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Some years back there was an advertisement in Fortune magazine that depicted a chauffeur standing next to the open door of a limousine. The caption on the ad was: “Drive yourself today, be driven tomorrow. Let Fortune show you how.” In other words, be an enterprising person with a lot of drive and initiative, set your goals and standards high today, and tomorrow the pay-off could be precisely the pampered good life everyone dreams about.
“The business of America is business,” President Calvin Coolidge once said. Indeed, everyone wants to “make it,” preferably make it big. Years ago the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the ideas, habits, and lifestyles of some of those who have been made hugely rich through smart investing and the like.
One 28-year-old man who founded a computer company was at the time worth $12 million. His first move upon getting rich was to buy a $500,000 San Francisco house. Soon thereafter he heard of something even better: a $1.2 million, six-story home. Upon the successful purchase of this house, he threw himself a $12,000 party to celebrate with his friends. “It’s incredible,” he gushed. “Biting off more than I can chew motivates me to play at the next level, to scale up my business and then figure out how to get back to the comfort zone. Each time I overextend on luxuries, I know I have to work harder to stay afloat.”
Working hard, making it big, playing the market, keeping your eye on the brass ring, throttling up to bring yourself to the next level of fiscal adventure: these are the pursuits that consume many today. Yet in Matthew 6 Jesus tells us not to worry about any of that. It’s an odd text to think about around Thanksgiving time.
“Don’t store up treasures on earth,” Jesus says. I don’t know how it was for the people in first-century Palestine but I do know that twenty centuries later we have greatly multiplied the possibilities for storing up treasures. What does Matthew 6 have to say on the subject of IRAs, 401k plans, checking and savings accounts, pension plans, and Social Security? What are we doing each time we contribute to a retirement plan or to Social Security if not storing up treasures for the future? What are we doing each time we buy a stock or deposit money at an ATM if not storing up treasures that moth, rust, a bear market, a thief, or a California wild fire can destroy?
But suppose on Thanksgiving Day these are among the very things for which we render up gratitude to God. What does God make of that?? Is it pleasing to God or does he look askance at us for violating his Son’s command not to focus on such matters? What is going on in Matthew 6 and what does it suggest for us not only on a holiday of gratitude but every day? Well, in general Jesus is asking us to ponder what constitutes the focus of our lives. What is your goal in life? What’s the one center without which you would no longer be able to function?
Jesus says that the answer must be God and his kingdom. The goal of our lives should be service to God in the hope that maybe we can make this world better by bringing it back to the designs God had in mind in the beginning. “Pile up treasure in heaven,” Jesus says, and when we hear that we assume he means a treasure that will benefit us after we die.
But what Jesus is really getting at is not something for the sweet hereafter but for right now. Already today God is the One in whom we are thoroughly invested. He is the bedrock not just of the life to come but of this life. If you aim for God’s ways above all, then you’re not going to do “whatever it takes” to increase your own bottom line. If you have “treasure in heaven,” then your life on earth changes in most every way.
But if your treasures are only on this earth, then you will be far more likely to conduct “business as usual” instead of business as God might want it to be. If you set your sites mostly on goals of personal advancement and on making it big, then if you see a practice that works for someone else in terms of doling out a big pay-off, you’re more likely to imitate that practice without even wondering whether or not it’s ethical.
Author Tom Wolfe died recently and when he did, it was clear he will be remembered for many works but not least of them his incredible novel The Bonfire of the Vanities from 1986. At the time, Wolfe said that his research in New York City led him to an astonishing discovery: whether he was in the upscale, 50th floor environment of high-octane bond brokers in three-piece Armani suits or down on the streets of the Bronx in the company of drug dealers wearing leather jackets, many things were the same.
Both the Harvard-educated bond trader and the dropout drug lord used foul language. The rich man drove a Mercedes as a status symbol, the thug on the street would steal the Mercedes hood ornament and wear it around his neck also as a status symbol. And above all, Wolfe observed, the one constant among the elite and the street dwellers was money. Whether it was money gained on stock deals or money gained on crack deals, what motivated and drove folks in high-end New York and low-end New York was bucks.
