Showing posts with label #Mammon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Mammon. Show all posts

“The least of these my brethren”—as we define brethren.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 June

Matthew 25.40.

There’s some debate as to where out-of-context interpretations of the bible come from. Goes from the extremes of “Every single last one of them comes from the devil,” to “They’re honest mistakes—perpetuated by laziness, ’cause people should bother to double-check the context, and don’t.”

I would say the reality, most of the time, is somewhere in between the two. I seldom think these mistaken interpretations are honest mistakes. Though certainly honest mistakes can happen: You’ll get someone who’s trying to talk about an old biblical concept in a new and different way—which is fine, if you really are teaching the old concept, and not trying to claim the scriptures are saying something which no other Christian has ever noticed. But sometimes a listener will misunderstand you, repeat it to others but get it wrong, and wind up spreading a new, wrong concept. That’s an honest mistake. I’ve done that. (Sorry.)

Thing is, there are people who want the scriptures to say something entirely new. Something which might make their teaching ministry stand out—“Hey, come and listen to this guy who teaches stuff you’ve never heard before!” Something which gets ’em a little notoriety. It’s not about spreading God’s kingdom, but spreading their brand.

And a lot of these new ideas are designed to appeal to people. Specifically, to our flesh. It’s an interpretation which supports their own ideas and prejudices about power, sexual activity, propriety, money, greed, envy, anger, partisanship, separatism, addiction, personal preferences, and self-justification. ’Cause more often not, they were looking for a proof text to help ’em rationalize any of these bad fruits, and this one oughta do the trick.

“Okay,” you might say, “but doesn’t that fleshliness kinda come from the devil?” Perhaps. I tend to say if you’ve flipped the meaning of a verse a full 180 degrees from what the Holy Spirit intends it to mean, that’s a pretty good sign Satan’s mixed up in it. But some of us are plenty evil ourselves. We can go 180 degrees in the wrong direction without any help or temptation from the devil at all. We’re just that depraved.

Today’s article about context gives an example of that kind of depravity. It takes the point of Jesus’s Lambs and Kids Story, and flips it so we don’t have to do for “the least of these.” Well, certainly a lot fewer of them.

To recap: The Son of Man sends his holy angels to sort out humanity like a shepherd sorts lambs from kids (hence the story’s title) and addresses his lambs, “Enter the kingdom, because you did all this compassionate stuff to me.” They respond (because for some reason they’ve never heard this story before), “Wait, what? When’d we ever do for you?” Jesus continues—

Matthew 25.40 KJV
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Let’s pause the story, ’cause you might already know the rest; and if not, go ahead and read it. The point certain Christians wanna make is found in the three words τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου/ton adelfón mu, which the King James Version turns into two words, “my brethren.” We Christians talk about doing compassionate charity work for “the least of these,” but these other Christians point out, “It’s not just ‘the least of these,’ but ‘the least of these my brethren.’ Jesus is talking about charity for his brethren. Not just anyone.”

This is an attitude you’ll find in an awful lot of churches. Not just Jehovah’s Witnesses either; I’ve seen it in way too many Baptist churches, particularly the independent, culty kind. I’ve heard people preach this on the radio, on both Christian stations during preacher shows, and on conservative talk stations. It’s pretty much wherever people wanna justify non-compassionate conservatism. Maybe slip a little Objectivism into the mix. “Don’t give to them: They’re not worthy.”

The Shrewd Butler Story. And mammon.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 October

Luke 16.1-9.

As you know, Jesus said you can’t be a slave to both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24 and as a result people tend to think of Mammon as a person. It’s not really. Whenever Jesus and the Pharisees spoke about mammon, they meant money, and they were speaking of it negatively. Exactly like we do whenever we describe money as “lucre.” Nobody ever talks about clean lucre; it’s always filthy lucre; it’s always money used wrong, used for evil.

Same deal with mammon, which is why I translated τῷ ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ/to adíko mamoná (KJV “the unrighteous mammon”) as “filthy lucre.” You come across lucre in this story, it means mammon. Got it? Good.

Jesus tells this story right after the Prodigal Son Story, Lk 15.11-32 if that context helps: A man squandered all his money, and when he came home his father threw him an expensive party; and his brother objected to the wastefulness (or to use old-timey English, the prodigality) of both the wasteful man and his extravagant father. And since we’re on the topic of wastefulness…

Luke 16.1-9 KWL
1 Jesus also told his students, “There’s a certain plutocrat who had a butler.
This plutocrat accused him of wasting his possessions.
2 Calling the butler, the plutocrat told him, ‘Why do I hear this about you?
Turn over your books, for you can’t run the house.’
3 The butler told himself, ‘What can I do?—my boss is taking the house-running from me.
I’m not strong enough to dig; I’m ashamed to beg.
4 I know what I’ll do—so when I’m fired from being butler,
other plutocrats will take me into their houses.’
5 Calling each one of his boss’s debtors, the butler told the first, ‘How much do you owe my boss?’
6 The debtor said, ‘A hundred jars olive oil.’
The butler told him, ‘Take the receipt, sit, and quickly write fifty.’
7 Then the butler told another, ‘And you: How much do you owe?’
The debtor said, ‘A hundred cors [37,000 liters] grain.’
The butler said, ‘Take the receipt and write eighty.’
8 The butler’s boss praised the impropriety, for the butler acted shrewdly,
for the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation.
9 I tell you, make yourselves friends with your filthy lucre,
so when it runs out, they might take you into their great houses.”

This story really weirds out Christians, because most of us cannot for the life of us understand how Jesus could make the butler the hero of this story, and point to his example as one to follow. Didn’t the guy just totally rip off his boss? He was gonna get fired for squandering money; he turns right around and squanders more money in order to suck up to his boss’s creditors; and his boss is actually pleased with this behavior. What the what?

It makes more sense once it finally sinks in Jesus isn’t a Mammonist… and we largely kinda are.

What’s the proper place of money?

What’s money for? Duh; it’s so you can buy things. Money can be traded for goods and services. This isn’t just Economics 101; kids learn this as soon as they watch their parents buy stuff. “So that’s what those shiny discs are for; no wonder Mom gets upset when I swallow ’em.”

Money’s a resource. Need stuff? Money helps you buy it. Need food, clothes, shelter, transportation, electricity, internet? Money. Does the government need to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare? Money; your money, ’cause the rich always seem to create loopholes so it’s never their money. Everything runs on money.

So we need money. How much? Enough to cover the bills, really. A little extra so we can afford to be generous and help the needy, and a little extra to sock away in case of unexpected problems.

But that’s not a mindset our culture encourages. We’re told we oughta have enough money so we can afford anything we want. So we can buy anything our hearts desire. So we can live in comfort, if not luxury. So we need never work for money again. We’re told we ought to want to be rich… and if we don’t want that, there’s gotta be something dangerously wrong with us. If you don’t wanna be rich, you must be a Marxist or something.

Why this sudden pivot to a fearful extreme? Duh; spiritual warfare. Tempters don’t want you to think. They want you to freak out at anything which threatens their grip on you. Right now they got us by our desires for wealth, comfort, and power. Take those desires away, and they got nothing.

Hence Paul’s warning about the love of money. 1Ti 6.10 The worship of money, materialism and Mammonism, gets people to lose all sense of money’s proper place. It becomes their meaning of life: Get money, and get more. Then blow most of it on luxuries—at the expense of your bills, your emergency funds, and especially the needy. Heck, the needy should be earning their own money. How dare they ask for mine?

Does God’s kingdom run on money? Nope; that’d be grace. Although you’d never know it to hear some churches, ’cause they’re constantly begging for money. But either that’s because their members aren’t generous, or because their leaders are greedy. In other words, they’ve been infested with Mammonism. It’s when money takes priority over grace.

And our interpretations of the bible likewise get infested with Mammonism. It’s why people read this story and don’t understand what Jesus is teaching. So they skip it, and teach on his other stories. Or they tackle it, and come up with gobbledygook.

We gotta begin by understanding the proper place of money in Jesus’s mind. It’s a resource. Is it the only resource we have? Of course not; we have the Holy Spirit’s power, which is how Jesus could make bread out of nothing. Having him cure you is way cheaper than American healthcare. Money is finite, but God’s power is infinite; it’s the dynamo of the universe. He wants us to depend on that, on the Spirit, not money. If anything money’s a workaround; a way to respond to the Spirit’s “No” with “Fine; I’ll buy it myself.”

Gotta wonder how many churches are following the money instead of the Spirit… but I expect that’d take another article.

Nope, this isn’t embezzlement.

