Tag Archives: Money

Money Trouble

When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities.
Acts 16:19 (NIV)

I’m writing this morning’s post in the airport. Having wrapped up a week-long business trip I’m headed home. I spent the week serving a client in the financial sector. As I meditate on all that I’ve done this week, the teams I’ve worked with, the managers I’ve mentored, a common theme has been money.

  • Agents leaving their jobs to go to another company to make more money.
  • A manager who told me she’s turned down multiple job offers, including one that promised to double her pay, because she was happy in her job and her father taught her that more money was a foolish reason to leave a job you loved.
  • A young man telling me about his job scrutinizing the flow of money for potential threats.
  • A manager struggling to find new hires because most applicants have such poor credit histories from the way they handle their money.
  •  An agent at a restaurant with his boss, an award he’d received for his exceptional customer service, looks at the menu and then asks how much money he could spend.

All these little moments come back to me as I think about today’s chapter. Until this point in the history of the early Jesus Movement the conflicts (and there has been a lot of conflict) have been theological in nature between the Jewish tribe from which the Jesus movement sprang, the orthodox Jews who viewed the Jesus movement as a threatening heresy, and the explosive growth of non-Jewish believers who had no interest in holding to Jewish traditions.

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that there had been an inflection point, and today’s chapter begins to hint at the differences that are beginning to emerge. Paul and his companion, Silas, are in the town of Philippi sharing the Message of Jesus. A conflict arises in which Paul and Silas are accosted, beaten, threatened, accused, and thrown into the local jail. The conflict wasn’t about theology, however, it was about money.

A young slave girl, possessed by an evil spirit, was a capable and profitable fortune-teller because of the presence of the evil spirit indwelling her. She was also so annoying that Paul commands the spirit to leave the girl in the name of Jesus. The spirit leaves. You’d think that this was a good thing, but not for the slave girl’s owners. No spirit, no fortune-telling. Paul and Silas, these out-of-town street preachers  had effectively screwed with the business and cash-flow of an upstanding member of the Philippi Chamber of Commerce.

You want to stir up trouble for yourself? Visit a strange town and mess with a local businessman’s cash-flow. As my week conducting business with my client reminds me this morning it’s always about money.

I sit this morning amidst the hustle and bustle of business travelers scurrying about in a major international airport. I’m reminded that Jesus said more about money than almost anything else. He used stories of money in parables because he knew that everyone could relate. He compared the spiritual desire we should have for the Kingdom of God to the frantic search of a poor woman for her lost savings. And of course, there’s that uncomfortable bit Jesus had to say about money being the number one thing that distracts us from that which is of eternal value.

This week as I sat in mentoring sessions with managers and supervisors, I found it fascinating that most of them came to our sessions with things that they wanted to talk with me about. For one it was the break-up of a long-term relationship, for another it was managing conflict within a personal relationship, and for another it was about a struggle to remain sober. Funny, the things with which they were ultimately concerned were not about business leadership and finance, though we did talk about those things. What they were frantic about was not about money, but about life and relationships and matters of Spirit.

Me too.

It’s been a good business trip, but now I’m headed…

Home, where my thoughts escapin’
Home, where my music’s playin’
Home, where m’love lies waiting silently for me.

Have a good weekend, my friend.

Cost-Shifting

Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor.
Nehemiah 5:14 (NRSV)

I have witnessed a change in the culture around me during my life journey. As a child, I learned by example that making your own way and being responsible for your own provision was of great importance. There were a few basic principles that were part of the fabric of the culture around. Living by these principles not only said something about your character, but they also benefited society as a whole:

  • Earn your own way.
  • Don’t take what you haven’t earned.
  • If you borrow in need, pay it back quickly (and before spending more for yourself).
  • Avoid needing any kind of financial assistance. If you need help, then get back on your feet and off assistance as quickly as possible.

What I have observed in increasing measure is a shift towards the acceptance of cost-shifting. I receive something and the cost is paid by someone else. This was once considered dishonorable and immoral, but I see it accepted by more and more people without question.

