Jesus and Money

We live in a society obsessed with money. In the church we say: Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord. But both in and outside the church we confess: blessed are they who come in the name of silver and gold. By and large people are not measured by what they do or say, but by the amounts of possessions they have. Money is the most important rule in today’s society and the acquisition of it is seen as its highest goal. Some are so taken in by its mere possession that money becomes their secret life: they always think themselves poor and portray themselves as such, but they do this because they simply cannot part with money and become hoarders, avaricious, like the infamous Tartuffe. Others are fascinated by money because it enables them to buy things and show off their acquisitions. Most North Americans seem to fall in that category. Curiously, even though they regard money as the highest goal in life, where the two-income-family has become the norm, they often spend it before they have it, and mortgage their future at a rate never experienced before in modern history.

Money, in short, is seen as the meaning of life: our actions are geared towards that goal, and if we can’t make it by working, perhaps playing the lotteries will do it, or a bit of cheating here and there might help as well. It seems that no institution or person has become immune to the power of a bribe. Nothing seems sacred anymore. Even the CRC’s image has suffered because of their dubious investments which promised a much higher yield on money.

Money is a dangerous thing and a strange substance as well. In the past year or so the money market has gone crazy with the decline of several valuta: the Korean won, the Thailand ringgit, the Indonesian rupiah, the Russian ruble and now the Brazilian real, all have depreciated by enormous percentages compared to the almighty dollar.

In spite of all its drawbacks, money, as a tool to facilitate the commerce between human beings, was and is, nevertheless, an inspired invention, with tremendous potential for both good and evil. That is why, when first invented, it was administered by the priestly class. Today, more than ever, Money makes the world go round and goes around the world with a velocity equal to the speed of light and in torrents unequaled in history: the daily flood amounts to more than One Trillion Dollars. Because of Money the global economy is like a jet plane, fast, comfortable and when it crashes, its fall is also spectacular. And what has all this to do with Jesus?

When Jesus came to earth, forever to retain the status of both God and Human, he could have been a human being of any description, stature, degree and condition; and yet he chose to be poor. The English poet Christopher Harvey said of him in the seventeenth century:

It was Thy Choice, whilst Thou on Earth didst stay, And hadst not whereupon Thy Head to lay.

No wonder that throughout the Middle Ages Jesus is appearing not just as God, but as a pauper. Curiously the fastest growing Protestant movement in Brazil, the so-called Crentes, as the believers are known, preaches the theology of prosperity, which promises material success as well as eternal salvation, a puritan ideology imported from the United States. Compare Schuller and the Crystal Palace. With such a complete reversal of what Jesus portrayed in his life, we do well to investigate the relationship between Jesus and money a bit closer.

I am convinced that Jesus had some basic misgivings about money – just like we do at times- because we all know that wealth and its acquisition makes people do crazy and often dishonest things. “The love of money is the root of all evils,” is Paul’s warning to Timothy and this probably was one reason why Jesus did not like money. If I understand Jesus correctly – and I must admit that this is no easy thing to do, because it means a great degree of self-knowledge – I think that with Jesus there also was a deeper reason, something very personal. I get the impression that Jesus went out of his way to avoid contact with money and was even loath to touch the stuff. Why do I make that assumption? Well, Jesus has a perfect recall of everything, past, present and future and so has perfect insight, hindsight and foresight into everything. We will we recall that his betrayal, his suffering and death was directly associated with money. How would we feel – how would I feel – if I know that money would eventually kill me? Well, I think that this view governed Jesus’ attitude towards money and perhaps even towards economic theory.

I better back this up with some concrete examples, so here are a few. Take the feeding of those thousands: Jesus knows that if these people had gone off to buy bread and fish in the neighbouring stores, the merchants, being good businessmen, would have suddenly increased the prices of these basic food items because of greater demand. The law of supply and demand is certainly not a latter-day invention: it has existed as long as people have traded. That’s what economics is all about: charge high when everybody needs it. It happened in Ontario and Quebec with the prolonged blackout during the ice storm: the few candles available tripled in price overnight in the disaster areas. So what did Jesus do to forestall this price-gouging? He simply by-passed the economic law of supply and demand and created bread and fish ex nihilo- out of nothing- well, almost out of nothing.

