Feb 24, 2011

Money has a power over us

I received a letter from my bank manager asking whether I could meet with him last week. Seeing your bank manager is like taking a trip to the dentist, you’re sure they’re both going to find a big hole and that they will come up with some pretty painful and expensive way to try and fill it.

When you read the gospels you find that Jesus has a surprising amount to say about money. It’s pretty high up on his agenda. But Jesus isn’t primarily concerned to tell us we’ve got too much money or too little, nor to advise us to spend it, save it or even give it away. He focuses in on money to show us that money and our attitude to it reveals  something much more fundamental about ourselves.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus says:

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Jesus wants you and me to recognise that money and the thought of what it might buy us has a certain power over us. One survey in the US asked people what they would do for a million dollars. Forty-two percent said they would be willing to spend time in jail, never see their best friend again, move permanently to a foreign country, or throw their pet off a cliff!

1) We all serve someone

The words are so familiar it’s easy to overlook the big surprise in Jesus’ words.  He doesn’t say you can either serve God or you can go out and have a good time. Jesus insists that your life is a life given in service of a master.

Such an idea runs counter to how we think of ourselves and how we would describe our lives.  We prefer the language of personal freedom. We like to say we’re in control and yet here is Jesus saying, to quote one friend of mine, ‘if you will not let yourself be owned by God you will be owned by something else’.

In describing life as a decision to choose who we will serve, Jesus is saying every human being serves someone or something in the hope that it will bring a reward. The think we serve becomes to use the language of Tim Keller our functional god. It’s the thing that has first place in our hearts, has the greatest call on our time, is the very thing that we are ready to sacrifice for (maybe even our pet for!).

What Jesus shows us in the sermon on the mount is that for many people money is the thing we serve.  Money has a power over us and that means money calls the shots.  It has an authority over our decisions, it dictates our priorities, it rules our hearts and governs our emotions. So much so that we lose sleep when we don’t have enough, no matter how much we have we need more and we are even prepared to hate those who have more than we do.

Psychologist Oliver James’s book Affluenza highlights just what has happened to us as a result of serving money. He writes;

The great majority of people in English-speaking nations (Britain, America, Australia, Canada, Singapore) now define themselves through earnings, possessions, appearances and celebrity,

Materialism is to place our trust in money. To ask it to provide for us, to protect us, to make us happy and in return we promise to serve it.

But here’s the second surprise from Jesus. Not only do we all serve one master but it’s impossible to serve two masters.

2) We can’t serve two masters

Someone has to have the final say. Someone has to come first and Jesus says whatever that is is your God.  That’s why Jesus says no-one can serve two masters – it’s not that it’s quite a hard thing to do it’s because it is a logical impossibility.

You might be able to hold down two jobs, you can have two hobbies, you can share you’re love between two children but no-one can serve two masters. Why? Because when the master says ‘come – I have something for you to do’ you have to respond. The master owns you. And so what happens if you claim to have two masters and at exactly the same time they both say ‘come – I have something for you to do’? Quite simply you are forced to chose.

Jesus is adamant, no-one, not you or me can serve two masters. Every human being has made a choice to serve either God or money. With ownership comes exclusive rights and with ownership what is required is total allegiance.

And what Jesus is saying in this verse is itself a clue to the very definition of a Christian. A Christian is someone who has turned from other lords and masters to serve the living God cf 1 Thess. 1:8-10.

3) Chose wisely who to serve?

Jesus reminds us of what we all know deep down – money is a great servant but a bad master.  It can’t deliver what it promises. When you read what Jesus is saying it really ought to be easy to decide who to serve.

a) money cannot give us peace

Oliver James continues in his book;

The great majority of people in English-speaking nations now define themselves through earnings, possessions, appearances and celebrity, and those things are making them miserable because they impede the meeting of our fundamental needs.

b) money cannot make us happy

When you make money the first thing it makes you miserable.  James again;

Constantly comparing your lot with others leads to insecurity. You will have a nameless sense that there is always something you should be doing, a free-floating anxiety.  You will be obsessively running yourself down because you do not do as well as others, moving the goal posts if you do succeed.  You may deal with the sense of your inadequacy by falsely building yourself up and by desperately attention-seeking.  Your values promote selfishness and the virus keeps you from meeting your need to connect with family, friends and the wider community by relegating them to low priority.  Unless your family members assist your career, you keep them at a distance, going through the motions of family life because convention demands it.

c) money cannot bring us security

Jesus knows just how tempting it is to strive, to work hard, to provide for our own future so that we might feel secure and at peace but Jesus gives us two reasons why storing up treasures for yourself in this world would be the worst investment strategy you could make. All treasures on earth, your house, your car, your bank balance will ultimately come to nothing.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Things fall apart and wear out.  The gleaming new car you drove off the forecourt is now worth half what it was in a matter of months that new mobile phone that was the cutting edge of technology is now a personal embarrassment, this year’s must have fashions can be found in next year’s Oxfam shop, shares that promised a great pension are now in freefall, so the list goes on.

Rust and moth, the law of entropy, everything wears out

And of course it all gets taken from us at the end. The tax man and finally death itself mean that all you have accumulated for yourself will be left behind. Solomon said ‘Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and …so he departs’. Seasick Steve the blues singer made famous by Jools Holland summarised it all in the title of his album ‘I started out with nothin’ and I still got most of it left.’

Even if you do make it in life, even if you get everything you ever wanted, you will lose it all.

If you live for money then you are a slave to a bad master. Serve money is that it will dominate us and tyrannize us and leave us with nothing.

Who should we serve?

Well the answer is not to switch allegiance from one bad master to another, from serving money to work, from work to relationships.  All of these things make bad masters. But Jesus says serve God and, v. 20, ‘store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.’

As we serve God with our money, our time, our lives so we find that God promises us not just peace with him now but a security that not even death itself can take away. The bank of heaven really is too big to fail, it’s shares can’t spin into decline, the value of the goods can’t depreciate.

4) Which master will you choose?

Jason Robinson the former England Rugby player describes the transformation that God engineered in his heart and life.

I changed about five years ago.  Before, I was naive, immature, sucked into all that surrounds the game, the drinking and clubbing, the nice cars.  I was brought up to think that if you have money you won’t have problems but I found that the more I got, the more problems I got and it reached a stage where I didn’t want to live that life any more.

I discovered that it didn’t matter what car I had because I was always chasing another, or what relationship I was in because I always wanted something else.  I realized that was shallow and that there was no fulfilment in that way of life.  I‘ve found peace and fulfilment in my faith.  I don’t have to chase those things anymore.

How about you? Jesus said that the truth would set you free. How are you doing, Christian, are you ‘chasing the dream’ are you trying to do the impossible in serving two masters or does Jesus have an undivided loyalty.

Tim Keller has said ‘The main problem [in the Christian life] is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel.’ And that for today might mean recognising that you cannot serve two masters.

If you’re a Christian do you realise that this warning ‘no-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other’ is spoken to his disciples in the sermon on the mount?

The danger that Jesus is addressing is that if there is an aspect of your life, money, a relationship, your family, your career, if there is any area of life in which Jesus does not have your undivided loyalty well at that point you despise your master. You claim to worship God alone but in fact have set up a rival to his throne.  Jesus warns not only will that rival deity fail you but that your alternative master is a competing master and a sign of divided loyalty and compromised service.

As the apostle Paul says ‘you are not your own, you were bought at a price.’  Our lives belong to Jesus now and nothing less than the whole of us is enough.


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