Spreading our allegiances thin


“Nobody can serve two masters. Otherwise, they will either hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and money.”1

Do American Christians split their allegiance between Jesus and possessions? If someone from outside the country saw how we prepare for Christmas, what would their best guess be?

Christians know that faith is at the center of the Gospel. But as N.T. Wright explains in Jesus and the Victory of God, faith in the Bible doesn’t mean mere “belief”, it translates to something closer to allegiance. We aren’t demonstrating faith in Jesus unless we practice allegiance to Jesus, trust him and follow his leadership. And we are called to follow exclusively, not splitting our loyalty.

It can get frightening. Leviticus 20 suggests drastic penalties for those who trust in other gods. Numbers 25, Judges 2, 1 Kings 16 and Jeremiah 32 describe severe consequences for those who turned to Baal (though in 1 Samuel 7 are shared blessings for those who turned away from Baal). 1 Kings 11 shows Solomon fall from grace when he gives worship to Astarte, Milcom, Chemosh and Molech. The prophets weep when Israel falls under their spell. We read these passages and have no doubt that including other gods was a failure to show faith, or “allegiance”, in the Lord God Almighty.

So why don’t Jesus’s followers have to confront the same stark choice in the New Testament?

It is there. We might miss it because it hits too close to home.

 


 

In the story of the Rich Young Ruler,2 Jesus tells the young man that he must choose between God and his wealth. He didn’t tell the young man, “it’s okay to have wealth around, just don’t trust in it” or “go ahead and keep your wealth so long as you make sure to put God first.” He tells the man to get rid of the wealth, give it to the poor, and follow him.

Pastors have no trouble claiming exclusivity for Jesus. “You must follow Christ alone.” They reject other gods when those gods have names. But why can’t they tell us, like Jesus did, to give up that other god when the other god is our money?

Some have said, “But that was a special case, Jesus only said that to one guy.” Yet the wording shows that Jesus is creating a principle, not just a story. When the rich young ruler walks away, Jesus makes a memorable general statement, stating that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Not just that rich young man, any rich person. Then on a positive note, Jesus says that anyone who gives up their possessions and chooses Christ instead will be blessed with eternal life. Not just the one man, but anyone. And the disciples, most of whom could hardly be called “rich” men, affirm that they have given up their possessions.

If you really believed that wealth made it more difficult to enter the Kingdom of God, would you still pursue it? Would you still hold onto it?

The New Testament places this choice in front of us repeatedly. Zaccheus gives up much of his wealth, possibly all of it,3 the moment he chooses to follow Jesus. But in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man,4 the rich man holds onto his wealth and suffers eternal consequences. Jesus tells another parable of a rich man who builds barns to store his wealth and suffers for it.5 A few verses later Jesus tells his hearers, “sell your possessions and give to the poor.”6 Two chapters later he instructs, “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”7 Then there are the “woe to the rich” passages, found not just in Luke 6 but also in James 1 and James 5.8

In 1 Timothy 6 Paul sets up a dichotomy between storing up material things and storing up spiritual blessings.9 In case Timothy thought it was a small matter, Paul emphasizes that people eager for money have wandered from the faith, and that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Matthew 6 states that you either lay up treasures on Earth or treasures in heaven,10 suggesting that to do both simultaneously is impossible. Luke 12 makes a similar point, stating that wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be.11 Luke 16 repeats the point yet again, stating that you cannot serve both God and money.12 In the Parable of the Sower Jesus states that the lure of wealth chokes the word of God and causes it to yield nothing.13

I don’t know that there’s a more consistent and practical message within Jesus’s teachings on faith as this one. Wealth and material possessions are a threat to it.

Do you want to cling to something that Jesus says is a threat to your faith?

A common counterargument is that “love of money” is the real issue here, not mere ownership of the money. But the New Testament doesn’t give much weight to that distinction. It condemns the pursuit of wealth, the possession of wealth, and the love of wealth interchangeably. There is a suggestion that they all go together – you do not end up with wealth unless you have pursued it, and you don’t hold onto wealth unless you love it. If an ancient Israeli was found with idols in his home, he wasn’t told that he could keep them just as long as he stopped loving them. If he didn’t get rid of the idols, the very idea that he had stopped loving them in his heart would have been cast into doubt. Even if there was a distinction between possession and desire, it’s clear that possession alone is a temptation.

Yet Western Christians (and many non-Western ones) are drowning in wealth and material possessions.

This is not a new problem for the church. St. John Chrysostom, one of the most highly regarded bishops of the 4th century, spoke out against parishioners whose outer actions showed allegiance to possessions.

