The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 11/12/95

Text: Luke 16:13-14 (Psalm 50:1-15)

To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Money. Money. Money. Since today is Pledge Sunday, I am going to preach about money. No surprise. But what MAY surprise you is that I am not going to BASH money. No railing about money being the root of all evil (which is an incorrect quote, by the way); not even "the LOVE of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (which is the correct one - I Tim. 6:10). No. I think money is wonderful. I think everyone ought to have as much of it as they can make good use of.

Money is a marvelous tool. Money allows us to live, to eat, to drink, have clothing, shelter, transportation, maintain our health, help our families and friends. Money is an instrument of social expression - we give money to those individuals and entities that are in our good graces; we withhold money as a sign of our disapproval. Money can be a weapon that we use to defend ourselves from attack or to bring down our enemies. In our society, the list of things money can buy is endless. As the Wall Street Journal says, money is "a universal passport to everywhere except heaven, and a universal provider of everything except happiness." (More about that in a minute.)

Money is a wonderful invention. And that IS what it is, you know - an invention. Somewhere back in the dim and distant past, someone decided that the commerce of goods and services based on a barter system in a society that was becoming more complex was unhandy. Direct barter required that you locate someone who wanted what you could provide, and just by coincidence happened to have available for exchange something YOU wanted. Something better was needed. Enter money.

Scholars tell us that in primitive societies money was not used for everyday trade but only for certain ceremonial and public transfers, such as payment of tribute, bride price, or blood money. Particular moneys could be used only for particular purposes, or for payments to certain social classes, such as gold and silver for aristocrats and copper for common people.

As economies developed, money was used more and more for ordinary trade and tended to consist of metals, although shells were used for a long time in Africa. Coinage was probably invented in ancient China and then reinvented around 700 BC in what is now Turkey. Paper currency was also invented in China, at least as early as the 11th century. Ancient Babylon had a highly developed monetary system with banks and credit, as did ancient Greece and Rome. (1) (Aren't you thrilled at learning all this?) And these days, of course, money comes in any number of forms - from enduring precious metals in coins to ephemeral electronic impulses between computers. All of those are money.

We might well ask why people are willing to exchange valuable goods and services for pieces of paper called $10 bills. The answer is that these pieces of paper are valuable because we know that other people are willing to take them in exchange for their goods. The same is ultimately true of gold or silver or even those computer bleeps - they are valuable because we know that other people treat them as valuable. Money - A VERY clever invention.

I will say this, though. For all its long history, I think money is misunderstood. For example, money is used to measure wealth. Bad idea. Why? Because the value of money itself is not stable or predictable - you have no idea how it will be effected by inflation or deflation. Do you remember those pictures that came out of Germany during the Weimar Republic showing folks with wheelbarrows full of money going down to the bakery for a loaf of bread? You might be the proud possessor of what you think is a BUNDLE, but in a flash, it could be worth next to nothing. How much money one has is NOT a good measure of wealth.

Another misunderstanding. Money is not a good measure of value. In our society, money is used to "keep score" - in other words, folks who get the most are those who are deemed to be the most valuable. For example, the $50-million a year professional quarterback is considered more valuable to his team than the $5-million a year offensive lineman. And, indeed, one of the problems teams have is the bruising of egos when one player finds that he is being paid less than another player of (presumed) lesser ability.

In recent days, the local sports pages treated us to a running commentary on the negotiations between the Charlotte Hornets and their star center, Alonzo Mourning. Back and forth the dickering went, day after day, week after week. Finally, the Hornets offered him a contract which would have paid him over $11-million a year. Not enough. "`Zo" said he could not survive on less than $13-million, so bye-bye - he was traded to the Miami Heat.

WAIT A MINUTE! If money is a measure of value, what does that say about our society? If Alonzo Mourning gets $13-million a year and the average Guilford County school teacher gets around $25,000, do you mean to say that, to our society, one 25-year-old basketball player is worth the same as FIVE-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY TEACHERS? That is insane. Money is a VERY poor measure of value.

One more misunderstanding. Despite what the Wall Street Journal says, Money CAN buy happiness. Granted, the happiness might not be permanent, but, at least it is there for a time. That, of course, is one of money's inherent limitations - the solutions money offers tend to be short-term. For example, you have heard the old proverb, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; TEACH a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." The lesson is that brief acts of charity - sending a donation to a soup kitchen, for example - do SOME good, but more lasting solutions to the problem of hunger will involve more than simply the investment of money. Money DOES solve problems, but only for a while.

In 1991, 74 percent of America's entering college students declared that a very important life goal was "becoming very well off financially" - nearly double the 39 percent who said the same in 1970. (2) Most adults share this materialism, believing that 10 to 20 percent more income would make them happier, by relieving the stress of unpaid bills and enabling a few longed-for purchases.

Are they right? Let us make the question more specific: First, are people in rich countries happier than those in poor countries? Are the French happier than Hungarians? A little bit. But the association between national wealth and well-being is surprisingly modest. For example, during the 1980's the Irish had half the incomes and purchasing power of the West Germans. Yet year after year, the Irish were happier.

