Money Isn't the Root of All Evil, Said the Minister
Money—a topic ministers rarely address head-on. I strayed from the topic like most ministers until I experienced a copernican revolution on my understanding of it, which inspired me to share this awakening with others. I saw money as something evil and to be resisted until I came across a certain gospel passage that changed my mind. Below is an essay I wrote about that transformation as well as my new theology of money. It was also featured on Medium last week here.
Coincidentally, the scripture passage I speak of happened to be the lectionary gospel passage for this past Sunday and I explored a different angle of it. While I worried it was a bit too heavy or philosophical, it’s provoked an overwhelming number of positive responses from my congregants. The essence of the sermon is that nothing in this world belongs to us, they are merely on loan. You can listen to that sermon here.
Money Isn’t the Root of All Evil, Said the Minister: A new understanding of money empowered me to make a lot more of it (without the guilt)
You may have played this game before: wealthiest, most talented, smartest, or most attractive in the world entire world. Which would you choose?
This was always a fun conversation topic amongst my college friends. We would ask clarifying questions to explore the logic of the game: Would other traits be sacrificed in exchange for being the best at whatever you chose? Would the collection of attributes I already have change based on my choice? Wouldn’t I automatically become the wealthiest if I was the smartest, most talented, or most attractive because my skills would be lucrative?
As we reasoned through the finer details, we would all inevitably settle upon being the wealthiest. We decided that with money, we could buy or otherwise compensate for the other traits. It always seemed to take a while before admitting that, though. There was something so apparently off-putting about wanting to make a lot of money, especially to us socially-conscious, liberal-arts types who prided ourselves on a love of intangibles — of learning over looks, doing good over making money, and wisdom over wealth.
Money and its meaning in our lives are very rarely talked about at a higher ideological level. We tend to talk a lot about the functional aspects of money: How to make it, how to save it, how to best use it, and how much of it we have. But the second-order status of money in our lives, the one that deals with its ultimate importance and purpose, often goes unaddressed. This is likely because the dominant understanding of money in our country (as well as most other countries with a similar cultural background) derives largely from a Judeo-Christian heritage, which seems neither helpful nor practical for addressing these questions. Judeo-Christian teachings about money are conflicting, contradictory, and difficult to apply consistently.
On the one hand, money, particularly in the Hebrew Bible, is seen as a sign of God’s blessing. Money and material abundance confirm favorability in God’s eyes. Granted, there are many books within the Hebrew Bible, such as Deuteronomy, Micah, and Amos, that urge us to treat all people with dignity, especially the most vulnerable members of our societies. These teachings, however, do not seem to do much to negate the predominant view of money in the Hebrew Bible as a sign of God’s blessing.
The life and teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, however, disrupt this neat and simple theology of money. Jesus does not believe that poverty is a sign of wrongdoing, as God himself might even be revealed in the faces of the poor (Matthew 25:40–45). There is a well-known story in the gospel of Matthew where a rich man asks Jesus how to receive eternal life. Jesus responds by instructing him to follow the commandments of the Torah. When the rich man tells Jesus that he has been following those laws since his youth, Jesus then tells him to “sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” After that exchange, he turns to his disciples to share how hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Infamously, he tells them that it is “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:16–22).
Similar teachings abound in the rest of the gospels, and they eventually make their way into the ideologies of the early Christian community and beyond. This is not to say that the Hebrew Bible’s teachings about money completely disappeared from Christianity. Many of us are familiar with prominent Christian figures such as Oral Roberts and Joel Olsteen, who misappropriated those texts from the Hebrew Bible and gave rise to an idea called the “prosperity gospel,” which is exactly how it sounds: faithful followers of Jesus will be rewarded with material prosperity.
Because this complicated belief system is so entrenched in our society, we have not provided alternative ways of understanding money. Thus, we live in contradiction: We all have certain inherited views of money, but their application in our lives ends up being very different from (and even irreconcilable to) our beliefs about the meaning of money in general . It’s like my college friends and I when we didn’t want to admit that we actually wanted lots of money because we felt guilty and obnoxious for wanting it.
I myself grew up with the poverty-as-a-virtue brand of Christianity. People like Mother Teresa and St. Francis were introduced to me as ethical exemplars. Money was the root of all evil and its accumulation was a sign of greed. I was taught that our true freedom lied in breaking free from worldly obsessions and nurturing our souls instead. This is what Jesus meant when he taught us to store up treasures in heaven as opposed to this earth, where moths and rust corrupt and thieves break in to steal. My earthly possessions could be taken away in an instant but love and kindness could never be taken away from me.
While there is great truth in this notion, I also became increasingly uncomfortable with both the impractical and severe views of money in my given faith tradition. This is probably why most ministers do not explicitly talk about money from the pulpit, even though it’s one of the biggest drivers of human behavior. Where and how we work, eat, go to school, raise children, travel, plan, and dream for the future all involve money and our attitudes towards it.
