“Mom, dad we are hungry!” clamored the hungry children clustered around the table. “What’s for dinner?”
“Well, let’s see. Mom and dad have lots of things we want to spend our money on before we go buying food for you munchkins,” replied Dad jovially. “We have retirement plans and cable TV and car payments plus a really nice vacation that we owe to ourselves. Let’s see what we have left over after all of that. Maybe we can find some money to buy you kids some food.”
We would look at someone who acted that way and pronounce them to be pretty poor parents. But how is that different from how we share materially with our brothers and sisters in the church? I am not talking here about tax-deductible gifts given through the local church. I can understand the hesitancy to put money in the plate when the vast majority of it goes to maintain the building and pay for the staff and programs of that local church. I am talking about making a priority of sharing materially with fellow Christians in need. We have been in several different church settings with pretty mixed demographics but we have never been in one where at least one family or person was not in some sort of economic distress. Reading the New Testament one sees a certainty of persecution and in light of that persecution we should be willing and eager to share materially with our brothers and sisters who are in need.
The familial terminology used in the New Testament is not merely window dressing. That is something that I am seeing quite clearly in Joseph Hellerman’s “When the Church Was a Family”. Let me clarify that a bit. It may not be window dressing in the New Testament but we sure treat it like it is. Lip service is about all it gets when we acknowledge one another as “brothers” and “sisters”. In practice we still see our blood relations, friends and co-workers as more important to us than those who share our common salvation. We snipe at one another, we gossip about one another, we sue one another and we split from one another incessantly. For some reason, it sometimes seems that being a fellow Christian makes one a valid target for things that we would never even think of saying to a family member or a neighbor. Perhaps it has something to do with how little time we spend together? I spend about 40 hours a week with my co-workers, I spend about 4-5 hours a week with the church. I depend on my job for financial support so I have to be courteous to my co-workers. I depend on the people at church….well, not for very much. If they get mad at me, I can just go to another church. We are connected in the church by preference and convenience.
Perhaps it is the blurring of what it means to be an American with what it means to be a Christian. The values of America, rugged individualism, conspicuous consumption as a measure of success, look out for number one (i.e. me!) etc. are at odds with what we see in the New Testament, where we are told to not lay up treasure on earth, to give to the poor, to love our brother more than ourselves. The self-made millionaire who goes to church on Sunday makes sense to us. The early disciples selling all that they owned and giving it away to their brothers in need doesn’t. In the early centuries of the church, being a Christian meant that all of us were persecuted. Now that we no longer have that persecution in much of the church, it is seductive to let our own financial security lull us into thinking that we have only a passing responsibility to our brothers and sisters. In other words, it seems that it is easier to share when we are all in need than when some are in need and others are quite comfortable. How tragic is it that the more affluent we have become, the less we seem to share with those in need?
When we worry more about wearing a suit coat to church than whether a brother has a coat to keep warm, there is a problem. When we get excited about building renovations when orphans languish without homes, there is a problem. When we spend hundreds of dollars on theology conferences and books when there are Christians around the world desperate to get their hands on even one Bible, there is a problem.
The love of money is featured as a prominent sin in the Bible for good reason. There is such a conflict between what we think money will do for us in the West and what the Bible says about money that it sometimes seems we are talking about different faiths entirely.