Tag Archives: stewardship

What’s the Truth Here?

Jesus casting out the money changers from the ...
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Sunday’s readings

Exodus 20:1-17

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

All four gospel writers describe the day that Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem. He was like a whirlwind roaring through, overturning tables and scattering coins everywhere, driving out animals and people in his fury. When we remember that Jesus truly is God in the person of the Son, we know where this fury came from. It takes us back to the wilderness trek of Israel, when God first explained to them what he expected of them. The wilderness is the place where we can put the cleansing of the temple in its right perspective.

In the wilderness, God told the people what sort of sacrifice he expected. Any animal or any fruits of harvest given over to God as a sacrifice was to be the best of all. Over and over he emphasized that gifts to God should be unblemished, perfect in every way. In the temple of Jesus’ day, vendors sold blind, lame, pathetic animals that were the rejects they could not sell elsewhere. Moneylenders who were there to serve people of all nationalities and convert their many different forms of money to coins acceptable for shopping in the temple routinely gouged their customers in the rates and fees for money exchange. As a consequence, every worshiper who did not arrive with his own perfect animal ready for sacrifice was subjected to the untender mercies of vendors and moneylenders who cheated the customers and cheated God. It is said by some commentators that temple inspectors collaborated in the whole scheme by ruling that perfect animals brought from home had defects and must be replaced by animals bought within the temple grounds. The offerings were lies to God as a result of the people lying to themselves. The temple had become a place to celebrate big lies and scorn for both God and people.

Jesus, God incarnate, took action to show what a fraud the whole operation was. His action, taking place shortly before he himself became the only perfect sacrifice for the sins of humankind, highlights what a complete lie the whole worship experience had become. Every worshiper had become part of a scene that honored neither God nor man. Jesus’ action said with great clarity that God hates lies and he hates fraud and he hates the behaviors that sustain such attitudes.

When Jesus cleansed the temple, he was preparing it for the day when the curtain that hid the Holy of Holies would be ripped from top to bottom, the day Jesus himself was sacrificed on the cross. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and on the day of the cleansing, he acted as purifying truth to cleanse the temple and ready it for the one true sacrifice that would wipe away the sin of all humankind.

This is the truth celebrated in today’s psalm. This is the truth revealed in God’s law. The psalmist knew about that truth. He wrote that God’s law is the revealed truth that the heavens wordlessly sing about day and night. God’s law, which is often viewed as restrictive and oppressive, is revealed by the psalmist and by Jesus’ work of cleansing the temple to be liberating and fulfilling.

Some people have great difficulty “finding” any money to give to God as an offering when they worship. The lesson of the temple cleansing, pointing back to the lessons of Israel’s wilderness days, is that our gifts to God come first. They are the most special gifts we give to anyone for any reason. Our gifts to God must be our first fruits, our most perfect, our free gifts of love and gratefulness. We deny the blessing and mercy of God in our lives when we begrudge him our best.

This is the reason that we must give in gratefulness and love, not out of any sense of obligation. There were, no doubt, individuals who were sickened by the deceitful marketplace the temple had become in Jesus’ day, but their anguish was completely overwhelmed by the power of those who thought of worship as an opportunity to enrich themselves. They had no respect for God, and they caused even faithful worshipers to sink beneath their bad attitudes. There were almost certainly faithful believers who refused to have anything to do with the temple because of this problem.

We can be thankful that this story is in the gospel. It is a reminder first that Christ supplanted all the sacrifices ever burned in that temple by being the perfect sacrifice no animal ever could be. Beyond that, it is also a reminder that we never fool God when we give him less than our best, when we give him only our leftovers. Jesus is the way God tells us that we are so important to him that he gave his best for us. This gift demands that we give only our best to him.

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The Social Justice God Wants

I hear politicians talk about social injustice all the time. They always bring it up in the context of an explanation for higher taxes and more programs. Right this minute, our president is asking for $50 billion to stimulate the economy. Sometimes it is about money for unemployment benefits or food stamps or other things. The stimulus program is supposedly justified by a crisis in our financial sector that had its roots in a government requirement to lend money to people who could not pay it back so they could buy houses they could not afford. Our country does a lot of things supposedly in the name of social justice.

My church friends mostly believe that the government ought to do these things. I must confess that there are times when I think the government does a good job of helping people with temporary problems. Where I truly diverge from most of my friends is that I do not believe that the church should advocate for social programs to be underwritten by the government. I also do not believe that the church, or any faith-based group, should apply for government money to fund their social programs.

I have two fundamental reasons for my position:

1. God created people free to choose to do good or evil. He did not create robots who can do nothing against his will. He created human beings who are so free that they can, if they dare, spit in God’s eye. There are consequences to their choices, but God never hampers their right to choose.

