Laying up Treasure in Heaven

We closed last time with the idea that adopting a “send it on ahead” investment strategy for our finances is a matter of faith.  But is it safe to say it may be a matter of faith, but it is not necessarily a matter of obedience?  After all, isn’t this revolutionary approach to financial planning just one of the choices among many that we are free to consider?

Recall Jesus’ summary statement regarding His Sermon on the Mount teaching about money, “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys” (Lk 12:33).  Later in the same gospel, Luke records this observation from our Master, “And [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a certain poor widow putting in two small copper coins.  And He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.’ ” (Lk 21:1-4).

Jesus blunt description and commendation of giving in a way that satisfies His high standard of “laying up treasure in heaven” tends to make us more than a little uncomfortable.  But isn’t this the tenor of Jesus’ teaching throughout the gospels regarding the high cost of discipleship?  I think this is why Jesus balances the high cost with the admonition to not enter this discipleship path lightly.  He gives us the option and obligation to consider the cost (Lk 14:26-35).  So I will leave it to you to consider the “matter of obedience” question and we will move on to consider, next post, the “investment” practice of the early church.

“Send it on Ahead” Investing

I am always a little nervous about books that identify Jesus’ management style or put Jesus in the CEO chair.  While we should always run our companies by godly principles, Jesus did not come to earth to start a business.  He came to launch a kingdom.  But He did promote a financial investment strategy for His kingdom citizens.  I call “send it on ahead” investing.  And I asked last post why we don’t see this strategy advertised, particularly in the Christian community, as much as traditional financial instruments.

First, we are uncomfortable with the “send it on ahead” approach because the results are intangible.  We can’t measure the rate of return on using money to “make friends that will welcome us into the eternal dwellings.” (Lk 16:9).  At least, not in this life.  We want a rate of return that we can measure in percentage points.  The rate of return on Jesus’ strategy is too nebulous for our liking so we put His words in some kind of spiritual sentiment category and not applicable to the real world of investing.

Second, and related to the first, I want to see the return on my financial investment in this lifetime.  Even if I were comfortable with not measuring my rate of return, I would like to know that I will receive a financial blessing in this lifetime based on my giving to the needs of others.  Remember our Francis Bacon quote, circa 1512?  “Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament, adversity is the blessing of the New.”  Despite what the prosperity preachers advertise, I don’t believe we have an iron clad promise in the New Testament that our generosity obligates God to bless us in material ways of abundance.

Third, “send it on ahead” investing is so contrary to the world’s system and our natural inclination that it requires an exercise of faith.  A pastor once shared the idea with me that the Christian life can be a dangerous proposition in a world that hates us, but with the full force of God’s character backing the full range of God’s promises it basically carries no risk.  I had to think about that a minute and concluded he was correct under one condition; if our faith were perfect.  On a practical level, however, the weakness of our faith makes investing along the lines of what Jesus suggests risky as can be.  Due to our lack of faith, investing our money in the lives of others, in terms of rate of return, appears very risky indeed.

And this risk is mitigated by faith.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spends a considerable portion summarizing the promise of God to take care of the material needs of His people (Mt 6:25-34).  In the middle of this passage, Jesus identifies our worry about these things and calls us out, “O you of little faith.” (Mt 6:30).  Adopting a “send it on ahead” investment strategy is a matter of faith.  If God is moving your heart in the direction of this type of investing, join me in calling out to the Lord the prayer of the apostles in Luke 17:5, “Increase our faith!”

A Revolutionary Investment Strategy

Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:19-21).  Is there a specific way to “lay up treasure in heaven”?

Jesus addressed this question a little later in His ministry with this story, “Now He was also saying to the disciples, ‘There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and this steward was reported to him as squandering his possessions.  And he called him and said to him, “What is this I hear about you?  Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.”  And the steward said to himself, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the stewardship away from me?  I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg.  I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the stewardship, they will receive me into their homes.”  And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, “How much do you owe my master?”  And he said, “A hundred measures of oil.”  And he said to him, “Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.”  Then he said to another, “And how much do you owe?”  And he said, “A hundred measures of wheat.”  He said to him, “Take your bill, and write eighty.”  And his master praised the unrighteous steward because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.  And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteousness wealth, that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.’ ” (Lk 16:1-9).