Yet ministers don’t talk about it because Biblical teachings about money are so often one-sided. Money is seen as either the physical manifestation and central driver of worldly corruption, or as a sign of divine blessing on a good life. In both cases, money is given immense moral weight in opposing directions. The only options that we (and also God) should seem to want for ourselves are extremes of poverty or wealth. This doesn’t match with our practical experiences, though. Are wealth or poverty good indicators of who has been leading a virtuous life, aligned with God? Is the exemplary life really one that is always on the margins of subsistence? And, especially given the shape of our highly organized, global, technological society, isn’t it difficult to make change for the better without having some positive assessment of what money is and what it can do for you?
My inherited views of money also began to get in my way when it came to creating the life I truly desired. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life getting my clothes from thrift stores and pretending that was my preference. I wanted to buy a home in Southern California and I didn’t want to explain myself or be defensive. I wanted to be really generous with my family, friends, church, and important causes without worrying that these gestures would break the bank. I really wanted to make money and I wanted to make more of it, perhaps even a lot more, without abandoning my faith and Christian values.
Some time between when I acknowledged my inner conflict about money and now, I encountered several scripture passages where Jesus’ views on money are more nuanced and pragmatic. An integral but often overlooked one is nestled in the gospel of Luke 16:1–9:
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
This passage may seem puzzling or even bizarre upon an initial reading. A rich man’s financial manager is about to be fired for poor performance, so he goes around to each of the rich man’s debtors and cuts a significant portion of what they owe in the hopes that they will be charitable towards him in the future, when he no longer has a job. The text doesn’t reveal the debtors’ responses but we can only assume that they were positive because he was forgiving large portions of the considerable sums they owed. The rich man’s response, however, was surprising— especially given the fact that he apparently did not give this plan his blessing. He commends his manager for being “shrewd,” the original Greek word for which can also be translated as “clever” or “wise.” Even more surprising than the rich man’s response is that Jesus then lifts up the manager as a model for his followers by urging them to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”
What does Jesus mean here by “dishonest wealth?” Is he encouraging people to use money dishonestly, like Robin Hood, to steal from one person and give it to another? No, I believe that by “dishonest wealth” he simply means money itself. Jesus says to use this temporal tool shrewdly, wisely, and cleverly. While money comes and goes, our relationships with God, others, and ourselves are lasting.
This has become the new core of my money theology: Money, in and of itself, has no real value. People in this world have granted it value but it is not intrinsically valuable like you and me, who are living, breathing beings with abilities to love, forgive, create, and imagine. Money is something we’ve created. If we think about physical dollars, for instance, we just decided to print green paper and declare that it had value at one point in history. Before that, it was coins. And way before that, it was livestock, home goods, and services. People bartered to get what they needed.
What happened, though, is that people started giving that blanket, coin, or green paper intrinsic value. Owning it made people feel more secure. But having green paper doesn’t make us okay. Good relationships make us okay — good relationships with God, others, and ourselves. Most of us have given money too much intrinsic value on one of two extremes: We think it is either very good and makes us more valuable, or we think it is intrinsically bad and we should not want it because money is the root of all evil. Both extremes give money too much value and power.
This story from the book of Luke also clarified Jesus’ other, more extreme views of money in the Bible. It showed me that money in and of itself was not evil; it is how humans value money over life itself that has become evil. In this passage Jesus teaches his followers that money is fine. It’s just a neutral fact of this world. Don’t avoid it, don’t love it. Be wise with it, be shrewd with it, and always use it for good. Sometimes, that good comes in the form of blessing others with it. Sometimes, that good comes in the form of blessing ourselves with it.
This more moderate conception of material wealth dispels one-sided myths about the inherent moral value of money which, in a sense, gives us permission to try to make more money so long as it serves a higher purpose. Jesus is clear in his admonitions of wanting money for the sake of itself, but I have to wonder: Who ever wants money for the sake of itself? Don’t all of us want money in service of something higher and more significant? I once attended a workshop on organizing personal finances and the facilitator asked all of us to write down what we would do and the kind of lives we would create if we had a limitless amount of money. In the five-minute span I was given, I wrote down:
Buy a beautiful craftsman style home in a town near my parents with a back house that would host our in-laws whenever they visited or other friends and family who wanted to visit us.
Work a little less at the church and spend more time writing and creating curriculums that help people.
Pay off all of my parents’ business debt and mortgage.
Pay off all of my brother’s law school loans so he can work fewer hours and spend more time with his wife and son.
Take my family on a cruise because my mom really wants to go on a cruise for some reason.
Travel more (with James, by myself, with family, and with friends).
Visit our family on the East Coast more often.
And that was it. The exercise was eye-opening because it showed me the truth of the aforementioned Lukan passage: What I really care about isn’t money for the sake of itself. What I really care about are my loved ones and practicing more of my creative capacities.