When a πλούσιος/plúsios (plutocrat; KJV “rich man”) put an οἰκονόμος/ikonómos (house-runner, or butler; KJV “steward”) in charge of his estate, the butler really was in charge of the estate. He didn’t have to run anything past his boss; he effectively was the boss. He had the boss’s signet ring. He could order anything in his boss’s name. His boss’s money was his money; his boss’s property was his property; they were totally interchangeable.

Well, so long that the boss was pleased with his administration. At the top of this story, the boss had decided to fire his butler, ’cause he felt his estate had been squandered. Jesus doesn’t say why and how, and we needn’t speculate because it doesn’t matter. What matters is how the butler decided to act.

While the butler was still in charge, before he handed over the paperwork, he quickly had his boss’s debtors come over, and he forgave part of their debts. Many interpreters claim this was theft or embezzlement on the butler’s part; how dare he change the receipts? But the butler had the authority to do exactly as he did: He was in charge of his boss’s money, and he was authorized to forgive debts if he so chose. Really he could’ve forgiven the entire debt if he wanted… and if he had, maybe Mammonists wouldn’t struggle so much with this story. “Why, he forgave debts like God forgives debts. How generous.” Instead he only forgave the debtors in part… so people now get hung up on the financial loss.

Why’d the butler do this? He said it himself: “Other plutocrats will take me into their houses.” Lk 16.4 He did this to set himself up for a future job. He expected other wealthy families to hear of this, and hire him because he lowered the debtors’ bills. Hire him knowing he might do this with their money too.

If you’re fixated on money, this story makes less and less sense as we go. Forgiving his debtors pleased his boss? Forgiving debtors might please future bosses? Aren’t these plutocrats trying to make money?—how on earth is this butler of any value to them? How would this behavior curry favor? Why is the boss pleased with his behavior?

I’ve heard one interpretation which claimed the debtors couldn’t afford to pay that much oil and grain at that time, so the butler lowered the bills till they could pay it—and now the boss had oil and grain, whereas if the amounts remained as high as they were, the boss would never get paid back. Kinda like when banks forgive the interest on certain debts so they can get something instead of nothing. Yeah, that’s a clever spin on the idea, but if that were so, Jesus would’ve said so. He didn’t.

The reality is the boss was impressed with something more valuable than money: His butler’s shrewdness.

To Mammonists, nothing’s more valuable than money. If it’s not gonna make ’em money right away, or in the long run, it’s not a worthwhile investment. But the plutocrat in this story isn’t a Mammonist, and Jesus isn’t a Mammonist. They recognize wisdom’s more important than money—and no, not just because wisdom can make you money. Wisdom’s not just a means to an end.

But money is. The butler used money to make the debtors appreciate him. Wise plutocrats, who were used to the Roman Empire’s tendency to use money to grease the wheels of leaders, judges, officials, taxmen, everyone, would immediately realize here’s a man who knows when to make money, and when to buy favor. In an empire where there’s really no such thing as civil rights, favor make all the difference between life and death.

“The children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation,” Jesus pointed out. Lk 16.8 Worldly people know how to work the system. Less-worldly people get so hung up on their principles, they sometimes lose sight of what’s really important. Like favor with others. If people like you, they’re less likely to line you up against the wall and shoot you when the revolution comes. If you have favor with pagans, it’s way easier to share Jesus with them.

Whereas if you’re a jerk about it, or prioritize your mammon over everything else… well, so much for God’s kingdom.

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“If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

by K.W. Leslie, 07 October

2 Thessalonians 3.10.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this verse quoted by people who don’t wanna give to the needy:

2 Thessalonians 3.10 KJV
For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.

Years ago, beggars used to sit at the entrance to every grocery store parking lot, with a sign saying “Help me” or “Looking for work” or some sad story which might get people to give ’em their spare change. That’s not hyperbole: Every grocery store parking lot. They were everywhere. So the city council passed an ordinance: Can’t beg within 40 feet of a driveway or intersection.

Not every beggar knows this, of course. A few weeks ago I walked past a woman begging at the edge of a driveway. I tried to warn her what she was doing was illegal, but she didn’t listen. Pretty sure she listened to the cops which later came by and ticketed her. I’ve seen ’em do it to other beggars.

I don’t know how much they get from sitting there. I know someone who tried to do the math: “If five people give them five dollars every hour, that’s $25 an hour, so $200 a day…” Assuming they’re willing to sit there eight full hours, and assuming people give ’em any more than spare change or a dollar. I once watched a beggar outside a church parking lot, and only two people gave her anything; and one gave her blankets not money.

Regardless, their existence really irritates people. Not because these people are outraged by the plight of the poor in this country. They’re really not. They’ve swallowed the party line that if you’re poor, it’s somehow your own fault. Time and chance didn’t happen to you; you merit your poverty by being lazy, or not fighting off your addictions, or refusing every legitimate agency’s efforts to help you. If you appear to be able-bodied, it really bugs ’em. God forbid you carry an iPhone (even if somebody gave it to you): “What’re they doing with an iPhone? Don’t give to them. They’re just scamming you.”

The general consensus is if you don’t have a job, it’s only because you refused to get one. Or refused to be a reliable employee, so you were fired; or you’re mentally ill but refused your meds. You’ve no excuse for your poverty, and your poverty is simply an obvious display of karmic justice. You’re poor because you’re not worthy. If you were worthy, you’d go get help!

Plus isn’t this principle in the bible somewhere? “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” Because the LORD God did declare back in Genesis,

Genesis 3.19 KJV
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Work is mandatory. It’s part of the curse upon Adam and all humanity for sin. These beggars clearly weren’t sweating for their bread. (Although to be fair, neither are those of us with white-collar jobs.) So how dare we interfere with God’s decree? We sweat for our bread; they should sweat for their bread. And if you’re one of those bleeding-hearts who give to beggars, you realize you’re just undermining God’s decree. You think you’re being kind and generous, but you’re encouraging laziness and dependency. Bad Christian.

These are just two of the many passages of the bible, misappropriated so we can justify our lack of compassion.

The Bigger Barns Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 October

Luke 12.13-21.

People wanna be rich.

Which I get. I’ve never been rich. My parents are retired and comfortable, but that’s only because their investments paid off: They didn’t have that kind of money while I was growing up. So I experienced food stamps, school lunch subsidies, thrift stores, buses, and free-clinic healthcare. I’ve been poor as an adult too. Not homeless; I nearly got that far. But I definitely learned how to get by on $5 a month. If that.

Poverty sucks. And not just because, in a thousand little ways, American society is no help at getting people out of poverty. Really, you can only save money when you have money—when you can afford to buy in bulk, or get the higher-level plan which happens to offer deep discounts, or afford the $100 shoes which last two years instead of the $10 shoes which last a month. (Well, three months with duct tape.)

Our culture’s popular myth is “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” but y’notice most of the people who say that, don’t have boots and have no idea this is an ironic saying. Tell them your financial woes and they just shrug, “Work harder.” Or “Work smarter, not harder.” As if that bit of advice solves all our problems. When I was poor, my problem was if I worked smarter, I’d’ve figured out how to finish my work in half the time… so my boss would’ve cut my hours. Yep, that’s why most people and businesses don’t work smarter: No incentive!

Anyway, between being poor, and not being poor, I absolutely prefer not being poor. It’s nice to be able to look at one’s checking account and be pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to be able to give to charity out of one’s abundance.

But too many people don’t wanna merely be comfortable; they wanna be rich.

They wanna have so much money, they can afford anything their hearts covet. And they covet a lot of ridiculously expensive things. Stuff I look at and go, “Seriously?”—but yeah, they seriously want that. I don’t get it… but then again if they saw how many books are on my Kindle, they’d probably look at me funny too. To each their own, I suppose.

In some cases it’s not even about the stuff they covet. They just want the wealth. They want the power to do whatever they please. They’ll figure out later what it is they please; they’ll waste a lot of money trying to find it. But the point of all the wealth is they can afford to waste money.

And not work. Or at least not work hard. They wanna stumble into tons of money by doing something easy. The older folks I know keep trying to play the lottery, or hope to get lucky at the casino. The younger folks largely realize that’s foolish… so they’re trying really hard to become YouTube celebrities and Instagram influencers. Hey, some folks make millions of dollars doing that, and it doesn’t look all that hard to do. It certainly seems easier than serving unruly customers or cleaning bathrooms.

Again, I get it. Coveting wealth is a pretty common phenomenon. Especially in a culture which doesn’t believe status is a fixed thing—where you’re born into a caste, and can’t help but stay in it forever. We know too many examples of people who were born poor and became rich. (And vice versa.) The potential exists—even though it’s mighty hard to stumble into the thing which makes one rich.

