Money, Morals, and the Cry of Matthew 25

Kenneth Briggs ’67 B.D.

“The crisis of the church … is not the crisis of the church in the world, but of the world in the church.” H. Richard Niebuhr in The Church Against the World (1935)

Without cushioning, the Bible’s sayings about money can be jolting. They’re as blunt and categorical as Scripture gets. “Woe” to the rich, the deluded who think they can serve both wealth and God, the haughty who lord it over poor people, the greedy who place faith in possessions, including bigger barns to hold their largesse. Many more passages lie in wait – at least 70 New Testament references alone – to ambush the reader and hearer of Scripture.

But most of us have become bullet-proof through years of religious conditioning of one kind or another. We’re ready for the stun gun, as it were, by resorting to “explanations” that take the edge off the message. For moderate and liberal Protestants, the historical-critical investigation of the Bible has produced a neutralizing confusion. Scholars have disabused many of us of assumptions that Jesus actually uttered those hard sayings or that they came from any single source. They are not necessarily to be taken at face value, so relax. Either he was using hyperbole, or someone later inserted troubling verses to make a certain point. One way or another, their vinegar gets diluted.

Escape Hatch

As I discovered during research for a book on the Bible in America, much of that first-rate scholarship has had the unintended effect of eroding the authority of Scripture, rendering the money passages relatively harmless. Escapes hatches are there for the taking: “He didn’t really say it or mean it.”

More literal-minded Bible interpreters aren’t moved by such academic testimony, but they are no less ready to deflect the blow. One Sunday morning in a sparkling Iowa evangelical congregation, I heard the preacher draw on the “where your treasure is” portion of Matthew 6. He carefully dissected our choices: Either trust material goods or God Almighty. The former was tempting, to be sure. Society’s confidence in “things” these days has created idols that draw people away from worship of the true God. Treasuring goods rather than Christ is fraught with dire consequences. But keep in mind, said the eloquent preacher, that St. Paul didn’t say money was evil – rather, the “love” of money is what did you in. St. Paul’s bailout passages in First Timothy have allowed countless Christians to exhale.

Seamless and Silent

Churches of all stripes that I attended across America are virtually silent about the power and purposes of a money economy. The attachment to free enterprise across Christian traditions has been seamless and unquestioned. Rightly or wrongly, the fundamentals of our economic system have been absorbed into our Christian way of life.

The history of this acquisition is remarkably uncomplicated, fueled largely by convictions of early European settlers that God had seeded the New World’s promise of freedom with the basic principles of capitalism. Noted church historian Mark Noll concludes that American Christianity has had nothing significant to contribute to the country’s economic thinking since the late 19th century. By then, Marx’s Das Kapital was rattling economic foundations which, in turn, encouraged new religious social reforms, including the stirrings which became Catholic social doctrine. The influence of economic reform ideas in American churches took place mostly on the margins, in the form of backing for organized labor and social welfare causes embodied most prominently in the Social Gospel Movement.

Entwined as the themes of money and faith have been over the centuries, the money part of congregants’ lives unfolds separately from their faith lives, usually with little or no advice from the churches. Church finances occupy a circumscribed place in most Protestant parishes. Members may see budgets, hear appeals, make decisions about tithing and the amount of their pledges, and respond to special needs. Otherwise, worshippers fend for themselves, rarely seeking a theological assessment of economic suppositions that drive the nation.

A Great Exception

During periods of economic distress – recurrent recessions, wars, revolutions in productivity – the mandates of Matthew 25 resurface to highlight human suffering and the church’s call to reduce it.* Such attention always exposed deep flaws in the system, but so far no crisis has fomented major reform. The Social Gospel cause and Catholic movements for social justice remedied material ills and stirred protest but couldn’t substantially shift economic priorities. The great exception, of course, was the Great Depression in the 1930s, but the counterassault against that national insertion of quasi-socialism began in the second half of the century and seems poised now to achieve most of its goals.

American denominations do admit to  pronounced differences on matters of the common good, but mainly they exhibit variations on a consistent theme of loyalty to capitalist convictions. American Christianity has shown little ability or conviction to nudge the economy one way or another, except to direct occasional energies to incremental policy changes or specific programs such as food stamps. The dominance of free enterprise values goes unchallenged. Does this acquiescence agree with gospel purposes or does Christianity have its own lessons to impart? If so, is it too late?