2. The government is a terribly poor steward of a dollar.

The United States was founded by people who believed that God created human beings, and they believed that God gave people individual liberty. They did not always like what individuals did with their liberty, but they firmly believed in that liberty. The hallmark of American history is the individual who tamed forests, prairies, mountains and oceans with a lot of will and energy. The whole structure of the Constitution is to limit the central government and prevent it from interfering with individual liberty. The Constitution was intended to specify the very few things the federal government could do, but lest anyone get confused about the intent, the first act of the new nation under the Constitution was to pass ten amendments, the tenth of which said clearly that the federal government could only have the power defined by the Constitution. All other powers were reserved to the states and to the people.

As an American citizen, I treasure my individual freedom. As a Christian, I treasure my freedom, also. One of the greatest blessings of Christian life is the freedom to try and fail and be forgiven and try again. God is unhappy when we make bad choices, but he loves us anyway.

My freedom as an American citizen and my freedom as a baptized child of God make me cringe when I hear church leaders talk about advocating for the government to tax every citizen in order to pay for programs that do the work of bringing about social justice that Christ would want. They glibly promote the idea that Jesus wants the poor fed and clothed and housed at government expense. I dispute that allegation. If Jesus had intended to change government into the instrument of his kingdom’s work, he missed a great chance when he made his speech about “render to Caesar.” No government on earth could have benefited more from the introduction of a social conscience than the Roman government, but Jesus chose to say that we give to God what is God’s, not to Caesar. What does that mean?

I think it means that if we want God’s work done, we should do it ourselves. To ask the government to do it means that many people who have not chosen to do God’s work of feeding, clothing and sheltering the poor are nonetheless obligated to do so. When the church is successful in advocating for social programs, and the necessary taxation, the church overrules the freedom God gave people to choose to participate in those costs and services as an act of love and service to him. The church is, therefore, acting in place of God by demanding compliance from people who have no desire to serve him. God always invites, but he never compels. Taxation not only compels, but it also oppresses.

Those who disagree with me point out that the government has more power to get the money and can, therefore, get more money out of people that we can elicit by invitation. This statement is quite true. It does not, however, provide justification for overriding the liberty of each human being to be charitable in his own way. Americans have demonstrated over and over that they are very charitable people, even though it is certainly easy to identify some holdouts. The fact that more could be done, however, does not justify the church in advocating for its vision of social justice to be paid for by all citizens.

However, my second point is that the government does not use the money it collects wisely. We citizens never see an honest accounting of what the government does with taxes collected for the purpose of social programs. If we did see such a thing, we would be appalled. We actually ought to ask the government to account for its money the way private charities are expected to account for theirs. If we actually saw how much of each dollar in government hands ever actually helps a hungry or homeless person, we would be angry. This is a major reason for not letting the government take our money away from us taxes. Far too little of it ever comes back to help the people who are suffering.

When I first grew old enough to make my own money decisions, my parents taught me to look carefully at the financial record of charities. Some charities, it turns out, squander money as if they were government agencies. Money donated to those charities turns into huge executive salaries, elaborate and expensive buildings, and nebulous benefit programs for the employees of the charities. Very little of their money ever feeds a hungry child.

On the other hand, some charities are excellent stewards of the donations they receive, putting more than 90% of the money into services and benefits for the people they serve. The Heifer Project is a prime example. The Lutheran World Hunger Project is another. Both of these charities operate on less than 10% of their donations. The rest of the money actually helps not only to feed people, but also to provide people the means to feed themselves into the future. No government program has ever demonstrated either the level of stewardship or the degree of benefit these programs provide. They do it without the use of force, i.e. the power of taxation, and they do it to the very great benefit of a lot of people.

There is one more thing to consider about using government money to achieve the church’s agenda. If the government pays the bill, the government runs the show. In a homeless shelter that operates without government money, a church can ask people to say grace before meals or invite them to a Bible study without apology. It is what churches do. If the government pays for the food or for the building, then the government can attach conditions to its money. The government might say that in the interest of separation of church and state, no prayers before meals and no Bible study in this building. We can protest all we want, but this is the government’s right if it pays the bills. Look at all the strings it attaches to federal highway money or school lunch programs. The government is quite assertive about the price recipients pay for government money. We may get that money without undesirable strings today, but those strings can become quite knotted by tomorrow.

I believe that God’s way of doing business is to call and empower and motivate and guide individuals who commit themselves to his work. I do not believe that it is God’s way to impose the power of the Christian agenda on people who disagree with it. It bothers me for my church leaders to be aggressive in this area. However, even if I thought it was a theologically sound idea, I would object because of the stewardship. If I give a dollar to feed hungry people, I don’t like the idea that the hungry only get a dime. That is the government way, not the way of Christian stewardship. If I give a dollar to feed the hungry, I am much happier when they receive at least 90 cents of it.