But Jesus warns us against coveting wealth like that.

For many reasons… though you’ll quickly notice today’s parable actually doesn’t get into Jesus’s reasons. It’s really just his reminder that life is more important than wealth. Here y’go.

Luke 12.13-21 KWL
13 Someone in the crowd tells Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!”
14 Jesus tells him, “Mister, who appointed me to be judge or arbiter over you two?”
15 Jesus tells the crowd, “Watch and guard yourselves from every obsession with wealth:
One’s life doesn’t ‘begin’ once they have a superabundance.”
16 Jesus tells a parable to the crowd, saying,
“Some rich person’s land was very productive,
17 and he was musing to himself, saying, ‘What could I do?—
I don’t have anywhere to collect my produce.’
18 He says, ‘I’ll do this. I’ll tear down my silos, and build bigger.
I’ll gather all the grain there, and my goods.
19 I’ll tell my soul, “Soul, you have many goods stored up for many years.
Retire! Eat! Drink! Rejoice!” ’
20 God tells him, ‘Look dumbass, this night they’re demanding your soul from you!
What happens to what you prepare?’
21 This is the way of those who store up treasure for themselves,
and aren’t wealthy in God.”

Redeemer: Somebody like Jesus who bails us out. Or not.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 March
REDEEM rə'dim verb. Compensate for the flaws, deficiencies, or evil of something or someone.
2. Save someone from sin, error, or evil.
3. Gain or regain something, in exchange for payment; repay, or clear a debt.
4. Fulfill a promise.
[Redemption rə'dɛm(p).ʃən noun, redeemer rə'dim.ər noun, redeemable rə'di.mə.bəl adjective.]

When people talk about redeeming or redemption, if they’re not Christian they’re usually talking about recycling cans and bottles. In California when you buy something in a recyclable container, you’re charged an extra fee (the California redemption value, or CRV) which we’re meant to get back when we take the container to a recycling center. Although not everybody bothers to get their CRV back; they toss it in a recycling bin. Or even the trash—and then someone else will go digging through the trash looking for recyclables, hoping for that sweet, sweet CRV money.

Christian redemption isn’t quite like that… although I have actually heard a sermon or two about Jesus recycling sinners. Supposedly God created us with an inherent value, but by sinning, we’re throwing ourselves in the trash… and I guess Jesus is gonna be the guy who fishes us out of the trash and gets our full value. Meh; it’s a shaky simile.

The Christianese term has to do with saving someone from sin, error, or evil. And properly, it has to do with debt. In the bible, the LORD ordered the Hebrews to not just abandon family members to circumstances, to debt, and to poverty: They were to help them.

Leviticus 25.25 NASB
“&thinsp‘If a fellow countryman of yours becomes so poor that he sells part of his property, then his closest redeemer is to come and buy back what his relative has sold.’ ”

The “closest redeemer” (Hebrew גֹֽאֲלוֹ֙ הַקָּרֹ֣ב/gohélo ha-qaróv) actually means “next-of-kin redeemer.” It’s not automatically your closest male relative; not every man had the wherewithal to actually redeem anyone. It’s your closest relative who’s a patriarch, the head of a significant family. It’s the closest relative who can afford to help you.

This redeemer bought back the property. If you sold your oxen—and these weren’t really oxen you could spare; you kinda needed them to plow your field—your redeemer bought ’em back and returned them to you. If you sold your home, your redeemer bought it back and returned it to you. If you sold your farm, your redeemer bought it back and returned it to you. Getting the idea? If you were destitute, and even had to sell yourself into slavery, your redeemer bought you back and freed you.

Your redeemer didn’t buy back your property so he could retain possession of it, and let you live on his farm, in his house, plowing with his oxen, with him as your lord and you his serf. Nope, he gave them back to you. Because you’re family, and God had made your redeemer wealthy enough to do for family.

Yeah, it’s not a mindset we find at all among most Americans. Even Christians.

“Name it and claim it”: Misplaced faith.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 February

Faith, as I wrote in my previous piece on the subject, is belief, trust, assurance, and moral conviction. If you have faith, you believe. Preferably in something or someone solid. For us Christians that’d be Jesus: We trust him. Everything else, less so. Although not much less; I trust the scriptures pretty strongly. Hopefully you do too.

I also wrote a segment in that previous piece about how way too many people believe faith is the power to believe the unbelievable. Antichrists, who think Christianity is rubbish and we’re idiots for getting mixed up in it, love this definition. They figure we have no basis whatsoever for the beliefs we hold: We believe it only because we want to believe it so very badly. So we suppress all our doubts, suppress any doubters, and wish really, really hard. ’Cause if we wish hard enough, maybe it’ll become real, like the Velveteen Rabbit.

Thing is, this wish-it-into-reality idea has been around for a mighty long time. So long, you get people claiming it’s “the Secret,” a mysterious ancient truth about how the universe works—that all you have to do is declare to the universe your deepest wishes, “put it all out there” so to speak, and the cosmos will magnetically pull your desires towards you. Apparently this “law of attraction” has been found in literature going all the way back into history… and of course it has. Ain’t nothing new under the sun. Ec 1.9

Pagan religions have always seriously taught if you want something to be so, your earnestness, righteousness, or worthiness would get the gods to create it for you. (Or if you don’t have any of that, find a lamp with a djinn in it.) But the storyline woven into just about every single human culture is that if we want something bad enough, and if we’re motivated and deserving, we can get it; we can have it. You want knowledge of good and evil? There’s the fruit; go eat it.

It got mixed into Christianity by the gnostics, particularly those of them who claim reality is just an invention of the human mind, and doesn’t exist outside the mind. And if the mind creates reality, the mind can change reality… so if we actually do wish really hard, we actually can make things happen. Various gnostics have taught this for centuries under various names, and in the 1800s they were calling it “mind science.” One of its practitioners, Mary Baker Eddy, combined it with Christianity to create “Christian Science,” and her church still exists today. (They own a pretty good newspaper.) Problem is, if reality is just a mental construct, Jesus didn’t die in reality… so yeah, they’re heretic.

Other Christians won’t go so far as to claim reality isn’t real: It is, but they still claim if we wish really hard, we can make things happen. They claim God granted us the very same power to “calleth those things which be not as though they were.” Ro 4.7 They insist it’s because the passage where I got that pull quote, says Abraham ben Terah totally did it.

Romans 4.18-25 KJV
[Abraham,] 18 who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. Ge 15.5 19 And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: 20 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; 21 and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. 22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.
23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; 24 but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; 25 who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.

If you follow their reasoning, this passage isn’t at all about being justified by faith. It’s about how Abraham’s faith made stuff happen. Really.

God promised Abraham a son, and millions of descendants. So Abraham believed. Really hard. Regardless of his circumstances: He was really old, as was his wife. But he dismissed unbelief, kept his eyes on God, and God rewarded this faith with a son. And if we believe in God just as much, he’ll reward our faith with anything we ask of him.

So they do. Unfortunately a lot of the churches which tell Christians to “name it and claim it” this way, tend to be a little too fixated on Mammon, and tend to equate riches and wealth with God’s favor. They covet. A lot. And y’notice a lot of them fall for get-rich-quick schemes (’cause much like Abraham losing patience and fathering Ishmael, they figure they’ve gotta be proactive if they wanna seize those blessings!) and regularly get fleeced by their church leaders. The love of Mammon is the root of all sorts of evil.

The widow’s mite, and ancient money’s value.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 January

Mark 12.41-44, Luke 21.1-4.

On the temple grounds there’s a room called the treasury; Greek γαζοφυλάκιον/yadzofylákion, a “guarded vault.” Thing is, the treasury’s in a place inaccessible to women. And since there’s a woman in this story, throwing an offering in, it simply can’t be what the writers of these gospels meant by “treasury.” It has to be in some other place.

Hence most commentators are pretty sure yadzofylákion actually refers to the lockboxes which the priests set in the Women’s Court. Each of these boxes were at the end of a big metal funnel—which looked like a shofar, a ram’s-horn trumpet, and may very well have been what Jesus was thinking of when he talked about trumpeting your charitable giving. Mt 6.2 Because throwing metal into a big metal funnel made a loud noise. And throwing lots of metal—like a big pile of bronze coins, as opposed to, say, far fewer silver or gold coins—made a big ol’ noise.

Probably too noisy to teach! Yet that’s what the gospels describe Jesus trying to do by these funnels.

