Early Tuesday, after two hard hours of competitive tennis, I stayed on at the gym to engage in a fitness class dedicated to realignment. Maybe this will resolve the pain I am dealing with in my lower hip. It was not a pleasant experience. The instructor was kind enough, though her torturous routines devoted to spinal support left me feeling like someone stretched on a rack.
Unfortunately, I followed up with a read of Walter Brueggemann’s latest work, Money and Possessions. He too stretches, realigns, and targets a different core. I am again left grimacing and gasping for air. This area of my life also needs realignment. If there are modern day prophets—and there are—voices that speak with a “Thus saith the Lord” tone of authority and say what we need to hear (as opposed to what we might want to hear), Brueggemann is one. In fact, he might rank near the top. He is up there with Jeremiah and other prophets with furrowed brows and stern, but redemptive, voices. I have read at least seven of his books, and every single one painfully realigns and remakes me. Why do I keep coming back?
Beginning with the Law, moving through the Historical books, Psalms, Proverbs, the Prophets, and taking the reader through the New Testament, Brueggemann makes the case that economics is a fundamental preoccupation of Scripture. In the process, he exposes our tendency to ignore Jesus’ warning—“you cannot serve both God and mammon.” The whole of the biblical text pivots on these two choices. We have the stark alternative between creating a covenantal community in which people do not covet or defraud—and the greedy storing up of private treasures of an economy largely defined by predation and extraction (I told you this would be demanding!)
While some would say the church gives too much attention to the subject of money, Brueggemann would counter that the church is not saying enough. It is actually avoiding the subject by engaging in a misreading of Scripture to avoid the central message of money and possessions (Don’t you love prophets?). Too many sermons miss the essential message of what God is saying. We have toned down the radical message of Jesus, making the assumption money and possessions are one’s personal and private affair. We dance around texts that are inconvenient, and we have coddled to those congregants who do not want the demands of a covenantal community. In the process, we are probably far too unaware of the poor sitting next to us in the pew (let alone in the neighborhood). Could it be that our preaching has been too silent in the face of predatory economic policies? Are we too timid to speak out against consumer practices that reduce persons to second-class humanity and enable disabling debt? Brueggemann would say yes.
This is only the warm up. Assuming you have caught your breath, here are six statements that summarize his work and realign our portfolios. This is what Scripture, taken as a whole, says about wealth—
1-Wealth is a gift from God
This is the fundamental starting point. Everything comes back to this. Get this wrong, and everything is out of alignment. Anything we have, from the clothes on our back to the bread on the table, to the home that we live in—is from God. And God loves to be generous. He owns it all, and He intends we live the abundant life. So be grateful and delight in what He chooses to give.
2-Wealth has certain conditions
Wealth is not automatic (unless you were born into the Vanderbilt family). Diligence is its precondition, while laziness leads to poverty. Generosity generates wealth and well-being, while miserliness leads to want. But even here, diligence and generosity are ultimately divine gifts. We cannot take credit for either one.
3-Wealth is a gift to be managed for divine purposes
Whatever we receive is His to be invested for kingdom purposes. In contrast to an economy defined by extraction, God has given us wealth for the purpose of restoration. Giving to God and community is our way of acknowledging God is the Owner, as well as God’s means to correct the wrong..
4-Wealth has the potential to do great harm or great good
Moneyed interests can use their wealth to extract from the poor, or use their wealth to protect and restore the helpless; hoard their wealth and create social distinctions, or share their wealth and flatten differences; secure their holdings at the expense of the common good, or use their generosity for the common good; satisfy selfish desires, or use their wealth to counter a predatory culture with covenantal neighborliness; move an NFL team to pad the wallet, or keep it in the same city to serve a community (sorry, had to throw that in).
5-Wealth has the potential to be short-term or long-term
Whatever wealth an unjust economy extracts is not sustainable. It is a bubble soon to burst. Grounding prosperity in cheap labor will bring its own woe; it eventually yields to the resolve of God. This is the clear message of the OT Prophets, Jesus, and Paul—and James In contrast, possessions situated in a world of divine justice tend to be sustainable. They in fact will flourish.
6-Wealth is a seductive force
It subtly compels loyalty and servitude, which is why greed is linked with idolatry. Wealth and possessions promise fulfillment, but often leave one empty. They guarantee stability, but they are transient and can be lost in an instant. We cannot miss this, that their accumulation tend to lead to amnesia. We forget where wealth came from, leading to autonomy and self-sufficiency. Eventually we turn His gifts into personal and private possessions, possessions that become commodities and commodities lead to avarice. It all ultimately amounts to vanity, for the accumulation of wealth is not the measure of life.
Okay—time for a cool down. And maybe some time to do some reassessing.