Formations 10.07.2018: What Is Money Worth? Why?

Matthew 6:19-34

Federal Reserve, Washington, DC

Why is money worth anything? In modern economies where currency is not backed by precious metals, money is worth what some central authority says it does—no more and no less. This system has worked generations. People have deposited their money in banks, which assured them they’d be set for life with the interest they would earn.

Unfortunately, the interest rate has been roughly zero for a long time. Coupled with inflation, people’s actual purchasing power has in fact deteriorated. What’s more, the current system functions on debt. Maja Vujinovic explains,

The majority of the “new money” is created by loaning others money we don’t have. In other words, we are trying to create unceasing economic growth via the use of inflationary currencies, backed by nothing but debt.

This state of affairs may explain the growing interest in cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ethereum, as well as less complex “token economies” based on the digital exchange of real-world assets.

In the process, we are returning to an earlier era in which economies operate on bartering. Only now, rather than rice or cowrie shells, people have taken to trading with digital tokens that don’t have or need a value assigned by some centralized, external authority. Their value is defined by the community of peers that agrees to use them.

The rise of cryptocurrencies tells a story of shifting values or, more accurately, the shifting ways we assign value to things. In today’s lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also has something to say about what we value and why. He challenges his followers to place wealth and material needs in their proper perspective.

Vujinovic concludes her article with these words:

Everything does not have to have a price tag on it to have value—there are many other skills, goods, and services we can provide that are of equal value to money, if not more. We need to give the word “value” a whole other set of meanings.

Jesus’ words expose what we value most. One cannot serve wealth as a master, and fretting about one’s material needs doesn’t accomplish anything. Rather, followers of Jesus are to serve God and to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness, trusting that God will provide whatever they truly need.

Maja Vujinovic, “Cryptocurrency Isn’t Reinventing Money: It’s Reinventing Value,” Quartz, 25 Sep 2018 .

Discussion

• What are the warning signs that wealth has become an idol for us?
• How does this relate to issues of financial security?
• Can a poor person become enslaved to material wealth? Can a wealthy person become free from material wealth? Why or why not?
• How are we to apply Jesus’ command not to worry about food or clothing while still being financially responsible adults?
• How might Jesus shape our understanding of financial responsibility?

Reference Shelf

Wealth

While wealth is not inherently evil, the love of wealth leads to many evils (1 Tim 6:10). Earlier, wealth was looked upon as divine favor (Ps 1:3; Deut 28:1-14). What people possessed was always enough and came from god for use in worship. Such wealth as flocks, servants, and precious stones was pointless, however, if the person had no descendants. The family within the tent (later, the house) was real wealth. Excavations of early Israelite sites show houses of equal size, with no distinctions between wealthy and poor. Wealth increased with the development of the land. Excavations of later sites showed larger dwellings for the rich, evidence of the emergence of a ruling class. When wealth was in the hands of those who abused it, the prophets condemned them (Hos 8:14; Amos 6:4; Isa 3:16-24). The prophets repudiated the abuse of wealth in society, business, and the courts (Amos 2:6-8; 8:6).

Eddie L. Ruddink, “Wealth,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 955.

Consider the Lilies

The material in 6:25-34 corresponds to the petition about daily bread in the Lord’s prayer and has the following structure: (1) prohibition; (2) support for prohibition from nature (vv. 26, 28-30, a typical motif in wisdom literature) and from human incapacity to change life’s length (v. 27) and from the negative example of the Gentiles (vv. 31-32); (3) positive exhortation coupled with a promise of God’s supply. It is possible that Luke preserves this material in its more original setting. The passage begins with a prohibition of being anxiously concerned. Merimnao refers essentially to a state of mind. This warning is about being so self-concerned about taking care of one’s own needs, even if indeed we are talking about the necessities of life. But such anxiety leads not only to worry but also to activity—seeking to secure one’s needs or life by one’s own efforts. Jesus is not calling for his disciples to be irresponsible or reckless. He does not rule out forethought or planning, but he does insist that faith, not fear and anxiety, be the motivating force in what we decide and do and how we react, and he does insist on leaving the results in God’s hands. Thus the exhortation says not to be anxious about one’s life…. Life is much more than the basic concerns about food, clothing, and shelter. The point of the rhetorical questions in v.25b is that if God has given one life and a body, much greater gifts than mere food and clothing, then a fortiori God is able to take care of the lesser needs. We have here an example of an argument from the greater to the lesser.

The example from nature in v. 26 reinforces the point. Birds of the air neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Now in point of fact, wild birds work very hard for their food, but that is not the point. The point is that God provides the place and time and opportunity for them to be fed, and so a fortiori he will do the same for human beings as we are of much greater value to God. Verse 27 provides another illustration. Who is able to add a cubit (about eighteen inches) to one’s height or lifespan? … Verse 28 exhorts that we study diligently the lesson learned from the wildflowers (katamanthano is a hapax legomena and means careful study with a view to learning). The wildflowers grow without laboring or spinning for that matter…. The great beauty we can adorn kings with in clothing pales in comparison to the beauty of such flowers. Verse 30 stresses the contingency of things. The grass of the field once cut and dried was burnt in a furnace for fuel in a wood-poor nation like Israel. And yet God takes care even of wild grass, clothing it in beauty. How much more so will he cloth humans. In this verse we also have the term oligopistoi that Matthew may have added to his source; it is a usual feature of the Matthean redaction as a way of characterizing the disciples who have little or only weak faith (cf. 8:26; 14:31; 16:18). Here it refers to lack of confidence in God’s providential care for his own. Anxiety about such things is really a slap in the face of God. It is a way of saying “I don’t trust you, God, to take care of things.”

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 151–53.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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