A friend of mine told me she wanted to be a billionaire so she could buy a house with glass walls near the beach. First off, that sounds dangerous. But when I asked her why she wanted that house with glass walls, it became clear that she believed this house would make her happier. She didn’t believe she could achieve that level of happiness on her own, in her life right now.
Herein lies the strongest and most problematic connection we tend to draw between material possessions and emotional well-being: We think more money will make us happier. We hear sages and religious leaders harp against this idea. And of all people, the actor Jim Carrey put it profoundly: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
Rich people still fail and get their dreams crushed. They get sick and lose loved ones. Money is not the magic pill that cures all of life’s problems; in fact, the irony is that magic pill has been ours since the moment we were born. The pill that truly saves and empowers us is the belief that humans have intrinsic and infinite value, which will never be taken away from us. We do not need to earn it or strive for it.
Out of our worthiness, we long to make connections with others. We also long to contribute to the world in our own unique ways with our gifts, talents, and imagination. To do this, we must believe and employ these three truths:
1. We are intrinsically beloved.
2. We are wired to love others.
3. We want to create and contribute to this world, whatever our financial state is.
Money’s role then, is as a neutral and temporal tool in assisting us to do this third part — creating lives that are aligned with the values and dreams we have for ourselves and others in this lifetime. We have all have tasted the joy and satisfaction of the creative process, from making a lovely scarf, to expressing exactly what one means to say in an essay, poem or email, to designing a room according to one’s tastes. This process of creation, of bringing something imagined into being, is what actually fulfills us up. It’s not the money itself.
There is one holdover from my former views on money that I still struggle with. It may be associated with my conservative Christian views but I also find that it’s a common concern even among those who didn’t grow up with similar teachings about money. Whenever I find myself planning to make more money on a certain project or career track, another thought quickly accompanies it: “Who am I to make so much money when there are millions of people starving around the world? Who am I to pursue and manifest my dreams when children die around the clock because they don’t have access to clean water?”
In working out this internal conflict, I have found Marianne Williamson’s acclaimed words to offer some resolution: “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Every single person in the world has the ability to dream and manifest their dreams. Granted, some people’s abilities are more encouraged or suppressed than others, but we all have these abilities nonetheless. When we utilize our abilities to create and contribute, we awaken and inspire others’ innate longings to do so as well. Alternatively, when we suppress our dreams and abilities to create, we perpetuate the myth that money is a power greater than any of us — a power we fall prey to. In actuality, it’s a resource we create.
That’s right: We create money. We were the ones to originally create money and we are still the ones who create more of it in our lives. We control it rather than the reverse, and we control it by using it to fashion lives that are most fulfilling to us, which in most cases revolve around strengthening our relationships and assisting our innate longings to create and contribute; this might mean building clean water wells in developing nations, writing books, or making a mean casserole. But whenever I hear others (or even myself) complaining that I wish I had more money to better my life, I first try to reorient my mindset about money. Money isn’t an external force outside of us that we are victim to. Rather, we get to create wealth as we tap into and nurture our capacities to make more money.
More importantly though, we have the power to create the lives we long for in this very moment, no matter how much money we have or earn. Earlier, I shared what I would do if I had a limitless amount of money. My list was illuminating because it revealed that my true sources of happiness are the well-being of loved ones, living a creative life, and living in a beautiful space — all of which I can pursue at this very moment. I don’t yet have that craftsman-style home in Southern California but I have carefully designed my home in a way that is aligned with my aesthetic preferences. That process of remodeling, even on a tight budget, was greatly satisfying for me. And in the meantime, my husband and I are still working towards buying that dream home.
Gretchen Rubin, a best-selling author who specializes in studying happiness, shares several “formulas” for happiness based on research and personal experience. One of those formulas is this: “Being happier requires you to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” She believes that those two seemingly contradictory states — being content while at the same time seeking continual growth, are essential for happiness. The predicament most of us find ourselves in, however, is in wanting more without feeling content and grateful for all of the rich blessings and capacities that inundate our lives at this very moment. Money can make us happy but our happiness is not contingent upon it. When we believe the latter, those things we long for (such as that house with glass walls, fancy vacations, and nice clothes) are no longer the preconditions to our happiness. They are now things we can enjoy as, hopefully, already happy people.
I am now at a place in my life where my husband and I make good money. We no longer feel guilty simply for doing that. We know how to invest it and we even think of ways to make more of it. It’s fun to figure that out. We also love being generous and giving it away, especially in service to other people and good relationships. It gives me joy to tip waiters and waitresses, the car mechanic, and teachers who offer me important skills. Likewise, it inspires me to offer the best services I can when people pay for my services—such as my preaching, pastoral care, workshops, ceremonies, and writing. I also know that if I lost all of our money in a second, I could be just as happy as I am now. Money doesn’t make me okay but my beliefs about my ability to create the life I want and good relationships make me okay. More than okay, actually.
They are what make me ultimately happy.