Byron C. Bangert

First Presbyterian Church, Bloomington, Indiana

November 14, 1999

Amos 8:4-8, 11-12; Matthew 6:19-24

There is a comic strip in which two men are shipwrecked on a small deserted island. They are both leaning against a single coconut tree. They look pretty scruffy from being there so long. One man says to the other, “Do you think we’ll ever be rescued?” The other man replies, “Yes, they are sure to come looking for us. It’s stewardship time at my church.”

It is stewardship time at our church, and we hope we don’t have to come looking for anybody. But we also hope everybody will be ready to respond in a positive way to the challenges and opportunities for ministry that summon us through the life of this congregation. Every year we make a special effort to emphasize that our stewardship is never simply a matter of giving money to support the church’s budget. In the first place, it is not a budget that we are supporting, but rather the ministry that budget represents. And in the second place, it is not only money that is needed to support that ministry but also the time and talents of as many of our members and friends as possible.

Nonetheless, we do also need the substantial financial support of all our members and friends. There’s something about money! Something about how necessary it seems to be. Something about how much it can dominate our thinking. Something about how important it is that we come to terms with its place in our lives.

Some people use money to try to negotiate their relationship with God. The story is told of the wealthy man who never had much to do with religion during his life. During his final illness, however, he began to consider eternal affairs. Not surprisingly, he brought the same approach to them he had used in much of his business. He sent for the pastor and told him, “Pastor, you’ve been here a long time. You know I’ve never cared much for church matters. But I’m very sick, about to die, and I want to be sure of my eternal destination. Do you suppose if I gave $1,000,000 to the church, and $100,000 to you personally, I would go to heaven?”

            The pastor considered carefully for a moment, then replied, “Well, I can’t be too sure, but what have you got to lose? Let’s give it a try.”

There are others who recognize that giving is an essential part of the Christian life, but it gets harder as time goes on. Like the young man just starting out in life who made a firm commitment to tithe. One tenth of whatever came in that week he put in the offering plate on Sunday. At first it did not amount to much, but he received the spiritual comfort of knowing that in this one area of his life, at least, he was in God’s order.

Soon he began to prosper. He thanked God and continued his tithing, now become a habit. He gladly gave $50 a week. After a few more years he found himself one of the major contributors in the congregation. He tithe was up to $200 every week. Still he kept his commitment.

As the years went by this man became truly wealthy. One day he made an appointment with the pastor. “I’ve got a problem. You’ve got to help me find a way to cancel a vow,” he told his pastor. “When I was young and penniless, I made a vow to tithe whatever I received. I did not have much, so it was not too hard to keep that vow. But I have done well over the years, and now my tithe is more than $1,000 a week. I cannot afford to keep giving that much money away!”

The pastor thought for a few minutes, then replied, “Well, a vow is a vow. I don’t know any way I can help you to break your promise to God. But I’ll tell you what I can do. I’ll be glad to pray with you that God would cut your income back to the level where your tithe was only $50.”

The fact that having more does not necessarily make us more generous, or less anxious about what we have, is one of the most challenging realities of our lives. We Presbyterians do not necessarily insist upon an actual tithe, or tenth, and we recognize that some of what people give may go to other charitable causes, but we do stress the principle of proportional giving. And whatever the proportion that people commit themselves to give today, we hope that proportion will increase over time, even to as much as a tithe or more. This is very different from simply letting everyone decide how much to give.

So we find little wisdom in the story of the stalwart church member, the chair of the stewardship committee, and the pastor who were talking about how much money God expects to be given to the church. The pastor said, “It’s simple. Draw a line on the floor and stand with one foot on either side of the line. At the end of the year take all of the money you have earned and toss it in the air. What comes down on the right side of the line is yours, and what lands on the left side of the line belongs to God.”

The stalwart church member said, “No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. Don’t draw a line. Draw a circle. Stand inside the circle and at the end of the year take all the money you have earned, toss it into the air. What comes down outside the circle is yours, and what lands inside the circle is God’s.”

The chair of the stewardship committee interjected, “You’ve both got it wrong. You don’t draw any lines and you don’t draw any circles. Simply take all of the money you have earned and toss it in the air and say, ‘God . . . take whatever you need.’”

If that were indeed the approach that most stewardship committee chairs took to giving to the church, it would give us pastors little recourse but to pray for tonadoes! A better solution might be the one proposed by the pastor who was asked by his U. S. Representative, “What can the government do to help the Church?” The pastor answered, “Stop printing one dollar bills.”

Or we might try a contemporary version of the approach that the old Scottish minister tried with his Kirk. “I have learned that the sheep herders are having a lot of trouble with people stealing their sheep,” he preached one Stewardship Sunday. “One thing I absolutely do not want in this kirk is tainted money. I do not want any money given to this church that was obtained by thievery. So if you have been stealing sheep I do not want you to put anything in the offering plate. The officers will now receive the offering. And remember, if you have been stealing sheep DO NOT put anything in the plate!” It was the first Sunday in the 400 year history of the church the EVERYONE placed something in the offering plate!