For those of you with a prophet bent, please set aside the morality questions regarding the manager’s scruples and focus on Jesus’ point.  The steward was using money to make sympathetic friends who would welcome him when he lost his job.  Jesus makes it clear that we can literally “send it on ahead” by using our money to make friends that will welcome us into our eternal dwelling place (vs 9).  This is a revolutionary investment strategy.  But IT IS a strategy nonetheless that we can adopt in regard to our material possessions.

Just as we can choose a conservative investment strategy of cash, bonds, and a few stocks, or an aggressive investment strategy of less cash and bonds, more stocks, we can literally choose an alternative investment strategy of sending our money on ahead by using it to make friends who will welcome us “into the eternal dwellings.”  Can this be called an “investment strategy,” and can it be compared to standard investment practice?  If so, why don’t we hear about it in these terms more often.  Or better yet, why don’t we put it into practice?

I have some ideas and we will talk about them next time.

Wealth with Wings

The recent financial news in this country brings to mind these Proverbs, “Do not weary yourself to gain wealth, cease from your consideration of it.  When you set your eyes on it, it is gone.  For wealth certainly makes itself wings, like an eagle that flies toward the heavens” (Pr 23:4-5).  Have you ever had a financial planner tell you that your wealth may sprout wings and fly away?

OK, maybe that is covered in the disclaimer about risk.  But seriously, putting our trust in our money not only places an idol in God’s rightful place in our hearts, but it also is labeled as foolish throughout the Proverbs.  While it may not be our conscious motive, many of us plan our finances such that if God goes out of business, we still have some financial security to fall back on.  Our goal should be just the opposite.  We need to plan wisely as demonstrated by the ant example in the Proverbs, but our security should be such that if God goes out of business, we’re through.

One of my favorite games as a kid, especially on long summer days, was the Parker Brothers game of Monopoly.  Do you remember the game?  The goal was to pile up cash through rent from the properties and houses that one accumulated during the game.  It created a real feeling of power while I was winning.  In fact, the feeling was so good that I didn’t want the game to end.  Once the game was clearly in hand, I would give my brother and sister IOUs just to prolong the game.  Why?  Because when the game ended, the cash was place back in the box, the board was folded up, and the feeling of power was gone.

One day God is going to fold up the Monopoly board.  Life in the material world will end.  The cash we’ve piled up will be placed in the box.  It’s useless where we are going.  Did we spend our lives accumulating Monopoly money?  Or did we invest in an eternal bank account that will come with us into the next life?

What do I mean by “come with us into the next life?”  After all, isn’t the idea we can’t take it with us a common fact about death and money.  Yes, we can’t take it with us, but did you know we can send it on ahead?  Jesus said, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Lk 16:9).  We will talk about how to “send it on ahead” next time.

Theological Systems

I am a big fan of systematic theology.  God’s story of redemption is epic in its sweep and fitting His words and works into that epic is both intellectually satisfying as well as pertinent to how we live.  Proper theology casts a long shadow in our lives, especially as we understand all that came to us through Christ in the new covenant.  But I am not a fan of theological systems.

Our work, as theologians, is to prayerfully investigate the mysteries of God and explain such in an accessible format to our readers.  Accessible does not mean diminishing the grandeur.  It is more like being a bridge.  Just as many pastors are a bridge on Sunday morning taking the Word of God, recorded primarily in Greek, and making it accessible to an English-speaking audience while preserving its original meaning, intent, and nuance.

My concern is that in our zeal for understanding and accessibility, it is easy to cross the line and remove the mystery altogether.  At the risk of alienating half the audience, take the biblical concepts of election, grace, depravity, and atonement, for example.  These concepts are clearly contained in Scripture and referred to and explained in many passages.  But is it possible that the adjectives we add to these terms are not contained in Scripture but only exist to help us fit it all into a neat system that we can get our human minds around?  This isn’t an answer, just a question.

I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up the mystery well in this advent reading.  “No priest, no theologian stood at the manger of Bethlehem.  And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of wonders:  that God became human.  Holy theology arises from knees bent before the mystery of the divine child in the stable.”

“Without the holy night, there is no theology.  ‘God is revealed in flesh,’ the God-human Jesus Christ – that is the holy mystery that theology came into being to protect and preserve.  How we fail to understand when we think that the task of theology is to solve the mystery of God, to drag it down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of human experience and reason!  Its sole office is to preserve the miracle as miracle, to comprehend, defend, and glorify God’s mystery precisely as mystery.”

Celebrate the mystery!