My dear, late friend Earl taught me everything I know about money. He was immensely successful in business. Making money came as naturally to him as composing music came to Mozart. However, his principal lesson was not about how to make money. He showed me how to live with money. You can either learn to give it away, or it will own you. Completely.
Here’s a story he told once that turned my way of looking at things upside down.
There was an elderly widow that lived on one of the large farms down the road from Earl’s own spread. Her home needed some minor tending to, so she hired the young man who showed up one day looking for work. The young man had been honest with her. Just days before he had gotten out of jail, and he was down on his luck.
Once all the small repairs had been done, the widow paid the young man a generous amount and he went on his way. The following weekend he appeared again at the widow’s front door. This time, he demanded money. The widow was alone in the house, and he knew it.
The woman refused. Apparently, the man barged in and went for her purse. She struggled. The young man killed her and fled. In a matter of days the police apprehended him. He had gotten only $400.
My initial response may resemble yours. Outraged at the robber, I also had a kind of sorrowful admiration for the old woman’s pluck. She wasn’t about to let that young punk push her around and take what was hers. She stood her ground. Sadly, it cost her life.
Before I could say anything, Earl shared a very different lesson with me. He said something like this. “It’s so sad. She could have given him a thousand times that amount of money and never missed it. She gave her life away for $400. That’s what happens when you let your money own you.”
I just stared at Earl. Nothing like that had ever occurred to me. But apparently, it’s just this sort of thing that Jesus keeps trying to tell us.
Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
He continues, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)
And then, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
Finally, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24)
Jesus illustrates the point later in the Parable of the Rich Young Man. Asked by a morally upright, wealthy young man how to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
And now Jesus doubles down on this theme in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. (Matthew 21:33-46)
You know the story. A wealthy landowner builds a vineyard and then lets some sharecroppers work it. At harvest time, he sends a series of servants to get his fruit. The tenants rough them up and even kill some of them. Finally, the landowner’s son shows up. They murder him so that they will get the inheritance.
Before getting to Jesus’ point, we have to be clear about a couple of details. For starters, the tenants are meant to look not only evil but unfathomably clueless. No one with a firm grasp of reality would think that you would get written into somebody’s will as a reward for blatantly murdering the person’s son. The tenants have a fatally distorted view of reality.
And perhaps most importantly, notice that the landlord demands his fruit. Not his fair share of the fruit. Not some of the fruit. Not most of the fruit. He wants his fruit. All of it.
The lessons contained in this parable are too many to cover right now. So let’s content ourselves with a couple.
We are the tenants. Most of us assume that we’re entitled to keep what we’ve earned. After all, we worked for it. We earned our money and our possessions, so they belong to us. If somebody tries to take what is ours, we feel justified in doing whatever it takes to protect our property.
Jesus reminds us that, strictly speaking, we never own anything. Everything we have—including the fruits of our labor—belongs to God. The creation is God’s. Whatever treasure we have in this life is God’s. We have it only on loan. As John Ortberg puts it drawing an analogy with the board game Monopoly, when the game is over, it all goes back in the box. We have to let it go.
And in fact, God gives us every good thing not merely for our own enjoyment. Think of what we have as tools for Kingdom work. Our money and our possessions have one chief purpose: to use them to build up the Kingdom.
Now just in case you’re thinking that God settles for a portion of what you have—say, a tithe or something like that—think back to that landowner. Remember? He would not settle for some portion of the fruit. He claimed it all.
And God’s claim on our lives is total. God won’t settle for some part of us. He wants all of us. Every last inch. Every nook and cranny. The point of this life is to give this life back to God. Completely.
We go terribly off course when we devote ourselves to accumulating and consuming as much as we can. God’s purpose for us is precisely the opposite: to give ourselves away. As the apostle Paul puts it: to pour ourselves out as a libation. To empty ourselves. As Jesus himself puts it, we lose our lives when we seek to save it. We gain eternal life when we lose our life for his sake.
Followers of Jesus have to learn how to live with our money. We can either learn to give it away, or it will own us. By giving it away, we also practice giving ourselves away. To God. Completely.