God's Open House

Sunday, November 11, 2018

“Money Talks: The Common Good”

Last week, we started a started a series on money, because money decisions are spiritual decisions. Money, like everything else, is under the domain of God, so we should take some time to look at what God wants us to do with money. Last week we said that money and possessions are gifts from God. They are not our earnings, but God’s blessings. God’s gifts lead us to gratitude and satisfaction, not greed and unhappiness. Today we’re going to build on that. God gives us gifts, and God expects them to bless more than just you. Money and possessions exist for the common good. When you’re thinking about how you use money and possessions, you can’t leave God out of the equation. But you can’t leave your neighbor out of it either.

Every Presbyterian has had that awkward experience praying the Lord’s prayer somewhere else. You’re partway through and you say, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” and you’ve got to wait… “for those who trespass against us.” If you grew up in a different tradition, you might have had the opposite experience when you came here. You’re still praying about trespasses when everyone else is in the “kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” The reason for this is boring. When the original book of Common Prayer for the Church of England was written, they used the William Tyndale translation, but Presbyterians were on the other side of that war and never changed. A few decades later, the King James translation came out, returning to debts, but the Church of England never switched back, and became the dominant form for English-speaking Christians, but Presbyterians and just about every other language still uses the original “debts.”

Still, both debts and trespasses are right there in our reading from Matthew, “forgive us our debts,” and if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will forgive you.” I’m not dying in a trench over either one of these terms. But I like them both better than the more modern translation, “sins.” “Sins” takes something very concrete and practical and turns it spiritual, and that obscures a big point. “Sins” are a theological category, they are between you and God. They take your neighbor out of the equation. But sin doesn’t work like that. Most of our sins against God are sins against our neighbor. They are trespasses and debts. Trespassing is a violation of a boundary—disrespecting your neighbor. Debt is an unequal financial transaction that gives one person power over another. These highlight that the true nature of our sins is that they are against each other. God is easy to get along with. It’s our neighbors that are the problem. When we pray debts or trespasses, we keep our neighbors in mind. This is what God asks us to do about money.

When we use the gifts of God that we’ve received, we’re responsible to our neighbor. The Bible has basic rules about how to treat each other—don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t covet, i.e. don’t desire, strive for, or take what is your neighbor’s by right. But the Bible demands more than just that. It demands that we value the common good over our self-interest. Proverbs 23:10-11 says, “Do not remove an ancient landmark or encroach on the fields of orphans, for their redeemer is strong, he will plead their cause against you.”[1] There are strict limits on charging interest (not at all against a fellow Israelite), how much debt you can take on (debts are forgiven every 7 years, which means nobody can owe or be owed more than that). There are rules about what and when you can harvest (leave the edges, don’t go back twice, don’t harvest during a sabbath year) that are designed to ensure that the poor have access to food and material resources of the community. And when people do not live up to this vision of the common good, the prophets call down God’s wrath on those who hoard property and wealth while their neighbors suffer.

When you hold your neighbor in poverty, they cease to be a viable neighbor. They become slaves (actual slaves, or debt slaves, sharecroppers, etc) or criminals, destitute and vulnerable or desperate and dangerous. And so the Bible tells us to look at our decisions on money and possessions in a way that values the good of the community. We don’t just think about our self-interest. We think about the common interest.

Acts 4 gives us another vision of taking our neighbors into account. In the early Christian community, just after Pentecost, Luke tells us that everyone held their resources in common for the benefit of all. There are lots of debates about this. Did it really happen? Or is this just an idealized picture of early perfection. Is that communism? Or is it just for them? Those are very interesting debates, enjoy them. What I’m more interested in is what it says in Acts 4:34, “There was not a needy person among them.” This is the vision that we have been given for what our resources can do.

Maybe Augustine said it best. He says we should love people and use commodities, and not love commodities and use people.[2] That’s what it means to use our resources for the common good. That’s what it means to keep God in the equation. What does that look like?

It means that when we make decisions about money we have to keep our eye firmly on our neighbors. Be honorable and honest in your financial dealings even when it hurts you. Think about what you buy and who you buy it from, and how that effects your neighbors.

The church does this in hundreds of ways large and small. When we buy palms for Palm Sunday, we use a company called Eco-Palms, that’s committed to sustainably harvesting palm leaves and protecting that resource for years to come. The coffee we serve and sell downstairs is fair trade, meaning that we remember that the producer of that coffee is a member of a family, not a number, and the goal of our spending is not just our own flourishing, but that family’s too. Talk to Bev Donofrio, and maybe, just maybe you can get the last bar of fair-trade chocolate sold through our Servv mission fundraiser.

In bigger things, our denomination started divesting in 1981. For almost 40 years, we have tried to put our money where our mouth is on Christian values. What funds the church has (mostly pension funds for pastors, but a few others) are never invested in alcohol, gambling, or tobacco. Closest to my heart, 4 years ago we added for-profit prisons to our list, because proclaiming freedom to the captives as Isaiah and Jesus command us while profiting off of jailing them is a conflict of interest. All of these things are attempts, large and small, to hold ourselves accountable to our neighbors for what we do with our money.

Author Lauri Gwilt tells the story of a man named David in Nebraska.[3] Before he was born, his family’s farm had been split and willed to a distant relative. In 2011, they discovered it would be coming up for auction in a few weeks. They did everything they could to scrape up as much money as they could to buy it back and restore the farm. But in spite of all their hard work, they knew they had a slim chance of success. Still, they came up with their best number, and figured they’d give it their best shot.

When they arrived at the auction, their hearts sunk. The place was packed with people with much deeper pockets than theirs. When their auction convened, the auctioneer called for the first bid, they called out their number and held their breaths. The auctioneer called for a second bid, and there was nothing but silence in the room. After trying to get another bid, the auctioneer called for a break and then return. Still no bids. Three times they took breaks, before the auctioneer was forced to award them the winning bid. I see that as a beautiful story of how that Biblical Jubilee can happen in modern life. The other farmers chose to value their neighbor over their profit, restoring their ancestral lands to them.

I’m not sure if this is a true story or not. It comes from one of those viral good news sites, which are notoriously bad at fact-checking. So I have serious doubts about whether or not this happened.

But I have no doubts, that if we decide in our financial lives and in our spiritual lives to keep our neighbors needs in mind. If we do not try to remove God or our neighbor from the equation, but instead recognize that we are accountable to both, then it could happen. And that is what we pray for, every time we say, “debts.”


[1] Similar rules about maintaining good boundaries are found in Deuteronomy 19, 27, Proverbs 22, and Hosea 5.

[2] Brueggemann, Walter. Money and Possessions: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, p. 2. I am heavily indebted to Brueggemann’s book, a part of the Interpretation Series, in which Brueggemann investigates, with a keen eye, scripture’s view of money and resources.

[3] https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/farmers-stay-silent-during-auction-so-young-man-can-win-the-bid-on-his-long-lost-family-farm/