As a youngster I can remember often hearing the saying of Jesus, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” “Mammon” was the word that appeared in the RSV as well as the KJV of Matthew 6:24. And I wondered, why the opposition of these two--why oppose mammon to God? What is the meaning of mammon? What, or who, is mammon? Mammon sounds like something more than just “wealth,” as it is translated in our text today (NRSV). And it is. The word is an ancient Semitic word that did not get translated into the Greek. It is one of those words that seems to have a meaning that cannot adequately be translated by any other single word. The best way to preserve the meaning is to preserve the word.

One scholar says the word means “wealth,” “money,” “property,” or “profit” [D. M. Beck, INTERPRETER’S DICTIONARY OF THE BIBLE, Vol. 3, 234]. My own sense is that even this is not adequate. The word may denote any or all of these things, but it also connotes a kind of spiritual power. Jesus speaks of mammon as a “master,” an opposing master to God. Mammon is something to which you can become a slave. Mammon is a word that reminds us that when we talk about money, or wealth, or riches, we are talking about something that has an undeniable spiritual dimension, something that is capable of dominion, something that may possess an even demonic hold upon us. Mammon, or money, is not an entirely morally neutral thing. In fact, it may be the most spiritual “thing” there is. And its power over us is often directly opposed to the power of God.

In his famous book, THE PROTESTANT ETHIC AND THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM, Max Weber noted that the rise of modern capitalist economies was accompanied by the introduction of new bookkeeping and accounting methods that provided the quantitative standards by which to document economic success. To a degree never before possible, money became the way of measuring, evaluating, and rewarding economic activity. Money became an end in itself. The ultimate goal of entrepreneurial activity could now be captured in the most abstract and singular of terms. It was to make more money!

I am not sure Weber was discovering anything new about human behavior, or about the role of money in human life. But perhaps he did show how money has become an even more dominant and powerful force in modern capitalism than it had ever been before. The logic of this heightened dynamic of money can be seen today in the absurd circumstance of people who are getting filthy rich starting up new, high technology companies, many of which have yet to turn a profit. The aim is not to be a productive citizen. The aim is not to make a positive contribution to the material conditions of society. The aim may not even be to provide a service that is worth its cost. The aim is to “go public” and then make a killing in the stock market or get bought out by some larger company looking for a market advantage.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but you know the point I am making. We are seeing instant millionaires being created in circumstances where the goal of making money has become so dominant that the fundamental bases for economic activity are all but forgotten. We are seeing people who are not trying to make money in order to meet their basic material needs, or the needs of anyone else. The money has become an end in itself. Success is to be measured by net worth, and net worth is measured by what others are willing to pay.

It has been this way for centuries, but perhaps never so obvious or acute. In Jesus’ day the rich man might build bigger and bigger barns to hold more produce than he would every consume. We may never reap a windfall from an IPO, an “intial public offering” of stock, but we keep building bigger houses and finding more and more reasons to justify our drive to make more money than we will ever need for the things we have time to enjoy.

Money in our society symbolizes success, wealth, power, status, personal worth. How much is Bill Gates worth? Who does not hear that question in terms of money? Would anybody seriously consider Ross Perot, or Steve Forbes, or Donald Trump a candidate for President were it not for their money? Social philosopher Michael Walzer argues that there are some things money should not be able to buy [SPHERES OF JUSTICE, 100-103]. Political power and influence, police protection, exemption from military service, marriage and procreation rights, freedom of speech and press and religion are among these things. Unfortunately, money seems able to buy a number of these, and to provide advantage in gaining them all. This is not simply an unfortunate state of affairs, however. It is a fundamental corruption of society. Money distorts our relationships with one another. Money compromises our political system. Money creates enormous disparities and inequities in the administration of justice, in the distribution of such social benefits as education and health care and public safety, in social status and recognition, in how we view and value one another. Money buys access that is denied to those without. Because money is never simply money, the accepted medium of exchange. Money symbolizes and possesses all kinds of power, including spiritual power. When this power assumes a dominant place in our lives, it consumes us and our devotion. It becomes like a drug. It seizes us like an addiction. It takes the place of God.

Jesus says, “you cannot serve God and mammon.” Not, “you must not” but “you cannot.” It just doesn’t work. He also says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will also be” [6:21]. Whatever, or whoever, you are banking on, there your devotion will lie. If you are banking on mammon, you will be mammon’s slave. If you are banking on God, God will be your heart’s delight. The choice can be stated rather simply. It is a most difficult matter, however, to live it out in daily life. According to Martin Luther, “there are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the purse” [cited by Richard Foster, MONEY, SEX, AND POWER, 19].

To be free from the power of mammon, we must become its master. That we can hardly do on our own. We must be devoted to a higher master. We must be free for the service of God. AMEN.