A few years ago I overheard a young married couple talking among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. They were highly educated, healthy, and capable people of middle-class midwestern upbringing. I listened as they proudly espoused their creative ability to “work the system” and get all sorts of welfare and entitlement money from the government. They eagerly encouraged their friends to do the same, explaining how the money and assistance they received from from the government allowed them to work less.

It’s just out there,” they said of the government entitlement programs. “It’s free money. It’s going to go to someone. It might as well be me.

I continue to be bewildered (and angered) by my friends’ misguided thinking. They were blind to their cost-shifting. The money they received were tax dollars others earned. They were quite capable of working harder and earning their own way, but they chose to work less and accept assistance they didn’t really need. The more people cost-shift, the more an economy and a culture struggles.

Nehemiah was dealing with a similar situation in today’s chapter. The people left in Jerusalem after the city had fallen to the Babylonians were cost-shifting in different ways. They were taking whatever they could extort from one another. The leaders were taxing people in exorbitant excess of the King’s minimum in order to live high off the hog. Nehemiah calls a community meeting and confronts the people about how wrong this cost-shifting was in God’s eyes, and how bad it was for themselves as a society.

Nehemiah then led by example. He chose not to take everything to which he was “entitled” by his position and power. He actively pursued a spirit of contentment. He consumed what he needed and was generous with his blessings. He flatly refused to adopt the “take what you can get” mentality he’d observed in his people.

It’s Monday morning and I’m grateful this morning for growing up in a culture that valued hard work and earning your way. I’m thankful for the blessing of my job. I’m grateful for the opportunity to earn a good living, provide for my home, pay my tithes and taxes, and to be generous with what I have been given.

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Featured image by Kevin Trotman via Flickr

Religion, Commerce, and the Soul

cover-Time-19870406-66703A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.

A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business.”
Acts 19:19, 24-25 (NRSV)

Back when I was in high school and college there was a crazy period of time when there was no shortage of scandals centering around a group of prominent American televangelists. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the couple that the media couldn’t seem to get enough of, but there was also Jimmy Swaggart and others who leveraged their television ministries into personal profit machines and media empires. A closer inspection of these ministry moguls produced plenty of odd and salacious fodder for the tabloids. Many televangelists fell in a strange train wreck of disgrace that was too compelling to look away.

I was reminded of the uncomfortable tension between faith and commerce this morning as I read today’s chapter. There were two groups of people described who stood in stark contrast to one another. I had never really noticed this in my previous journeys through the Book of Acts.

First, there are those who had vocationally practiced different types of exorcism, magic, and spiritism who became followers of Jesus (v. 18-20). Upon their choice to place their faith in and follow Jesus they abandoned their spiritually dark professions and burned down their old lives. This, of course, meant that would have to begin new lives and careers. This is a picture of Jesus’ consistent admonishment for people to repent (literally, to about face and go the opposite direction) and follow. Old things pass away, new things come. There is a spiritual rebirth evidenced by their willingness to experience a huge financial loss and, in faith, walk away from that which was spiritually dark to begin a new path following the Light.

Next, there is Demetrius and the guild of silversmiths tied to the temple of Artemis. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and Artemis of Ephesus was a popular fertility idol, her long body covered in breasts (or perhaps their bull testicles, scholars aren’t quite sure). Not unlike the media empires of the televangelists, the Temple of Artemis was a tourist attraction and a lucrative, religious cash cow. With the trending of Jesus, His message, and His followers the business of Artemis idols, trinkets, and souvenirs  was taking a huge financial hit. The local metal workers union was not happy. The response of Demetrius and his fellow merchants was to create a public riot and threaten bodily harm to the followers of Jesus along with their forcible expulsion from Ephesus.

I consider one group has a spiritual transformation that results in a willingness to suffer financial and vocational loss. Then I think of the other group who are hardened to preserve their finances and vocation at all costs. Finally, I think about the disgraced televangelists from my youth. I’m not sitting in judgment of them, rather I ponder if spiritually I’m not more like them than I’d care to admit. I wonder if they didn’t start out with sincere hearts that were hardened over time by their lucrative, religious cash cows and personal empires.