Then there is that so uncharacteristic incident where Jesus almost went berserk when he chased the money changers out of the temple, upsetting much more than the tables. After all having these business people do their work in the temple was an age-old tradition and necessary to keep the Jewish house of worship functioning properly because only certain kinds of money were accepted in the temple. And how else to get the proper animals for sacrifice? I think it was money and its abuses that made Jesus so angry. Another, more indirect, indication: I find it curious that Judas, the unredeemed among the saints, carried the purse and handled the finances: Judas, who loved money more than Jesus. In the end he ended up with thirty pieces of silver and then discovered that money as an idol wants our very lives. In that sense we are much closer to Judas than to Jesus. With ‘we’ I include all people in the over rich West. Also to me a tip-off was Jesus’ great disdain for the nominal value of currency, evident when Mary spent perhaps a year’s income on that precious oil. “So what,” Jesus remarked, “so what if such a large sum was spent. It is only money.” Or consider the occasion when Peter was asked if Jesus would pay the temple tax. “Of course,” is Peter’s immediate reaction, “of course Jesus pays.”

But for Jesus this was not such a straightforward matter. Why this reluctance to pay the temple tax? Well, I have my theory about this. I think Jesus knew that perhaps this very money given to the temple was going to buy his life and ensure his death.

And then, in an ironic twist, with almost a touch of black humor, Jesus shrugs his shoulders and says: “OK, not important. Let me not major in minors. Go to the lake, catch a fish and there you’ll find a silver coin enough for the both of us.” I like that. Jesus is never skimpy. And, of course, with this gesture, he shows that all the fish in the sea and- by implication- the cattle upon a thousand hills, are his. Here we see Jesus’ royalty coming through. Queen Elizabeth never carries a wallet. Wherever she goes on an official visit, she goes free. Jesus is the same and much more so. Here he shows that he is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, but people do not recognize him that way.

More. That familiar encounter with the Pharisees who were out to trick him. They asked Jesus whether Jews should pay the Roman head-tax. The story is well known. Jesus calls for a denarius (No, he does not carry money on him) and asks; “Whose image?” They dutifully answer, “Caesar’s.” Jesus replies: “Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God the things that are God’s.”

Here is a story we have grown up with in the church. On it we have based the separation of church and state and have interpreted this to mean that there are two important divisions in society: God and the State. Well, we live in times where all automatic responses need to be questioned, so let me try another angle. In the first place Tiberius, the then emperor, could not possibly have owned the coin anymore than the heirs of George Washington or Queen Elizabeth have the legal right to the bank notes which carry their image. In his compact answer Jesus touches upon two important segments of society: the political-economic reality represented by Caesar and money on the one hand, and the eternal as expressed in the Kingdom of God on the other. He implies in the political part that, no, he would not support an armed revolt or even passive resistance to Rome, and in the economic sector he asserts that the tax and the coins themselves are simply a human device and that all of life, including money, is a matter of faith. That the latter is true, is evident from the many devaluations the world has witnessed in the past year, with the Indonesian rupiah losing 80 percent of its value. In essence Jesus implies that the value of money is sheer fiction. The only matter that counts is the eternal – God’s kingdom- which is at hand.

So here is a curious twist in the historical explanation of this incident. Where Jesus, by his life and in this particular instance proclaims an almost puritanical and revolutionary renunciation of the world of money, today we explain this passage to mean exactly the opposite. Where Jesus saw only the Kingdom – which includes all things, also money – as the dominant factor of his life and his followers, and money at best a minor player, today, based on this very text we believe that there are two realms of equal importance: Caesar, the State, represented by taxes- money – and the Church, in charge of the sacred. Here we are face to face with a dilemma: where Jesus abhorred money by all indications because it contributed to this death, we adore it. Where Jesus lived without money, our lives are centered around it. Jesus once made a radical statement: “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” In our Western world everything is about money: the stock market, the strength of the dollar, the price of gold, three items mentioned in almost every newscast. Let’s not kid ourselves: Mammon is God, the Dollar is King in the world and its possession a holy grail. We now put a price tag on everything. First on Jesus – 30 pieces of silver – and now also on the rest of creation: the woods are paved, the mountains mined, the seas eaten, species eliminated: all because of money. We all participate in that criminal act. Jesus was sold for the price of a slave: we are selling creation to serve us as a slave. We, as 6 percent of the world’s population cause 40 percent of the world’s pollution, in perfect accordance with the aims of Capitalism which defines itself as Creative Destruction. I am more and more inclined to think that Capitalism and its exponent, the global money economy, is the Anti-Christ. I know, that is a strong statement, but I think that’s why Jesus feared money because he foresaw how destructive it would be for him, for his creation and for us. He died so that we too could be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than we can ever live in a money society. If we want to share in that life then we must regain a new sense of value; we must reset our priorities to have our treasures expressed not in money but in love, in genuine compassion for all God’s creatures, humans, animals, trees, flowers, air, water. God so loved the cosmos…. (John 3:16).

