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God with a Human Face by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). God with a Human Face was published by Westminster/John Knox in l993 and is used by permission of the author, who also prepared the text for Religion Online.


Chapter 6: God Cares About Money (Matt 5:1-2; 6:19- 21; 24-33)


A classic movie - It’s a Wonderful Life - is about a man who runs a Savings and Loan. George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is the town’s favorite son; he gives up his dreams of adventure to stay home and take over the family bank. One Christmas season a large deposit of cash is mislaid; there is a run on the bank, and George faces ruin. He is saved from suicide by an angel, who shows George what the town would have been like had he not lived. His bank is saved from judgment by the generosity of the townspeople. The movie teaches us that friends are more important than money.

Jesus taught his disciples that friendship with God was more important than money:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:...

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

"No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

"Therefore! tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. 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 can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? 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. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you - you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well." (Matt. 5:1-2 6:19-21, 24-33)

Here we see Jesus in the role of charismatic teacher. His disciples follow him away from the crowds and up onto a mountain. And there he initiates them into the Way. He shares with them the secret of successful living.

Teacher of the Way

The Teacher of the Way, surrounded by devoted disciples, is for us a familiar figure. In every generation one or more such persons burst upon the scene. The signal of the arrival of a new Teacher is the publication of a best-selling book. In 1936 the country went crazy about How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, a public speaking instructor. In 1952 the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale authored The Power of Positive Thinking - a wildly popular sequel to an earlier book, A Guide to Confident Living. In 1968 from psychiatrist Thomas Harris came I’M OK - YOU’RE OK: A Guide to Transactional Analysis. Today, any sale of used paperback books will include at least one of these.

Carnegie and Peale and Harris did more than write bestsellers: Each was - and remains - a Teacher of the Way; each attracted millions of disciples. People still subscribe to Guideposts, the inspirational magazine that Peale helped to found. Dale Carnegie courses in Effective Speaking and Human Relations are still well-attended. Many still join therapeutic groups led by disciples of Thomas Harris.

You may not be familiar with the teachings of all three of these men. When their books are encapsulated and cast in the form of Jesus’ teaching from the mountain, they read as follows:

Carnegie on "How to Win Friends"

You have vast personal resources that you are not using: Either you do not know - or you are not practicing - the basic principles of human relations. If you will learn these, you will increase enormously your capacity to succeed in work, in family life, and in society.

There are rules for handling other people: don’t criticize, condemn, or complain; give sincere appreciation; and arouse in the other person an eager want. There are ways to make others like you: become genuinely interested in them; smile; remember names; be a good listener; talk to others about their interests; make them feel important. Others can be won to your point of view if you will follow such practices as avoiding arguments, showing respect for the opinions of others, and trying to see the other’s point of view. Learn to lead by changing the attitudes and behaviors of others. You do this by such techniques as beginning with praise, calling attention to mistakes indirectly, and letting others save face.

If you will learn and practice these common-sense, life-tested rules, you cannot help but succeed in whatever you undertake.

Peale on "Positive Thinking"

Do you want to be successful? Then you must start thinking positively; you will then set in motion forces that will bring to pass positive results. This is the great law of life: If you think in positive terms you will achieve positive results. In short, believe and succeed.

But doesn’t the Bible teach righteousness? Certainly. But one of the meanings of righteousness is right-thinking. And if you think rightly, you will achieve happiness, health, prosperity, and peace of mind. Believe in yourself - have faith in your own abilities. You have within you what it takes to be successful.

Learn to live a quiet, patient life; take time for prayer and meditation and Bible study. You can reduce stress and tension. Also, there is within you a reservoir of boundless energy, waiting to be tapped - if you make spiritual contact with God, who is the source of Divine energy. You can have good health, if you want it. Faith is a powerful factor, both in overcoming disease and in keeping the body free from illness. Put your trust in God; purge yourself of the anger and resentment and other destructive emotions that contribute to illness; pray for healing and restoration. You can get others to like you, if you become a comfortable person, cultivate an interest in others, pray for them, and don’t harbor grievances and resentments.

The potential for a happy, useful, productive, prosperous life is within your reach and within your abilities. The key is your attitude: You must learn to think positively, thankfully, affirmatively.

Harris’s "I’M OK - YOU’RE OK"

You are unhappy because you think poorly of yourself. You think I AM NOT OK, while you think others are OK. From such an attitude come self-destructive games of life, in which you are always the loser. No wonder you are unsuccessful in your marriage, your work, your family life. You won’t be happy until you learn to think better of yourself.

What is the source of your negative self-image? Look into yourself. What do you find? - three states of being: a Child, a Parent, and an Adult. The Child represents how you feel about things; the Parent, what you have been taught as right and wrong; the Adult, your capacity to think for yourself. It is in the Child that the not-OK feelings were lodged when you were dependent upon parents and other adults.

Once you become aware of these states of being and what they represent, you can begin to respond to others in a more free, less self-destructive way. You can respond in ways that do not simply recapitulate encounters out of your past.

Get to know the Child, the Parent and the Adult within you. Then you can begin to work with and to love more freely the children, adults, and authority figures you meet every day.

Looking in a Mirror

To those of us who lived through the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, reading those summaries from Carnegie, Peale, and Harris is like looking into a mirror. We recognize ourselves as those who want to be liked, who want to rid ourselves of negative thinking, who yearn to be more adult in our relationships. Carnegie, Peale, and Harris attack our basic insecurity; they treat the anxiety that hobbles and torments us. They show us how to live more creatively and successfully in our society.

That society, in turn, is mirrored in another book, written a couple of centuries before How to Win Friends or The Power of Positive Thinking. Without a knowledge of this book, the teachings of Carnegie and Peale and Harris are like snapshots not yet placed in the family album. The book is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. It lays out the values and assumptions that underlie most of our day-by-day activities.

