A sermon on money in the book of Proverbs by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 10 June 2018.
Money has to be one of the cleverest inventions ever. Maybe not as clever as the wheel. Maybe not as clever as the five bladed razor blade. But still very, very clever. Before we had money, we traded things by barter. You had grain and I wanted some. I had tomatoes and you wanted them. So we traded. I got what I wanted and you got what you wanted and we were both happy.
This barter system works really well, unless I don’t have anything that you want. I still want your grain. But you don’t want my tomatoes. You don’t want my cow. You don’t even want my Harley Davidson motorcycle. How can I get any grain from you if you don’t want anything I have? What we need, what we all need, is something that everyone wants.
And so people invented money. For thousands of years it was small disks of metal. Copper, silver or gold. Coins. It was perfect. Who would not want a small disk of metal? Who would not want a whole pocket full, a whole bag full, a whole box full of small disks of metal? Why with a box full of small disks of metal you could make a, well you could make a suit of armour and a sword and a shield, or a lovely necklace or a ring for each finger, or um … Well, look, it’s not important what you can make out of lots and lots of small disks of metal. The important thing is that everyone wants them. And if everyone wants them, a bag of small disks of metal can buy you everything you need. Shelter. Clothes. Food. Transportation. Tools. Chocolate. Everything you absolutely need. It’s like magic, all created by the dream of wanting small disks of metal.
The problem with money is that to be honest, it isn’t real. And people can lose themselves chasing the dream, the illusion of owning lots and lots of small disks of metal. Or paper notes. Or a huge credit limit. Or electronic numbers in our online deposit accounts. In this way money becomes not an easy means of trading, of getting the things we need and want, but it becomes a way of creating security or of building power or of keeping score.
Money can even become a kind of obsession, an insatiable hunger that ultimately leads not to happiness but to overwhelming misery. Studies have shown, for example, that most people would be happy if they had 10% more money than they already have. So they get 10% more and then they want 10% more than that. And at that rate they will never be happy.
Today we are looking at what the book of Proverbs says about money. The premise behind the book of Proverbs is that faith affects everything we do. Proverbs teaches that wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, with the obedience that comes from trusting him. But wisdom continues by applying that relationship of faith to every corner of our life. And that includes money. How we feel about money. What we do with our money. And the three core values about money that Proverbs teaches are generosity, self-reliance and contentment.
Let’s look firstly at generosity. Proverbs chapter 11 verse 25 says
“A generous man will prosper, he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.”
At first sight this seems against common sense. Common sense suggests that the more you give the less you will have. If I have two dollars and I give one to you, simple arithmetic will tell you that I’ve only got one dollar left. I have less than I started with.
But the book of Proverbs observes that generous people tend to end up with more not less. People are generous to generous people, and the Lord rewards them too so they can be even more generous. God gives to givers. As the proverb said, “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” Or as we might put it, “What goes around, comes around.”
The question this raises, though, is: is this a good reason to be generous? Should we give to others in order to end up with more than we started with? Well, the answer is that, no, we probably shouldn’t. The real motive for generosity is helping someone in need. And at many times the book of Proverbs appeals to us to help the poor. Proverbs chapter 14 says,
“He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God.”
Proverbs chapter 29 says,
“The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”
Generosity does not aim to be rewarded but to help the needy. In the same way that an archer doesn’t aim his bow and arrow at the trophy, but aims at the bulls eye. But an archer that aims at the bulls eye and hits it consistently shouldn’t be surprised if he wins the trophy. In the same way a generous person will be rewarded with other people being generous back. It’s nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about. Feeling guilty about people being generous back is like feeling guilty because helping people makes you feel good. God has made us to love and to want to be loved. So of course helping people is going to make us feel good. I don’t do it in order to feel good. I do it because my help is needed. But I’m not going to be surprised or feel ashamed if helping people makes me feel good. We naturally want to be generous to those who are generous to us. So giving to others means that one day we will get it back.
What wisdom does is to see the connection. Giving means I will get it back. And then wisdom uses that observation to teach us that giving is not an expense. Generosity looks like a cost. It looks like a debit on our bank account. The stingy person, the person who never gives, the person who locks up their heart and refuses to see the needs of others, thinks of giving like throwing their money away. Never to be seen again. But it isn’t. Giving is an investment. Giving is an investment in people. Giving is an investment in our community. Giving is an investment in the love of God and in his purposes for the world. And one day we will receive a return on that investment. Proverbs chapter 19 says,
“He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and the Lord will reward him for what he has done.”