The desire to make it big leads to lots of mayhem every day. It tempts us to cheat on taxes, to gamble, to buy lottery tickets, to cut corners at work, to buy cars and clothes as status symbols, to discard from our lives those who won’t help us get more prestige. In ways subtle and obvious, among the upper crust and the middle class, the desire to make treasures on earth the driving goal of our lives is always present. But this leads us back to where we were a few minutes ago: namely, wondering what, if anything, is the difference between properly having jobs and possessions and improperly having them as the ruling gods of our lives? If you have talents–and all of us do–then those are gifts from God which you must exercise. In the exercise of those gifts, you will earn money–money that allows you to provide for your family and enjoy the life God has given.
Throughout the Bible you can find a lot of guidance on how to respect one another’s property and on how to use food and drink and leisure time to celebrate life and so praise God for his creation abundances. So the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is not that the Christian owns virtually nothing while the non-Christian owns a lot. Jesus himself never envisioned his disciples cutting themselves off from the real, workaday world. Jesus was no religious mystic who urged his followers to purge themselves of all emotion so as to meditate their way into a wispy spiritual realm where they would never again have to eat, work, or buy anything. If you want that kind of world-shunning spirituality, become a Buddhist.
However, in the midst of working, earning, and owning, Jesus still wants the focus of our lives to be God’s kingdom above all else. So if we are to serve God in the midst of owning cars and working at our jobs and depositing money into the bank, then somehow we need to find ways for those possessions to help us to serve God and his people. However, if getting more stuff means we have less time to give to the church or to our family or to our neighbors, then earthly treasures go from being our servants to being our masters.
It’s one thing to own a car, it’s another to worry about it day and night. It’s one thing to have money in the bank, it’s another thing to spend every week scrutinizing your balance sheet and wondering how to increase the bottom line. It’s one thing to do work to earn a living and exercise your talents, it’s quite another to throw so much of yourself into that work that you can never say “Yes” when the church needs volunteers; that you work 16-hour days which prohibit your spending much time with your spouse or kids; that even when you go away for the weekend, the laptop and the smartphone come along; that you work so hard six days a week many times when Sunday rolls around you can’t make it to church because it’s the only time when maybe you could see your family. We all own things and do work. The question is: do the things we have and the work we do help us serve God or take us away from God?
The Puritans said we need to develop weaned affections: loving our work without loving it too much. But the problem with keeping your nose to the grindstone is that after a while you can’t see anything but grindstone. Jesus had a divine knack for always seeing people–that vision was the foundation of his world-class compassion. Through the discipline of prayer, through slowing down enough to simply look around us, we may find it possible to lift our noses from the grindstone so we can look lovingly at those around us who need Jesus’ love.
We have so much for which to be very specifically grateful this day and every day. As Christians who believe in the providence of God, it is absolutely proper that we give God thanks for all we have. At the same time, however, those very possessions and gifts must never become the center of life. They are at best things we pick up along the way but they should never be allowed to weigh us down so much that we find ourselves too encumbered to lend the kingdom a hand.
People who worry too much about things tend to have little time left for people.
Back in the 1990s I remember reading an article by a man who in one fell swoop cancelled all the subscriptions he had to financial magazines and journals. For years he had absorbed those periodicals fiercely to help him get ahead. But then something happened that made him snap to and cancel them all. What did the trick? An article he read shortly after the Tiananmen Square incident in China. One article he read was written by a financial advisor who had been observing the Asian markets for years. But then after Tiananmen Square, all he could talk about was the disastrous effect Tiananmen Square had on the Hong Kong markets. But in the course of the entire, very long article, this fund manager never once mentioned the disastrous effect Tiananmen Square had on the people whom the Chinese government killed and maimed.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” our Lord said. May it be that somehow, by God’s grace, the thanks we give on this Thanksgiving Day and every day will lead us closer to people than it will to things. Amen.