We who are disciples of Christ claim that our purpose on earth is to lay up treasures in heaven. But our actions often belie our words. Many Christians build for themselves fine houses, lay out splendid gardens, construct bathhouses, and buy fields. It is small wonder, then, that many pagans refuse to believe what we say. “If their eyes are set on mansions in heaven,” they ask, “why are they building mansions on earth? If they put their words into practice, they would give away their riches and live in simple huts.” So these pagans conclude that we do not sincerely believe in the religion we profess; and as a result they refuse to take this religion seriously. You may say that the words of Christ on these matters are too hard for you to follow; and that while your spirit is willing, your flesh is weak. My answer is that the judgment of pagans about you is more accurate than your judgment of yourself. When the pagans accuse us of hypocrisy, many of us should plead guilty.14


I know this is a tough word, so I want to make the application simple.

Christmas is a month away. “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” are this week (we have names for days devoted to possession-gathering!!!). How might our Christmas look if we placed love of God at the center of everything we did this year? Not a divided loyalty, not “let’s shoehorn some Jesus stuff in so we have our bases covered.” What would it look like if we dropped the focus on possessions completely, and replaced it with a celebration of our lives and our family in Christ?

Because I see how the world celebrates Christmas, and it doesn’t look like the love of Christ to me, it looks like the love of possessions. Unsurprisingly, most of the holiday season fails to strike people with the joy of grace in God, it seems to be the cause of a lot of stress and anxiety.

We may fear that taking the focus away from possessions during Christmas will disappoint our family members, especially our children. Perhaps it would disappoint them even more than taking the focus away from God would. If so, what have we taught them, what of the joy of faith and family and friends have we really shared with them, and how will we fix it later if not now?

It is true that some children who have come to rely on material things will worry that the rest of their peers are celebrating possessions this Christmas, so why can’t they? This can be especially hard for middle-schoolers, who can be quite materialist. But if you believe that the accumulation of possessions is a rival to God, especially on a holiday meant to celebrate the exclusivity of God, then how will you communicate that to your kids? If the rest of their classmates were fixated on some other destructive ideology or false god this year, how would you communicate to them that your family is different for a reason?

What could we do differently this year, if we believed that Christ and not possessions are what brought peace, comfort and joy?

To be continued…

 

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 6:24

[2] Mark 10:17-31. 

[3] Luke 19:1-10. Note that as tax collectors were widely known to make their fortunes through defrauding, Zaccheus is not merely giving away half his wealth to the poor. Reimbursing everyone he has defrauded with four times as much in return, as he has promised to do, may well exhaust the other half of his wealth as well.

[4] Luke 16:19-31

[5] Luke 12:13-21

[6] Luke 12:33

[7] Luke 14:33

[8] Luke 6:24, James 1:10-11, James 5:1-6

[9] 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19

[10] Matthew 6:19-34

[11] Luke 12:22-34

[12] Luke 16:9-15

[13] Matthew 13:22

[14] St. John Chrysostom as quoted in “On Living Simply”, compiled by Robert Van de Weyer

 

 

5 thoughts on “Spreading our allegiances thin

  1. Oscar Delaney

    A particularly compelling analogy between idols and money. A very fair point that we wouldn’t justify keeping idols without loving them, and likewise for money. The question I am left with though, is whether it is the earning of the money which is problematic, or just the spending of it on oneself and storing it up for one’s future self? If earning money itself is at issue, a conventional ‘career’ is surely precluded; whereas if it is more using money earned on yourself which is the problem, earning money becomes OK so long as you give it away.
    Oscar

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think it’s necessarily “wrong” for much money to pass through your hands so long as it doesn’t accumulate.

    The problem comes, of course, in that many people begin to make many compromises in order to cause more money to pass through their hands. They take a job that doesn’t help anyone, or that might even hurt people (many careers are basically paying you to encourage materialism, to convince people to buy things they don’t need, put other people into debt, profit off of the destruction of the environment or push the poor into degrading labor, etc.). Or they work a high-paying job rather than a relational service-based job, or they work extra hours that they could be spending with their family, or they move to a costly place to live rather than living among the poor, etc.

    It is a rare job where you are able to pick the most God-serving and people-serving thing to do AND it makes a lot of money. And an even rarer person who takes a job like that without eventually shifting to live the elite lifestyle that such a salary affords them.

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  3. Oscar Delaney

    Indeed, so even if it is theoretically possible to work, earn money, give it away and live simply, it is pretty tough and requires a confluence of conducive circumstances. At this stage it is hard to imagine my motivations being tainted and my morals corrupted, but I guess that is what everyone thinks before starting on the slippery slope into secular, success-seeking society.

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  4. Pingback: How we worship in the holiday season – Stranger in a Slum

  5. Years ago I decided to stop practicing law and instead, take a part time, lower paid job. It was teaching – something I really enjoyed. My dad however, as you could imagine, was none too happy with my career change. He argued that I could do more good by earning a lot of money and giving it away. I said to him that I think God needs people more than money. I still think that.
    It is incredible isn’t it, when the warnings against wealth are so clear in Scripture, that it’s taught so infrequently. I guess that fact in itself shows how corruptible we are – that our fear of offending people, seeming too radical, or losing peoples financial support, means we don’t talk about this issue, even when the stakes (our eternal well-being) are so high.
    Well done for being one clear voice against wealth.

    Liked by 1 person

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