was from the 1920s and the appliances were from the 1940s. Their houses were warmed with forced air heat; our house had a little gas stove in the dining room and no heat upstairs where we slept. Dad and his friends added the second story to the house and it had cardboard walls. My friends all had real wallboard, modern kitchen appliances, air conditioning, matching furniture, wall to wall carpeting, and lots more. Some even had swimming pools. We did not have a pool; our family had a cistern. None of my friends had cisterns. You can’t swim in a cistern.
My friends’ families went out to eat all the time, took long summer vacations in their expensive campers, and had brand new cars. We had old recycled cars that my dad kept running with duct tape and clamps. We didn’t take vacations. Here’s a picture of me in the house I grew up in – is this what rich looks like? I think not.
Anyway, I didn’t grow up feeling rich and I didn’t feel comfortable with the accusation. Don’t get me wrong. This is no pity party. We weren’t rich but we weren’t poor either. It was more like what is referred to today as an “alternative lifestyle.” I had clothes, toys, plenty to eat, music lessons, stimulating conversation, porch swinging, beautiful sunsets, flowers, fresh air, good dental and medical care, home-grown vegetables, freedom to roam the country roads on my bike, and lots of other good stuff. But I didn’t feel any “rich guilt.” Even as a child I could feel the Holy Spirit take flight when the church used “rich guilt” talk during what is supposed to be a worship experience. It felt wrong.
Today I have a nice new house and some money in the bank. Not a lot, but hopefully enough. If I think about it long enough I can probably muster up some rich guilt. Things have changed for me.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that churches still continue to try to induce “rich guilt.” It is one of the tactics used during their “stewardship programs” where they ask people to give ever increasing amounts of money, based on the assumption that everyone has limitless financial resources and that they are just holding back.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is that I still feel it’s unfair and inappropriate to make people feel guilty or inferior because they don’t or can’t give what the church considers to be appropriate. I know it made my mother feel bad when people kept asking her to give more when she was already giving as much as she could.
Churches do good things and they support worthy causes. But church buildings are of paramount importance to most congregations, along with their salaried pastors and staff. This means that there are expenses – serious expenses. To keep it all going they need to constantly devise ways to make more money, expending time and energy that could be spent on more important things like authentic fellowship, congregational care, mission programs, discipleship, and spiritual growth. Instead of focusing its efforts on truly loving people and encouraging them in the faith, as I think God would like us to do, the church often uses up its “membership”, taking their resources and offering little in return. And where do the poor fit in? I have seen a lot of churches where the poor are treated kindly, but rarely as equals when it comes to decision-making.
Churches need to give up their corporate ways, trust in God to provide the necessary resources, and then live within their means. It doesn’t necessarily cost anything to pray, to eat and have fellowship, to have a Bible study, to visit the sick, to encourage one another in the faith, or to sing praises to the Lord. A church doesn’t have to close for lack of finances. It may change – a congregation may not be able to own a building or hire a full-time pastor – but a church will not die if the people love God and love one another. With the help of the Holy Spirit they will make it work if they are committed to one another and to God.
Unfortunately the inverse is not true. There are many very “successful” churches that use, abuse, and neglect their membership. They stay open long after they should have closed, simply because they have the money to keep things going without God’s help.
I don’t think Jesus would care one little bit if all of our church buildings were torn down and all of the full time pastors lost their paychecks. After all, we are talking about the guy whose ministry ultimately resulted in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the elimination of traditional worship practices (animal sacrifice), and the decommissioning of all the temple priests. He chased the money people out of the temple court. That’s the facts. He’s not an institutional church kind of guy.
One way or another there will always be followers of Jesus who want to serve God, not money. They will find each other, meet together, love each other, do good works, grow in the faith, pray together, serve those in need, share the Gospel, testify, and invite others. They will continue to be the church.
I love going to church with a building and pastor and all that. I belong to a great church that lives within its means and opens up its building to the homeless. We support our church financially to the degree that we are able because we want to keep it going. It takes money to keep it going.
I look forward to what churches will look like in a few decades now that most people no longer believe in the deception that giving their money to the church will get them into heaven. Change is in the wind. The church that tries to serve both God and money is on the way out. Because what Jesus says is so very true; like oil and water, God and money just don’t mix.
What does this scripture say to you?