We live in a society obsessed with money. In the church we say: Blessed are they who come in the name of the Lord. But both in and outside the church we confess: blessed are they who come in the name of silver and gold. By and large people are not measured by what they do or say, but by the amounts of possessions they have. Money is the most important rule in today’s society and the acquisition of it is seen as its highest goal. Some are so taken in by its mere possession that money becomes their secret life: they always think themselves poor and portray themselves as such, but they do this because they simply cannot part with money and become hoarders, avaricious, like the infamous Tartuffe. Others are fascinated by money because it enables them to buy things and show off their acquisitions. Most North Americans seem to fall in that category. Curiously, even though they regard money as the highest goal in life, where the two-income-family has become the norm, they often spend it before they have it, and mortgage their future at a rate never experienced before in modern history.

Money, in short, is seen as the meaning of life: our actions are geared towards that goal, and if we can’t make it by working, perhaps playing the lotteries will do it, or a bit of cheating here and there might help as well. It seems that no institution or person has become immune to the power of a bribe. Nothing seems sacred anymore. Even the CRC’s image has suffered because of their dubious investments which promised a much higher yield on money.

Money is a dangerous thing and a strange substance as well. In the past year or so the money market has gone crazy with the decline of several valuta: the Korean won, the Thailand ringgit, the Indonesian rupiah, the Russian ruble and now the Brazilian real, all have depreciated by enormous percentages compared to the almighty dollar.

In spite of all its drawbacks, money, as a tool to facilitate the commerce between human beings, was and is, nevertheless, an inspired invention, with tremendous potential for both good and evil. That is why, when first invented, it was administered by the priestly class. Today, more than ever, Money makes the world go round and goes around the world with a velocity equal to the speed of light and in torrents unequaled in history: the daily flood amounts to more than One Trillion Dollars. Because of Money the global economy is like a jet plane, fast, comfortable and when it crashes, its fall is also spectacular. And what has all this to do with Jesus?

When Jesus came to earth, forever to retain the status of both God and Human, he could have been a human being of any description, stature, degree and condition; and yet he chose to be poor. The English poet Christopher Harvey said of him in the seventeenth century:

It was Thy Choice, whilst Thou on Earth didst stay, And hadst not whereupon Thy Head to lay.

No wonder that throughout the Middle Ages Jesus is appearing not just as God, but as a pauper. Curiously the fastest growing Protestant movement in Brazil, the so-called Crentes, as the believers are known, preaches the theology of prosperity, which promises material success as well as eternal salvation, a puritan ideology imported from the United States. Compare Schuller and the Crystal Palace. With such a complete reversal of what Jesus portrayed in his life, we do well to investigate the relationship between Jesus and money a bit closer.

I am convinced that Jesus had some basic misgivings about money – just like we do at times- because we all know that wealth and its acquisition makes people do crazy and often dishonest things. “The love of money is the root of all evils,” is Paul’s warning to Timothy and this probably was one reason why Jesus did not like money. If I understand Jesus correctly – and I must admit that this is no easy thing to do, because it means a great degree of self-knowledge – I think that with Jesus there also was a deeper reason, something very personal. I get the impression that Jesus went out of his way to avoid contact with money and was even loath to touch the stuff. Why do I make that assumption? Well, Jesus has a perfect recall of everything, past, present and future and so has perfect insight, hindsight and foresight into everything. We will we recall that his betrayal, his suffering and death was directly associated with money. How would we feel – how would I feel – if I know that money would eventually kill me? Well, I think that this view governed Jesus’ attitude towards money and perhaps even towards economic theory.

I better back this up with some concrete examples, so here are a few. Take the feeding of those thousands: Jesus knows that if these people had gone off to buy bread and fish in the neighbouring stores, the merchants, being good businessmen, would have suddenly increased the prices of these basic food items because of greater demand. The law of supply and demand is certainly not a latter-day invention: it has existed as long as people have traded. That’s what economics is all about: charge high when everybody needs it. It happened in Ontario and Quebec with the prolonged blackout during the ice storm: the few candles available tripled in price overnight in the disaster areas. So what did Jesus do to forestall this price-gouging? He simply by-passed the economic law of supply and demand and created bread and fish ex nihilo- out of nothing- well, almost out of nothing.

