Well let me ask you a question – Don't you just hate… daft questions? That in itself is a pretty daft and leading question so let me clarify! I'm not talking about questions like:
- Why is the word "abbreviation" so long?
- Why can't you get mouse-flavoured cat food?
- If Barbie is so popular, then why do you have to buy all of her friends?
I'm not talking about daft questions like that. No! I'm talking about the kind of questions that are so blindingly obvious they're barely worth acknowledging with an answer. I'm sure you know the kind of thing. They often get asked in church Bible Study groups, like: "John the Baptist baptised people, didn't he?" And as that question is asked all eyes in the room drop to the floor as nobody wants to be the first person to say "er… yes" in case it's a trick question.
Well I have a very bad habit of asking really obvious questions as my poor old Midweek Group will testify. And I'm nothing if not consistent so let me give you this week's cracker. We're in the middle of a series of sermons on Issues Christians Face and this week we've come to the issue of Wealth and Poverty. So let me ask you: Would you rather be rich... or would you rather be poor? Don't worry... Obvious Answer: Rich! Of course we'd rather be rich! It's a no brainer. So why is it that one of the Bible writers prays this in Proverbs 30.7-9?
"Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, "Who is the Lord?" or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God."
Folks, many people think that to live well you need to leave God behind – along with other childhood fantasies like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. But the claim of the Bible is the exact opposite – that the path of true wisdom is only found in relationship with God. You can't live well without God. You can't live well without respecting the fact that God is Creator and Lord of this world and that we should therefore learn to see everything in a God-centred way, including our attitude to our wealth... and those in poverty. That is why our friend in Proverbs 30 shares his prayer with us so that we will, firstly...
1. Recognise that God is the Giver of Everything
That's why we pray to him, isn't it? Because we know he's the giver of all good things. And that's why the writer of Proverbs 30 asks God to give him two things before he dies. It's a pretty short 'bucket list' and it surprisingly doesn't include 'swim with dolphins' or 'see the Grand Canyon'. No! Firstly he asks that God would help him live honestly, and then secondly he asks that he will experience "…neither poverty nor riches." You see, everything we have is a gift from God. Whether we are given wealth or not is entirely in God's hands. And if we are to think Christianly about money that is the crucial starting point – it is all His in the first place.
Now I know that some of us here are currently in debt or financial difficulty. And can I say if that's you, then please do come and talk to us – there are good sources of advice both within our church and elsewhere, and we really would like to help. But at least 80% of humanity live on less than $10 a day, while 10% live below the poverty line of $1.90 a day. So compared to that, most of us here are rich by global standards.
And if we have more than we need to live on – we need to recognise it's from the Lord. He has blessed us with it. It's not mine – it just happens to be temporarily in my hands. And if I'm tempted to say, 'But I've worked for my money so surely it is my money?' the Bible would ask us, 'But who gave you the gifts and abilities to do that work? And who gave you the privilege of being born into a family and educational environment where those gifts and abilities were encouraged and developed? And who in his sovereign rule gave you the job that's currently earning that money for you?' Whatever we earn, whatever we're given, whatever we inherit, it's actually not ours. It is a gift from God. We depend on God for it. And whether he has given us much or little or somewhere in between – we need to thank him for it.
And the Bible teaches us that it's all given to us for God's purposes. Everything has a purpose, doesn't it? Like this wedding gift my wife and I received 18 years ago – which we didn't have a clue what it was. So we wrote a note to the giver saying "Thank you for the lovely... er... sculpture." And sadly that note was well and truly posted by the time my Mother-in-Law turned the sculpture over, read what was written on the bottom and we finally discovered that it was indeed a Banana Tree. Its creator made it with the purpose of hanging bananas on – to keep them fresh.
And God as creator and giver of all material things – not least money – blesses us with material things for a purpose too. Now part of that purpose is to provide for our daily needs. In fact, isn't that the overriding principle behind this prayer in Proverbs 30? Verse 8 – It is to seek from God what we need, not everything we want. So one of the challenges we face when it comes to using God's gifts well is to distinguish between what our needs are and what is luxury. Now that doesn't rule out saving for future needs. And nor does it rule out some luxuries and enjoyments. But we need to manage our use of money with what I fear is the seldom asked question: 'Do I need this? Do we need this?'
