A Sermon preached by Dr. Ralph Blair at City Church,
New York, July 21, 2002
"Eternity" is for sale, and so is "Truth" – as high fashion fragrances from Calvin Klein. And they’re not cheap. That’s the point. And these bottled ego-builders are the least of the luxuries available to those who think they need such things.
A New York Times advertising supplement on "The New Luxury" assures us that "The ego builder’s soul mate is the person who pays an outrageous price for the ultimate product … [and that] to most ego-driven people, it’s important that everyone else know that they own the best, whether it’s the biggest ranch or the car with the longest hood." According to this morning’s Sunday Times – what Sundays "were made" for – "a crucial component of social I.Q. is the ability to spot a Birkin bag across a crowded room." Want to "Be a Swan"—or anything else your heart desires? Go to The Mall at Short Hills! The ad says "You’ll Think You’re Dreaming."
According to Advertising Age, 80% of the messages we get every day are marketing messages. All this marketing taps into a hunger, a dissatisfaction, a longing for completeness. And so, as last week’s New York magazine cover shouted: we’re "Addicted to Spending."
People are striving to "make it" and "fit in." They hope to buy their way into acceptance and approval in what they believe are the highest, most sophisticated, levels of "arrival." And all it takes is plenty of money!
At the end of a recent New York Times profile of an 87-year-old daughter of the Gimbel department store family, she’s sitting among her Picassos and Giacomettis in the spacious splendor of her Upper East Side apartment. She’s asked if there’s "any downside to being rich?" She replies: "Not that I know of."
Still, as James Twitchell puts it in his new book, Living it Up: Our Love Affair with Luxury: "It’s hard to be on Rodeo Drive and see a man wearing a pinkie ring, a flashy Rolex, decked out like Regis Philbin, getting into a Lincoln Navigator, and not feel a kind of smug self-satisfaction with one’s own life." And who believes that 3-year-old Kira Kerkorian really needs $320,000 a month for parties and play dates?
But last month, David Brooks wrote in The New York Times Magazine that "In America, money is promiscuous … ubiquitous [and] most of all, … virtuous." And you don’t have to be really "rich" to be really rich. He notes that "The average household in America now pulls in about $42,000 a year. The average household headed by someone with a college degree makes $71,400 a year. A professional degree pushes average household income to more than $100,000. If you are, say, a member of one of those college-grad households with a family income of around $75,000, you probably make more than 95 percent of the people on this planet. You are richer than 99.9 percent of the human beings who have ever lived." He says: "You are stinking rich."
And yet, Professor Twitchell points out that "numerous studies show that as society grows richer over time, the average level of [surveyed self-reported happiness] doesn’t budge. In fact, sometimes it falls." So he asks: "Does this mean consumption is a treadmill going nowhere?" He notes that some well-tenured economists argue yes, it does. Even the former Ms. Gimbel admits, in what the Times calls "her gravelly voice": "In my family, we all married and divorced so many times, it’s hard to keep track of who’s doing what to who."
Twitchell remarks that "Getting and spending have been the most passionate, and often the most imaginative, endeavors of modern life. We have done more than acknowledge that the good life starts with the material life, as the ancients did. We have made consuming stuff, most of it unnecessary stuff, the dominant prerequisite of organized society."
But he asks: "How close is the connection between the accumulation of the new luxury and the fact that the United States also leads the industrialized world in rates of murder, violent crime, juvenile violent crime, imprisonment, divorce, abortion, single-parent households, obesity, teen suicide, cocaine consumption, per capita consumption of all drugs, pornography production and pornography consumption?"
And here in all the materialism and deviance of this "one nation, under God," played to the hilt by both the Left and the Right, where are the churches? Too many are just as consumer-driven as the rest of society. Says Eugene Peterson: "If you look at the numbers and money, American churches are in some ways the most successful churches ever. And yet," he says, "I think it could be argued, we’re at probably one of the low points because of the silliness and triviality that characterize so much of church life these days."
Well how, we might ask, does all of this square with a biblical world and life view?
From the beginning, the Hebrew Bible presents material wealth as a blessing from God to His people. But the Bible says that God wants that wealth to be shared as a blessing for all people everywhere. The biblical Law recognizes the temptation to hoard riches and to forget that they really belong to God for the good of all. As Israel developed her self-directed monarchy, her rich few got richer and her many poor got poorer. So the prophets rose up to denounce the disgraceful disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots." They called it what it was: evidence of the evil of idolatry.