Then there is that so uncharacteristic incident where Jesus almost went berserk when he chased the money changers out of the temple, upsetting much more than the tables. After all having these business people do their work in the temple was an age-old tradition and necessary to keep the Jewish house of worship functioning properly because only certain kinds of money were accepted in the temple. And how else to get the proper animals for sacrifice? I think it was money and its abuses that made Jesus so angry. Another, more indirect, indication: I find it curious that Judas, the unredeemed among the saints, carried the purse and handled the finances: Judas, who loved money more than Jesus. In the end he ended up with thirty pieces of silver and then discovered that money as an idol wants our very lives. In that sense we are much closer to Judas than to Jesus. With ‘we’ I include all people in the over rich West. Also to me a tip-off was Jesus’ great disdain for the nominal value of currency, evident when Mary spent perhaps a year’s income on that precious oil. “So what,” Jesus remarked, “so what if such a large sum was spent. It is only money.” Or consider the occasion when Peter was asked if Jesus would pay the temple tax. “Of course,” is Peter’s immediate reaction, “of course Jesus pays.”

But for Jesus this was not such a straightforward matter. Why this reluctance to pay the temple tax? Well, I have my theory about this. I think Jesus knew that perhaps this very money given to the temple was going to buy his life and ensure his death.

And then, in an ironic twist, with almost a touch of black humor, Jesus shrugs his shoulders and says: “OK, not important. Let me not major in minors. Go to the lake, catch a fish and there you’ll find a silver coin enough for the both of us.” I like that. Jesus is never skimpy. And, of course, with this gesture, he shows that all the fish in the sea and- by implication- the cattle upon a thousand hills, are his. Here we see Jesus’ royalty coming through. Queen Elizabeth never carries a wallet. Wherever she goes on an official visit, she goes free. Jesus is the same and much more so. Here he shows that he is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, but people do not recognize him that way.

More. That familiar encounter with the Pharisees who were out to trick him. They asked Jesus whether Jews should pay the Roman head-tax. The story is well known. Jesus calls for a denarius (No, he does not carry money on him) and asks; “Whose image?” They dutifully answer, “Caesar’s.” Jesus replies: “Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God the things that are God’s.”

Here is a story we have grown up with in the church. On it we have based the separation of church and state and have interpreted this to mean that there are two important divisions in society: God and the State. Well, we live in times where all automatic responses need to be questioned, so let me try another angle. In the first place Tiberius, the then emperor, could not possibly have owned the coin anymore than the heirs of George Washington or Queen Elizabeth have the legal right to the bank notes which carry their image. In his compact answer Jesus touches upon two important segments of society: the political-economic reality represented by Caesar and money on the one hand, and the eternal as expressed in the Kingdom of God on the other. He implies in the political part that, no, he would not support an armed revolt or even passive resistance to Rome, and in the economic sector he asserts that the tax and the coins themselves are simply a human device and that all of life, including money, is a matter of faith. That the latter is true, is evident from the many devaluations the world has witnessed in the past year, with the Indonesian rupiah losing 80 percent of its value. In essence Jesus implies that the value of money is sheer fiction. The only matter that counts is the eternal – God’s kingdom- which is at hand.

So here is a curious twist in the historical explanation of this incident. Where Jesus, by his life and in this particular instance proclaims an almost puritanical and revolutionary renunciation of the world of money, today we explain this passage to mean exactly the opposite. Where Jesus saw only the Kingdom – which includes all things, also money – as the dominant factor of his life and his followers, and money at best a minor player, today, based on this very text we believe that there are two realms of equal importance: Caesar, the State, represented by taxes- money – and the Church, in charge of the sacred. Here we are face to face with a dilemma: where Jesus abhorred money by all indications because it contributed to this death, we adore it. Where Jesus lived without money, our lives are centered around it. Jesus once made a radical statement: “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” In our Western world everything is about money: the stock market, the strength of the dollar, the price of gold, three items mentioned in almost every newscast. Let’s not kid ourselves: Mammon is God, the Dollar is King in the world and its possession a holy grail. We now put a price tag on everything. First on Jesus – 30 pieces of silver – and now also on the rest of creation: the woods are paved, the mountains mined, the seas eaten, species eliminated: all because of money. We all participate in that criminal act. Jesus was sold for the price of a slave: we are selling creation to serve us as a slave. We, as 6 percent of the world’s population cause 40 percent of the world’s pollution, in perfect accordance with the aims of Capitalism which defines itself as Creative Destruction. I am more and more inclined to think that Capitalism and its exponent, the global money economy, is the Anti-Christ. I know, that is a strong statement, but I think that’s why Jesus feared money because he foresaw how destructive it would be for him, for his creation and for us. He died so that we too could be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than we can ever live in a money society. If we want to share in that life then we must regain a new sense of value; we must reset our priorities to have our treasures expressed not in money but in love, in genuine compassion for all God’s creatures, humans, animals, trees, flowers, air, water. God so loved the cosmos…. (John 3:16).

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