At my university this semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about money. I think I’ve always thought about money over the sixteen years I’ve been here. That’s partly because it’s a university with a history and tradition of drawing some of the most affluent students in our area. It’s partly also because I regularly park my minivan alongside Maserati’s, Ferrari’s, and other eye-wateringly expensive cars that these students drive.
Alongside this reality is a recent economic discovery: many more students on campus than we had expected, often hidden from view, struggle with food insecurity. We’ve been defining food insecurity as having to choose between paying tuition or buying books on the one hand and buying an appropriate quantity or quality of food on the other hand.
We’re now into the ramp up towards Christmas – a time when many people struggle to afford gifts for family and friends. It’s a common tension: how much of the money I don’t have should I spend to try and communicate to someone how much I love them? For many students already strapped for cash and living on debt, this is a very hard time of the semester. The expectations from every direction can start to feel very overwhelming.
A couple of weeks ago we heard the news that Elon Musk has become the richest person in the world after a one-day increase in personal worth of $36 billion USD. I don’t have anything personal against Elon Musk but after a while at both the local and global levels one starts to wonder how long we’re going to continue living in (and contributing to) a financial system that allows for such obscene extremes.
This coming weekend I’ve been invited to a local church to preach on Mark 10:17-27, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the “rich young ruler.” This episode in the ministry of Jesus feels awfully familiar. It could have happened two weeks ago after Elon Musk won yet another jackpot. “Jesus, I’ve got all this money. I’ve got all the power I want. But where is life, true life, life with an eternal or meaningful dimension to be found?”
Clearly, he’s tried religion. “Yeah, I’ve done all that since I was a kid,” he tells Jesus with a shrug. This is probably the moment when he checks to see if any new notifications have hit his phone in the last thirty seconds. And, that’s when Jesus goes all Dietrich Bonhoeffer on him: “Have you tried walking away from it all? You should come follow me.” And then Mark tells us that this guy who’s got it all, literally, walks away sad. Money sure has a way of making you sad, whether you’ve got a lot of it or hardly any at all. The world of money is a world of sorrow, one way or another.
I’ve started to think that money metaphorically represents all human attempts to achieve, to build, to succeed. It represents a world of human effort to engineer our own survival, a world of human striving to quell our restless human experience. In this way, money (like Babel in Genesis 11) symbolizes making a name for ourselves rather than receiving as gift and grace the name or the meaning or the life which God loves to give us. It doesn’t matter, therefore, how much cash you’ve got: money represents the temptation to secure our own well-being apart from God. And this is why it must all be left behind if we are to attach ourselves to this other world that Jesus embodies, what the gospel-writers call “the kingdom of God.”
Bonhoeffer opened his masterpiece, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), in the most provocative way. “The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ.” This is how Jesus loved that rich young ruler: by calling him away from his entrapment to a world of his own making, which can never fully or finally satisfy the deepest human longings that stretch out beyond ourselves and our own comfort and security.
Now for the tricky bit: for those of us in academia, scholarship is our version of “money.” It is what we can so easily turn to or look to or rely upon if we ever feel insecure. You just write another article, put in another weekend in the lab, sign another publishing contract. The challenge of Christian scholarship is to do our work as a discipline of gratitude, liberated from anxious striving, not out of a deep existential need to make a name for ourselves.