In our New Testament passage for this morning, the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Galatia, a region which is part of modern-day Turkey. Like most of the churches Paul started, it was made up mainly Gentiles, that is to say, non-Jews. When Paul went on his missionary journeys he would seek out the Jewish people in the area, but it was mostly the non-Jewish population who were captivated by the story and the power of Jesus. Most of them didn’t know much about the Jewish God, let alone the Law of Moses, and they had never heard of Jesus.
One of the huge debates in the early days of Christianity was whether Christians had to live according to the Law of Moses. Most Jewish-Christians assumed they did. But what about Gentile converts? Did they have to observe the dietary laws? Did they have to be circumcised as well as baptized? What about Sabbath observation? What laws still applied, and why?
Paul’s answer was that the Law was good and holy, but the individual laws within it weren’t what was life-saving. What mattered was that we belonged to Christ, who had fulfilled the law already and set us free from the burden of trying to obey all the particulars. That’s the nature of grace. But then other Jewish-Christian missionaries would show up and tell people something completely different. He also had to deal with people who thought “freedom from the Law” meant, “Do anything you want.” It was confusing, to say the least, and Paul spent a lot of time and energy trying to make it all clear.
That’s the context for our passage this morning. Let’s listen for the Word of God.
So I bet you’re wondering, what’s with the piggy bank on the cover of the bulletin?
When I was down in Austin earlier this month for my Doctor of Ministry course, the subject was, “A Theology of Money.” After spending two weeks solid thinking about it, it’s kind of stuck in my head. So when this Galatians passage popped up I found myself wondering, how does this apply to how we live with money? If we’re supposed follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives, I’m guessing that means with money, too.
I have to say, I’ve preached on this passage many times in the past, but never with that question.
Of course it didn’t dawn on me that I’d be preaching this a couple of days after the markets freaked out with the Brexit vote – Britain voting to pull out of the European Union. Of course, the markets didn’t see it coming, either. Maybe that makes this an even more interesting time to think about money: how we see it, how we use it, how we save it, and most of all, why we do what we do. Though in this context I’m going to keep it personal and not even try to address world economies and markets.
G. K. Chesterton once said, “Show me the stubs in a man’s checkbook and I will tell you what kind of man he is.” Billy Graham put it a little differently, “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.” A lot of people don’t even have a checkbook any more, but you get the idea. Money is one way that our priorities and values are made visible. Presumably what we invest in is what’s most important in our lives.
But honestly? I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. I think sometimes our priorities are all over the map, and sometimes I think they even contradict each other, and we’re left with conflicting ideas and motives and values all vying for our attention at once, even if we’re not even aware of them.
I think our experience is a lot more like what Paul is describing in our passage from Galatians. At least I know mine is. Let’s look at it a little more closely.
Paul is asking the question, what guides our lives? And what difference does it make? There are three categories he paints with broad brushstrokes:
- the path of following the Law;
- freedom in Christ and following the Spirit;
- and doing whatever we want, which often masquerades as “freedom.”
Let’s start with the last one first.
This is the path Paul calls “licentiousness.” Licentiousness simply means we think we have license to do as we please. And for the most part, this is literally true. We live in a country with a great deal of freedom, and we fight hard to protect those freedoms. We have a lot of choice, for instance, on how to use our money.
The advertising industry is keenly aware of this, of course. We have a whole array of choices, and marketing’s goal is to get us to pick their product. The product may be a thing, like a car, or an experience, like a vacation, something we consume, like dinner at a restaurant, or even an investment. And the industry is really, really good at figuring out what trigger to push to get us to choose them. They’ve even got our brain chemistry figured out to know what images or sounds will grab us most.
What we know now is that what seems like a conscious decision has a whole lot of deep emotion behind it – emotions that we’re probably not even aware of. It’s not the thing we’re buying, it’s security, pleasure, love, admiration, excitement or even peace. Those are things that make us feel good. We can talk till we’re blue in the face about ‘things’ not making us happy, but the truth is, they do, at least for a while. These emotions are real, and powerful.
Let me be clear: Paul’s not saying that we shouldn’t enjoy life. The problem is letting our lives be guided blindly by these desires. In his letter, he calls “living according to the flesh,” or “self-indulgence”, as others translate it. In Greek the word is sarx, which literally means “flesh”. But Paul’s not talking about our bodies, per se. There’s another Greek word for body, which is soma, like our word ‘somatic’. Bodies are good things – God gave them to us! The whole point of the Incarnation is that Jesus became embodied!