Second, within any country, are rich people the happiest? Having food, shelter, and safety is basic to our well-being. But once able to afford life's necessities, increasing levels of affluence matter surprisingly little. Wealth is like health: although its absence can breed misery, having it is no guarantee of happiness. We need bread, yet happiness does not come by bread alone. In one survey, people on Forbes's list of the wealthiest Americans reported only slightly greater happiness than other Americans, and 37 percent were LESS happy than the average. Even people who have won a state lottery gain only a temporary jolt of joy. Satisfaction is not getting what you want, it is wanting what you have.

Third, as cultures become more affluent, do their people become happier? In 1957, as John Galbraith was about to describe us as the "Affluent Society," our per-person income, expressed in today's dollars, was less than $8,000. Today it is over $16,000, making us the DOUBLY Affluent Society. Compared to 1957, we have twice as many cars per person: we have microwave ovens, color TVs, VCR's, answering machines, home computers, not to mention more than $12-billion a year worth of brand-name athletic shoes.

So, are we happier than we were in the mid-50's? We are not. In 1957, 35 percent of Americans told the National Opinion Research Center they were "very happy." In the 90's (1991, to be exact), with doubled American affluence, 31 percent said the same. To judge by soaring rates of depression, the quintupling of the violent-crime rate since 1960, the doubling of the divorce rate, the slight decline in marital happiness among the marital survivors, and the tripling of the teen suicide rate, we are richer and unhappier.

Perhaps you saw David Letterman's comments in this week's Newsweek (3) about whether or not he might quit the Late Show on CBS at the end of his contract. Here is a man who makes a salary of $14-million a year confessing that at times while doing his show, he has scribbled on his desk pad, "I hate myself." Hmmm.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding about money is its proper place in our lives. As we have said, money is a wonderful servant, but it is a horrible master. When our lives become too dominated by the acquisition and retention of money, we have made this wonderful invention into an idol - we are no less foolish than those of ancient days who would cut down a tree, carve it up, then set it in a place of honor and bow down to it as a god. Bad idea.

The result of the idolatry of money is that terribly skewed sense of priorities that we find pervasive in modern society. Fathers and mothers are always at work trying to earn more and more so their families (whom they never see) will have everything their little hearts desire...except for some time with each other. Business people become convinced that nothing is more important than the bottom line - not quality, not dependability, not even honesty - just the bottom line. Politicians who deal with figures like a million here and a billion there become tempted to pass out financial rewards among supporters through questionable contracts, not to mention being tempted to find some way to divert some of those funds to personal use. This is another litany that could go on and on and on. All because it is so easy to take this wonderful invention - money - and make it an idol. As Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (Luke 16:13). The issue is simply this: Who is the boss?

At this time of the year, as churches around the country go through their annual stewardship campaigns, there is much talk about tithing - giving 10 percent of income back to the Lord. Rightly so. The tithe is not some arbitrary portion chosen by some church or denomination. It is the biblical measure - God's instruction - concerning the appropriate handling of money. Why ten percent? I do not know...but I have a suspicion. I believe that God chose the ten percent figure because it was a large enough portion to make us notice it, but small enough to allow us plenty to handle our affairs. Those who tithe can avoid the temptation to idolize money; people do not willingly give away a significant portion of their god. Those who tithe make a very tangible affirmation of who is boss - they quite literally put their money where their mouth is.

I read recently that on the wall of Lyndon Johnson's White House office hung a framed letter written more than 100 years earlier by General Sam Houston to Johnson's great-grandfather Baines. Sam Houston's signature makes the letter valuable, but the story behind it is much more significant. You see, Mr. Baines is the man who led Sam Houston to Christ. The General was a changed man, no longer coarse and belligerent, but peaceful and content. The day came for Sam Houston to be baptized - an incredible event in the eyes of those who knew his previous lifestyle and attitude. After the baptism, Sam said he would like to pay half of the local minister's annual salary. When someone asked him why, his simple response was, "My pocketbook was baptized too." (4)

Is your pocketbook baptized? In the mint, a one-dollar bill and a twenty-dollar bill become friends. They get split up and go into circulation. Six years later they happen to be in the same load of bills returned to the mint for destruction. So the one says to the twenty, "How was your life?" "Oh, marvelous," says the twenty, "I went to Vegas, to Europe, to the Super Bowl, and one time to the Ritz Hotel, just wonderful. And you, what about your life." "Awful," says the one dollar, "every week the same: church, church, church."

Money, money, money. A wonderful tool, even though sometimes misunderstood. In a moment you will be asked to come to the Lord's Table and offer your Commitment Form to indicate your stewardship plans for the coming year - time (our most precious commodity), talent (God's gift to you to be shared with all), and finally money (the least important of the three, but still very necessary). God does not NEED any of them from us. As the Psalmist affirmed, God owns "every wild animal of the forest...the cattle on a thousand hills...all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field...the world and all that is in it..." (Psalm 50:10-12). All we have belongs to God already anyway, and God can take it all right back, literally in a heartbeat. No, we do not give because God needs; we give because WE need. We need to answer the question, "Who's the boss?"

We give Thee but Thine own, Whate're the gift may be; All that we have is Thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from Thee. (5)

1. "Money," Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc., Copyright 1995
2. This and the following paragraphs come from David G. Myers, "Who's Happy? Who's Not," Christianity Today, 11/23/92, p. 24
3. 11/13/95, p. 92
4. Randy C. Alcorn, Money, Possessions and Eternity, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989)
5. William Walsham How, c. 1858

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