Today is Day 27 of the Red Letter Challenge. Last week, we focused on Serving. This week, we focus on the fourth of the five targets that Jesus has given us to aim at as we go through life with him, and that is Giving.
Have you ever been confused by something that is real, but it doesn’t make sense to you? Years ago, before I was a pastor, I was an Esso agent who sold fuel and fertilizer to farmers and small commercial businesses. Susan and I had our own business and we fully utilized all the various financial advantages that were available to us because of the business. The vehicle I drove was owned by the business, the fuel we used was paid for by the business, the business would buy a 4-H calf each fall for advertising purposes and the beef from that 4-H calf would end up in our deep freeze. Every angle that we could work to our advantage, we did. And yet, as I paid our personal household expenses each month, the money was always tight. It was always nip and tuck as to whether I would be able to pay all of our bills or not.
Eventually, I realized that God was calling me into the ministry, so I gave Esso my notice, we wound up the business, Susan and I moved to Saskatoon so I could go to school to become a pastor. During the six years that I went to school, we did not have a regular income coming in. We sold our acreage and put the money in an annuity, but the monthly payout from the annuity was not enough to cover all our expenses. And yet, there was always plenty of money to pay our bills, our family was always well-clothed and well-fed, we never lacked for anything, and we had some of the best Christmases we ever had during those years.
God’s Math is Different From Ours
God’s math is different from ours, and he is able to do things with the finances of faithful, generous people that we think are impossible. And yet, even though I have personally experienced God’s incredible math and been the beneficiary of his lavish generosity through his people, being generous is not easy for me. I am constantly feeling the pull of the world’s way of thinking which says, “You have to hang onto your money. You must accumulate and retain as much of it as you can. You are doing a terrible job of managing your family’s finances. You should be far further ahead in achieving financial security than you are right now. Everyone else is doing way better than you are at this.” Those are the voices that I hear in my head.
I suspect that I am not alone in this struggle about finances. So I want to take all of us through some passages of the Bible that will help us to rest in God’s loving care and joyously participate in generosity, which is so highly valued in his kingdom.
The Parable of the Bags of Gold
The first passage that we are going to dig into is Matthew 25:14-30. This is from the last of Jesus’ five great talks that are recorded for us in the Gospel of Matthew. This one is called the Olivet Discourse because Jesus shared it with his disciples on the Mount of Olives during the week before he was arrested and crucified.
In this passage, Jesus is teaching his followers, including us, what the kingdom of heaven is like. The kingdom of heaven is not a special place where we will go to live after we die. It is called the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel out of reverence for the name of God. So, as often happened in that time, the word “heaven” is substituted by Matthew, for the word “God”. What Jesus is really talking about here is life in the kingdom of God, living under God’s rule and reign, having him as our Lord and King, entrusting our life into his loving care and following him wherever he leads us. Because of what Jesus has done for us, the kingdom of heaven is something that we live in right now. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus has opened up the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, as the other Gospel writers call it, to everyone who believes in him. So when Jesus teaches us about the kingdom of heaven, he is teaching us about practical things, things like money, so that we can grow and live more fully in the kingdom of heaven. And if I were to sum up Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven in one sentence, it would be this: The values of the kingdom of heaven are radically different from those of the kingdom of this world. So each time Jesus teaches us about the kingdom of heaven, he is setting before us a choice about what kind of values we want to have. Do we want to have the values of the kingdom of heaven? Or do we want to have the values that come to us by default through the world around us?
Referring to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says,
“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
“After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
“The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
“Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
“His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
“ ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (Mt. 25:14-30)
So what do Jesus’ words mean for us? First of all, God views money completely differently than we do. For us, money is a success indicator. We use money, whether it is the salary we receive, the amount of money we have in the bank, or the value of the possessions we own, to measure how well we are doing in this world. We add up the value of all our assets, subtract all of our liabilities, and then we look at the number remaining as if it is our mid-term mark on our progress through life.
For God, money is a soul monitor . The way that we use money tells God, and others, what is going on in our soul. We tend to use money in accordance with the way that we value it, and the natural way that we value money is to use it to get more of what we want for ourselves. We humans tend to be self-centered and selfish, and our use of money perhaps most clearly reflects that. But God is inviting us to value money like he does so that we use money in the way that he knows is best. This means that we have to take a deeper look at what is going on in our own soul.
What many of us will find when we look there is that For us, money is security. This can be the case regardless of whether we have a little money or a lot. And this is the crucial issue about money that all of us must deal with. Are we going to trust our money to take care of us, or are we going to trust God? In 1 Timothy 6:10, God tells us, For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10) Please note that money itself is not the root of all evil. It is the love of money which leads us down paths which we will later regret. We love money because we think that it will give us what we want. And when we fear, love and trust in money above all else, it has become the god that we worship.
Jesus & a Rich Man
But money will not save us. Therefore, we need to undergo a conversion in our heart so that our love and trust shifts from focusing on money to focusing on Jesus. This is what Jesus was trying to do in his conversation with a rich man, as recorded for us in Mark 10. There we read that this rich man ran up to Jesus, …and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
This man is obviously a good-hearted person of sincere faith. He recognizes that Jesus will have the answer to the question burning in his heart, so he runs to him. He displays humility by dropping to his knees before Jesus. His question reveals that he is concerned about his eternal life with God.
