Financial matters have been making the headlines over the past week, haven’t they? Frantic last-minute negotiations have been taking place to try and keep Greece from financial meltdown. The politicians and policy-makers of the European Union and International Monetary Fund have been trying to find a way to keep the Greek economy afloat. They’ve been working hard to avoid a banking collapse in Athens. We shall see over the coming weeks and months whether enough has been done to keep Greece in the Euro, deal with its debt, and save its financial system.
But financial matters aren’t just a concern to nation states and international bankers, are they? All of us need to decide how much money we need to live on. What income we want to earn. How we should spend whatever wages or benefits we get.
And there is no shortage of people seeking to offer us financial advice. For example, the loud voice of popular culture and the mass media encourages us to pursue wealth relentlessly, as the best way to achieve true contentment in life (They call it retail therapy don’t they?!). Our culture encourages us to maximize our income and undertake “conspicuous consumption” to earn social status and respect. This materialist approach to life could be summed up in the phrase: “I shop, therefore I am” or expressed in the mantra: “Money will make you happy!”
Its fair to say that in somewhere like London – in somewhere like Gidea Park – this materialist message is particularly strong and particularly powerful. I think its true to describe it as the dominant philosophy of our area. It’s the number one belief system of our affluent society. But is it true? Is it really right to pursue a high income at any price? Is there really no hope for those of us who aren’t able to earn big bucks?
If you were here last week, you will know that we’ve begun a series of sermons in the Bible book of Proverbs. A book that offers us God’s wisdom for life. Wisdom on how to live successfully and ethically in God’s world. We learnt last week, didn’t we, that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Not fear in the sense of terror. But fear meaning respect. A respect we should express by obeying God’s commands, by trusting his promises and (above all) by believing in his Son.
But today we are looking at what Proverbs has to say about money. We’ll be taking wise financial advice from God’s Word. We are going to look at Proverbs teaching on money under three headings: i) The benefits of money, ii) The dangers of money; and iii) The limits of money. Or, to put it another way, Proverbs tells us to be grateful, to be careful, and to be righteous! Let’s begin by looking first at the benefits of money.
- Be grateful! The benefits of money
According to the United Nations, there are 3 billion people – almost half the world’s population – who survive on less than $2 a day. To live in such poverty must be a terrible thing. Few of us here can imagine what it must be like to lack enough money even for essential needs like clean water, food, clothing and shelter. It is always harrowing, isn’t it, to see people in this situation on our TV screens. A terrible reminder that we live in a sinful, fallen world.
The book of Proverbs is not naïve. Its passages on money acknowledge its many benefits. Proverbs recognizes that a reasonable income is a great blessing, a great security against hardship and uncertainty in life. As Proverbs chapter 10 verse 5 puts it: “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”
In our uncertain world, a decent income provides some insurance against ill-health or other misfortune. If it is invested wisely, money earnt today can carry us through redundancy or retirement in the future. A steady income can help us provide for our family and friends.
Making money also gives us the great opportunity to be generous. The higher income we earn, the more can give to alleviate poverty and hardship, both at home and abroad. Money also enables us to support Christian ministry and mission. As our income increases, we are able to give to Gospel work in the UK and overseas. Thank you for your financial support for our ministry here at St Michael’s, especially those of you who now give by standing order. Thank you too for your generosity towards Christian Aid, Operation Christmas Child and other Christian charities.
Verse 9 in our passage this morning is just one of many in Proverbs that encourage generous giving. It says: “A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.” Another verse says “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for his Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God” (14:31). And a third says: ““Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed” (19:17).
When it comes to being generous, perhaps the most challenging question is this: Would people looking at how we spend our money spot any difference to how our non-Christian neighbours use their income? Are we being more sacrificial than them in our spending? I hope so!
So Proverbs tells us to appreciate our income. It tells us that money has its benefits and its blessings. Money gives us the ability to be generous. But money also has its dangers. Dangers that Proverbs says we should be very careful to avoid.
- Be careful! The dangers of money
I read recently that being a lumberjack is the most dangerous job in America. Cutting down timber has higher fatality rates than any other profession. It seems that chainsaws and falling trees are a lethal combination. (Perhaps that famous Monty Python song needs to be re-written – “I’m a lumberjack and I’m NOT ok!”).
When it comes to money, Proverbs highlights two great dangers for us avoid. Not chainsaws and falling trees, but pride and greed.