Mark 12.41-44 KWL
41 As he was seated facing the offering boxes,
Jesus watched how the crowds threw bronze coins into the boxes.
Many plutocrats threw many coins,
42 and one poor widow who came, threw two lepta, i.e. a quadrans. [8¢]
43 Calling his students, Jesus told them, “Amen, I promise you:
This poor widow threw more into the box than all who threw in.
44 For all the others threw out of their abundance, and she her need:
Everything she threw in, was all her life.”
 
Luke 21.1-4 KWL
1 Looking up, Jesus saw plutocrats throwing their gifts into the offering boxes.
2 Jesus also saw a certain poor widow throwing in two lepta. [8¢]
3 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you: This poor widow threw in more than everyone.
4 For all these people threw in their gifts out of their abundance,
and she from her poverty threw in everything she had in her life.”

The widow donated two λεπτὰ/leptá, which the KJV calls a “mite,” meaning the lowest-denomination coin there is. A penny would be the United States’ cheapest coin; that’s our mite. It might not have been familiar with everyone in the Roman Empire, so Mark states it’s worth a quadrans, the Roman quarter. Worth about 8 cents back then, though money went much further. She could probably buy lunch with it. A small lunch.

Don’t you worry ’bout a thing.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January

Matthew 6.25-34, Luke 12.22-32.

Right after Jesus taught we can’t make masters of both God and Mammon, he got to the core reason why we humans tend to slide away from trusting God, and instead put our trust in money: When it comes to basic daily needs, we don’t look to God first. We look to our wallets. Can we afford it? If not, then we might call out to God… but too often we don’t.

This is a much harder lesson to learn for rich Christians than poor ones. In rich countries, we have crazy standards for what denotes “basic daily needs.” It’s not just food, drink, and clothing, as Jesus addresses in the following teaching. It’s having a roof over your head. A bed. Electricity and gas, for the central heat and air conditioning. Oh, and since you have electricity: A refrigerator to keep the food in. Internet and wifi. A phone. An email address. A television—’cause you can’t expect us to watch all our TV on our phones. And probably a car, ’cause you can’t expect us to walk everywhere.

Food and drink is no longer just grains, vegetables, and water: We’ve gotta have meat and dairy. If we’ve learned about some special diet we really oughta be on—whether our doctors tell us so or not—we want that accommodated too: Gluten-free grains, keto-friendly vegetables, vegan dairy products. Oh, and we gotta have coffee and beer and candy and salty snacks. We expect a variety of good foods. And sometimes enough money to go out to eat sometimes.

Clothing is no longer a single loincloth, tunic, robe, and sandals, with maybe an extra just in case: We gotta have at least two weeks’ worth of outfits. And they gotta be fashionable, so we don’t just fit in, but stand out as especially good-looking. Plus an extra-nice outfit for important occasions, like church or parties.

If you only have the basics and no more, in a rich country you’d be considered poor. Not comfortable; not okay; poor. But in a poor country, like ancient Judea… wealthy.

That’s something to keep in mind whenever Jesus talks about not having enough. Judea, where he lived, would be what we’d nowadays call a third-world country. Or a “less developed country,” or what Donald Trump would call a s---hole country. It was poor. The largest part of the population survived on less than $2 a day. The families who ran the Judean senate had money, but that was old-family wealth, or they got it by collaborating with the Romans like the taxmen. The rest of them were subsistence farmers, or day laborers like Jesus’s dad and later Jesus himself: Scratching to get by. Legitimately concerned about daily needs.

The folks Jesus preached to? They had way less than we who live in rich countries. They’d be what we consider destitute. Near-homeless. They didn’t imagine themselves so, but hey: Different countries, different millennia, different standards.

And yet in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told ’em to stop worrying. Because worry wasn’t getting them anywhere.

Matthew 6.25 KWL
“This is why I tell you: Stop worrying!
Stop worrying about what your soul would eat or drink, or what your body would wear.
Isn’t your soul more than food? your body more than clothes?”
 
Luke 12.22-23 KWL
22 Jesus told his students, “This is why I tell you: Stop worrying!
Stop worrying about what your soul would eat, or what your body would wear.
23 The soul is more than food. The body more than clothes.”

Try to wrap your brain around this idea: One set of clothing. Maybe three days’ worth of food in the pantry. Water comes from the creek. No electricity nor gasoline. No money; you gotta barter for everything. This isn’t because there’s a dire recession: This is life. This has always been life, as far as you or your parents or grandparents knew. Every day’s a struggle. And here Jesus is, telling you to stop worrying about food or clothing, because God has your back.

The typical American response to this? “Are you nuts, Jesus? I’m poor!

Yeah, you are. Poor in faith. That’s why it’s easier to shove camels through needles than get rich Christians into God’s kingdom. Mk 10.25 We just aren’t always aware Jesus was making that statement about us.

Kingdom economics: How’s your eye?

by K.W. Leslie, 22 November

Matthew 6.22-23, Luke 11.34-36.

Some of Jesus’s teachings tend to get skipped entirely.

Let’s be honest: It’s because we don’t like them. Plenty of us hate the idea the Law still counts, and God judges us by it; we prefer dispensationalism. Plenty of us hate Jesus’s teachings on money, ’cause we still kinda worship it. So we borrow his parables about forgiveness, where money wasn’t even the point, and try to claim they’re about capitalism. Or socialism. Or they’re Jesus’s secret critique of socialism. Whichever suits us best.

Today’s lesson from the Sermon on the Mount is in fact about money. Not opthamology.

But because people nowadays are unfamiliar with the Hebrew idioms “good eye” and “evil eye”—and will even mix ’em up with the European idioms, and think they have to do with all-purpose blessings and curses—we’ll interpret this passage all kinds of wrong. Or claim, “Well it’s obscure,” and skip it. Usually skip it, and focus on the verses we can understand. Verses we figure we’re already following.

So in Matthew, right after saying we oughta keep our treasures in heaven, Jesus taught this:

Matthew 6.22-23 KWL
22 “The body’s light is the eye. So when your eye is healthy, your whole body will be bright.
23 When your eye is ill, your whole body is dark.
So if the light in you is dark, how dark are you?”
 
Luke 11.34-36 KWL
34 “The body’s light is your eye. Whenever your eye is healthy, your whole body is bright too.
Once it’s ill, your body is dark too. 35 So watch out so the light in you isn’t dark.
36 So if your whole body is bright, without having any parts dark,
the whole will be bright—as if a lamp could shine lightning for you.”

In the King James Version, in both gospels, the words to describe the eye are thus:

  • Ἁπλοῦς/aplús, “healthy,” is translated “single.”
  • Πονηρὸς/ponirós, “ill,” is translated “evil.”

Why? Well… ’cause that’s what the words literally mean. That’s the problem with idioms. Literal translations, and likewise literal interpretations, give you the wrong idea. If I described you as “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” then had that phrase translated into Chinese, my poor Chinese friend would find it inaccurate if you actually have brown eyes… and be stunned to hear you have a tail at all, much less a bushy one.

By aplús and ponirós Jesus meant a healthy eye, or a sick one. If your eyes aren’t well, vision’s gonna be a problem, and you’re gonna be in the dark. But if your eyes are healthy, you’ll see just fine: Light could enter your body “as if a lamp could shine lightning for you,” Lk 11.36 which interestingly is just how 19th-century arc lamps worked.

Well, light could more or less get into us. Remember, Jesus is teaching religion, not anatomy. Only the truly dumbest of literalists are gonna insist since our eyes work, our doctors won’t need to use the lights on the laryngoscope. Or colonoscope.

Treasures in heaven.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 November

Matthew 6.19-21, Luke 12.33-34.

In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, after he finished objecting to hypocrisy in giving to charity, in types of prayer, and in public fasting, he moved on to talk about wealth and money.

You’ll notice the three verses in Matthew I’m gonna point to today, don’t by themselves nail down precisely how we’re to stash our treasures in heaven. That, we actually have to pull from the parallel teaching in Luke: Give to charity. And if you know your Old Testament, you might remember this proverb:

Proverbs 19.17 KWL
Put the LORD in your debt: Be gracious to the poor.
He compensates you and gives peace to you.

Jesus’s first-century audience would’ve known that one… and Jesus’s 21st-century audience had better learn that one.

Matthew 6.19-21 KWL
19 “Don’t hoard wealth for yourselves on earth, where moths and corrosion ruin it,
where thieves dig for it and steal it.
20 Hoard wealth for yourselves in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion ruins,
where thieves don’t dig for it nor steal it:
21 Where’s your wealth? Your mind will be there too.
 