Stout defenders of capitalism as an adjunct to the faith continue to hold serve. Arthur C. Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, sums up the case for compatibility in the Feb. 20, 2017, issue of America. Despite its need for repairs, Mr. Brooks argues, capitalism promotes the Christian ministry of mercy by serving as the greatest generator of trickle-down wealth ever conceived. The portion of the world’s poorest people living on $1 a day has shrunk by 80 percent in recent years on the strength of free-market activity, he notes. The degree to which that achievement has fostered a better way of life in Christian terms goes unexamined.

Christian Realism?

Skeptics seldom renounce free enterprise as such but attempt to modify or redirect policies that in their view can better serve Christian ends. Reinhold Niebuhr, as depicted in the new documentary, An American Conscience, adopted broad reform in his early years by becoming a socialist but later focused on holding economic and political practices accountable to the exacting imperative of justice as handed down by biblical tradition. Niebuhr believed that pressing such religious imperatives on a large scale makes worthy ends possible in a fallen world where perfect love is unachievable.

The 2016 election has put this long debate in sharper relief. According to most post-election analysis, Donald Trump won the White House by channeling the public anger of American workers against economic policies fomented by elites that robbed these voters of jobs, living wages, and the consideration they deserved (grievances which Bernie Sanders likewise sounded from the left, with similarly rousing effect). At the opposite end of the income scale, many affluent Americans saw Trump’s pro-business, anti-regulation bent as a chance to boost their own coffers.

Faith-based Base

Faith-based America went for Trump: more than 80 percent of white evangelicals, as well as slightly more than half of Catholics and mainline Protestants. Was that a verdict favoring a capitalist system of less social service and health care? A passionate expression of faith in a free market with fewer restraints? Or an assault on voters’ self-interest?

Answers are hard to come by, even as political and religious turmoil spreads. But for those in the pews who are troubled by faith’s apparent silence, churches can still take up the challenge. The economic anxieties of worshipers clearly constitute a pastoral concern that warrants a fresh look at the fertility and promises of faith. Circle back to those intimidating passages in the Bible that approach questions about money through parabolic, metaphoric, symbolic, and rhetorical windows. Under conditions of free thought and open imagination, the temptation to treat those verses with “fight or flight” simplicity can be confronted and transcended.

To make that possible, a mature lay approach to biblical scholarship is necessary. Gifted research findings that overturn long-held assumptions about the authorship and contents of Scripture have too often been reported in ways that spawn disillusionment about the Bible’s reliability, as if its myriad writings are little more than a random assemblage of disparate pieces with no central purpose, a pile of fragments rather than a coherent jigsaw puzzle.

Credible Testimony

Bible research isn’t about affirming or destroying faith, however. It draws on objective, scientific methods to uncover knowledge about authorship, purposes, and development. Greater contact between scholars and church people could reduce misunderstanding and restore the Bible’s credibility, not by softening scholarship but by placing it within wider testimony of how Scripture is received and understood. Some scholars do that. In my opinion, more interactive Bible study is needed to reconcile scholarship and piety. If Scripture is to be worthy of trust among 21st-century Christians, we need to approach it with an open mind that allows it to escape the caricatures, stereotypes, and suspicions that encase it in irrelevancy and doubt.

Most churches will have to go even further if they want to take seriously the wider dimensions of faith and money in Scripture: They should look at conditions beyond their immediate surroundings. Churches typically reflect the income levels, classes, and race that surround them, narrowing perceptions of what would serve the common good (see Bill  Bishop’s outstanding book, The Big Sort). Watching the 10 o’clock news won’t suffice for closer exposure to real-life struggles of people far from our comfort zones. Such isolation shapes both thought and action regarding the economy’s purposes.

Anxiety around money (material, spiritual, vocational) deserves the kind of careful pastoral attention that goes to parenting, loss of loved ones, or addiction. Yet it normally receives nothing like that. Congregants and clergy are left to the relentless pounding of a consumer-driven system without sufficient Christian rebuttal. The potential for critical response remains, however, in Jesus’ appeal to love our neighbor as ourselves. Eventually that leads to what we do with our money and the cry of Matthew 25.

Journalist and commentator Kenneth A. Briggs ’67 B.D. is the author of The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America (Eerdmans, 2016). For many years he worked as religion writer for Newsday and as religion editor for The New York Times. He has taught journalism and religion at Columbia University, Lafayette College, and Lehigh University. His previous books include The Power of Forgiveness (Fortress, 2008) and Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church’s Betrayal of American Nuns (Doubleday, 2007).