The Impractical Gospel: Infinite Love and the Love of Money

St. Paul has said, on rather good authority, that “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim 6:10).

This seems wrongheaded at first glance. Money appears to be able to solve many of our problems, to obtain for us almost every material thing we desire, and to make us feel secure and comfortable. Whether it is our paycheck and retirement plan, insurance payments, credit limits, rent and countless bills, or our daily bread on the table, how can we live for a single second without some form of money? Why not love something so beneficial? Possessing money seems as necessary as breathing.

True, it is easier to breathe easily when we don’t have to worry about our retirement, and when it will not break the bank if we break a leg tomorrow and need surgery. It feels wonderful when we can splurge on a special dinner, or travel without pinching pennies, or simply pay the rent without feeling squeezed. Money seems to satisfy all our most basic needs and all our desires.

But money cannot do this. It is not God. Money and possessions can, however, take the place of God in our lives, and in doing so can take away our eternal happiness. We think that if we just had more money, this would remove all our problems and we would be happy, forgetting that God is the only source of our happiness. We throw away our opportunity to love infinite Goodness for a few coins. We sell our birthright for a mess of pottage, for a single meal. “Why do you hunger for bread that will not satisfy?”

God knows all about us. Because He knew that money and possessions could take so large a role in human affairs, He gave us a great deal of financial advice. The advice He gave does not sound sensible at first—quite terrible in fact—and almost impossible to follow. Upon further examination, however, we find that it is not bad advice at all, since He is God and has a comprehensive plan including our deepest desires and what is best for us, what will make us ultimately happy.

Many of Jesus’ stories illustrate an appropriate attitude toward money.

He said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covet-ousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Lk 12:15–21)

We often see people whose possessions have taken over their lives, who think that their life is meaningful because of their belongings, and who cannot be parted from them.

Similarly, the righteous man who came to Jesus asking what he must do to gain eternal life went away sad because he was not able to let go of his possessions. Christ asked him to sell them all and follow Him, and he could not. It was then Christ pointed out to His Apostles the infamous line: “It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. . . . but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:24, 26).

The disciples could not believe Jesus’ words. For them, and for anyone steeped in the Old Testament promises that wealth and prosperity would follow good behavior, the idea that wealth could get in the way of reaching heaven was shocking. Jesus says, no, if you follow me you will be poor and persecuted, slandered and killed. There is no health and wealth gospel in the New Testament.

And yet, Christ also took care of those around Him. When large crowds had come to Jesus to hear and be near Him, His apostles were quite concerned how to feed them all. Jesus took the little food that was present, the five loaves of bread and two fish (in one account), and multiplied it indefinitely, so that the now-fed crowd had twelve baskets of crumbs left over. In the same way, Christ’s Body is multiplied infinitely throughout the whole world in the Eucharist. If we trust in God, He will give us everything that we need and far more.

A Seeming Contradiction

In His very direct fashion, Jesus called the Pharisees “lovers of money” in the Gospel according to Luke. He was trying to point out that they were not focused on God at all, but cared more about tithes, ceremonial garments, and public places of honor. When Jesus called them such a name, the Pharisees ridiculed him, laughing outright when He suggested that they could not serve God and devote their lives to material riches at the same time.

Jesus further held the Pharisees up as an example, saying that we must not give alms like them, since they only did it to look virtuous to others. We must give alms in secret, so that one of our own hands does not even know what the other hand is doing. Jesus pointed out the poor widow as an example; since she gave all she had, the money that she gave to God was worth far more than the large sums of money given by the others.

In addition to having harsh words for the Pharisees who loved money, Jesus carried out one of the most startling scenes of His life when He went to the temple and began purging it, emptying it of everyone who was selling animals necessary for the sacrifice. He removed from the sanctuary the moneychangers, there to serve all the people coming from different countries to make sacrifices, saying that His Father’s house had become a den of thieves instead of a house of prayer. Those in the temple were robbing people coming to pray.

Jesus caused great uproar in the smoothly operating bureaucracy of the temple, but His good friends and Apostles were also tax collectors, unscrupulous characters who would exact extra money to line their own pockets. Among them was Zacchaeus, who climbed the tree to catch a glimpse of his Lord and God, and was moved to return fourfold all the money he had gained wrongfully. Matthew, one of Jesus’ closest associates, was chosen to follow Christ at his tax-collecting post.

God even paid taxes. Jesus did this on earth in a slightly unorthodox way; He asked Peter to pull a fish out of the water, and to pay the tax with the coin found in the fish’s mouth, so that it did not look like they were disregarding the civil law.

Another time, when interrogated by the money-loving Pharisees whether taxes should be paid, Jesus told us to “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). We know the Romans did not exemplify Christian virtue. They were about to kill Jesus upon the request of the Jewish high priests. They were the military conquerors and oppressors of the Jews. As a culture, at different times, the governing Romans practiced infanticide, held slaves, and were cruel and licentious. Yet, Jesus still tells those who are questioning Him to pay taxes to Caesar if they choose to use Caesar’s monetary system. In every age there are unjust rulers and governments. But if we participate in Caesar’s system, even now, we must give to Caesar that which is his, and, so it seems, pay taxes even to oppressors.