Otherwise we will spend thoughtlessly, rather than thankfully. And live lavishly, rather than carefully. And the more we spend, the less we will have to share and give – which is one of the other great purposes behind God's gifts to us. As he wants us to use any advantage we have, such as surplus wealth to meet the needs of those less well off. Essentially, he wants us to become generous givers, just like he is. So recognise that God is the giver of everything. Then secondly...
2. Recognise the Dangers of Wealth
Because there is a danger in wealth, isn't there? And the danger is that we might forget God. The writer of Proverbs 30 sees this all too well:
"...give me neither poverty nor riches; ... lest I be full and deny you and say, "Who is the Lord?""
Folks, the Bible says wealth can be a great blessing. The accumulation of wealth is never discouraged in the Bible. In fact the Bible positively encourages productivity from the word "go" – when Adam and Eve are made gardeners and they take natural resources and make them productive. But our sinful hearts are such that wealth can still be a great danger to us. So one of the most misquoted verses in the Bible is 1 Timothy 6.10:
"...the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils."
Note there that the Bible doesn't say that money is evil; it is the love of it that is the root of the tree of all kinds of evil that can grow in our lives. Money is a good gift from God, remember. It is a good thing, but we turn it into a 'God thing'. As money easily becomes the focus of our life, instead of God – for it can do many great things for me.
Christians speak of God as Trinity:
- We speak of God the Father – who is the creator and made everything.
- We speak of Jesus, God the Son – who saves me from sin at the cross.
- We speak of God the Holy Spirit – who is my comforter, who brings the incredible presence of Christ to me supernaturally.
Now I can't explain the Trinity fully here, but it is obvious to say that money is treated by millions today as our creator and saviour and comforter. We treat it as God! So money can be seen as…
- Our Creator – We speak of self-made men, don't we? As if they were nothing and nobody until they made their dosh, but now their money makes them 'a somebody'.
- Our Saviour – I have a friend who is failing badly as a father – he knows it, but he thinks he will win his children over by buying them whatever they want.
- Our Comforter – we talk about retail therapy and comfort shopping, don't we?
Do you see? Money can so easily become the place where I put my confidence. And we easily find ourselves thinking as Proverbs 30 warns: 'Who is the Lord? Why would I need him? I've got my money. It's in the bank account. So I'm ok. I'll be fine without him!' Money often has a negative spiritual power – so that if you are making it and using it and are around it, you need to realise that you've got to put some kind wall around it. You really have to be very careful with it. Otherwise it can make you drift gradually away from God. And when it does that it can make you do things that you don't want to do. It can make you be somebody that you don't really want to be, like:
- Being unwilling to speak out against corruption or injustices at work - because you're worried it might put your job on the line and threaten your financial stability.
- Taking a promotion for more money and status - even though it will mean working more hours and being away from the family during the week.
- Cutting corners in your finances – exaggerating your expenses claims to get what you think you deserve or paying workmen cash in hand even though you know that's a tax dodge.
The more we let money creep in and become all important, the more it takes God's place as the guide for so much of our decision making. And we forget God... and therefore we lose our moral compass. The further we move away from him (like the Israelites in that reading from Isaiah 58), the further we move away from what is right and good and fair. So let me ask you: What is the primary driving force in your decision making? Is it money? Or is it God? Folks, the writer of Proverbs 30 prays for "neither poverty nor riches" – because it is better to deny wealth, than to be wealthy and deny God. Because then we will never take on board the third thing – which is… that we need to:
3. Recognise the Responsibility those with Wealth have to Care for the Poor and the Vulnerable
I don't know if you've ever seen the first of the Spiderman films, but I think it was Peter Parker's Uncle Ben who famously said to him: "With great power comes great responsibility." But it was actually Jesus who first made that point when he said in Luke 12.48:
"Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more."
That's a theme that runs through the Bible like the letters through a stick of rock. Over and over again any blessing or privilege given to God's people is given not merely to meet our needs, but so that we will take responsibility to meet the needs of others. It is God's desire to care for the poor through us. So here are three challenges from Proverbs to help us cultivate a heart of compassion for those in desperate need. Here's number 1:
i) Open Your Eyes to the Needs of the Poor
Listen to Proverbs 28.27:
"Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse."