Today, I am doing some soul searching. Which example in today’s chapter am I more like, and what is the condition of my heart? Am I willing to suffer temporal loss for eternal gain, or will I cling tightly to that which is temporal at the sacrifice of my soul?

Ezekiel’s Leading Market Indicator

1929_Black_Tuesday

Your wealth, merchandise and wares,
    your mariners, sailors and shipwrights,
your merchants and all your soldiers,
    and everyone else on board
will sink into the heart of the sea
    on the day of your shipwreck.
Ezekiel 27:27 (NIV)

Reading the newspaper (the actual paper and ink newspaper) is a old school habit that has become a little luxury for Wendy and me. Growing up as a “Paperboy,” I learned early in life to enjoy taking a few minutes each day to read through the news. I long ago grew tired of the way our regional newspaper, The Des Moines Register, became little more than a giant circular advertisement with regurgitation of syndicated content from the AP wires. Wendy and I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and enjoy reading and discussing the news of the day with our breakfast each morning.

One of the things Wendy and I have come to observe about “the Journal”  is the laughable way that economic indicators grab headlines. One day the front page signals that we’re back to the economic glory days of the Roaring ’20s and the next day the headlines scream that we’re teetering on the brink of another Great Depression. There is little doubt that the paper caters to its core constituency of business and investors who tend to look at everything in life through the lens of commerce.

In today’s chapter, Ezekiel continues his prophetic message of doom for the ancient city-state of Tyre. The prophecy, however, takes a sudden turn worthy of a front page mention on the Wall Street Papyrus of their day. Ezekiel, whose prophetic messages centered around religion and idolatry, turns his prophetic lens on Tyre’s economy.

Situated on the Mediterranean coast, Tyre was an important harbor of trade back in that day. Ships from northern Africa, Greece, and southern Europe regularly sailed in and out of Tyre. The trading ships of Tyre had a strong reputation. Ezekiel, however, prophesies that their ships and their economy are about to sink.

My high school history teacher once told us that if we really wanted to find out what is really going on in the world we should “follow the money trail.” I have never forgotten it, and have found it sage advice. Greed is a powerful force, and economics regularly gets the better of our strongest moral principles and religious virtues. Ezekiel’s message in today’s chapter seems to tap into that knowledge of the human condition. Business often scoffs at religion and politics. Commerce seems to think that it will always find a way to escape and make a buck off the suckers in the world. If you want to strike fear into the heart of the business class simply threaten their bank account. Which is exactly what Ezekiel was doing.

Contrasts in Corruption

Jan_Luyken's_Jesus_21._Zacchaeus._Phillip_Medhurst_Collection

A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.

When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” Luke 19:2, 45-46 (NIV)

In Jesus’ day corruption was everywhere. I realized as I read this morning that today’s chapter is bookended with a fascinating parallel. It begins with the story of Zacchaeus.

Zac was a “chief tax collector.” In the days of Roman occupation, the empire broke up territory into tax regions. The tax collectors were locals who knew their neighborhoods, local businessmen, and had first hand knowledge of where the local money was. Tax collectors had a base amount of tax that the Roman Empire demanded they raise and send to Rome. There were, no doubt, others in the regional political machine getting their cut, but beyond that the tax collectors could keep whatever they could extort from their own people. The more money they squeezed out of their neighbors the richer they became, and Zac was a very wealthy man. As a “chief tax collector” Zacchaeus would not only have extorted his own share, but he was likely getting a piece of the action from other collectors in his territory. He was a extortionist and racketeer, the first century equivalent of a local mob boss.

