MAKE PURSES FOR YOURSELVES THAT WON’T WEAR OUT!
I’ve recently had some opportunities to speak about money, sacrifice, and the poor. I often speak on poverty but it gets a bit more personal when I speak to “the poor” and to “the rich.”
Over the last decade or so I have heard preachers and speakers on the radio and other places mention the fact that the Bible talks a lot about money. After they mention this fact I seem to hear either a discussion about getting out of debt and achieving sound financial management, or from another direction I hear a sermon urging me to believe in the “prosperity Gospel.” Usually those sermons don’t use that phrase but instead encourage me to go after my “money miracle, my breakthrough, my blessing, or to enlarge my tent.” Both sides seem to encourage me to be pretty self-focused, it is all about how I use, tithe, sow, or save “my” money.
I don’t hear from those sources much about the poor, except to encourage me not to be counted among them. I also don’t hear much from those preachers concerning a rebuke, command, or charge to the rich, except that if God was truly blessing me then I would be one of them.
One of the great joys of my preaching ministry has been to sometimes speak to very poor people, in places where almost everyone in the room, tent, hut, field, beach, under the stars, or church building was poor. Telling them that God cares about them; that they are indeed loved in Christ and that they can become fellow heirs with Christ has filled me with joy. This joy is sometimes because I see and feel the joy in them, as I hear them sing in faith, as I see them encouraged that God actually loves them in their poverty, and notices their condition. I see them take joy in their exalted position. It is a joy, but it is sometimes simultaneously heart-breaking.
One of the great challenges of my ministry is preaching to and relating to the rich. The challenge is how to love them while calling them to make purses for themselves that will not wear out, to not wear themselves out to be and stay rich, to not trust in the temporal nature of their wealth, to lay up their treasure in heaven where moth and rust don’t corrupt and thieves don’t break in to steal, to share their bread with the hungry, to be generous and ready to share, to glory in their low estate, and to be rich in good works. I have to command them not to be arrogant and not to put their hope in their money. I have to warn them that they can’t serve God and money at the same time. I have to do this while still loving them and not making the false assumption that material things are bad in themselves or that God doesn’t want any of us to enjoy life and the things he has given us in this world.
One of the great tasks of my ministry is to put these two kinds of people in touch with each other, sometimes personally, and sometimes simply through resources. When it happens I get to see two different kind of Christians receive a blessing and I see the Gospel at work.
There are temptations in this kind of work. One is a subtle kind of coveting, not so much for the stuff of wealth, but for the power of it. Why doesn’t God just give me all that money so I can give it directly, which surely I would do? One conclusion is that God doesn’t put any confidence in my humility; that with the power to decide on distribution would come an insufferable arrogance. This would lead to a conviction that I didn’t need to pray, no longer to trust God, and no need of working at relationships that might be difficult. Having money can give one the illusion that they don’t need other people or accountability.
As the writer of Proverbs (30:7-9) prayed,
“Two things I ask of you, O Lord, do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches,
But give me only my daily bread,
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my god.”
Another kind of temptation is to be afraid of the faces of men. My ministry seems to be dependent on the generosity of God’s people so maybe I had better be careful not to “bite the hand that feeds me”? (I have actually heard that warning from people who didn’t like my social or cultural application of the Scriptures). What if the wealthy cut me off, what if they don’t like me, what if they no longer support me, give me their money to help others, or won’t share some of their very nice homes, cars, and company?
You might notice I used the word “seems” when I talked about depending on the generosity of God’s people, and there is certainly nothing strange or wrong about receiving support from God’s people. As an itinerant preacher and teacher Jesus received generosity from the wealthy. The Apostle Paul was supported by the gifts of God’s people. They also sometimes went without, in danger, exposed to the elements, no place to lay their head, etc. The truth is that they didn’t depend on God’s people; they depended on God the Father. So should we all, and to do otherwise will certainly compromise our courage and our message.
The standard of my calling is to be true to God’s Word and never use it to manipulate people. My calling is to be a man of integrity in how I teach it and live it, and to love everyone as I meet, preach to, encourage, and live among them. Part of that standard is to be humble, and that humility is to be both an inner conviction and an outward appearance.
Another part of my calling is to say like Amos, “the lion has roared who can but tremble, the Lord has spoken who can but prophesy?” And so like Jeremiah I have to say, “but if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” And like James I have to tell people, “show me your faith by your works.”
I am called to be both humble and bold. Being prophetic about poverty and wealth might cause some to think of me with annoyance which can then lead to avoidance, especially when I speak of injustice and the necessity of sacrifice. The reality is that I am no hero, and I have suffered very little abuse in trying to be faithful to the calling God has given me. I consider myself immensely blessed. Yet, I know sometimes I make people nervous.
To, and for me, the cross calls us to discipleship, to the cost of it, and to proclaiming and living out the Gospel of the Kingdom. I have absolutely no ability to carry that cross, no innate spirituality or moral strength to carry it. I find myself to be a person who has contradictions; holding powerful convictions and too little holiness, a powerful message and too much selfish weakness. If Jesus doesn’t help me I won’t make it. If God’s grace doesn’t empower then the cross is too heavy. Yet in that cross is all my help, all my cleansing, all my deliverance from sin and self. The cross begins with justification but it has all these sanctification implications that keeps nailing me to it.
The conclusion is fairly clear and direct for all of us, from the poorest to the wealthiest; we can’t continue to be afraid and let worry make us hold onto material possessions for our security. We have to learn to live in contentment by faith, and we must learn the amazing and wonderful experience of sharing, generosity, and sacrifice in caring for the poor and loving our neighbors. All of us can and must do that, as hard and even as impossible as it seems, as Christ empowers us. It is want He wants.