The first danger is pride. If we are relatively wealthy we should never look down on those who earn less. Having a healthy salary is no reason to feel superior to someone on a small hourly wage or to denigrate those barely surviving on benefits. Ten times in Proverbs we are cautioned against this attitude. Proverbs 16:18, for example, warns that “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” You see, pride is a sinful attitude that angers God and divides people. Most importantly, it is wrong to look down on those with a lower income than ourselves because we are all equal in God’s sight. We all made in the image of God, whatever our bank balance. As verse 2 of today’s passage puts it: “Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the maker of them all”.
After pride, the other great danger of money is greed. A greedy person is never satisfied. In its most extreme form, a greedy person will do almost anything for an extra pound. They will exploit their employees, go into debt, neglect their family, or ruin their health if it means they can increase their income. Unsurprisingly, Proverbs warns against such behaviour.
- For example, in verse 7 today we’re reminded that “the borrower is the servant to the lender”. So we should avoid debt where possible, and try to live within our means. It may be wise to take out a mortgage for a house, but it is probably foolish to run up huge credit card bills when we go shopping.
- Verse 16 today also condemns a greedy person who “oppresses the poor to increase his wealth”. Employers should not seek greater profits at the expense of their employees. And we should spend our money on fair trade goods that give a fair wage to those who make them.
- Proverbs 23:4, meanwhile, should come as a warning to the workaholic that his efforts to become wealthy may harm his health. Because it says “Do not wear yourself out to get rich – have the wisdom to show restraint.”
Proverbs leaves us in no doubt. It says greed does no good for us, or for those around us. The New Testament certainly agrees. I’m sure we all know the famous phrase from 1 Timothy 6:10 – “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”. Like pride, greed is a great danger to avoid.
So we should be on the look out for symptoms of greed in our lives:
- Are we spending too much money on what we want – rather than just buying what we need?
- Are we using up our savings and going into debt – rather than living within our means?
- And are we trying to keep up with the Jones’ – rather than learning to be content with what we have?
As well as being careful with the dangers of money, Proverbs also wants us to keep our income in the right perspective. It wants us to recognize the limits of money…
- Be righteous! The limits of money
I’m sure you all know the saying about the two certainties of life – death and taxes. But have you ever stopped to ask what else those two things have in common? The answer, of course, is that both death and taxes take your money away from you. Money has its limitations. Our bank balance can’t withstand the advances of the taxman or the grim reaper! And it doesn’t stand up too well to inflation either! As Proverbs 27:24 puts it: “riches do not endure forever; and a crown is not secure for all generations ”
We need to focus our attention on something more permanent than our bank balance. We need to seek something more precious than money. We need to get something we could never buy or earn for ourselves. Proverbs says what we need more than money is – ‘righteousness’.
Righteousness is one of the most important words in the Bible. It is a word that means being right with God. It’s a word that means you are one of God’s friends, not a foe. If you are righteous, it means you meet with God’s approval.
One day we will all be judged. Whether we are rich or poor, we will all meet our maker and he will declare his verdict on us. If God declares us to be ‘righteous’, we will receive his blessings and eternal life. But if not, we will face his wrath. That may not be a popular belief, but it is a biblical one. It’s certainly found in Proverbs. Listen to Proverbs 11:4, for example: “Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (11:4). Elsewhere it says “even in death, the righteous have a refuge” but “when a wicked man dies, his hope perishes” (11:7, 14:32).
One way we could be found righteous would be to live a perfect life. A blameless life in which we did nothing wrong. As Proverbs 28:6 says “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless, than a rich man whose ways are crooked.”
But there is a problem, because none of us is blameless. None of us has lived a perfect life, whether we are rich or poor. None of us deserves to be declared righteous by God, whatever our income. We need another way to receive righteousness from God. A way we can receive God’s righteousness as a free gift, because we can’t earn it or buy it for ourselves.
Thankfully there is a way. Listen to these wonderful words from Romans chapter 3 – “But now a righteousness from God has been made known. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe”.
The wonderful news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus lived the blameless life that we are unable to live. And he has paid off our moral debt to God through his death on the Cross.
Whether we are rich or poor in this world, if we believe in Jesus he can make us rich before God. Whether we have worldly wealth or not, Jesus makes every Christian innocent in his Father’s sight. He has purchased our place in heaven forever. To use the language of Proverbs, Jesus has become our righteousness, our refuge, and our hope.