The hidden implication in these words is that the first step to opening our hearts to the poor is to open our eyes to them. We need to resist the temptation to look away. We need to be willing to look into the faces of the suffering and the broken. Now that can be quite intimidating. I mean – help! Where do we start? There is just so much need! It's so overwhelming! But once again God's word isn't lacking in wisdom for us – challenge number 2:
ii) Don't Try to Help Everyone, Just Try to Help Someone
Proverbs 3.27 says:
"Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbour, 'Come back later; I'll give it tomorrow' – when you have it with you."
The place to start isn't caring for everyone, it's caring for someone. Someone on our doorstep – my neighbour. And I think it's worth saying that a good deal of folks at this church care for less well-off neighbours every day through their work as doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers and social workers. And that is a form of giving and caring for the poor that is often under-appreciated. But most of us regularly meet people clearly in need regardless of our work – whether it's the homeless guy we walk past on the way into town, or the recently released prisoner who knocks on our door, or some of our refugee friends who we meet here at church. Who can we help? Are we willing to get our hands dirty and find out? In the first instance surely it's as simple as asking them: 'How can I help?' And as we do that, we can follow Proverbs 3.27's guideline and triage folks like in A & E at hospital:
- Asking "do they deserve help?"
- And "do I have the power to act?"
We won't always be able to discern what needs are genuine or whether we have the resources to help – so can I just say that even though we worry about being taken for a ride or of it being too costly, it seems to me that the nature of generosity is that it always takes risks, as the Lord himself knows full well in his dealing with us. And so the final challenge I want to mention is...
iii) Trust that God will give you the Resources to make a Significant Contribution to Care for the Needs of the Poor
Folks, it's one thing to respond spontaneously to someone we meet or give to an appeal as a one-off. But I think God is calling us to do more than that. To be more intentional than that. To commit to what a friend of mine calls 'significant somethings'. I mean we can't do everything, so don't be overwhelmed by a world of need. Instead commit yourself to make a significant contribution to care for the needs of the poor.
Now that could be by committing to be a part of the team working with Richard Mayland in our Christians Against Poverty Debt Centre. Or then again it could involve volunteering with Safe Families For Children – who do a brilliant job providing respite care for families struggling to cope with the pressures of life. Or it might be that we will want to pray and give to one of our long-term term mission partners – like:
- The Navajeevana Centre which was set up to meet the need of affordable quality healthcare in Sri Lanka over 50 years ago and is just as needed now as it was then.
- Nokuphila School educating children infected or affected with AIDS from a township on the edge of Johannesburg.
- Revive International working with street girls in Brazil.
- Or what about Anglican International Development?
If you're looking for 'significant somethings' to be a part of, you could start by investigating those and other initiatives in this World Mission leaflet. You'll find it on the display racks around the church.
However we respond to God's heart for the poor – it's simply not an option to go away unchanged. I tell you – I found it so hard to write this sermon. Not just because as usual there's been so many other things going on! But because I thought I was a pretty generous sort of guy until I started reading the Bible through this lens as it's forced me to face up to my greed and my sense of entitlement and see my unwillingness to pray a prayer like Proverbs 30.8 and say:
"give me neither poverty nor riches…"
But I need to see that my wealth is God's wealth and my needy neighbour is my God-given responsibility. And I need to trust that as I step out to be generous, he will give me everything I need – not just to meet my needs, but to give again and go on giving. That's why I'll end with one last dip into Proverbs and say that if we are worried that meeting the needs of the poor might leave us vulnerable financially, take hold of the promise of Proverbs 3.9:
"Honour the Lord with your wealth and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine."
Folks, we can trust that as we give wealth away, God will keep giving to us. God loves to put money in the hands of the generous. Let's pray:
Father God, we thank you for your abundant generosity to us. That very few of us have to think about how we're going to be fed today. Father we pray that you would open our eyes to the needs of the poor and the vulnerable that we would, so that you would move our hearts to have compassion and our lives to take action. And may that action not be out of guilt, but a sense that you are calling us and that it is a right response to you – the giver of all good things… not least your son who though he was rich became poor for us as he went to the cross to die for our sin. We pray this prayer in his precious name. Amen.