The New Testament shares these views and concerns of the older testament – with one major difference. As Bible scholar Craig Blomberg explains New Testament teaching: "Never was material wealth promised as a guaranteed reward for either spiritual obedience or simple hard work." He points out that "This omission flows directly from the fact that the people of God are no longer defined as one ethnic group living in one divinely granted piece of geography."
Standing in the prophetic tradition as well as – in his own person – ushering in the kingdom of God, Jesus warns of the dangers of worshipping the false god of material wealth. As in the older dispensation, there’s an economic dimension to the kingdom of God as preached in the New Testament. And the hallmark of new covenant economics is almsgiving. And even though the rich are never called upon "to change places with the poor; they are [nonetheless] to give from their surplus, [and] to be honest in acknowledging how much is surplus." [Blomberg]
Blomberg concludes: "Above all, the Bible’s teaching about material possessions is inextricably intertwined with more ‘spiritual’ matters." Contrary to some currently trendy theology, "no ungodly poor people are ever exalted as models for emulation [and] No godly rich people, who are generous and compassionate in the use of their wealth, are ever condemned" for being rich.
But, of course, there are always dangers associated with both dire poverty and inordinate wealth. And these dangers are, at their depths, spiritual. Both the poor and the rich can so love money that money becomes their god. To the poor, it’s an unknown god that holds out a false promise of satisfaction. To the rich, it’s a familiar god that never really pays off what it promises – but keeps on promising nonetheless. Nobody escapes the lure of money. Said the early church father Chrysostom: the love of money "seizes all, some more, some less, but all to a degree." And "all" includes you and me.
In order to understand better what’s going on here, one Bible scholar says we must see what Paul recognized: "The key issues of life and faith are fought in the economic realm." [Walter Brueggemann] And, as we’ve indicated, these key issues of life and faith, though fought out in the economic realm, are battles of spiritual warfare. It’s a wrestling with the very first commandment. It’s nothing less than the choice Jesus said it was: It’s the choice between God and Money.
When you think about the way we speak of value and worth you soon see that we thing of value and worth in monetary terms. We’re speaking of commerce when we speak of "a person’s worth," "the Big Deal," "the Most Valuable Player." This last designation takes on new and bizarre meaning as we hear that John Henry Williams has frozen the corpse of his baseball-legend dad allegedly in order to sell the DNA for big bucks!
We say that "money talks." Well, of course, it doesn’t really. We talk. Money says what we say. And what we say, however we couch it, what we tend even to assume – for all intents and purposes – is that money is the standard of value.
But, you might ask, What about health? Don’t people say that health is more important than money? Don’t we say that if you have your health you have it all? Some do say that. But just look at the tragic unavailability of health care in this country – millions upon millions are uninsured because too many of us don’t want to pay higher taxes to help them out. And look at the obscene cost of health care. Look into the wasting faces of millions of hungry children around the world while their kleptomanic dictators dine in high style and we spend billions on our artery-choking potato chips. No. Money’s seen as more important than health – other people’s health and even our own. Woody Allen captures the irony of this in his one-liner: "Money’s not everything, but it’s better than having your health."
We take our health for granted. We don’t take our money for granted. We miss health when we don’t have it. We miss money even when we have it. We abuse our health by going after quick fix pleasure – overeating, smoking, so-called recreational drugs and casual sex. But much of this is in an endless effort to escape the emptiness that is killing us in either exhausting pursuit of financial security and material happiness or in substitutes for it.
Two thousand years ago a Roman poet said: "You, O money, are the cause of a restless life! … a premature death … the seed of our cares." [Properties] But he was mistaken. Money, as such, has never been the problem. It’s the misuse of money that’s always been the problem. It’s inordinate devotion to money as idol that has brought on the restlessness, the cares, death.
Jesus knew that such misplaced devotion to money was not wise. Remember that when that rich young man was asked by Jesus to prioritize his monetary welfare and his spiritual welfare, the young man was stuck in devotion to money.
Here’s how Luke recorded Jesus’ heart-wrenching response: "Jesus, fixing his eyes upon him, said, ‘What obstacles are placed in the way of those having money when it comes to making their way into the kingdom of God! To tell the truth, it’s easier for a camel to slip through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to move into the kingdom of God."
