BY DOMINICK WONG
“The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” -Søren Kierkegaard
Christianity is not a materialist faith. Living in modern America, it seems most believers have lost sight of this fact. We have, instead, become seduced by paycheck prophets, televangelizing an age-old Gospel of Wealth. We live in subconscious adulation of material success, internalizing a Puritan glorification of Predestined Prosperity and all its trappings. We daily orient our lives and thoughts on economic terms, driven by a pervasive calculus that embraces selfish gain and dismisses selfless love as “impractical”.
It is high time for a reminder of what we believe in: Christianity is not a materialist faith.
Jesus stated quite clearly and thoroughly:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24 NIV).
There is little room for ambiguity here. No ifs, ands or buts. Jesus speaks in absolutes for a reason. These are not irrelevant hyperboles to be dismissed and forgotten. God shouldn’t simply be our first priority; God should be our only priority. Money shouldn’t be the distant second, but the diametric opposite of what we ought to serve.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus calls us to be in the world, but not of it; embracing a subversively counter-cultural lifestyle of immaterialism, and rejecting this society’s idolatrous value system, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21 NIV).
Living in a world that measures success in terms of maximizing “income” and “net worth”, Jesus overturns the prevailing opinions and tells us that,
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25 NIV).
Likewise, in a society that places so high a premium on accumulating material wealth, Jesus advises,
“Do not store up wealth for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:19 NIV).
Don’t make the mistake of believing that his message is intended for only the rich and wealthy. To the contrary, Jesus argues against the belief in the idea of ownership itself, for the rich or the poor, when he says
“Only the man who says goodbye to all his possessions can be my disciple” (Luke 14:33 J.B. Phillips).
Just as serving money makes it impossible to serve God, clinging to possessions makes it impossible to follow Jesus. Faith in one precludes faith in the other. So then what are we to do in light of this? How are we to manage the material world surrounding us, without becoming slaves to it? Jesus gives us a concrete and consistent answer to these questions, commanding us to,
“Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow” (Matt. 5:42 NLT).
Material things should be of such little importance to the Children of God that if anything were to be asked of us, we would give it freely. In fact, property should have so little value that we should give freely, based on need, even if it is not asked of us. As John the Baptist states,
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with one who has none and anyone who has food should do the same” (Luke 3:11 NIV).
Jesus takes John’s words one step further when he says,
“Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back” (Luke 6:30 ESV).
Property is to be so insignificant to us, that even if it is forcibly stolen, we are to respond with love. We are to be a dispossessed people, using things, but never owning. And why should we do this? Why should we voluntarily endure such propertyless lives?
Why? Not just because we are told to do so, but because, as God is the ultimate Creator of all things, all things belong to God. Nothing we have is really our own. As Job realizes,
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away…” (Job 1:21 NIV).
If this supreme reality is not reason enough, remember that God is not just the ultimate Creator, but the ultimate Giver as well. God has given us so much more than we deserve not just in physical gifts but, most importantly, in the free gift of salvation. An omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Being willingly placed itself into a mortal form to be crucified as the ultimate sacrifice; the limitless became limited. By freely giving himself, through Christ Jesus, to die for our sins, God set the greatest example for us to follow. Jesus tells us,
“…Freely you have received; freely give” (Matt. 10:8 NIV).
The early Christian church took this command to its literal conclusion. The author of Acts tells us,
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32 NIV).
As we can see, these teachings are quite plainly and visibly direct, and yet, we Christians frequently find it convenient to simply ignore these words. Indeed, money is such a pervasive phenomenon that living according to anything else is bound to be inconvenient. And so, in our education, our careers and even our personal relationships, we persistently live our lives with money in mind, in spite of Christ’s words to the contrary. In doing so, we Christians seem to be saying, “Yes, I have heard all you have said, God, and it sounds great on paper, but I have to eat. I have mouths to feed and children to house. I have duties to fulfill, obligations to attend to, debts to pay. I agree with what you’ve said, God, but let’s be practical. I don’t intend to starve. Let me worry about money for the time being.”
Even two millennia ago, Jesus anticipated this line of reasoning and answered accordingly, telling us,
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:31-34 NIV).
It would be so much simpler, so much more comfortable, to be able to ignore this difficult command and live our lives as the rest of the world does. However, we Christians are not called upon to walk the path of least resistance. Ours is a difficult, impractical and often absurd march against the social current. The world we reject will reject us in turn. It will not understand. We will be mocked, persecuted, exiled and imprisoned because we refuse to play by its rules, for Jesus tells us,
“The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you” (John 15:19 NLT).
Our course of action is clear. We must renounce any notion of owning. Possessing prevents us from fully knowing God and so we should freely give and receive all possessions that we have been blessed with. Naked we came from our mothers’ wombs, and naked we will depart. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. May his name be praised.