Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:19a “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,. . .”
Jesus talked of fasting because Christians often tend to be too earthly minded, treasuring this world’s things too much. One reason we can not influence prechristians to focus more on heavenly things is, our own focus is on worldly things.
Christians are to be spiritually minded, but we live in constant contact with physical stuff all around us. Our five senses ever bombard our minds with stimuli of earthly things attractive to us. None of us needs to stoke our material desires. The love of accumulation is so strong in our nature that we can easily live a whole lifetime and never meet anyone totally free from the power of its fascination.
Christians are in a never ending struggle. We seek to counterbalance living a simple lifestyle like our Lord’s while living in a world full of things. Our Master had few possessions, had nowhere to lay His head, owned no status symbols, and left no estate. Though claiming to be His followers and imitators, we often neither try to imitate the kind of success He achieved nor define success the way He did.
Our inability to relate to, and to re-enact, Christ’s austere attainments with regard to material things becomes more pronounced in times of spiritual decline. A low spiritual vitality and an illicit love for money are common bedfellows.
History proves, when Christians are not doing well spiritually, the lust for money becomes a common vice among churches and their members. When people were being accepted into the Church wholesale, without repentance and true conversion, Jacob of Sarug (c. 500) bluntly stated the love of money became the new form of idolatry Satan used effectively to replace the people’s former idols.
Empty religion and covetousness have always gone together. The two promiscuous priests Hophni and Phinehas stole from the offerings people brought for God (1 SM 2:29). Ananias and Sapphira, pretending to love God totally, misrepresented their finances. They lied and died, having loved money more than God.
The unspiritual priests of Jesus’ day became exorbitantly rich by extortion, forcing people to use “holy” currency obtainable only at money changing booths in the temple. Demas left Paul, “having loved this present world” (2 TM 4:10).
Brothers and sisters, we too are in danger of covetousness. We all readily admit our churches are spiritually anemic. Let us remember our churches are but collective expressions of what we are individually. Our churches are in a low spiritual condition because we the members are low. Thus, in this era of spiritual decline we find ourselves especially susceptible to an overly strong love for money. Our Lord’s words, though spoken 2000 years ago, must resonate in our ears today.
The danger we face is not as much in the material things themselves as it is in our attitude toward them. Having possessions is not a sin. The Bible endorses and encourages the concept of private property. “Thou shalt not steal” (EX 20:15), one of the ten commandments, indicates you have the right to possess things I cannot have. Nothing is wrong with making money. “Not slothful in business” (RM 12:11) is a Christian virtue. We are expected to work hard and earn a living. Nothing is wrong with investing and saving for the future. The Bible commends to us the example of the ant, which is smart enough to store food for the future (PR 6:6-8). Nothing is wrong with being rich. Abraham, David, and Job, three of our greatest heroes, were extremely well off. Having wealth is not the same as being enslaved to wealth. It is no more spiritual to renounce things than it is to accumulate them for the right reasons. For example, a person who has the spiritual gift of giving ought to make money in order to have it to distribute.
Wrong comes when we use and view stuff improperly, when it becomes the center of our lives, when we live for it, and dwell on it constantly. Evil comes when we clutch money too tightly, becoming obsessed with self-gratification rather than with expending a proper portion of our resources on spiritual priorities.
Lloyd-Jones told of a farmer whose prize cow birthed twins. Spiritually inspired, the farmer decided to dedicate one of the calves to God. He told his wife that when the calves were grown he would sell one and give all the proceeds to the Lord’s work. Weeks later the wife, finding her husband miserable and depressed, asked what was wrong. He replied, “I have sad news. The Lord’s calf just died.”
Why is it always “the Lord’s calf” that dies? When we have to choose between something for the Lord or something for ourselves, why is it that God often loses? Because we are too often too much in love with the things of this world.
When times are tough, and the money is not stretching as far as we would like, who gets the Lord’s tithe? One-tenth does not sound like a large percentage, but when money is tight the Lord’s portion amazingly seems to mushroom out of proportion. God’s little part suddenly appears to become huge, and we hate to give it up. This is one reason we have to give the Lord His portion first. Otherwise the devil adeptly makes it seemingly mushroom in size and purchasing ability.
May God help us use this world’s resources aright, for ultimately, all property belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof” (PS 24:1), and we shall have to answer, to give a reckoning, for how we used His resources.
Prechristians view the accumulation of possessions as a matter of ownership. They think they own things, and thus believe they can do whatever they want to with their possessions. Christians, though, see themselves as merely custodians of what belongs to God. Prechristians labor to own; Christians labor to manage. A correct understanding of stuff begins with this profound truth: everything belongs to God, and thus must be used in ways pleasing to Him, not to us.
Tithing helps remind us of this fact. We tithe, not to say the other ninety percent is ours, but as a way of saying all we have is God’s. This may be one reason we balk at tithing. To bring any portion under His sway is to acknowledge all is His. Maybe we resist the part because we resist wanting to yield the whole.
We are caretakers, not owners, of our jobs, children, status, positions, abilities, talents, and possessions. All we have or ever will have is His. Thus, never let it be “the Lord’s calf” who dies. All belongs to Him. Ever return His to Him first.