Paul, too, knew that utter devotion to money was utterly unwise. His observation that this "love of money is the root of all kinds of evil" was not a new idea to either Jews or gentiles. But notice that Paul did not make that poet’s mistake. He did not say, as he’s often misquoted as having said, that money is the root of all evil. He said "the love of money is the root of all evil." And that’s just another way of saying that inordinate self-centeredness is the root of all evil. Money is merely the currency of that obsessive self-aggrandizing world and life view. It’s not money itself that’s the problem. It’s moneyism – the dogmatic, idolatrous adoration of money in order to serve yourself. The self-aggrandizing greed is the evil’s guts.
Even our leading economists know that an overreaching devotion to money is not wise. Former Federal Reserve head Paul Volcker asks: "What’s the subject of life – to get rich? All those fellows out there getting rich could be dancing around the real subject of life." Did those felonious fellows at Enron ever suspect that this might be true? John Maynard Keynes was perhaps the 20th century’s greatest economist. He wrote volumes on money and concluded: "The moral problem of our age is concerned with the love of money, with the habitual appeal to the money motive in nine-tenths of the activities of life."
"Mammon" is the word for money in Jesus’ native Aramaic. The word is best know to us from Jesus’ having used it when he pointed out that nobody can serve two masters. Jesus warned: "You cannot be servants to both God and Mammon." Translated into our parlance: You cannot be servants to both God and Money. To us, the quaint-sounding "Mammon" doesn’t have the appeal that "Money" has. We can’t get excited over "Mammon." But money! Mm-mm money! So let’s always render that term into English to remind ourselves that we can’t serve both God and Money!
Why do you suppose Jesus picked money as the most believable God-substitute? Well the term "mammon" apparently derives from that which means "that in which we trust." People are easily tempted to trust in money and therefore to give ultimate loyalty to the pursuit of money and all they hope money can buy them. So the term indicated "that in which we trust?" It may say "In God We Trust" on our money – but the motto’s on our money, isn’t it! It’s on the money!
Jesus knew that our ultimate loyalty belongs to God alone because God is our Creator, our Redeemer, our Sustainer. God is our very Life. To displace loyalty to God with loyalty to money is to trust in what cannot create us, cannot save us, cannot sustain us. To trust in money is to trust in that in which there is no life. It’s called "cold, hard cash?" It’s cold and hard as death.
Now notice how Jesus phrased his warning that we cannot serve both God and Money. He did not demand that we love God instead of money. He did not order us to value God more than money. He was giving no commandment. What he said was not prescriptive. It was descriptive. He was stating a fact of life. He was describing reality. He was asserting the obvious: Come on – nobody can be loyal to two masters! This is plain to anyone who has ever had to work under two bosses with two very different agendas. Were you ever in that sort of fix? Were you able to please them both? Of course not. It can’t be done. So we mustn’t try to rationalize that Jesus must be wrong here. He wasn’t exaggerating.
But Jesus is describing something else as well. When he says that nobody can serve both God and Money he’s teaching that the choice is service to one or service to the other. Either way it’s service. It’s not our service rendered to God or our being served by money. It’s our service rendered to God or our service rendered to money. That’s the only choice that’s open to us. We’re either resting in the loving, Personal power of God or resisting God under the indifferent, impersonal power of money. Look, what Jesus is saying is this: We’re God’s servant or money’s slave.
And Money is a ruthless slaver. The god, Possession, is possessiveness itself. And it claims our very self – as God does – and yet without God’s desire and ability to love us. It demands that absolute attention be paid to what is no absolute. In full. Every day.
We say we "own" the money, we "own" the stuff. Nonsense. Walk into any antique shop. Where are those former owners of all the stuff. They’re dead and gone. And the stuff’s still here – all nicely polished and rated "very fine," waiting there for the next generation of conspicuous consumers to buy and leave behind.
Money can bind us in an ever-tightening headlock that kills us even before we die. We’re afraid to look at the stock market report. Counting on having to give no account, corporate crooks cook the books and cook themselves along with the innocent victims of what Alan Greenspan calls their "infectious greed." Rushing up ladders of so-called "success," people fail to follow what puts them into flow, for they must keep up the payments on the lifestyle by which they’ve become possessed. In the pursuit of conspicuous consumption, young women have delayed marriage and children and now are devastated to learn they’re too old to bear a child. And they can’t get off the Money-Merry-Go-Round that’s getting them nowhere fast.
