If we listen to the news on the radio or t.v. during the course of any given day, we will hear regular reports on the current value of the stock market. These reports are often delivered with the assumption that the Dow Jones average is the definitive gauge of the quality of our life and our hope for the future. I had an epiphany one day while driving and listening to one such report. There had been a sizable drop that day in the stock market. The report was delivered with a sense of gloom and the implication that we ought all to don sackcloth and ashes and mourn our loss of wealth until things turned around. The epiphany was the realization that these were false implications. In fact, all the things that were really important in my life were unrelated to the report.
Of course, the value of the stock market is related to the security our jobs, or the prospect of getting a job, and our ability to meet the needs of our families and plan for the future. These are all necessary things and we can’t avoid thinking about them. However, the idea that money is the measure and goal of life is the very point Jesus warns about when he says, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (from the gospel, Matthew 6:24).
Jesus was not talking to rich people. The Bible gives plenty of exhortations about wealth. We should not put our trust in our money. We should be generous. We should realize that we brought nothing into this world and that we can carry nothing out of it. But here Jesus is talking to the working class of his day, to people who were being overcome with worry about “what shall we eat and what shall we drink and how shall we be clothed?” One does not have to make a lot of money to live life in service to mammon.
The alternative Jesus offers is summed up with these words: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” What does this mean? At our Fullerton group last Wednesday, we discussed an article by Dorothy Sayers entitled, “Why Work?” You can find it online, and I commend it to you. Sayers highlights a problem with the way we look at work. We tend to think of work in terms of how much money we can make doing it. Sayers contends that we should, instead, pay attention to the work itself. When thinking about someone’s job we tend to ask, “How much does he make?” Sayers argues that we should focus on the more important question, “What does he do?” As the current economic crisis has revealed, it is possible to make a lot of money doing things that neither glorify God nor benefit our neighbor.
This concern is related to our gospel. When Jesus says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” he means that we should be preoccupied with doing what we do for the glory of God and the good of others. Money should be seen as a by-product. Our proper focus is on the work itself, what we do and how we do it, and not on the money that comes from it. The early church actually had list of prohibited occupations. One cannot be a Christian thief or a Christian prostitute, and there are others things that a Christian ought not to do. There mere fact that some work brings a monetary reward does not mean that the work ought to be done. There is also the danger of doing something good, but doing it poorly.
This principle also applies to work for which there is no monetary reward. The assault on the vocation of motherhood is fueled by false economic valuation. If our primary concern is, What does it pay? No one will be a mother. But if our primary concern is, What is the work intrinsically worth? We will see an increase in fertility. To be sure, there are economic realities involved in child bearing. However, if the vocation is intrinsically good, we ought to view the economic sacrifice as heroic, in contrast to the world that views it as foolish.
This emphasis also has implications for the life of prayer. One thing that keeps us from a faithful life of prayer is its lack of monetary value. To the world, it is a non-productive activity. If the world sees any value in prayer, it is only in relationship to its ability to create a more productive person. Thus, we are always being pulled away from prayer by urgencies that have a clearer connection to what we shall eat, what we shall drink and what we shall wear. However, if we understand the intrinsic value of prayer as the central activity of the creature in relationship to the creator, as the fountain of grace that enables us to grow up into the image of Christ, prayer will seldom be neglected.
Prayer is related to vocation. Prayer bring us into that right relationship with God that enables us to discern our proper vocation and direct our energies toward the more important things. The closer we are to God, the more attentive we are to the nature and quality of the work we do. God made the world and said, “It is good.” Those who are made in his image and live in communion with him can never be content doing work that is not good.
Those who live in communion with God and focus on the work and not the reward are also less anxious. When we are preoccupied with what we shall eat, drink and wear, we must contend with a thousand doubts and obstacles to our security. What will I do if this or that thing happens? How can I insure against all the variables of life in a fallen and crazy world? We are tempted to compromise and take shortcuts because we are afraid of not having enough. We worry about things because we take upon ourselves the task of being God. But if attend to the kingdom, first in prayer and worship, then in our work and service to others, we learn to trust God to take care of the rest. We learn to trust God to make all things work together for good. For that is his proper work.
There is a grand paradox in all of this. When we begin to value what is done for its own sake; when good work done to the glory of God is the goal and money is the afterthought and by-product, things begin to work better. We are more fulfilled and contented as people and we do better work. We also discover that God is faithful to provide the things we need–just as he promised. Life actually works better when we live it in the manner God intended.
We live in a world in which service to mammon is deeply entrenched. Consequently, it is hard to seek first the kingdom. It takes a conscious effort. We begin with the confession that we have, in fact, served mammon and with prayer for grace to begin to live in a different way. We continue with the decision, day by day, to value people, work and time in terms of the kingdom and not in terms of the dollar value placed on them by the world. We are able to live in a new way because of faith, because we believe that God, who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, will also feed and clothe us if we concentrate on doing the things he calls us to do.