Luke 12.33-34 KWL
33 “Sell your possessions and give to charity:
Make yourselves a wallet which never wears out.
Infallible wealth in the heavens, which a thief can’t come near, nor moth destroy.
34 “Where’s your wealth? Your minds will be there too.”

This passage has been greatly nullified by our culture. Y’see, we have banks and insurance. Nowadays, if our minds are on our money, it’s only because we worry we don’t have enough. Back then, it was based on the constant fear, Is my money secure? Because the ancients were responsible to secure their own wealth. Neither financial institutions, nor the government, would do it for ’em. Wasn’t their job. Wasn’t anyone’s job.

Americans tend to take property rights for granted. The ancients weren’t so naïve. If the king wanted your stuff, he’d have your stuff. Land, cattle, wives. You remember Abraham was regularly worried different kings would swipe his wife from him—’cause they did. Ge 12.12-13, 20.2 Even though Abraham was powerful enough to assemble his very own army and rescue his nephew.

God mitigated this by having, “Don’t steal” Dt 5.19 apply to kings and commoners alike. True, it’s way harder to get justice when the king’s doing the thievery, like when David ben Jesse stole his general’s wife, or Ahab ben Omri stole his neighbor’s vineyard. The LORD had to punish these kings personally. And in Jesus’s day, Israel wasn’t ruled by a proper king; it was ruled by Roman puppets. You could appeal to the Romans, but good luck getting justice if you didn’t have citizenship; the Romans would treat you just like Americans treat illegal aliens. (Well okay, crucifixion is worse than how we treat foreigners. But still.)

So if you had wealth, you had to secure it. Just like paranoid people do today. Better build a strongroom in your house, or find a clever way to disguise or hide it. Lots of people simply buried it in a hole in the ground, just like the worthless steward in Jesus’s story of the talents. Mt 25.25 Or that buried treasure in Jesus’s other story. Mt 13.44 Hey, if nobody knows where your hole is, thieves can’t dig it up. (The KJV decided to translate διορύσσουσιν/diorýssusin, “dig through” as “break through”—a common enough way to get into a flimsy wooden house in the 17th century, but much harder to do with the solid stone houses of the first century.)

And even so, after all the precautions they took to make sure nobody could find or get at their wealth, the wealthy would worry. ’Cause any disaster could destroy it. Invading armies, or some covetous noble, could grab your land. Earthquakes could flatten your buildings. Determined looters, or even just a fire, could gut your house. Any possession could be lost. Easily.

It’s the very reason we invented insurance. Pay a little each month or year, and your possessions are protected and guaranteed? Brilliant. Now the only thing we need worry about is whether we have enough money.

So we need to climb into the first-century mindset about money before we can really understand Jesus. Imagine you’re in a really bad neighborhood, you’re not carrying a gun or taser or pepper spray, and for some crazy reason you’ve got $5,000 cash in your wallet. How secure are you gonna feel about that money?

Got that mental picture? Good. Now imagine having that worry all the time.

“You have not because you ask not.”

by K.W. Leslie, 11 November

James 4.2.

Here’s a phenomenon I come across a little too often: Someone’s in need. They bring up their need to fellow Christians. And the fellow Christians respond, “Have you asked God to help you with that? ’Cause if you ask, he’ll help. You’re in need because you haven’t asked God about it. ‘You have not because you ask not.’ ”

Me, I’m pretty sure the needy person has asked God for help. Whenever I’m in need, he’s my go-to. I go to other people second. And no, not because other people suck: I wanna see if I can achieve it myself first, or I can achieve it with God’s help first. I guess it comes from the American ideal of self-sufficiency… although I admit it’s not always the wisest ideal. Some burdens ought to be shared.

And likewise some people try to avoid burdens whenever they can. That, more often than not, is the real motivation behind Christians telling the needy, “So have you asked God about it?” They don’t wanna help.

But let’s set them aside for a moment, and deal with the fact the quote they’ve used, “You have not because you ask not,” is only part of a bible verse. It’s missing the other part. The whole of the verse goes like yea:

James 4.2 KJV
Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.

…Gee, that’s not all that encouraging of a bible verse.

Which is why people tend to skip the first part of the verse, if they know it. More often they don’t know it. They only know the “You have not because you ask not” part.

On not giving to certain churches.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 October

Recently the subject came up about funding one’s church… and about whether we oughta fund churches which really doesn’t need the money.

Fr’instance a megachurch. People assume bigger churches are successful, and flush with cash, so it doesn’t matter whether they give these churches any money: The churches already have money. The Roman Catholic Church is loaded with expensive buildings, priceless artwork, huge tracts of land; heck, Vatican City is a sovereign nation-state which prints money and postage stamps. Hence whenever a Catholic diocese actually does need money, most people’s first response is, “Oh come on; you guys have money.” And don’t give.

Now yes, churches with a lot of people are gonna need a lot of resources. More pastors, obviously. More support staff: More secretaries and assistants, janitors and groundskeepers, bookkeepers, security guards, IT and website personnel, counselors and life coaches, drivers and pilots… the organization can get pretty huge. Plus bigger buildings, more land, higher electric bills, and so forth. So they’re gonna need more donations.

Now when big churches have a surplus, what we should see is they fund more missionaries and community good works—like this one megachurch in my town. We see ’em legitimately, publicly contributing to the growth of God’s kingdom.

But what we tend to see, especially in prosperity-gospel churches, is better-paid pastors who drive better-model cars. Whose “outreaches” tend to consist of conferences and schools which charge for entry. Whose support staff consists of a lot of unpaid interns, or who make minimum wage with no benefits. Like this other megachurch in my town.

Everybody knows—pagans especially!—that Christians are supposed to reject materialism. That Jesus publicly made a point of rejecting materialism. So you’d think Christians, who know this too, would make a point of not sending our donations to materialistic churches.

But yeah, we’ve been conned into thinking and doing otherwise.

How do we fund our churches?

by K.W. Leslie, 26 October

Back in high school I invited a schoolmate to my church. After the service he confessed he was really bothered by the offering plates.

We passed offering plates right after the worship songs, but before the karaoke. (Many Christians call it “special music.” It’s where someone gets on stage and sings along to an instrumental track. Exactly like karaoke. ’Cause it’s karaoke.) People put cash and checks in the plates. Sometimes in little envelopes, so people can’t see how little they actually give. Sometimes not, so people can.

This bugged him. In the church where he was raised, they had an offering box in back of the auditorium. If people wanted to inconspicuolusly put money or gum wrappers into it, they could. The box, he felt, was way more appropriate than our ostentatious “Look what I gave” display—which reminded him much too much of this story:

Mark 12.41-44 NRSV
1 [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

That, and he didn’t like how we interrupted our services to beg for money. People should just give, he figured.

Me, I grew up hearing you funded your church by tithing: Ten percent of every paycheck belongs to Jesus, so give it to your church. Ten percent of the gross, not the net; and if you don’t cough up the dough you’ll be cursed. No, an usher wouldn’t shout, “Tithe, motherf---er!” although that’d be awesome; I didn’t say cursed at. It meant we expected this bit of Malachi to come true:

Malachi 3.8-9 NRSV
8 Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you!

Our finances were gonna shrivel. We’d been told scary stories about people who stopped tithing, and suddenly they could no longer live within their means. Apparently if God doesn’t get his cut, he takes it out of us in other ways. Ways we won’t like. You know, like wiseguys who stage a few “accidents” till they get paid off.

Now no, I’m not accusing our pastors of trying to shake us down. They preached this because it’s what they were taught. They were told this is a biblical principle, and shown all the appropriate proof texts in Malachi and Matthew. They never bothered to investigate beyond these verses, and see whether the bible teaches more about the subject—and it does. I wrote about it.

When I investigated, I also discovered tithing—as a means of financing Christian churches—is actually a recent doctrine.

It first appeared in the United States a very short time after the year 1776. That bit of information give you any hint as to why churches suddenly began to preach about tithing?

Right you are: Because between the Edict of Milan in the year 313, and the American Revolution in 1776, churches were almost entirely funded by the state. Senates and kings paid for everything. Really, your tax dollars did. (Well, considering the United States used to be British, your tax pounds did.) They felt it was the state’s duty to do so; that if you’re truly a Christian nation, the nation sponsors the church. Right?

But then the United States quit being British. Our states all rewrote their constitutions. In them, nearly all of them included freedom of religion: The state has no official church, so citizens aren’t compelled to state any particular Christian creed… nor fund any particular Christian church.

Churches hated the idea, because now it meant they had to fund themselves. And now they do: By telling their regulars we need to tithe.

