A Way of Life that Matters

Someone shouted from the crowd, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Jesus refused to serve as arbiter, instead warning against the vice he knew would make any settlement difficult. “Take care,” Jesus said, “to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

If a sociologist or cultural historian took as a project demonstrating the proposition that for Americans life is more than possessions, where would he turn for evidence? He would find some evidence in his favor. Statistically, we Americans can be unaccountably generous, but this claim is shadowed by the fact that the richer we are, the less generous we become. Mississippi is the most generous state; Connecticut the least. And if he asked just what America is other than an economy, what would be the answer, for the assumption is that if something called the economy were right, if the money were right, life would be good. The newspaper does not tell us daily of the withering of poetry or the demise of the two-parent family but of the state of the economy. Is the culture more than money? If so what? Freedom is one answer. But there are reliable polls that ask Americans if in return for job security, a reasonable salary, and health care they would give up freedom, to which a majority answer in the affirmative.

For what money means to a lost soul, poor or rich, is security. And what love of money means is the debasing of the soul and the debasing of the culture. What is wrong with “the poor” is not that they do not have enough money, although perhaps that too. What is wrong with the rich is not that they have too much. Ultimately what is wrong with both, with us all, is a gigantic failure of imagination which sees life not as an adventure directed toward God but as an attempt to find meaning and purpose and security without Him. Wealth may be a good servant, but it is a soul-destroying master.

There is, or was, something called the Protestant work ethic. It might just as well be called the Catholic work ethic. Hard work, good morals, and Sunday observance will bring prosperity. But is the purpose of godliness prosperity? It may be that if today’s poor practiced the virtues they would become rich—they would cease to seem threatening and become taxpayers—but would that improve their moral condition? Saint Paul’s disciple Timothy thought it was important to point out that already, the resurrection of Jesus perhaps no more than forty years past, some had fallen into the erroneous belief “that godliness is a means to gain.” Perhaps Timothy was condemning those who had become religious professionals in the expectation of support from the Church, but there is surely a deeper meaning. There is indeed, Timothy pointed out, “great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into this world and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, and into many senseless and hurtful desires, that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For love of money is the root of all evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (I Timothy 6:5‒10).

All evils? How can the apostle make this claim? Grant Saint Timothy the constructive use of hyperbole, but there is irrefutable truth in his words because money is the false security of the competent. One may learn in the School of Business how to become wealthy, but the same school does not teach that wealth, even contented prosperity, is the gift of God, tempting the competent to the erroneous notion that their wealth is entirely the result of their cleverness and competence. There will never be a lecture ending with this observation: “And so we see, Ladies and Gentlemen, that the wealth of [the inventor of the latest electronic wonder] is the result of the providence of God.” And would one ever learn that godliness with contentment, food and clothing, is a satisfactory economic goal? And would contentment not damage, if not destroy, ‘the economy,’ driven as it is by a desire for ever more and more? Of course business schools are not schools of theology, but they ought not be schools of anti-theology, and how that can be done remains elusive.

Perhaps the first mistake of the rich man whose land produced a harvest so bountiful that larger barns were required was the conviction that the bountiful harvest was his own. The second was surely his belief that he could make himself secure, which is at least a profound misjudgment and perhaps a kind of blasphemy. God’s judgment upon his error was this “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you. Thus it will be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”

This might mean, obviously does mean, that in the use of such resources as we have the needs of the Church and the simple requirement of charity comes first. But it means more than that for the object of our concern is to be “what matters to God.” And what matters to God is a rich and ordered texture of the genuinely good life that, whatever difficulties may be involved, flows from loving God first and then neighbor, from the commandments. Virtues. A mind fixed on “whatsoever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Philippians 4:8), all these and a host of others done not because these things are likely to bring happiness—which they will—but because these are the things that matter to God. There is a way in which divine revelation is a kind of catalog of things that matter to God. We are a generation rich toward ourselves not only with regard to money, but in every way locked in our own subjectivity, seeking freedom for ourselves. But enslaved because we do not look outside ourselves, framing ourselves in the light of those things that matter to God. And incidentally this is why in the battle for souls called the culture wars, we do not move within the shadowy field of our opinions; there is a way of life that matters to God.

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 ~ ~ Announcing ~ ~

November 23, 2013
Saturday Evening | 6:30

The Annual Lewis-Tolkien Dinner and Silent Auction
Organized by the Lewis-Tolkien Council for the Common Tradition
To Benefit the Walsingham Society

Highland Park Presbyterian Church
Elliot Hall
Dallas, Texas

Invitations Forthcoming
Please “Save the Date”