Contrast this with the Pharisees and religious leaders who ran the temple. They judged Zacchaeus as a traitor and a sinner and they would look down their ecclesiastical noses at the extortionist. But, the religious leaders were total hypocrites. They had a thriving racket of their own. Good Jews were required to make regular pilgrimages to the temple to make sacrifices and offerings for their sins. Jews regularly came from all over the known world to make their annual sacrifices. To take advantage of this, the Pharisees in charge of the temple minted their own currency and the priests demanded that people buy the supplies for their offerings from the approved temple merchants. Of course, the temple merchants only took temple currency, so people would have to visit the temple “money changers” to exchange their local currency at exorbitant exchange rates. At least with Zac and the money changers there was no pretense about what they did with their money. The high priest and the religious leaders were corrupt extortionists, but they cloaked their racket in pious religiosity. They used God to launder their public image and both social and religious leverage to line their own pockets.

Jesus visits Zacchaeus’ house (creating all sorts of gossip, whispers and condemnation from all the good religious people). By the end of the visit, Zac’s heart and life had changed. He agrees to give away half of his wealth and make amends with all whom he’d cheated (the list was likely to be very long).

Jesus visits the temple. Unlike the sinner, Zac, the Pharisees and religious leaders refuse to repent of their extortion and racketeering. They choose, instead, to plot to have Jesus killed. His teaching, and his driving of the money changers from the temple were a threat to their power and their income. They would have none of it. Jesus needed to be rubbed out.

God’s Message teaches that sin is common to all. Both the tax collectors and the religious leaders were infected with the same appetite for greed and power. There was no difference in their sin, only in their response to Jesus. The traitorous “sinner” Zacchaeus opens his heart to Jesus’ words and turns away from his racketeering ways. The good religious people close their hearts to Jesus’ words and sink to even lower into corruption in order to safeguard their wealth and power.

Today, I’m thinking about the contrast in these two stories. I’m aware some people think of me as a good, religious person like the Pharisees, but I don’t ever want to be like the temple leaders who played a religious game to hide their lust for wealth and power. I’m also aware that some religious people think that I am not being religious enough and I don’t tow the line on their religious standards. I am divorced, I have tats, I don’t hide my love for a pint of good beer and an occasional cigar. And, I hang out with those sketchy artists and theatre types.

I am admittedly not perfect, but I hope that, like Zacchaeus, my heart and soul will always be open to Jesus’ teachings and that my life will always be enthusiastically responsive to Spirit and Truth.

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A Small Detail of Culture and Economics

healing of maryAfter this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Luke 8:1-3 (NIV)

I mentioned last week that I appreciate Luke for the small details he researched and added into his telling of Jesus’ story. The opening of today’s chapter is an example. Luke is careful to point out that Jesus was accompanied, not only by the twelve, but also by some women whom Jesus had healed. When reading “Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household,” Luke’s contemporaries would have read that description and immediately understood that Joanna was a woman of means. Herod was a regional king ruling under the authority of the Roman Empire, and managing Herod’s household would have been a well paying position. Luke points out that the women were traveling with Jesus and helping to support Jesus ministry financially. This little detail fascinates me.

In Jesus day, women in Palestine had very low social status. The Jewish culture at that time, it can be argued, was misogynistic. Women were treated with contempt and good Jewish men could be heard reciting ritual prayers thanking God that they had not been born Gentiles (non-Jews), dogs, or women. I can’t imagine how that made women feel when they heard their husbands reciting such a thing.

Jesus, however, cut against the grain of the contemporary culture. He spoke with women in public which scandalous in that day. He socialized with broken women of ill-repute and treated them with love, compassion, and forgiveness. He did not discriminate in performing miracles. He was not only seen publicly healing men, but also touching and healing women of their infirmities both physical and spiritual. Jesus didn’t fear wrath and ridicule for these things, and He received a generous dose of both. Jesus did what was right in the face of popular culture and treated women with the love, honor, and respect that is due to all daughters of Eve. THAT is the Jesus I follow and strive to be like.

In giving us this detail, Luke also clues us in to how Jesus’ traveling ministry operated financially. At least part of the funds required to support Jesus and his followers came from the financial means of his followers, women of means in particular. The principle here is simple. Jesus followers and those whom He healed gave out of their gratitude to support Him and His ministry. It should be no different today. I give regularly to the on-going work of Jesus, not out of blind obedience, guilt, or shame, but out of gratitude for what Jesus has done in my own life.