“Money is the root of all evil.”

by K.W. Leslie, 07 October

1 Timothy 6.10.

This is rather well-known out-of-context scripture. So well known in fact, your average Christian already knows it’s taken out of context, and many a pagan likewise knows better. It’s the common proverb “Money is the root of all evil,” and it’s a misquote of something Paul wrote to Timothy:

1 Timothy 6.10 KJV
For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

It’s the love of money. Not money itself. Money is morally neutral. But loving money—especially when people love it more than God, their neighbors, their own lives and health and reputation and integrity—certainly produces evil.

Now yeah, many a Christian (especially when they’re really kinda Mammonist) read the King James Version and balk: “All evil? I don’t think every evil in the world is based on the love of money. I can think of a few evils which had nothing to do with money. Like adultery; that’s more about loving nooky.” So as a result we got other translations of the bible which don’t say all.

1 Timothy 6.10 NKJV
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

But notice the words “kind of” have to be in gray (or, in other editions, in italics) because they have to be added to the text. ’Cause the original Greek has ῥίζα γὰρ πάντων τῶν κακῶν ἐστιν ἡ φιλαργυρία/rhídza gar pánton ton kakón estin i filaryiría, “For the root of all the evil is money-love.”

So no, Paul didn’t say money-love is the root of many kinds of evil. He flat-out wrote it’s the root of all the evil.

But hold up: Neither did he say money-love is the root of all evil. It’s the root of all the evil. All which evil?

Um… all the evil he was just writing about in the previous verse. Which you probably didn’t read, ’cause we just pulled this verse straight out of its context. In context, you’ll see Paul was writing about people who wanna be rich—and the root of all their evil, is the love of money. Not the root of humanity’s evil. He didn’t write this verse to be universally applied to everybody. (Not even if you add the words “all kinds” to make it sound like it’s universally applicable. Bad translators! No doughnut for you.)

1 Timothy 6.9-10 KJV
9 But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. 10 For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

The pursuit of Mammon, the worship of Mammon, trips people into all sorts of failings and compromises and corruptions. And the root of all this evil is the love of Mammon. It’s not safe to love money!

Back to the bad interpretations, and bad bible translations. Poke around and you’ll find a lot of translations have compromised this verse by making it read, “all kinds of evil”—as if not every failing of a Mammonist stems from money-worship. Bible Gateway has a bigger list.

AMPLIFIED. For the love of money [that is, the greedy desire for it and the willingness to gain it unethically] is a root of all sorts of evil…
CSV, NRSV. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil…
ESV. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.
GOOD NEWS. For the love of money is a source of all kinds of evil.
ISV, NIV, WEB For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
NASB. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil…
NLT For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.

It blurs Paul’s obvious intent in writing what he did to Timothy. All so we don’t leap to the conclusion—based on an out-of-context reading of the verse—that every evil in humanity stems from money. Of course not every evil does. The serpent didn’t tempt Eve with the fruit’s cash value! But that’s not even what the verse is about.

Charity for God, versus charity for public approval.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 September

Matthew 6.1-4.

Starting the second chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with this teaching, only found in Matthew:

Matthew 6.1 KWL
“Watch out to not do your righteous acts before the people to be seen by them.
Otherwise you won’t get credit from your heavenly Father.”

The term Jesus used is μισθὸν/misthón, “compensation.” It’s a synonym for wages. But it gets translated “reward” by various bibles (KJV, ESV, NIV, NLT, NRSV), which gives people the wrong idea. When the King James Version was published in 1611, “reward” meant something you earned through your efforts. Today it means a prize you get for stumbling across a missing person or thing. But a misthón is earned, like Paul said. Ro 4.4 Laborers don’t win their wages; they deserve ’em. Lk 10.7, 1Ti 5.18

Various stingy Christians claim God owes us nothing when we do good deeds. ’Cause we should be doing ’em anyway, right? True. But they’ve got the wrong mindset. We’re not just God’s kids, who work for him for free: We’re his employees, who work to further his kingdom because we have a stake in the company. Employees should be doing their job anyway—and they get paid for it. Same with us Christians: We work for God, and do what we oughta do for our Boss. And God doesn’t skimp on our wages.

Unless of course we’re not working for God, but for our own gain. Unless we’re not making him any profit, but swiping all that profit for ourselves. And this is what Jesus addresses in this lesson: Hypocrites who only do good deeds to make themselves look good. Ostensibly they work for God, but really they’re growing their own little fiefdoms instead of his kingdom.

There are three hypocritical practices Jesus objects to in the Sermon: Self-serving public charity, self-serving public prayer, and self-serving public fasting. Today I deal with the charity.

I already dealt with the fact Jesus’s objections appear to contradict what he previously said about us being the world’s light:

Matthew 5.16 KWL
“So shine your light before the people so they could see your good works,
and think well of your heavenly Father.”

The difference has to do with motive. If you’re doing ’em for God, good!—shine your light. If you’re doing ’em for praise, bad Christian!—human praise is all the earnings you get. That’s the context.

And the way Jesus recommends we make sure we’re doing ’em for God—if we have any question about it—is to do these acts privately. If it’s public, it’s for the acclaim of others. If it’s private, only God sees it—’cause it’s only for him to see anyway.

Mammonists versus God.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 July

Luke 16.8-15.

the Shrewd Butler Story, Jesus commended the butler for using his boss’s money to generate goodwill instead of profits, and his moral was for his followers to do likewise.

Mammonists stumble all over this story. To them the point of money isn’t to use it as a resource, but to accumulate it and gain power by it. To their minds the butler was completely untrustworthy. He was already accused of squandering it, Lk 16.1 and then he turned round and deliberately squandered it by changing his boss’s debtors’ receipts. Lk 16.5-7 He made it look like he collected more money than he actually had; like his boss was owed less than he truly was; and he did it to benefit himself instead of enriching his boss—which was his job, wasn’t it? He embezzled from his boss. He stole. He’s a thief. There’s a command against theft in the bible somewhere; it’s one of the bigger ones!

So Mammonists really don’t know what to do with Jesus commending this butler… except to conclude, “I guess Jesus appreciates shrewdness over goodness.”

No he doesn’t. As I pointed out when I dealt with the story, the butler had full authority over his boss’s estate, and could legitimately do whatever he wished with it. Including forgive debts. He stole nothing. He embezzled nothing. It might be improper, ’cause you certainly can’t afford to do such things all the time. But it wasn’t sin.

…Well, unless losing money is a sin. And to Mammonists, that’s an egregious sin. Isn’t wise at all. Indicates you’re not worthy of having money in the first place, and deserve to lose it all. (There’s a lot of karma-based thinking in Mammonism, ’cause it helps Mammonists justify the iffy things they do to gain and hoard wealth.)

Jesus isn’t Mammonist, and neither are the butler and his boss in the story. They rightly recognize money as a resource, not a raison d’être. It’s a means to an end; it’s not the end itself. By contrast Mammonists figure it is the goal, and the Christians among ’em figure the whole point of turning to Jesus is so we can gain stuff. Mansions in New Jerusalem. Golden crowns full of jewels. Treasures in heaven, which they constantly imagine as material possessions they get to keep forever. And, if they’re into the prosperity gospel, they can even tap into some of that wealth now.

As a non-Mammonist, the plutocrat in the story recognized money—even “filthy lucre,” as I translated τῷ ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ/to adíko mamoná (KJV “the unrighteous mammon”) —is here today, gone tomorrow. Friends can be just as transitory, but when friendship is done right, it doesn’t have to be. And the goodwill his butler generated with his debtors, was gonna come in handy in future—and not just for the butler. It was a wise move, and a wise boss would keep such a guy around.

Luke 16.8-9 KWL
8 “The butler’s master praised the impropriety, for the butler acted shrewdly,
for the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation.
9 I tell you, make yourselves friends out of improper mammon,
so when it runs out, they might take you into their great houses.”

“Their great houses” is how I rendered τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς./tas eoníus skinás, “the eternal tents” (KJV “everlasting habitations”). Y’get many Christians who insist it’s about God accepting us into heaven—despite a plural they letting you into plural tents—or the idea that once we get to New Jerusalem, we’re greeted by all the needy people we’ve helped. But properly it’s a euphemism for old money, for great families who’ve been indirectly running the country forever, and they’re the very best friends to have whenever we run afoul of temporal political leaders. That is what the butler was thinking of when he came up with his scheme: He wanted to be taken in by some other plutocrat. Lk 16.4 And it’d be just as shrewd of us Christians to have a few plutocrats in our corner.

Can we handle money? Or really anything important?