Yet Jesus knows that there are some problems in this man’s heart. The first problem is revealed in his question. The man asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He did not yet realize that eternal life was a gift and the Giver of that gift was standing before him. Jesus tries to bring the man to the end of himself so that he will open up to receive that gift by faith. The Ten Commandments is divided up into two groups, or tables, like a table of contents. The first table of the Ten Commandments contains those commandments dealing with our relationship with God, and the second, those commandments dealing with our relationships with others. Jesus confronts the man with the second table of the Ten Commandments, the ones that apply to how we relate to the people around us. Jesus said,
You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” (Mark 10:19-20)
There are some who believe that they are in a right relationship with God because their actions are “good enough” for meeting his standards. What they miss is that God’s standard is not just “good enough”, it is perfection. And God knows that our problems go much deeper than our actions. Our problems always originate in the heart. Our biggest problem is not that we do the wrong things, though it is true that we do. Our biggest problem is that we love the wrong things. Jesus knows that the object of this man’s love needs to shift, and because Jesus loves the man, he leads him to the crisis point that he needs to face.
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:21-22)
This man’s problem was with the first table of the Ten Commandments, the part that deals with our relationship with God. Sincere and humble though he was, this man loved his money more than he loved God and he could not bring himself to walk away from his money and embrace life with God, even though that life with God would be filled to overflowing with the genuine love that his soul truly craved. In that twisted way of thinking that we all use to justify our own idols, the man thought his counterfeit god of money was everything that he needed. He couldn’t see that he was feeding poison to his soul.
What amazes me about this passage everytime I read it is that Jesus loved this man, he wanted to give him the eternal life that he so earnestly desired, and yet Jesus did not go chasing after the man to soften the crisis he faced. If it would have been me in that situation, I would have chased after the man and said, “I know Jesus said, ‘Sell everything and give it to the poor’, but I think that if you just give a portion of what you have to the church and attend worship regularly, that will be good enough.” There’s that phrase again, “good enough.” It is a good thing that the salvation of the world does not depend on me.
Jesus knows that there is no way to soften the blow of the either/or nature of entering into life with God. We can’t keep our idols and add Jesus to them. Elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus says, “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. (Mt. 6:24)
What Does This Mean for Us?
The truth is that all of us have failed at properly managing the many valuable things God has entrusted to us–whether it is money, or talent, or relationships, or time. Only Jesus perfectly used all that his Father had given him in this world, and yet Jesus laid down all that he had, including his life, and went to the cross to suffer and die to pay the full cost of forgiveness for all our misaligned values and financial failures. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead proves that a new day has dawned for you. Not only are you fully forgiven by Jesus, he is also inviting you to embrace the new life that he has given you, a new life that begins now and extends forever, a life where we learn now, as broken people in a broken world, how to live in God’s kingdom, so that we can look forward to enjoying the fullness of that life, on the day of resurrection, when Jesus will come back to this world in a visible way, raise us from the dead and make us and all things right and whole as God originally intended them to be. On that day, Jesus will unveil the new heaven and earth, and we will live with him there, with all of our other resurrected sisters and brothers in Christ, forever. That will be the day when, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Because of what Jesus has done for us and for the whole world, God is inviting us to look at money the way that he does. For God, money is a seed. It is something to be placed in fertile situations to produce growth that will result in a wonderful harvest. That isn’t much different from the human way of looking at money. What is different is the harvest that God is aiming for. It’s not more stuff for us. It is the redemption and renewal of all things and all people. By trusting in God for our security, we are freed to use money in the way God knows is best. With Jesus’ love in our hearts, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we invest what God has given us, whether it is our time, talent or treasure, in places where it will yield a grand harvest for God’s kingdom.
I know that managing money is simply math, adding your income and subtracting your expenses, and that one wants to have a higher income and lower expenses. But my experiences with personal finance have not been like that. Susan and I have made a conscious decision to give 10% of our gross income to the general ministry of this church, and whatever we give to other charities is over and above that. Mathematically, that does not make sense.
But here are some other things that don’t make sense. It does not make sense that when my training to become a pastor was complete and the money from our acreage in Alberta was all gone, Susan and I were able to buy another acreage for our family to live on. It does not make sense that, after living on that acreage for five years, we should be able to buy a house in one of the most expensive housing markets in Canada when we accepted the call to serve here. It does not make sense that the things that I chose to invest in to make money turn out to be breakeven propositions at best, but the things that God brings into my life, through no planning of my own, those turn out to be great financial blessings. Following God with our finances may not make sense from a human perspective, but God is trying to show us that there are deeper truths at work in our life with him.
I sometimes think back with regret over some of the financial decisions I have made in my life because, from a human perspective, they resulted in a worse financial position for me and my family. But there is a passage in the Bible that gives me hope. In Joel 2:25, God promises his people, “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—(Joel 2:25). That doesn’t mean that we encourage or practice poor financial management. On the contrary, we manage our finances well so that we can be free to go and to give however God calls us. But what I do take it to mean is that what God values the most as we manage the money that he has entrusted to us is faithfulness. And, if along the way, even as we were fully following his direction, we still experience a financial detour or disaster, we should not be anxious or afraid over what has happened. God can replace what the locusts have eaten. Even when there is a financial loss, God still calls us to be faithful. As followers of Jesus, we make decisions about money, but we do not make decisions for money.
It doesn’t make sense to the human mind, but God’s math is different than ours, and he is inviting us to be part of his generosity generating kingdom. Pastor Karl has often said, “You can’t outgive God.” And that is true. We don’t give in order to get. We give because he has first given to us. Everything that we have–our lives, our family, our friends, our possessions, our life as a beloved, forgiven child of God–all these things are gifts given to us by God. It is in response to God’s lavish and loving generosity that we give to help make his kingdom grow. Amen.
(This sermon is based on one written by Zach Zehnder which you can find at redletterchallenge.com. This sermon was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on April 3, 2022. For more info, please go to wglc.org.)