So it’s not that Paul is saying that being spiritual is good, but things that we enjoy are bad. What he’s talking about is more our animal nature, our reptile brain if you will. Living according to our impulses, without any filters to guide us. Just, “I want what I want when I want it.”
When it comes to money, we can get in a whole world of hurt if this the only thing that’s guiding us.
The thing is, it’s not just about how we use our money, whether we’re buying things just because it feels good. It also affects how we see each other. Living primarily by ‘self-indulgence’ triggers nasty emotions like jealousy and anger and envy. I want what you have. I’m angry because you have something I can’t have. I’m going to do everything in my power to get what I can, no matter what the cost to someone else.
When Paul says that those who live by “the works of the flesh” we will not inherit the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about divine punishment. He’s talking about where this life is headed – which is farther and farther away from what God intends for us.
That’s the path of licentiousness.
The second path Paul talks about is following the Law. This path assumes there’s a clear list of rules and we need to follow them. If we do we will be OK. If we don’t, really bad things will happen to us. In Biblical terms, it’s the essence of the law from Deuteronomy. Years ago one of my professors summarized it this way: “The good get the goods.” Obedience and self-discipline will be rewarded.
But what happens if it’s not? What happens if we think we’re doing everything right, and good things don’t happen to us? What happens if there are forces outside our control – like Brexit, or a recession, or downsizing – things that we can’t do anything about, but which affect us deeply? We probably don’t think God is punishing us, but we might get really angry, angry that life is so unfair, angry that we’ve scrimped and saved and have nothing to show for it, while other people seem to get away with murder and are still living the high life. We might wonder where God is in all this, and why we’ve been forgotten and left out.
And even if things are going well, it’s still a problem. The problem is that it’s still all about us… it’s about our self-discipline, our goodness, our achievement. This path leads to judgment: it’s my worth vs. your worth. I’m successful, you’re not. How can we possibly see each other as children of God if we’re looking at each other through this lens?
All we can see is winners and losers, which inevitably leads to arrogance or shame, depending on which category we put ourselves in at any given moment. And whether we feel like we’re in the ‘winner’ category or the ‘loser’ category depends entirely on who we’re comparing ourselves to.
You know that’s not what God wants for us.
But there’s a third way, Paul says. There’s another way, thanks be to God, who in Jesus Christ has set us free for a life that really is life. The third way, the only real way to live, is life led by the Spirit of God.
Now this is the trickiest one to describe, for a whole host of reasons. For one thing, it’s fleeting. My experience is that the forces in our world are so powerful that it’s hard to live in our spiritual center for very long before we get whipped by the winds of emotion or self-righteousness. We have to come back to the center over and over again. But thanks be to God, we can.
But the biggest challenge is that with life in the Spirit, there are no specific rules to follow. There is only a hunger for wisdom, for how to live at any given time. Because what’s ‘right’ for now might change tomorrow.
Let me give an example. My priorities right now might be paying for my son’s college and saving for retirement; my guiding rule might be limiting my son’s debt and prudence for the future. But then another need might arise – like medical expenses, or a wedding – that throw the old formula up for grabs. I have to weigh and measure what’s most important now. Do I just live with less to make up the difference? Do I give less to the church and other causes? Do I borrow from the future to deal with present needs?
Sometimes things get even more complicated. What if a need arises outside myself, outside my family circle? Say, the flooding in West Virginia? Should I give to help them out? How much? And where does that money come from? From my savings, or a rainy-day fund? Or do I just spend a little less on myself this week? Do I decide on a certain pot of money to give to charitable causes, and once it’s spent, it’s spent? Or do I expand it if the need arises? And what needs should I respond to, when I know there will always be more? With economic uncertainty, do I stop giving to anything at all? What if I know other people have been hit a lot harder than I have?
I don’t have any answers to these questions – they’re highly personal, and only you can answer them. What I do know is that if we are living in the Spirit, God’s part of the conversation. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is part of the equation. And I can tell a lot about my answer by how I feel. Does it lead to love, joy, peace? Am I coming from a place of fear, or faithfulness? Would I label my decision “kind”? Those are the fruit of the Spirit, and whatever we decide, if we end up there we’re probably on the right path.
Money is so complicated; I didn’t need a class to teach me that. But it’s also a central part of our lives. And as Paul wrote, “If we live by the Spirit, we need to follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.” We may not measure our goodness by our checkbook, but praying through financial decisions is surely a place to start.
First Presbyterian Church