Of course Jesus had more to say on the subject of money, and continued:

Luke 16.10-13 KWL
10 “Trustworthy in little things means trustworthy in big things.
Improper in little things means improper in big things.
11 So when you’re not trustworthy with filthy lucre, who will trust you with truth?
12 If you’re not trustworthy with another’s things, who will give you your own things?
13 No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

Pharisee logicians taught the principle of light and heavy (Hebrew קַל וחומר/qal v’khomér), which westerners call the argumentum a fortiori, “argument from the stronger [point].” Jesus’s statement “Trustworthy in little things means trustworthy in big things” is a great example of it: If it’s true in a small instance, in a simple case, it’s just as true (and way more consequential) in a big instance, in a complicated situation. If the butler can’t be trusted with money, he can’t be trusted anywhere. If we can’t be trusted with money, we can’t be trusted anywhere.

Mammonists regularly misinterpret this to say we oughta have our financial houses in order. And by “in order,” they mean profitable. We oughta reduce our unnecessary expenses, ’cause they’re bleeding us dry. We oughta eliminate debt, ’cause the interest payments are largely keeping us in debt. Cut up those credit cards! Buy, not rent. Buy used instead of new. Buy generics instead of name-brand items. Use coupons. Squeeze those pennies till Lincoln farts.

Um… was what the butler did profitable? No.

“But in the long run it is,” Mammonists sometimes claim: The goodwill generated by forgiving a few debts, means people are more likely to do business with the boss in future. They’ll think, “He knocked off a few jars of oil from my debt, so I kinda owe him one,” or that maybe he’ll give them another surprise discount in the future. More business, more profits. Shrewd.

And again, not what the butler did. He wasn’t thinking of his boss’s reputation, but his own. He wanted people to think well of him—and if they thought well of his boss instead of him, and didn’t even think of him at all, his scheme would’ve failed. He was offering the debt reduction, not his boss. Spin it all you like into it being good business, good public relations. But you’d be missing the point.

Likewise if you take the other extreme and conclude the butler wasn’t trustworthy. He’d only be untrustworthy if he lied to his boss. He didn’t. His boss would know about the scheme, ’cause it’d be kinda obvious: His debtors had marked up the receipts. Lk 16.5-7 There was no such thing as correction fluid back then: The old amount would be crossed out on the papyrus, and the new one written down. (Or, if they wastefully used parchment for bookkeeping, the old amount was scratched off—but still visible.) Didn’t take a genius to figure out what had happened—and the boss immediately recognized what was up, and found it clever.

Lastly Jesus’s comment about not being a slave to both God and Mammon. I’ve commented more than once how Americans are kinda determined to prove Jesus wrong. We’ve done a lousy job of it so far. We’ve mostly just reimagined Jesus till the version of him we follow approves of all our greed and materialism. But at that point we’re not following Jesus anymore; just our own desires, mainly our desire for wealth.

Mammonist Pharisees.

No surprise, the Pharisees in Jesus’s audience balked at this lesson. Same as Christians do nowadays—the difference being that Christians pretend to follow Jesus anyway. Pharisees figured they could take or leave him, and in this case they figured they could even mock him.

Luke 16.14-15 KWL
14 Hearing these things, the silver-loving Pharisees mocked Jesus.
15 Jesus told them, “You justify yourselves before people—and God knows your hearts.
Those who are exalted before people, are disgusting before God.”

Sounds kinda rude of Jesus, but knowing his character, we know the reason he said this was not to slam his hecklers. It was to warn ’em of reality: Their wealth is not the indication of God’s approval they believed it to be. Some people are wealthy because God enriches ’em. The rest are wealthy because they stole it, inherited it, are idiots who were given wealth by other idiots (but then again I did just mention inheritance), or they got it through dumb luck. Institutional biases keep certain groups poor, and of course the wealthy have rigged things so they can keep their wealth. There’s a lot of unfairness in the system, and people have been tricked into thinking nothing but hard work can overcome it.

But like Jesus said, God knows our hearts. Exalting ourselves in order to justify our wealth, or to justify materialism, or to claim our riches make us better and worthier and greater: God finds it disgusting. Not just because Mammonism is idolatry; because it blinds us to all the sins we commit so we can hold onto our stuff, and put it ahead of God’s kingdom.

The “prosperity gospel”: Mammonism disguised as Christianity.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 July
PROSPERITY GOSPEL prɑs'spɛr.ə.di 'gɑs.spəl noun. The good news that God doesn’t just want to save his people, but bless us materially.

That’s not an ironic definition, folks. That’s legitimately how the prosperity gospel is defined by those who proclaim it. God doesn’t just want us to come live in heaven’s kingdom with him. As we’re headed thataway, he wants us to be materially successful and comfortable.

For totally legitimate reasons, they claim. Remember when Moses was advising the Hebrews to follow the Law in Deuteronomy, and how he said part of the blessings they’d receive for doing so would be material? Oh you don’t remember that bit? Fine; I’ll quote it.

Deuteronomy 28.1-13 KWL
1 “If you happen to listen to your LORD God’s voice,
so as to observe and do every command I instruct you about today,
your LORD God will give you power over every country on earth:
2 All these blessings will come to you and overwhelm you, for you listened to your LORD God’s voice.
3 You’ll be blessed in city, field, 4 the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground,
and the fruit of your animals—what your cattle births, or your flocks produce.
5 You’ll be blessed in breadbasket, in yeast; 6 when you enter, when you leave.
7 The LORD will have your enemies which rise against you be struck down in front of you.
They’ll come at you from one direction, and run away from you in seven.
8 The LORD will teach you about blessing in your storehouses, in everything you undertake.
He’ll bless you in the land your LORD God gives you.
9 The LORD will raise you to himself: A holy people, as he swore you’d become.
So observe your LORD God’s commands. Walk in his ways.
10 All the earth’s peoples will see you call upon the LORD’s name, and fear you.
11 The LORD will give you a good surplus, fruit of your belly, beasts, and your ground,
in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.
12 The LORD will open his good, heavenly treasury for you:
He’ll give rain to your land in its season. He’ll hand over every deed.
Many nations will owe you, and you’ll never borrow.
13 The LORD makes you the head, not the tail. You’ll go upward, not downward.
So listen to your LORD God’s commands. Observe and do what I’m instructing you today.
Don’t dismiss any words I command you today. Don’t go right or left, to follow or serve other gods.

This passage was addressed to the ancient Hebrews, and applies to whether they as a nation followed the Law in the land he gave ’em. Does it apply to present-day gentiles, not as nations but individuals, who live in all sorts of other lands, Christian or not?

Well, the prosperity-gospel folks certainly believe so. This, they figure, is why God’s made the predominantly-Christian United States so profoundly rich. (Ignoring the fact we’re actually up to our eyeballs in debt, and only look rich. We borrowed our riches.) So if they individually follow God’s commands, refuse to turn right or left away from them, and serve no other gods but the LORD, they’re counting on God blessing them with growth and surplus.

Well… okay, they don’t always figure they gotta follow God’s commands necessarily. But if they follow God’s general principles, and believe really hard, they expect God’ll make ’em prosperous just the same.

Well… okay not all God’s general principles. Plenty of them have no problem with being as dishonest, covetous, and promiscuous as any pagan. They’re kinda focused on a few principles. Namely it’s these three:

  • ACT LIKE GOOD CHRISTIANS. In public, anyway. God wants to make his people rich so that pagans’ll get jealous and wanna become Christian. But it doesn’t work when his people don’t act Christian. So behave yourselves! Quit sinning. Get rid of the negative attitudes, and let everything which comes from your mouth be encouraging and confident.
  • GIVE, AND IT’LL BE GIVEN YOU. Loosely based on Jesus’s teaching about generosity Lk 6.38 but only applied to giving to one’s church. If you give sacrificially large amounts to your church, God’ll reward you tenfold. Or more, depending on the preacher. But giving to the needy isn’t so necessary. God doesn’t wanna give them wealth unless they practice these principles, so no going around him, okay?
  • NEVER EVER DOUBT. Unless you wanna lose your blessing, don’t ever, ever question prosperity beliefs. Not in your mind, not in public, not ever. You gotta believe, and keep believing, that God’s gonna enrich you. Even when he doesn’t. Even when he hasn’t for years or decades.

Stick to these three principles, and watch the riches come pouring in. Guaranteed.

After all, look at the preacher. He follows these principles, and as a result, his church is flush with cash, he has a seven-figure income, he has a Bentley and a Gulfstream and a really nice house, he wears expensive suits and gold jewelry—he’s been blessed! Follow his example, and you’ll be blessed too.