Smith reminds us that the wealth of our nation is the sum total of the necessities and conveniences of life, which are produced by our collective labors. It is from the distribution of that wealth to the various parts of society that we are fed, clothed, housed, and granted various services. What makes such wealth possible is the division of labor, by which the collective output of our nation is greatly enhanced. This division has come about through our propensity to exchange one thing for another. It is in this exchange that your work benefits me, and mine you; as each of us pursues his or her own advantage, the good of all is served.

It is to facilitate exchange that money has come into being. The natural price of any commodity is made up of three parts: the quantity of labor required to produce it, the rent due the owner of the land, and the profit which the stock or capital must have. The market price, however, is determined both by the supply of goods and the demand for it in the marketplace. Where there is free competition - with no attempt to monopolize production or to withhold labor - the market price will be the lowest possible price that allows landlord, capitalist, and laborer to subsist. Only as profits and capital increase, however, can wages increase: That is where the increase of the national wealth comes from. Wages can only rise as the national wealth increases. The promise of increased wages is the greatest incentive to the laborer.

Was Jesus Against Capitalism?

Does the Way that Jesus teaches lead us out of the system that Smith has described? Is Matthew 5-7 an appeal to us to drop out of society, to refuse to compete, to despise wealth? Does God care nothing for money? When Jesus told his disciples, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth," was he attacking the economic system upon which our material security depends? Was he cutting the vital nerve between work incentive and work results? Was he pointing an accusing finger at the owners of the land, the holders of capital, or the organizers of wage-laborers?

Stored-up treasure drives our economy. Adam Smith said:

"Parsimony [saving], and not industry, is the immediate cause of the increase of capital. . . . It puts into motion an additional quantity of industry, which gives an additional value to the annual produce." To the high priests of commerce, which one sees on "Wall Street Week" on Friday evenings, these are sacred truths. In 1929 America saw what happened when the nation forgot these truths: Profits on the trading of stocks became more important than corporate profits. The economy went into a tailspin, people were out of work, the factories stood idle, mortgaged farms were lost, banks closed, futures were blighted. The nations of Eastern Europe are now being put through an economic wringer because, evidently, they thought Smith’s dicta about markets, profits, land ownership, and wage incentives were smoke and mirrors.

How are we to interpret Jesus’ teaching on the mountain? What is the effective, dynamic force of his statements about anxiety and money? How can we apply what he said then to the system of production and distribution in which we find ourselves now? If Jesus were writing a contemporary best-seller, what might it be called and what would be its thesis? Might it be something like this?

J. Emmanuel on "Stress-Free Living"

The Grand Illusion of our times is financial security: Everybody wants it, nobody gets it. It is like the horizon - the more eagerly you approach it, the faster it recedes. You say that you would be happy if only you could attain financial security, if only you never needed to worry about bills or taxes, or how to afford a new car. And so you try to earn all you can and to put aside all you can for tomorrow.

Foolish folk! That secure tomorrow never arrives. What comes instead? Inflation, recession, bank failures, crime, illness, environmental disasters, war, layoffs, takeovers, forced retirement. The harder you try for financial security, the less secure you are!

Why do you persist? Why do you court stress by seeking greater security? The effort only produces more stress, which in turn produces worry; and worry saps your ability to make good decisions and to work properly. So you are on a treadmill: The faster you run, the sooner you will have a heart attack and be unable to work, and then where will you be?

Foolish, foolish folk! Look around you at the world God created. Lilies do not work; birds have no savings banks. And yet they survive as well as you do. If God cares for them, how much more will God reward your work with enough to eat, to wear - and a roof over your head.

Look at the godless, who do not know your heavenly Father. They worship material success. And what is their end? But you know God and what God wants: Love for neighbor and enemy alike, justice, mercy, kindness, fidelity. If you will make these - and not wealth - your priorities, then food and clothing and shelter will be there for you in sufficient supply. Let God worry about money; that’s God’s business.

No Heavenly Bird-Feeder

Generations upon generations have read into the Sermon on the Mount a description of a divine Provider - a kind of heavenly Bird-Feeder. This God daily scatters food for us - God’s creatures - much as some of us put out seed for our feathered friends in winter. Well, it may provide some of us with a feeling of God-like omnipotence to feed the birds in winter, but the face of God that is reflected in Jesus’ teaching from the mountain is not that of a kindly Feeder of Birds. That image may have been acceptable in a hunting and gathering culture, or even an agricultural one. It seems hopelessly sentimental for the twentieth century.

What Jesus teaches is this: If the birds of the air and the flowers of the field - who know nothing of purposeful work - manage to survive, then what is the source of our pervasive insecurity? Is it not that we are mistrustful of the Creator, that we seek to pile up wealth, even when we know it is perishable?

Trust in the Creator does not mean that we do not have to labor to provide food, shelter, and clothing. Trust expresses itself in obedience to the will of the Creator, whose aim for the created order is justice, mercy, and truth. If our trust is expressed as obedience, then we will not worry unduly about food, shelter, and clothing. If we take care of the things God cares about, God will take care of the money. God really does care for money - in the most practical, matter-of-fact sense.

A Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams, a favorite movie of 1988, is a companion piece to It’s a Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart is replaced by Kevin Costner; Amy Madigan replaces Donna Reed as the faithful wife. But the message is the same: Money isn’t everything. Costner plays Ray Kinsella, an Iowa farmer who plows up part of his farm to make a baseball diamond. He says that voices have bid him to do so. And, in due time, angel-like baseball players appear to play on the field. Ray persists in keeping the field, even though he comes within an ace of losing his farm to the bank. In the climactic scene, his father appears to play the game; reconciliation with his father is the key to the dream.

What is your field of dreams?

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