In times of economic upheaval, it’s especially important to articulate a positive theology of money.
The very idea seems absurd. What’s holy about money? As children we’re rightly taught not to finger bills and coins too avidly. Who knows what hands it has been in, how many germs it has picked up? As adults we see people chase after it, at the expense of other life-giving sources. No wonder Jesus turned over the money-changers’ tables in the Temple -- it’s Judas, not any of the other 12, who loves money (Mark 14:11). “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” the apostle says in one of the New Testament’s least revelatory statements (1 Timothy 6:10). Who could be so blind as not to see the destruction wrought in the wake of the love of money?
Yet thinking a bit harder and a bit more biblically we can see a space for money in which it’s not simply dirty or bad (interesting we use such juvenile words). Money can, in fact, be holy -- a gift from God, to be used well. It is meant for creating community rather than destroying it; for distribution to the needy rather than hoarding, for building God’s kingdom rather than self-aggrandizement. Especially in times of economic peril like these, we do well to articulate a positive theology of money, and not just warnings against its misuse.
When the widow drops her “two small copper coins” into the Temple treasury, the meticulous detail of the kind of metal and the tiny size of the coins almost make for an auditory experience, “clunk, clunk.” Jesus’ sermon afterwards certainly does: “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mk 12:43-44). Those two copper coins are precious in Jesus’ sight, not for their buying power, but for the faith they represent. But what if one of those contributing “out of their abundance” also put in everything they had? Surely Jesus would single them out for similar praise?
Jesus elsewhere praises a much more costly gift. His friend Mary takes a “pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,” and anoints his feet. His disciples are troubled, feigning interest in using such generosity to provide for the poor, but Jesus defends the gift. For she has seen his coming doom in a way that they have not: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” (John 12:1-8). This lavish gift, representing a great expenditure poured out for Jesus, witnesses to the rest of the church, for all time, the full arc of his story. She might as well have proclaimed “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” but of course the gesture preaches louder than any proclamation could. This gift is not less sensual than the plunk of the widow’s mite -- we can almost smell the perfume. This woman’s gift, like that of the widow, echoes Jesus’ own extravagant gift of himself: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Something similar happens when we give our money to the church. The weekly passing of the plate, the offering’s procession to the front, the minister turning, with hands raised, to dedicate the money to God. That money is set apart in some fashion, made holy we might almost say. Hence our horror if anyone lifts money from that particular place. That liturgical gesture of offering the money to God was originally part of the community’s offering of bread and wine for consecration into Holy Communion (it is a bit odd now for ministers to raise their hands only over money!). That liturgical moment says a great deal: here we offer back a bit of what God has given to us. It’s made holy, and then distributed in the church’s mission work in the world.
But it is not only the church’s money that is holy. Surely full tithers are not limited such that 10 percent of their financial outlays are holy and the other 90 percent are unclean in some way? The other 90 percent is money God’s people have earned by the sweat of their brow, both literally and metaphorically. They have prayed for a return on their labor. They have rejoiced to see their work met with success. That income pays not only for food on the table, but for education, retirement, transportation, rest and relaxation, taxes (which even Jesus is willing to pay!). There may be some faiths which see religion as antithetical to labor and wages, but Christianity, and its elder brother Judaism, are not among them. Jesus assures his missionaries that they should accept hospitality, since “the laborer deserves to be paid.” (Luke 10:7). The context of missionary activity and hospitality is crucial -- for those on mission need to eat (as Jesus and the boys were themselves fed by wealthy women from Jerusalem -- see Luke 8:3), and eating is a place where God meets us in bread and wine and friends (Luke 24:31).
The refectory at Union Seminary in New York has a famous sign above its entryway proclaiming, “They recognized him in the breaking of bread,” generalizing the nameless’ disciples glimpse of Jesus on the way to Emmaus to ordinary community meals. That is as it should be. And we can go on and recognize him in the preparation of that food, the cleanup after, the payment of the workers of a fair wage to buy bread for their own families. Any work that is good work is holy and blessed by God. Those who give with hearts as generous as the owner in the vineyard are a blessing to recipients and a little instantiation of the generosity of the heart of God.
Jim Wallis has spoken for years of the “holey bible,” with all the references to money excised. It makes his point well -- that God cares about the poor enough to mandate their care throughout Scripture. Now what do we do with those countless verses? More pressingly, how do we open our paycheck, or pay our bills, and sing a little doxology when we do so?