If this sounds like a giant scam to you, that’s because of course it’s a scam.

Stuck in the scam.

And it’s a very-well crafted scam too. It’s had about three centuries of development and fine-tuning, as Americans tried to figure out how to reconcile our riches, or our mad pursuit of riches, with Christ’s teachings.

Since a lot of Pentecostals have adopted it, a number of people think we came up with it. Nah; for a while it used to be called the health-and-wealth gospel, and that predates the Pentecostal movement by a century. But Pentecostals have been pioneers in multimedia, which is why a lot of Christian TV and radio shows are Pentecostal—and of course, all the health-and-wealth preachers who happen to have TV and radio shows, also happen to be Pentecostal.

Like most scams, it works great for the person on top. The pastors who preach prosperity are frequently gonna be prosperous once everybody starts giving to their ministries—and, they hope, giving a lot to their ministries. Way more than the traditional 10 percent; sometimes as much as 60 percent. I’m serious.

It’s intentionally designed to discourage questions and criticism. If you’re legitimately wondering how these “promises” of wealth work, considering their proof texts don’t apply to present circumstances at all, you’re gonna be condemned and rebuked by both the leaders of these churches, and by the people who are striving for prosperity, for your “negativity” and doubt. Even though it’s exactly the right kind of doubt. You’ll be told your doubts cancel out your blessings; you’ll never be prosperous so long that you question the system. And some of ’em are a little worried your negativity might affect them—that if God decides to smite you, he might accidentally hit them too. So quit doing that!

It’s unintentionally designed to encourage undisciplined financial behavior. People imagine their windfall from God is gonna arrive any day now, so they don’t plan ahead. There’s nothing in the savings account. The credit cards are maxed out. They’re already buying all the accoutrements of wealth. They got that ridiculous mortgage and that ridiculous second mortgage. America’s in debt to its eyeballs; their debt level would be up to the eyeballs of someone standing on their shoulders.

Undisciplined financial behavior also extends to their churches. They give loads of money, but pay no attention to how the church, its board, and its leadership handles the money. The pastor’s salary is wholly inappropriate for any person who runs a nonprofit. The pastor’s wholly unnecessary entourage is also well-paid… but most of the projects they’re working on were invented so they could have something to do, and justify their salaries. The church gives far too little to charity, benevolence, and missions. Large sums of money are regularly wasted on frills and perquisites.

The system is also designed to encourage hypocrisy. ’Cause you gotta look good! But you don’t necessarily gotta be good.

If you’re wondering how people can fall for this scam, you gotta remember things look very different from their point of view. Every Christian in their circle has likewise fallen for this scam. So its theology and practice appear to be, as far as they can tell, “normal.” Since they don’t know how to look at the scriptures in context, as far as they can tell the proof texts are totally solid: Isn’t this what every true Christian is supposed to believe? So those folks who claim prosperity teaching is bunk: They’re the ones who’ve been scammed. They’re doomed to live without victory, without prosperity, without success, because of their negative, pessimistic mindset. Of course they don’t believe in a gospel of wealth; at this rate they’re never gonna see wealth.

Yeah, it’s pretty cultlike. So much so, certain Christians claim the prosperity gospel is heresy. But technically they’re not heretics. Prosperity churches (unless they’re oneness churches; some of ’em are) don’t really teach anything contrary to the creeds.

Well, unless you count the fact they’re worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

Well they are.

Mammonism is of course the worship of wealth. We call wealth “Mammon” because it’s a convenient way of making it crystal clear we’re talking about idolatry. In the United States, where we’re taught every American has the potential of gaining great wealth, Mammon’s a popular god: Americans devote our lives to getting rich, by hook or by crook; by compromising every other thing we claim to believe in, because everything else takes a back seat to wealth acquisition: Friends, morals, family, even our own freedom. Even, ironically, our own wealth.

And if people identify themselves as Christian, that’s often gonna take a back seat to wealth acquisition too. We’re gonna join a stingy church, which doesn’t give, and doesn’t expect us to give either. Or we’re gonna join a prosperity church, which demands we give, but promises God’ll pay us back in bucketloads. As a reward for our trust and faithfulness (and our silence when we discover it has problems), we’re told God will give us full, unrestricted access to Mammon. All the Mammon we can eat, and rub all over our bodies.

In this way God gets turned into a means to an end. The end, the true object of worship, would therefore be Mammon. We’re supposed to follow God because we want God; we wanna be with him in his kingdom forever. Not because we want mansions, streets of gold, riches, health, and comfort. Not because we expect that stuff in the next age, nor because we’re told we can have that stuff in this age. If you’re following God because you want peace, you’re unintentionally worshiping peace; if you want heaven, you’re worshiping heaven; if it’s ultimately about wealth, you’ve embraced Mammon.

Whoops.

Prosperity-gospel folks are entirely sure this isn’t true: They don’t worship wealth; they worship God! Who’s promised them wealth. And if he never comes through for them with the wealth, they’ll be disappointed, but they’re still gonna worship God. But here’s the thing: They’re entirely sure he will come through for them with the wealth. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they realize he won’t pony up the dough in this age. But after they’re resurrected, after they’re shown their new home in New Jerusalem, they’re expecting the nicest of mansions. It’ll come eventually. It’s just they figure it’ll come much sooner than that.

So to their minds, wealth and God are a package deal: You get God, you get prosperity. You get the LORD, you get Mammon. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Jesus said we can’t serve both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24, Lk 16.13 but prosperity gospel folks figure why serve it when God’ll just give it to us, free? And thus we sorta can serve both God and Mammon. In your face, Jesus!

Okay, that “in your face, Jesus” bit is a lot more blatant than prosperity-gospel folks are willing to be. Instead they’ll just quietly undermine the gospel of Christ Jesus by adopting various views which run contrary to his teachings, but which suit the prosperity gospel just fine.

Disrespecting the needy.

Animals fight for survival and supremacy. The animals which win get to pass down their genes, and the animals which lose, don’t. Charles Darwin figured this was how evolution works: The better genes and traits survive, and improve the species. Capitalists figure the marketplace and workforce works the same way, and call this social Darwinism.

Here’s the thing: In nature, the better genes and traits don’t always survive. Ec 9.11 Quite frequently dumb luck, not survival of the fittest, is how things work. And in the marketplace and workforce, people likewise beat the competition through dumb luck. Or by cheating; there’s nepotism, bribery, blackmail, lowballing the competition, insider trading, rules violation, various unfair advantages, various disadvantages like institutional racism, sexism, ageism, and prejudices against the disabled or the previously incarcerated.

The prosperity gospel claims the only reason you’re needy is because you don’t believe hard enough. The only reason you’re poor, sick, disadvantaged, or in any way not successful nor prosperous, is all your fault. Jesus claimed the good news is for the poor, Lk 4.18 and the prosperity gospel would agree—but with a very different spin on Jesus’s meaning. The good news is for the poor only when you believe really hard. Otherwise it’s really not.

So when people actually are needy, or become needy—a hurricane floods a city, or a tornado or earthquake knocks its buildings down, or a volcano burns ’em away—the prosperity gospel really has nothing to say to such people. According to them, bad stuff doesn’t happen to God’s people. When it does, they can’t really be God’s people, can they? Not anymore, at least; they must be sinning. They stopped believing. Somehow they’re deficient, so God took their stuff away. (Like he did Job—but they consider Job a special exception to teach a special lesson.)

This blame-the-needy-for-being-needy mentality is a very old one. The Pharisees had it, which is why they were so quick to dismiss the guy born blind whom Jesus cured. Jn 9.34 Jesus’s students had picked some of it up from the Pharisees, which is why they initially asked Jesus whether the guy was blind because he or his parents sinned. Jn 9.2 Jesus had to correct them, Jn 9.3 because while we create a lot of our own luck, some of it we don’t. Some of it is just plain meaningless.

But the true gospel is that God loves the needy. That he came to meet those needs.

Prosperity-gospel folks suck at being aid and comfort to the needy. Not that some of ’em don’t try; that despite what their churches and preachers claim, they do know enough of Jesus’s teachings to recognize they need to be generous to everyone, and love everyone regardless of merit, just like their Father. They may not realize the practice of this love violates every principle of the prosperity gospel—that you’re supposed to merit God’s riches by believing really hard!—but it’d seem they follow Jesus a lot more than their teachers do.

And this is the route we need to take when we’re correcting the people who believe in the prosperity gospel: Emphasize the needy. God cares about the needy. They care about the needy. So what’s the deal with a belief system which condemns the needy?