Money can do strange things to people. A few years back, a survey in England asked people to imagine first that the average income was £100,000, but they earned £125,000. Second, they were to imagine that the average income was £200,000, but their income was £175,000. They were then asked which they would prefer. The majority chose £125,000—they would rather have the possibility of lower spending opportunities if it kept them ahead of the pack!
In another study in France, it was found that those who had merely touched money were less likely to be helpful. One hundred people were asked to participate in a survey about children and authority. Half of them had just used an ATM. Sixty-two per cent of those who had not used the ATM agreed to do the survey. Only 34 per cent of those who had used the ATM agreed.
As a check, another test of 50 people had a woman walk ahead of them and drop her bus ticket. Among those who had not used the ATM, 96 per cent told the woman she had dropped it. Only 60 per cent of those who used the ATM did so.
In late 2014 a series of six experiments conducted in the United States demonstrated that people who were prompted to think about money through pictures of notes or coins were more likely to conceal their emotions compared to those shown different images.
Money can do strange things to people. Like Kim once said to Kath in the Australian TV sitcom Kath and Kim, “I want to be effluent, Mum. Effluent.” We know what she really meant, but our attitude to money can create something quite different.
Jesus talks about money
Jesus often spoke about money. He even told a rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor (Mark 10:17-27). Then, in the temple, He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and declared that they had turned the temple into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:12-13). He sometimes used extreme measures to make His point!
And didn’t He say that money is the root of evil? Well, no, but that is a common misunderstanding of the apostle Paul’s point that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10, italics added). And to this point, Jesus taught many lessons about money. Here are seven:
1. Priorities are important.
Jesus never spoke against wealth, but He emphasised priorities. You find this in His Sermon on the Mount. He said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). By this He meant that earthly treasure can be lost to moths, rust and thieves. His answer? Store your treasures in heaven. His is a heaven-first policy.
He also said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (verse 24). In the parallel passage in Luke 16:14 the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, responded with scoffing. They disagreed, because they “loved money.” As Jesus predicted, we will end up hating one or the other.
His big point was this: seek the kingdom of God above all else (Matthew 6:33). If money gets in the way, you have wrong priorities. As Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, authors of the book Affluenza, point out, “It is not money and material possessions that are the root of the problem: it is our attachment to them and the way they condition our thinking, give us our self-definition and rule our lives.”
2. We’re stewards, not owners of wealth.
That’s the strong message out of Jesus’ parable of the servants (Matthew 25:14-30). In this story the master leaves on a journey and gives a bundle of money (variously described as talents or bags of silver or gold) to three servants. The amount given to each one is in proportion to their abilities.
Earlier in this discussion, Jesus had talked about His second coming, so the message was that He, the Master, was about to leave on a journey. We are servants waiting for His return. He has given us our abilities, our giftedness, our passion and our money. These have come from God as a gift as much as every breath and heartbeat that keep us alive.
As stewards, we’re responsible for what we’ve been given—including the wise use of money.
3. Care for your family’s needs.
In Mark 7 Jesus confronted an issue that was causing hardship for the elderly. He reminded some Pharisees and teachers of religious law of the problems they were causing with a tradition called corban—that is, making a vow or promise to God. When their parents struggled to make ends meet, these religious teachers responded that they had promised to God what they could have given their parents and therefore couldn’t help them (Mark 7:11-13).
In this way, Jesus said, they disregarded their needy parents whom the Ten Commandments say should be honoured. Family needs should be cared for—at whatever age.
4. Care for the needy.
Jesus told a story about a judgement scene where, like a shepherd, He would separate “the sheep” from “the goats.” In His story the sheep inherited the kingdom (Matthew 25:31-46).
The difference between the two groups is that the sheep (Jesus called them “the righteous” in verse 37) fed hungry people, gave a glass of water to thirsty people, invited strangers into their homes, gave clothing to the naked, cared for the sick and visited prisoners. When they did this, He said, they did it to Him. His point is that those whom He receives into His kingdom some day will be those who cared for the needy in this life—something that often can be done only with money. His message to us is to do what we can as if we were doing it for Him.
5. Pay your taxes.
When Jesus was about ten years old, a tax revolt broke out in Israel against the Romans. Led by a Galilean named Judas, these rebels refused to pay any tax except to God. The revolt ended in both tears and blood.
Perhaps the Pharisees had this in mind when they tried to trap Jesus by asking, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22:17). Jesus recognised the trap and asked them to show Him a coin.
“Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” He asked.
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
To which Jesus responded, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (verse 21). In other words, pay both your taxes and your tithes.
6. Tithing is expected.
Jesus considered tithing to be a biblical principle. Tithe is giving 10 per cent of one’s income to God. The Jews gave their tithes at the temple. Christians usually give it to their church.
Jesus was in the midst of a stinging speech against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees when He condemned them for extreme measures in tithing (even to giving a tenth of their garden herbs!) while being careless about justice, mercy and faith. He said to them—and to us—that paying tithe is good, but don’t forget these other matters (Matthew 23:23).
7. Some moments demand extravagance.
When Mary poured expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet, her extravagant gesture caused protest from the disciples—especially Judas, the group’s treasurer (Matthew 26:6-13).
Jesus defended her action in spite of its cost (which was almost a year’s wages!). “Why are you bothering this woman?” He said. “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (verse 10).
In his book, What Did Jesus Do?, author F. Scott Spencer concluded, “While Judas calculates the three-hundred-denarii loss of Mary’s spilt perfume, Jesus cares only about Mary’s extravagant love.”
Money is a spiritual tool
Money can do strange things to people. “Our public concerns might be about health and the environment, but our private spending patterns show that the majority…feel they suffer from a chronic lack of ‘stuff,’ ” write Hamilton and Denniss in Affluenza.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit refers to the Hebrew word shalom (peace), which comes from the word shalem (wholeness or completeness). The word for purchasing and paying for an item is l’shalem. In an approach that combines the divine with the practical, in his book Offerings of the Heart Zevit advises using money as a spiritual tool: “To obtain something is to create an exchange that leaves all parties feeling whole and holy in their comings and goings with each other. Money used as a spiritual tool in this way has the potential to leave every-one resting in a place of peace, of shalom.”
It’s a place of peace that can’t be found in the selfish use of money. Jesus set the priority: “Seek the kingdom of God above all else”—which puts money in its proper place.
Bruce Manners is a retired Signs of the Times Australia editor, having served in the role from 1989–2003. He lives in Melbourne, Australia. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.