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written by Constance Morgenstern

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Study/Background for "We Call them 'Goods'"


One of the interesting things about writing—or faith-life for that matter—is that it doesn’t always go to places you expect.

I set out to write a new hymn about wealth and generosity—partly because some good hymns on the topic of “stewardship” now seem to have outdated language. Honestly, I don’t even like writing the term “stewardship”—just the term—because of its association with church budgets and less-than-exciting pledge drives. The topic itself is actually vibrant and timelessly relevant. (Giving can feel great!) I wanted to try a new hymn.

It wasn’t tough to find Scriptural points to include, because the Bible talks, yes, “plenty” about wealth. Verse 1 of “We Call them ‘Goods’” begins with the basic premise that all our material world is a gracious gift from God (See the opening chapter of Genesis). As God fashioned, for example, the land and seas, plants and animals, he declared that they were “good.”

This opening idea extends, though. Many people like to believe that any wealth they amass here on earth is a direct result of their own hard work, talent, etc. Not so, says Deuteronomy 8:17-18. The abilities that help you produce wealth are also, basically, from God.

Verse 2 of our hymn about wealth is best summarized by a secular proverb: “You can’t take it with you.” While that particular line may have come from a play instead of the Bible, the Bible has plenty of similar expressions (1 Timothy 6:7; Psalm 39:6; Psalm 49:10-13, 16-20; Proverbs 23:5; Ecclesiastes 2:18, 26; Ecclesiastes 5:15; Luke 12:20).

All we can do with wealth is to make perceptive decisions about it—like how much we choose to acquire and how to use or dispose of what we already own.

If you clicked on the Bible links for "You can't take it with you," you know that they begin to express actual dangers associated with wealth. One of my favorite references is the wider passage 1 Timothy 6:6-10. (Here’s where we get the idea that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Yes, that’s the version in the Bible. The passage tells how the pursuit of wealth can pull people away from faith, plus introduce them to grief.

Another good passage is Proverbs 30:8-9, which declares that both wealth and poverty can have downsides. Most people would concede that low income can decrease happiness—via hunger, poor health, stress….—although they might expect substantial happiness from wealth. However, a modern scientific study looked at data from U.S. residents in 2008 and 2009 (see for the whole paper). The researchers concluded that—once you’re over an annual income of about $75,000—more wealth doesn’t predict more daily happiness. Lots of money, by itself, won’t guarantee happy days. Or, haven't you ever found, on finally getting something you wanted, that it wasn't nearly as wonderful as you had thought it would be?

Jesus himself repeatedly taught that wealth is a very serious danger to faith. He says, quite memorably, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24. This is the end to the story in which a rich man cannot give up what he has to follow Jesus.)

The idea that wealth can distract us from God is echoed in the well-known Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9 and 18-23). There, Jesus says that the deceitfulness of wealth is like a weed that chokes the faith of people so that they don’t produce much fruit.

(On a similar note, some modern research even suggests that wealth relates to corruption of spirit. One published paper is “Higher social class predicts unethical behavior,” The behaviors described reveal a sort of "entitlement," not unlike what rich man shows in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31).

(This is the fine print. To be fair, there have been at least a few rich people in the Bible who demonstrated strong faith. I'm thinking particularly of Zacchaeus, whose story is told in Luke 19:1-10. Tax collector Zacchaeus is changed to put his faith above his wealth, although it takes a direct encounter with Jesus to do it. Jesus, after the famous statement about the camel and the eye of a needle (showing how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom), does say that with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:24-26). Overall, however, there are too many warnings about wealth to ignore.)

Verse 3 of the new hymn is about this danger of wealth. A main reference for it is Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). The man in the parable—who was already rich—continued to focus on accumulation, so that he could then “eat, drink, and be merry” for the rest of his days. His wealth was not only his priority, but his object of trust.

Whatever our income, it’s easy to think, along with the Rich Fool, that wealth is all we need (Proverbs 18:10-11)—even though Jesus reminds that earthly wealth is subject to thieves, rust, moths and other losses (Matthew 6:19-21). (Think of those weird losses shown recently in the Farmers Insurance commercials!) There is, however, a sense of calming permanence as we consider the God of the Universe.

In the Old Testament, after the people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt, they traveled through an unsustaining wilderness. God provided “manna” (Exodus 16:1-36), a peculiar flake-like bread that appeared on the desert surface each morning—except the Sabbath. Also peculiar was that whether a person gathered up a lot or a little, each person ended up with the right amount. This manna appeared for the people of Israel until they reached the Promised Land.

One other feature of the manna seems significant here: If people kept it overnight, it developed maggots. On the day before the Sabbath, though, the people could gather more and prepare it to last, so they wouldn't have to work to eat on the Sabbath. This daily-ness of the manna was a lesson for the Israelites, and for us, about ongoing trust in the Lord. “Give us today our daily bread,” taught Jesus, when he demonstrated for his disciples how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13).

The important thing, in Jesus’ teachings, has never been wealth, but the primacy of our relationship with God. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33, KJV) is only one place where he says that it comes before any material thing.

Similarly, Jesus’ Pearl of Great Price parable (Matthew 13:45-46 and referenced in Verse 4 of the hymn) is usually mentioned to show our primary need to focus on God. We should be like that pearl merchant who gave everything he had to purchase the singular, magnificent pearl.

But, as we look at this lesson, post-Easter, we see that Jesus not only preached about the primacy of seeking God's Kingdom—he modeled it. He, in fact, did give his whole life to buy the Kingdom. And that was not even for himself, but as a free gift for us!

I hope you are surprised and delighted, again and again, as you consider our God’s generosity. But here’s the thing that stood out to me as I was preparing this hymn: That it’s not about what we can give to God; first, it’s about what we take.

Receiving and giving, in a way, are “of a piece,” that is, they are connected. It’s like they’re both part of a flow, or tidal motion on a shore, or a process of breathing. This process extends between us and God/Christ/Spirit. Sometimes, it even extends between persons. For casual acquaintances, have you ever held a mental checklist of who did what for whom the last? Trying to keep it in rough balance, have you ever asked yourself, “Do I ‘owe?’” Meanwhile, for good relatives or our closest friends, we’ve long ago lost track.

In such a flow with God, it’s important that we recognize the taking. I am reminded how Jesus, on the night before he is crucified, starts to wash the feet of his disciples (John 13:1-17). Disciple Peter doesn’t want to let Jesus—who is the Master, after all—wash his feet. But, Jesus says that Peter needs to have his feet washed by him, and that Peter will later understand.

In that taking of the foot-washing is the acceptance of Christ’s amazing, cleansing work for us on the cross. Combined with other continual taking (of food, shelter, guidance, …), we accept that we “have our being” as trusting children of God. And as we see ourselves that way, and others that way, it transforms us.

When Jesus gave his disciples power and sent them out to witness (Matthew 10:8) he said, “Freely you have been given, freely give.” Never underestimate what you take from our God.


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