Because however much we lend to the Lord, he always pays back his debts.
The Proverbs teach us generosity. But they also teach us self-reliance. We are meant to help the poor, to feel sorry for them. But we aren’t meant to be jealous of them or want to be one of them. Proverbs chapter 10 says,
“The wealth of the rich is their fortified city, but poverty is the ruin of the poor.”
It’s a simple observation. It doesn’t carry any moral judgment about wealth and poverty. But it is still generally true. People who are poor are living at the edge of existence. They might have enough to get by, but it only takes a small shock to push them over the edge. Losing a job. Getting sick. Having to look after an aged parent or a disabled child. Something as simple as losing a license or a car breaking down can be the last straw that leads to homelessness or worse. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe in a just and fair world no one would be hurt by these sorts of things. So maybe it shouldn’t happen. But “shouldn’t” doesn’t pay the bills for you. Poverty may not be the cause of their ruin, but it creates the environment in which ruin can easily happen.
Wealth, on the other hand, is like being wrapped up in bubble wrap, creating a cushion to absorb a sudden shock. A car breaking down is easily fixed. Losing a license can be solved by hiring a taxi. Getting sick might mean having to wait a whole week to see a specialist. And losing a job might be like taking a well-deserved holiday. As the proverbs said, “wealth is like a fortified city.” It is like a city with thick walls that go up high to protect the citizens within from the invading enemy. It is like a bullet proof vest that absorbs the shock of an unexpected disaster.
Because of this the Proverbs teach us to be self-reliant. To avoid poverty and to look after ourselves by working hard and not spending too much. Proverbs chapter 10 says,
“Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.”
Proverbs chapter 23 says,
“Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.”
Self-reliance means not only working hard to take care of yourself and of those who depend on you to provide them with the necessities of life and to not be a burden to anyone else and to be able to help those who can’t help themselves. But it also means avoiding the common pitfalls of living beyond your means. Like borrowing money to go on a holiday or to pay for a wedding or to buy a television. Or like taking out a new credit card to pay off an old one. Debt is a good thing if you can use it to buy an asset that will increase in value like a home or to expand a business. But there is a limit.
This for example looks like a credit card because it is a credit card. But it is a mistake to think of it as a source of credit, a way of borrowing money to buy things now and to pay off later. Think of this as cash. Think of this as a convenient way of spending money you already have. If you can’t pay off your credit card at the end of the month then you are living beyond your means. To get back on track you need to change your whole life and that change needs to start by destroying all your credit cards.
Proverbs chapter 22 warns of the danger of debt when it says,
“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.”
Do not become a slave to the bank by controlling your debt.
Because being poor is no fun at all, the Proverbs encourage us to be self-reliant. To look after ourselves. But they are also not blind to the dangers of wealth and continually remind us of the things that are better than money.
Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil.
Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.
Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.
Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.
It is better to be poor than a liar.
A good name is more desirable than great riches.
These are the things that money can’t buy. A relationship with God. Love. Righteousness. Peace. Honesty. A good reputation. You can’t trade in your stock market portfolio for them. You can’t order them over the internet with your credit card. You can’t get a loan from the bank to invest in them. You can have all the money in the world, you can have a triple A credit rating with Standard and Poors, you can spend all day watching the value of your shares go up and down and round and round, but if your life lack these things, if you have failed to invest your life and your time in acquiring them you are still poor. Very few people are comforted on their death beds by thinking about how much money they have made. It is at times like that that they mind turns to more important things. Like family and friends.
As Francis Bacon said, “Money is a good servant but a bad master.” Money can help us get all sorts of things that we need and want. But money is a cruel master if it rules our lives. And so the Proverbs teach us to be content with what we have. Like in one of my all time favourite proverbs in chapter 30.
“Two things I ask of you, O LORD; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.”
Poverty and riches. Both of them possess their dangers, their hidden temptations and pitfalls. Both of them can lead us into sin. Poverty may make us steal and loot and burn and destroy. But riches may do even worse and steal our hearts so that money becomes our god. “You cannot serve two masters,” Jesus said, “because you will love one and hate the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” So you must choose which one of them you will serve. Small disks of metal or the living God. Because the love of one of them is a root of all kinds of evil. Greed. Stealing. Looting. Lying. And murder. The other is the creator of heaven and earth. So choose wisely.