The Love of a Cheerful Giver

Blessed are you when you are persecuted! Blessed are you poor! Blessed are you when you hunger and thirst! “But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger” (Lk 6:24-25). Soon after Jesus said these things, He told us to

Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. . . . [I]f you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. (Lk 6:30, 34–35)

In order for us to be sons of God, it is necessary for us to give money to everyone who asks for it, and to give to people who will not pay us back; to lend to people we do not even like, or those we do not trust. A follower of Christ must never think ill of someone who seems to be lacking money or other good things: those who are dirty, or who are mourning, hungry, or not as beautiful as a tabloid-filled society expects its citizens to be. To imitate Christ, we must not be ashamed of hanging out with shady characters: bums, prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners.

If someone has a ramshackle car, they are blessed because they are poor. If they cannot pay their bills, they are still sons of God. If they ask for our coat, we must give them our shirt as well. If we have extra clothes or extra food, we are commanded by God to give to those who have less. We must forgive our debtors since God has already repaid our infinite debt against Him. This sounds insane. No financial planner in his right mind would ever give such advice. This means far more than tithing. It means total openness of hand and heart and spirit to God and to others.

To carry this out, early Christians in the Acts of the Apostles followed Christ’s dubious financial advice by selling all their possessions and bringing them to the Apostles to distribute to others. They lived holding all things in common for a short time. There are still communities who live this way: some religious orders, and a few groups of lay people now attempting to live this command of our Lord fully. Some people now choose to live intentionally below the poverty line in solidarity with those who have less.

Those first disciples who were sent out two by two to spread the first seedlings of the faith were commanded by Christ to bring nothing extra, not even an extra tunic, no money, no walking staff, no bicycle, nothing. They were to rely totally on the bounty of God, as conveyed through those around them. Perhaps effectiveness in evangelization requires this radical reliance on God, and we will not win hearts to Christ until they see our utter dependence on God’s care and providence.

Financial Distress

Do we love money? We can tell our love of money may perhaps be developing when we spend much time poring over our bank statements, opening bank accounts and finding comfort in the balance, and watching stock market movements like hawks. It is possible to love money for itself—that kind of miserly greed that gloats over coins because they are coins—but it is more common to love money for what it can buy, for the good things it can obtain for us.

We can tell if we love money when we have a sudden burst of warm and fuzzy feelings, not unlike romantic infatuation, sometimes when collecting stamps or coins and pondering their value, or when eagerly awaiting tax returns. Love of money can also manifest itself as fear when funds are lacking. For me, it is obsession over sales at the grocery store, or trying to buy as much as I can for as little as possible. It is good to ask ourselves where love of money may have crept into our lives unawares.

We allow our desire for money and material possessions to take over our lives: “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.”1 We work all day so that we may have food to eat and a place to live, and then we wake up the next day and start all over again. When we are financially solvent and secure, we feel that we have it all. We do not need to depend on an invisible Deity when we have provided everything for ourselves already.

We often forget the words of Jesus about material possessions. We must be reminded daily, in a very simple way, just what He said,

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? (Mt 6:25–27)

We cannot add one minute to our life by worrying. On the contrary, we rob ourselves of our precious, valuable minutes of life. Nothing we do will change by worrying about it.

But we still worry! Avoiding worry is easier said than done. Just recently, I was tested on this, with all the pain and annoyance common to any unexpected large expense. My car was towed, and I had to use money I was counting on as a safety net to redeem it. I thought of the Gospel words about financial security blankets, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Mt 6:28-29). They don’t work, they don’t buy clothes, they have neither cars nor money, and still they thrive.

“Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” not treasure on earth where moths and rust destroy (Mt 6:20). Even here on earth, we can trust God to give us everything we need if we rely totally on Him.

Money can be one of the last frontiers of trust, where perfect love of God turns fear into utter abandonment to God’s provision. If we pray every day for God to truly give us our daily bread, to help us know what He wants us to do and how to do it, and accept His Divine Providence in guiding and protecting us, we start seeing how He provides for us so kindly and bountifully on a daily basis. Even when what we receive seems completely insufficient, we must remember God’s words, “Blessed are you that hunger” (Lk 6:21).

When we are worried about money, we can repeat over and over again, “Jesus, I trust in you.” “Please God, give me whatever I need to do Your will today, nothing more and nothing less; give us this day our daily bread.” We can then tell ourselves to wait to worry (another key phrase for eliminating anxiety of any kind: “Wait to worry!”) when we seem in an inextricable bind of any kind; whether we’ve made a stupid financial mistake, or have merely temporarily lost our keys at the bottom of our bag and are sure we will never find them again. And if we have lost possessions permanently, we can say with Job, “[T]he Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

The Economy of Providence

These teachings are not just for people who have much money. Jesus’ words are for people of simple means, or even for those who do not have enough but are consumed with thinking about money or overcome with worry. If we trust God to take care of us with respect to material things, we will obtain the true peace that He wants us to have. With true abandonment to divine providence in every way, we find that we are able to better follow God’s will for us. We start noticing how God gives us just what we need, and only when we need it.

Our richness of life as Christians and children of God comes in knowing God’s providence for us, and knowing that He gives us whatever good things come our way. And even in nature, God gives in abundance.

Think of an apple tree in a field at harvest time pouring out far more apples than humans and birds and other animals can even use. The apples rot on the ground uneaten. While to us it may seem like a waste, nothing in the economy of nature is wasted. The waste apples feed the ground and restore fertility to the area about the tree. Similarly, God pours out good things on us, of which money is merely a symbol, a medium of exchange. If we visualize God’s goodness surrounding us with what we need, we can stop worrying completely about temporary, non-lasting goods. We will become like the lilies of the field, the better to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.

1 William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us.