I have commented before on the way our money is founded on our confidence in the authorities that issue and regulate it, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. Much of our money has no physical existence as it is comprised of accounting entries in a computer rather than notes or coin, and there are people who would like to eliminate any physical expression of money anyway. For such, the ideal is a digital regime in which of course, the authorities could monitor – or cancel (?) our use of money altogether. Even the value of our notes relies on the promise to ‘pay the bearer on demand the sum of …’ and hence on our confidence in that promise. In this sense, money is something of an illusion.
Jesus certainly had no objection to money as such and He endorsed the role of Caesar both in issuing and regulating money and in levying taxes. ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…’ Indeed, He was willing to be supported by people with means, and Luke tells of how wealthy women supported His ministry from their own means. (Luke 8: 1-3). Nevertheless, Jesus was also excoriating towards those who trusted in their wealth for their life and future, and this is shown, among other instances, by the parable of the rich fool. (Luke 12: 14–21)
Perhaps the point is that money is a fine servant but a dreadful master. It carries the suggestion of self-sufficiency and of power over others. It implies that it really can take the place of God, not just in our morality but in our sense of eternal life. If there is money, that what need is there for God? As if money could forgive sins. Some people try to buy salvation by extravagant and sometimes ostentatious giving, as if their self-selected good works could put God under an obligation to themselves. And then money also implies the worth or the worthiness of another person, as if the bank account and the personal investments could measure the significance of one’s life.
Not only that but if allowed to determine the way our society is conducted then it also brings in false values. For we live in a community and a society in which different people take part in different ways. One can be wholly dependent on another, like a baby or a child relying on his or her parents, but still be a member of a family. One can be dependent on long-term care from others, and still be part of the society. Equally, not taking part in the commercial life of a society, through poverty – and possibly crushing debt – does not separate one from society; it only means that one is not taking part in the transactions that constitute an economy, and not contributing to the forces that determine prices through the forces of supply and demand.
To allow economic interests alone to determine the values of a society is to place a burden on a medium of exchange that it was never intended to carry. If money is itself a matter of confidence in the institutions of state, and if it can only measure value and the transactions for which it is used, then money can give a value for any of the transactions for which it is used, whether trading in food and water, or in arms and hallucinogenic drugs. It can only reflect the morality and the priorities of those who use it and nothing more.
This all brings me back to the sense that money can never be a substitute for the economy of God. It can never buy salvation or measure the value of an individual soul. It certainly cannot provide a credible alternative to the love and mercy of God rendered to us in Jesus Christ, and the gospels give us that ultimate irony: that the value of Jesus to Judas was 30 pieces of silver while the value of our souls in the sight of God is the broken body and the poured out blood of Jesus Christ.
As I say, money is a useful servant but a cruel and tyrannical master.