Friday, June 4, 2010

A Little Goes a Long Way

Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of the wicked; for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous. (Psalm 37.16-17)

The Dark Side of Wealth

My high school’s English department offered one film study course, but only seniors could take it. Having been a movie nut all my life, I’d gobbled up more movies before freshman year than many people see in a lifetime. While I waited to get into the course, I endeared myself to the instructor. We spent hours together after school, talking movies. One Friday, he pointed to a film canister and 16-mm projector. “Take these home and bring them back Monday.” I read the label and nearly fainted: Citizen Kane, the picture I’d read so much about but never seen, since its studio, RKO, hadn’t licensed it for TV. I’m sure I screened it a dozen times that weekend.

With each viewing, the novelty of Orson Welles’s techniques faded further into the background, while the movie’s theme pushed nearer the fore. The shadows, distorted angles, and sound design painted stark pictures of the dark side of wealth. The effervescently young Charles Foster Kane almost imperceptibly matured into to a leaden, sinister loser. He surrounded himself with the most beautiful things money afforded. Yet the more he got, the less of him he had. Kane truly was greater than a dazzling display of film artistry or a sophisticated pastiche of the newspaper titan, William Randolph Hearst. It was an epic parable about soul-rotting largesse, exactly the same story Jesus tells about the rich fool who keeps building bigger barns only to die lost and alone. Citizen Kane, of course, ends with the reporter never solving the mystery of Kane’s life or what “Rosebud,” Kane’s last word, means. He delivers the film’s closing line: “I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.” Jesus ends the story of the rich fool with, “This is how it will be with anyone who stores things for himself but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12.21)

God’s Economy

If wealth on any level, from vast riches to modest accumulation, invariably led to fates like Kane's and the rich fool’s, it would be easy to say, “No thanks.” But wealth isn’t a problem. What we do with it and what we allow it to do with us are the issues. When getting more things is driven by a desire to have more—or, worse yet, prove we can get it—we become misers. We may spend lots of money. Yet if what we’re spending it on remains in our possession, we’re not parting with a penny. Eventually, we become misers in its real sense: actually miserable. We adopt a mentality that Jonathan Larson, author or Rent—another great American artwork about wealth set at the opposite end of the spectrum—described as “you are what you own.”

We’re not what we own. We’re made for distribution, not warehousing. This is Jesus’s message when He contrasts storing things for oneself with being “rich toward God.” When we learn true wealth is self-worth, not net worth, two things happen. One, we realize we’re much richer than we appear. And two, we find our lives are fullest when our storage is emptiest. That’s when flow happens. More pours into us so more can pour out of us. We don’t need to gather it; it’s given—not necessarily in dollars and cents, but always in priceless commodities like compassion, faith, hope, kindness, wisdom, peace, and contentment. These are divine currencies, instruments of God’s economy. And their value doesn’t accrue with hording. They increase with flow. David knew the real meaning of wealth, even though “on paper” he was the richest man in Israel. He writes, “Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of the wicked; for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.” (Psalm 37.16-17) As Kane and the rich fool find out, power and permanence aren’t guaranteed or measured by human investment. On the other hand, when we invest in God’s economy, a little goes a long way. It lasts.

What We Have

The wicked go broke, but the Lord upholds the righteous. When we’re rich toward God, He ensures our investments. But more than that, He dispels mystery from our lives. What we do and why we do it become very clear to us, and those around us. The only people who don’t get it are misers trapped in the human economy. They don’t understand how our lives can be so full when we have little “to show for.” They don’t recognize why fears and insecurities that plague them don’t worry us. They don’t grasp why we place less value in money than God’s gifts. They don’t perceive why actual worth is evident in a balanced life, not on a balance sheet. And they balk at our banking habits.

We take Christ’s counsel literally: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6.19-20) As we’ve learned in very real ways lately, human securities are not secure. But, tell me, when has God’s bank needed bailing out? When has His investment firm gone bust? When have the currencies in His economy foundered? And when has the flow of His blessings crashed? Never. Better the little we have by way of righteousness than the wealth of the world by way of disobedience. God doesn’t need a lot. All He needs is what we have—what He gave us to give back to Him. When we spend our lives being rich toward God, the little we have will go a long, an infinitely long way.

Kane’s treasures: things we collect and measures based on what we own mean nothing in God’s economy.


grant said...

Thanks - very appropos currently as my wife and I are reviewing some key issues.

I love also how your words fit with Jesus' metaphor - "where moth and rust destroy,..."

Moths and rust imply things that are not being used.

Tim said...

Moths and rust imply things that are not being used.

I missed that, Grant. I'm so glad you caught it and passed it along!

I'm also grateful to hear the post was timely for you. I came to it out of a personal situation in which Walt and I are seeking guidance, and I almost scrapped it, thinking I might be being led out of my own circumstances. (Sometimes I'm concerned I may miss what's needed here by getting to focused on my own needs...) Knowing it's helpful to you helps me very much.

Be blessed, my brother,

PS: Your link to the music page you mentioned earlier didn't take here. When you get a moment, could you send it my way? And I have a music suggestion for you, too: Mumford & Sons, a "secular" Brit string band, many of whose songs probe many faith issues. They're not conclusive, but they inspire a lot of introspection. ("Roll Away the Stone" and "Awake My Soul" are my favorites.)

TomCat said...

I liked this, Tim. Ironically, my cartoon today is a spoof of a prosperity gospel preacher.

I understand you don't mean that. You are talking about sharing what you have with those who are less fortunate instead of worring about accumulating it.

Once I was rich, and quite greedy. I was miserable. Now I am poor, but generous. I am content.

Tim said...

Tom, haven't got over to your place yet today. I'll look for the cartoon. I rank "prosperity gospel" alongside other doctrinal heresies--it completely ignores Christ's teaching of abundance as a means, not an end, and it turns faith as the means of reaching that end. Hence, it puts a price on faith and makes wealth an indicator of each individual's belief. This is, well, baloney.

You nail it. Greed ends in misery; generosity brings contentment. That's why Jesus, Paul, and every other apostolic writer who addresses the topic say, too.

Blessings, my friend,

TomCat said...

Thanks Tim. I thought you's like that cartoon. The elderly mother of a close friend squandered her life savings on Jim and Tammy Faye.