Sunday, September 29, 2013

Less? More? (Matthew 6:19-21, 25, 33)

Sometimes we unbalance our lives because we're feeling driven by something -- by schedules, by anxiety and worry, by the stress our routine puts on us. But sometimes, we unbalance them because we're chasing something. Usually it's money, but just about anything that we can want or try to acquire will sit comfortably in that seat.

Our culture has sort of trained us away from the idea of greed, by connecting it to obvious evildoers like Montgomery Burns or Gordon Gekko. Cartoonish villains who ruin lives or threaten to destroy the world's supply of albacore tuna are greedy, you see, which is why they will do those horrible things in order to ill-get their gains. You and I would never threaten harmless fish or sell off a manufacturing facility to raise stock prices, so we're OK.

I wonder if we are, though. At its core, this conception of greed says that we will do things we shouldn't to get what we want. And when we phrase it like that, we can see greed in a whole lot of things that would never make a good Oliver Stone or James Bond movie, but which can do just as much damage to us and unbalance our lives just as easily.

Why would we do those things, though? Why would we spend more than we have in order to get a bigger house or a newer car or more expensive clothes, computers, TVs, furniture, phones, whatever. No one would rationally make a decision to go into more debt than they could repay for something that they might not be able to sell for enough to pay off that debt if worst came to worst. So why do it?

We can see the answer in almost any commercial. Because having this thing -- whatever it is -- will make us happy or make our lives fulfilled. Because having a fat retirement account will keep us safe when we no longer work. Because it's our "dream house." We know intellectually that those things aren't completely true. Every young man who sees an Axe Body Wash commercial knows he will not have the best-looking women of the town pursuing him uncontrollably -- and the agency who made the ad knows that too, because they intend to get you to buy the product while laughing at the absurdity of the ad. But the over-the-top suggestion conceals the message that maybe a couple of them will respond better than they do right now. And your life, you loser non-Axe Body Wash-user, will not be complete until you have those ladies responding to your choice of soap.

Except the message is not only ridiculous, it's a lie. Being respectful and attentive will do a lot more than a special soap -- although some kind of soap is probably a good idea -- to win fair hand. And a "dream house" that soaks up every bit of income just to keep even with the payments and forces a family to buy on credit necessities like food and clothing is no dream at all. It's a nightmare.

The Bible has a label for these kinds of things we use to make us happy or feel secure and fulfilled. It calls them idols. An idol isn't necessarily a golden statue of a calf -- it's anything on which you or I depend for something that we should really only depend on God for. And when we worship these idols -- which is what depending on them for happiness and fulfillment and security really means -- we will do irrational things for them, like spending more money that we make or have to acquire them.

Worshiping God can lead to similar behavior that looks irrational too. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, considered the ten percent tithe the starting point for his giving. He worked throughout his life to spend less on himself so he could give more to others, and by his last few years he was living on ten percent of his income and giving ninety percent of it away. He was asked how he could do that and he would rely on these passages from Matthew as his guide. He sought first the kingdom of God, and relied on God who knew what he needed for those things that he needed.

We might say, well, it's easy to give away 90 percent of your income when you get housed by the people who have you come preach and your home base has a kind of dorm for its preachers that they let you stay at and where someone who works for the movement cooks for you and makes sure your place is taken care of. But Wesley would point out that he didn't give away more money until he found himself no longer needing the money for those other things.

Because God, he might say, provided them through the ministry of all those other people who desired to serve Him by serving their church.

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