Said Horace, long ago: "Care clings to wealth: the thirst for more / Grows as our fortunes grow." Or – as they evaporate in a declining market! But (apparently) no matter, according to a "Sunday Styles" piece two weeks ago. Patricia Cohen there concludes "In Defense of Our Wicked, Wicked Ways" of conspicuous consumption: "Recessions may come and go, but consumption is eternal." She says "The ad slogan is right: Diamonds are forever." Really?
Even at age 19, Erasmus was wise enough to write: "Why do you consider riches and money so valuable? You will say that riches enable you to withstand need. You are deceived, I assure you. For with the abundance of goods and riches, your desire to have more just increases. And whoever seeks after more, shows himself to be needy."
What the young Erasmus knew is still true. We see it everyday on the news. Baseball players, with multimillion-dollar contracts, threaten to strike for a bigger piece of the pie. Michael Jackson, with a multimillion-dollar deal for a flop, complains he’s a victim of race-based financial unfairness.
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm explains that slavish devotion to money is motivated by that greed which, he says, "is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction."
Why is this the case? Why has it always been so? It’s because we’re made for something more and something other than can be satisfied by Mammon and by what we tell ourselves money will buy. Moneyism is a false religion. In "this Age" we’ll never get what we really want. In "this Age’s" priorities, we cannot be satisfied. We must look beyond the currency of this current world. For we were made for greater Abundance than this world affords. We were made and redeemed for Life in the God no money can buy or buy off.
We’re so slow to realize this. We’re so slow to recognize, with Wordsworth, that this world really is "too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." We piddle with perversions of power when the Power of the Universe holds out His arms to us. Failing to properly identify the monetary chains with which we bind ourselves so foolishly to this world, but feeling the binding and all the baggage nonetheless, we seek freedom in further entrapment.
Perhaps the most popular delusion for Mammon devotion is this: Money buys freedom. But how many rich and famous celebrity tragedies do we have to learn about to learn that boredom is the burden of self-absorbed "freedom?" When we run after self-indulgence, we run right into self-imposed isolation – not less behind state-of-the-art alarm systems. Even if we reach East Hampton’s Further Lane, it’s still not far enough. Even ensconced on the south side of Further Lane, one fantasizes further fancies. Trouble is, the vision needs to go further down and farther out – and not merely out to sea.
And being around other people only because they’re rich really won’t help one bit. If they’re richer than you, what’s that make you? If they’re not as rich as you, what’s up with them? Only the fantasies of poor people contradict Logan Pearsall Smith’s reporting that "It is a wretchedness of being rich that you have to live with rich people."
But look: rich isn’t the problem. The problem’s not being rich enough where riches can do you no good. So listen to another man who spoke from the experience of both material and spiritual riches. You know him as the author of "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Hear Phillips Brooks on what he called the "energetic holiness" that truly frees us from the burden of Mammon and moneyism. Brooks belonged to one of New England’s bluest-blooded families as well as to the Lord he faithfully served as rector of Boston’s Trinity Church and Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts. Said Brooks: "When a man sacrifices his own self-indulgence and goes forth a pure servant of his God and his fellow-men, there is only one cry in the whole gospel of that man, and that is the cry of freedom. As soon as he can catch that, … [he becomes] a larger and not a smaller, a freer and not a more imprisoned man. … Everything which is necessary for the full realization of a man’s life, even though it seems to have the character of restraint for a moment, is really a part of the process of his enfranchisement, is the bringing forth … to a fuller liberty."
What we so desperately need is true freedom from our slavery to sin – whether disguised in moneyism or any other God-substitute. And that true freedom is to be found only in the free grace of God in Christ Jesus, our Savior, and in the law-free life of discipleship in Christ Jesus, our Lord. And we can’t buy any of that with all the money in the world.
In short, when we mistake money as a means for slavish self-serving salvation instead of what it means for freedom to serve God and others, we end up serving what is nothing. Going after money as an end in itself is like what Gertrude Stein said about going to Oakland, California as an end in itself. She said that when you get there, there’s no there there.
So why fool around with fantasies of Oakland when you’ve been invited Home to the Father’s House on high? Said Malcolm Muggeridge: "The only ultimate disaster that can befall us … is to feel ourselves at home on earth." Jesus told his disciples: "Don’t worry yourselves over getting what the pagans go after. You seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and justice, and all these other things will be given to you as well." Maybe, among "all these other things" – if it’ll still be all that important to you – you’ll get Oakland.
Eternity is not for sale. And neither is Truth. They are gifts. From God. And they’re far more substantial than fragrances – even from Calvin Klein.