One of the most tumultuous debates among monks in the Middle Ages had to do with a divisive hypothetical question – did Jesus have a wallet?
Of course, this is not as stupid a question as it appears to be. If Jesus had carried a wallet, he carried money. If he carried money, then it was good to have it and use it – and have a supply on hand. Jesus’s example would then bless the accumulation of wealth – to do good, of course! And that was the problem: too many monks, and the increasingly powerful rulers of the Church, were saving a bit too much for good works in the future while the poor and weak suffered, starved and died outside their walls! Outraged critics pointed out that Judas carried the money for the twelve, and all Christians knew that his career as a disciple did not go well! The debate shattered the unity of the Franciscan order, and cost a few who lost the debate their lives.
Jesus? I doubt it. He was anything but indifferent or neutral to money – it was not a neutral thing to him. He called it Mammon. He gives it a spiritual identity as an active agent — it has power. It is a false god. It corrupts unwary people. We think we use money, but in the end, money uses us. Jesus loves and favours the poor. He says the rich are sick and need radical spiritual surgery, because God and Mammon are at war.
I had to sit back and think about this. And then I realized that we often talk about money as if it is a sacred object. Money does have power: without it people are powerless, to get it, many sell their souls. Buying and Selling can be spiritually dangerous. Money turns us to worship of objects, away from God.
Sometimes we consent (allow) terrible things to happen because of money. We can even fall in love with it. The rich young ruler walked away from Jesus. Judas sold Jesus for cash.
Attachment to money cannot be justified. God is too jealous to allow us to worship Mammon and say we worship Him at the same time. Frankly, we cannot fight the spiritual power of money alone: Jesus must save us from it.
Usually, God must take it away, and we will hurt. Losing money and living without it can nearly destroy us – except it forces us to focus on and depend on God. We painfully give up on wealth and cling to God. This is what Carol and I learned during the years when both of us were too ill to work, and teaching one course a term did not cover all the bills. God came to us, through His people. We could not have got by on our own. The experience changed us.
And Grace is given without cost. God already has bought us, with a price. This is why only faith, so powerless, so intangible, so real, can save, while money interferes with our faith. Mammon promises salvation. But Mammon is a liar. And the rich hate the poor. But three kings came to Jesus when He was poor and gave rich gifts. We call them the Wise men. Why?
So, how do we fight this demon? We mock it, by giving it away. We give, replacing silver with Grace in our lives, remembering that Mammon has a greater master – and Judge. We cancel debts. We make debtors our friends. We pay wages above the minimum market value. We side with humanity against money, we lend without interest. We must never dishonour God by how we get our money. We have been given, so God expects us to give.
Frankly, we need to be wary of our savings, too. If we trust in our stocked-up resources and not in God, we have a real problem! The best savings plan cannot save us from ourselves, if it leads us to forget that God knows what we really need. Seek the Kingdom of God first, believe God is good, and seek His will. And financial worry slips into the background.
And, to test our integrity, we must “profane” or “blaspheme against Mammon”. We give away what the world would have us worship. We show Mammon how little it holds us. Especially by giving it to God!
But I see that these ideas, too, can lead to folly and pride. Luther said that a drunken man will fall off one side of a horse and then, climbing back on, overbalance and fall off the other side. Our giving is not proving anything to God, or to anyone else, as Jesus says when he talks about giving in secret. Do not give anything away unless you can do it freely, with a whole heart. Let no one else (even me!) tell you what or how to give. This rebellion against Mammon is an act of deep personal faith, and, as I said earlier on, something that no one can make into a social or political system, however nobly organized or justified. It is a personal decision made in the presence of Jesus, as His disciple – follower.
And our children? How do we teach them the real value of money? Actually, we probably already have. They are learning from us constantly, and they are not easily fooled. Can we teach them, consciously, that money is useful, but dangerous? Show them from real world examples and our own practices that money has to be given, not hoarded? Teach them that Monopoly is ONLY a game? Give them experience with money, and with giving it away? Show them how money can spoil people, including them?
Teach them a generous spirit! But do not force them to give. Show them that you beware abundance, and know exactly how to deal with it, joyfully!
And we have to pray: for learning to use money is a risky spiritual process. For both children and parents. Learning not to be captured by Mammon is a vital lesson we learn, maybe before Our Lord can teach us greater lessons.