Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Part 4

People are funny when it comes to money.

I learned this when I started working as a bank teller. Banks are regulated by federal laws, and the people who enforce these regulations in your local bank branch are usually your friendly neighborhood tellers. Most people are ok with the regulations, but about once a day, there was usually one person who didn’t want to show his ID, or expected us to cash a check after she’d forged her husband’s signature in the endorsement (in front of the teller, I might add), or wanted us to not file a CTR.

People want their money and they want it now. Customers expected us to cash checks against accounts that had no money in them or give them money that was still unavailable to them. The unspoken saying among the bank tellers I worked with was “It’s not your money until I give it to you.” Banks might hold customer accounts, but if you look at the fine print when you open that account, you’ll probably read something like this: money in those accounts belongs to the bank until such a time as the customer makes a withdrawal that follows all the rules. In other words, money in your bank account isn’t yours until it’s in your hot little hands.

When it comes to money, we’re funny. We think we possess it, but more often than not, it possesses us. The power of money is really only the power of potential, because money, in itself, can’t do anything. It won’t feed your kids. It won’t get you to work. It won’t clean your dishes. But with money you can buy groceries, a car (or a bus pass), and a dishwasher (or a maid). Money can’t buy happiness, but it has the potential to buy things that will make your life easier and maybe give you a facsimile of happiness. And that is where it possesses us, in its potential to give us more and better happiness.

Why do we get so weird about money? It’s only bits of paper or metal that have been marked as currency. And the whole world is weird about money, lest you think it’s just certain individuals. Think about it this way: Anything that money can buy can usually be made at home with the right tools and resources. You could build your own dishwasher or make your own clothes. You can’t make your own money at home. Let me rephrase that – you can make money at home, with the right tools and ink. Making your own clothes or building a dishwasher won’t get you anything but new clothes or a dishwasher if someone finds out. Making your own money at home is a federal offense that will earn you jail time if someone finds out. I’ve dealt with counterfeit money before, and it gets sent straight to the FBI. All of this fuss happens over something that only has potential

But here’s the thing: even though we are in possession of wads of cash, we don’t own it. It’s not ours. Sider says, “God, the landowner, permits his people to sojourn in his good earth, cultivate it, eat its produce, and enjoy it beauty. But we are only stewards. Stewardship is one of the central theological categories of any biblical understanding of our relationship to the land and economic resources” (Sider 68).

In ancient times, land was capital. But among the ancient Israelites, there was an understanding that only God was the landowner. They could use the land (within reason), but they would never own it.

Here in America, we still value land and trying to own it, but we have traded land as the main currency for money. And God owns all of that, too.

Christians who are normally pretty sane about financial matters can get kind of funny about money in the church. One of the reasons I wanted to do this independent study is because of my experience of what “stewardship” means in the church. Generally, when the topic of stewardship comes up, most churchgoers think of money. I can’t blame them, to be honest. The only time I’ve heard of stewardship in most church settings has been at the beginning of a stewardship campaign – also known as the church’s yearly drive to beg for money from the congregation. Churchgoers have been trained to think of stewardship in financial terms. And so we get a little funny when money is mentioned inside church walls. Those of you who tithe and give offerings get offended because you are being hit up for yet more money, and might be made to feel guilty if you choose not to give more. Those of you who don’t give enough get mad because you’re tired of being hit up for money all the time.

Financial stewardship in the church is pretty simple. In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to tithe:

Leviticus 27:30-32

30 " 'A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD. 31 If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. 32 The entire tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd's rod—will be holy to the LORD.

Malachi 3:10-12

10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty. 12 "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the LORD Almighty.

As has been mentioned in previous posts, the tithe was used to take care of the poor and the Levites:

“Yahweh is the Lord of all, even economics. There is no hint here of a sacred law of supply and demand that operates independently of biblical ethics and the Lordship of Yahweh. The people of God should submit to God, and God demands economic justice among his people” (Sider 68).

Deuteronomy 14:28-29

28 At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Deuteronomy 26:12-15

12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. 13 Then say to the LORD your God: "I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them. 14 I have not eaten any of the sacred portion while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God; I have done everything you commanded me. 15 Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey."

Those of us who follow Christ don’t necessarily have to tithe – but we do have to give, and we have to do it generously and with a grateful heart. Sider says, “The early church continued the pattern of economic sharing practiced by Jesus… Whenever anyone was in need, they shared. Giving surplus to needy brothers and sisters was not enough” (77). Consider this: When asked by spies if they should pay taxes to Caesar, “He [Jesus] said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

When we get funny with money in the church, we are forgetting to give unto God what is God’s - and it’s all God’s.

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