May 2017
Evangelism and Discipleship

Testing Mammon: Learning Financial Discipleship

When he’s not talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus is usually talking about money. He boldly condemns the greed of the religious authorities. He calls out the grip that wealth and possessions have on many in the crowds that follow him. In his sermons and parables, money is God’s most powerful competitor for our attention, devotion and trust. He even names it a rival divinity: “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

Since the stakes are so high, it’s worth asking: If money were my god, how would I know?

If Money were my God

As the center of my life, it would absorb my thoughts. I would turn to it first when I was afraid and do anything to avoid separation from it. I would sacrifice all other goods for its sake. I would praise its power to deliver from trouble and measure everything else against it.

If money were my god, I wouldn’t question our culture’s assumption that good things are scarce and that we must compete to survive or the belief that people are valuable if they are useful. I wouldn’t question these assumptions because they would be obviously true, a simple description of how things are.

If money were my god, I’d be appalled by Jesus’ economic vision, the command to give to everyone who asks, the suggestion that the rich are somehow at a disadvantage. I’d drive quickly past the parable of the brutal king in Luke 19:11-27 where the hero refuses to play the money game. I’d contemptuously dismiss the dishonest steward of Luke 16:1-13. I’d envy the rich fool of Luke 12:13-21, since history seems to favor folks who build bigger barns.

Money is my god more often than I’ll admit. Money functions as god for most people I know and love and worship with. It’s not the god we want. It’s the god we’ve inherited, the one you get for free in our society.

Financial discipleship

The willingness to see what you really worship is the beginning of fruitful discipleship. To see how money works on us — how it filters our perception, shapes our hopes, directs our attention, limits our imagination — is to grasp what a god really is. To understand the spiritual power of money in your own life is to desire something more loving and liberating — a better god.

Jesus offers us a King who overrules Mammon’s assumptions. Instead of scarcity, competition and people as means to an end, Jesus tells us that we have plenty and enough to share and that sharing with others, particularly the poor, is communion with God, our fulfillment — and when he says this, he stirs our deepest aspirations, and we recognize the truth of it.

But even as Jesus exposes Mammon as the Matrix, Mammon warns that the Kingdom of Heaven is wishful thinking for the weak and naïve (that is, for losers), and that its own power is our only protection in the real world. In this way, the God-Mammon dilemma pits our deepest hope against our greatest fear — and because we’ve played by its rules for so long, Mammon seems like a safer bet.

But what if Mammon has tricked us, scared us into self-fulfilling belief in a grubby game that pits all against all and offers only money as savior? What if the Kingdom is the real world? How might we discern the truth?

What if we ran some tests?

As part of our Comprehensive Wellness Program at the Seminary of the Southwest, faculty and students have been crafting small experiments to test the grounding assumptions of the dominant culture against the countercultural claims and commandments of Jesus. We’re exploring how our habits (particularly with respect to money, the body and relationship) reveal unexamined assumptions about how things work and what matters most, assumptions that are often at odds with the faith we profess. We’re also seeing how very small intentional changes can prove enlightening. Many of our most fruitful experiments have involved money.

Here’s how the process works:

1. Find a point of tension.

Identify some conflict between your behavior with money — getting and spending, saving and giving — and the Kingdom you want to believe in. You might start with one of Jesus’ teachings or commandments that inspires you but that you find hard to believe or obey. For instance, am I willing to “give to everyone who asks” (Luke 6)? Would I refuse to sell my possessions and give to the poor (Mark 10) if Jesus made that the condition of eternal life? Am I unable to refrain from worrying (Matthew 6) about material provisions?

Alternatively, start with a money behavior that makes it hard for you to respond to God’s call in your life. Are you anxiously spending more than you make? Is work consuming your life? Are you resisting the help you need?

2. Pay attention to what you’re doing now.

If you picked the commandment, “Give to everyone who asks,” you’re probably not giving to everyone, but what are you doing? Are you hurrying past beggars, ignoring requests, quickly explaining why you can’t help? This awareness helps set up your experiment.

If overspending is an obstacle to following God’s call, notice when you spend. What triggers a trip to the computer or the mall? What does it feel like when you’re shopping? What does it feel like later? How much could you afford to spend without creating financial stress?

3. Ask: What would happen if I followed this teaching?

What are you afraid of? “Isn’t it obvious?” snapped the friend who was afraid to give. “I’d be exhausted, broke. I’d look stupid and irresponsible. People’s needs are bottomless. I can’t help everybody.” Entertaining the Gospel possibility flushes limiting beliefs out into the open.

The Big Spender confessed: “If I didn’t shop, I’d get bored or anxious or depressed.” And then, “I’m not sure I could sit still with my thoughts.”

4. Ask: What would I need to believe before this teaching would make sense?

It helps to sit with the Gospel as you ask this question. Jesus’ passionate vision of the Kingdom loosens the grip of what our culture calls common sense. My friend who wanted to give answered: “I’d have to believe that I had enough to share. I’d have to believe that I had something to give that wouldn’t run out.”

My spending friend said: “I’d have to believe that God is greater than whatever I’m afraid of. I’d have to believe I wouldn’t be alone in the stillness.”

5. Now ask: What experiment could I try?

If you’ve picked a commandment, what safer and simpler version of this commandment could you actually keep? The aspiring giver wasn’t prepared to expose her bank account to a needy world, but she was determined to find some way to explore the promise of the teaching with manageable cost and risk. That intention inspired her experiment: “For a week, I’m going to give my full attention to everyone who’s asking for something.”

The lonely spender said: This week I’m going to say a short prayer when I enter a store, when I go online and again before I buy anything: “Lord, you are with me here and always.”

Here’s the trick: You’ve got to find the smallest possible experiment. Anything that requires sustained effort or heroic sacrifice will go the way of the New Year’s resolution. You must craft a test so vanishingly small that it flies under the radar of your fear and resistance. The best experiments are almost pure intention.

6. Reflect on what happens.

These small experiments are habit disruptors, and we recover creativity anytime we break a habit.

I asked the aspiring giver what she learned from her experiment. She said, “I have something for everyone who asks.”
“Did you give people money?”
“Sometimes,” she said. “Most people are really asking for something else.”
“Were you afraid of running out?”
She replied: “When I remember that I have enough, I’m not afraid to see their need — or mine.”

The spender said: “I wasn’t afraid because I wasn’t alone.”
“What difference did that make?”
“I didn’t buy anything I regret.”

Because Mammon is our culture’s god — and often our own — practice with money is uniquely powerful formation for Christian discipleship. Instead of avoiding Jesus’ tough teachings and ignoring impossible commandments, we can see them as opportunities for small experiments. We can apply whatever faith we might have to creative tests of his promises. With prayer and playful curiosity, we may discover that Kingdom thinking works in the real world, that money’s illusions are optional, and that we can afford the luxury of a greater God.

Steven Tomlinson is the Crump Visiting Professor of Pastoral Leadership at the Seminary of the Southwest and a Master Teacher at the Acton School of Business.


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This article is part of the May 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Evangelism and Discipleship