Another thing this little detail makes me think about is the case of Joanna. Her money was coming directly from Herod’s palace. Herod was a corrupt, evil, murderous tyrant. I can hear the conversations of Jesus’ followers around the fire at night arguing whether Jesus should accept such “dirty” money. Doesn’t that come from evil means? Isn’t accepting that money just a vote of support for Herod and his evil ways? There is no mention of Jesus having any qualms about accepting Joanna’s gifts, despite the fact that it flowed from Herod’s coffers.

There is a timeless, on-going debate about the financial inequalities among peoples and social groups. Financial inequalities existed in Jesus’ day. In fact, it can be argued that the inequalities were even more extreme than what we experience in modern western culture. Yet Jesus’ own ministry would not have been possible were it not for the financial support of followers who were among the rich of that day. I find it interesting that while Jesus taught constantly about money, the teaching was almost always focused on the spiritual connection between individuals and their finances. Jesus never spoke out about the corrupt Roman tax system, but He spoke to individual tax collectors about not using the system to extort money from others. Jesus did not condemn the rich for having money, but He did warn individuals that their love of money was leading them down a spiritual path to condemnation. The only time Jesus made any kind of broader statement was with regard to the extortion racket being carried out by the religious leaders in the temple.

This morning I’m thinking about Jesus, who showed love and compassion to those His culture did not love. I’m thinking about Jesus, who was not as concerned about the macro economic and political issues of this world, as He was about the micro-spiritual connection between our money and our hearts. I’m thinking about Jesus, whom I want to emulate in my thoughts, words and actions this day.

Neither Reactive nor Dismissive

STUXNET - strayed from its intended target (No...
(Photo credit: marsmet481)

[The beast] also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. Revelation 13:16-17 (NIV)

“Do you have any cash?” Wendy regularly asks me as we prepare to go on a trip or out for the evening. I get it. Wendy and I are perhaps the last generation to even think about asking this question. I always laugh inside when she asks. Sometimes I do have cash on hand. Often, I don’t. My silent retort when she asks the question is, “What do I need cash for?” The world is increasingly operating on a virtual currency exchanged via cards, smartphones, and electronic transactions.

In nine years of being together I can only remember one instance of being burned by not having cash on hand. It happened a month or so ago when Wendy and I went to an event in downtown Minneapolis and for that event the parking garage took cash only. I happened not to have cash that night. Wendy certainly had her “I told you so” moment though she was very gracious. The fact remains that it has happened once in nine years which suggests to me the greater truth that hard currency is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

I have long rolled my eyes at the many fanciful theories I’ve heard over the years regarding connections between the visions of Revelation and particular current events. I’ve long since given up on trying to make such conclusive exclamatory connections while choosing to remain alert and discerning about the spiritual implications of what is happening around the world.

This said, I do find it fascinating that John’s end-times vision alludes to a global economy based not on paper or coin currency, but on a “mark” required for monetary exchange. For nearly 2000 years such a thing was ludicrous, yet in my lifetime the possibility of such a thing is not only possible, but some economists say is probable. I’ve seen several news reports discussing such a thing in recent years.

I find it equally important to point out that the very next words John writes are “this calls for wisdom.” So it does. It calls for wisdom to be neither over reactive nor dismissive. I feel no compulsion to build a backyard bomb shelter and fill it with supplies in anticipation of the apocalypse. At the same time, I grow more and more certain that history is the unfolding of a story that God has been authoring since the beginning and will, I believe, bring to prescribed conclusion. I hear Obi-wan Kenobi’s aged voice warning: “We must be cautious.”

Ultimately, no matter what I read in Revelation or see on the news feed, my role does not change. I am to faithfully traverse the journey laid out for me as it is revealed on a step-by-step, day-by-day basis. I am to love God and love my fellow human beings with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.

Everything else will take care of itself.

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