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The Road to Nowhere – Part 2

January 30, 2012

“Leave her alone” Jesus began. “What she has done for me will be spoken of her for generations to come. She has prepared my body for burial.” This woman spent her dowry on a funeral preparation and Jesus (who is God-in-the-flesh) tells everyone she was right to do so. In this case, anointing someone for burial is better than feeding the poor.

The Flesh wants to find a financial rule and stick to that forever. We should always tithe. We should never be in debt. We must always care for the poor. We need to give to anyone who asks of us. These are great guidelines, but they are not meant to be laws.

A good writer learns the rules of grammar, syntax, spelling and vocabulary. But the best writers, having learned these basics, also know when to break the rules. For instance,you are not supposed to split infinitives. But when Star Trek tells us that Captain Kirk has a mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, it just sounds right to the ear even though it breaks the grammatical rule.

The same is true in our use of finances. It is wonderful to learn the rules of healthy financial actions. But these must not be chiseled in stone, for there are times when the Spirit of God might demand we break them completely. It makes sense to feed the poor often and consistently. But there are moments when spikenard is to be used for its original purpose and not for the food bank.

I was raised by a very suspicious father. He taught us to distrust everyone who asked for a handout or a favor. I may have learned his lessons too well over the years. Along the way, I have also run across some biblical justifications for being cautious when people ask me for financial help. Actually, I think I only paid attention to verses that stressed caution rather than those which counseled liberality.

Years ago, I received a call from a church member asking if I could rush over to their house. They had someone in their kitchen looking for help. I was only a block away and didn’t have anything on at that moment. The caller was a new Christian and had no idea how to help.

The man asking for the handout was dressed in a totally inappropriate jacket for the season. We lived in Canada and temperatures that week were hovering around zero. He had a light spring jacket on when I came into the house. The jacket bore the name of a Bible college I was very familiar with. When I asked him if he had attended there he began to say yes and then stopped. He asked if I was familiar with the college. When I told him I knew a lot about it, he told me he picked it up at a garage sale. Then he told me his sorry tale.

He and his wife had been traveling down the highway near our town when the car broke down. They didn’t have enough money to get it fixed, so he hitch-hiked into town to see if he could scrounge up some money. In addition, he asked if I could supply him with something warmer to wear. He explained they were from a warmer part of Canada and had not expected temperatures like this. His story sounded marginally true, and there was no way I could verify most of his details.

I offered to drive him out to his car, but he completely refused. That’s when I realized most of what he had told me was false. I couldn’t get him to admit it, but I took our church member aside at one point and advised her to give him no money. I told the man he could only expect a meal from me and nothing else. I took him back to my place.

As I fed him soup and a sandwich, a thought crossed my mind. I had just bought a winter jacket two weeks earlier. As I watched him eat lunch with his spring apparel on, I sensed God was telling me to clothe him with my new coat. For a half hour, I argued with God internally. How could I reward a huckster with a new jacket? How could I throw my good duds on this dud?

That’s when the Lord told me, “You’re not clothing him…you’re clothing Me”.

Matthew 25 says “Inasmuch as you have done this for the very least of my brethren, you have done it unto me”. I went downstairs to my closet and retrieved the fine, down-filled jacket. I had never paid more for a jacket than I had on that one. I watched as this guy, wearing my jacket, strolled down the road; I was confident in my heart he was snickering over his good fortune and my gullibility.

Around four hours later, I went down the hill to get our mail from the post office. Coming around one corner, I noticed the same guy, still wearing my jacket, stumbling out of one of the town’s bars, staggering with a load of booze in the gut. Of course I had been hoodwinked. I winced as I watched the new owner of my jacket careen off of the building and down into the snow-covered sidewalk. How could I have been so stupid? I berated myself all the way home.

Yet, by the time I arrived there, God had shown me this truth: He was teaching me a lesson about money. He was committed to teaching me obedience, even if it meant helping out a man who lived fast and loose with the truth. It was a $200 lesson, and I now consider it money well spent. In fact, the value of that lesson increases with time. In so many ways, I have received my money’s worth.

Just as Alaska spent 25 million dollars on a Road to Nowhere, so too most of our money builds legacies that do not have any spiritual end point. If we added up our many cups of coffee, the many meals we have enjoyed in restaurants instead of eating at home, the thousands of videos and cable television programs we have paid for, it amounts to a large pile of cash. I am not saying we are wrong to buy a cup of coffee or attend a concert. But honestly, we approach most of our spending as nonchalantly as a child strews legos on the floor. We truly are those people to whom Jesus would say “You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”.

When I saw the con artist wearing my thick winter jacket I was indignant. But I didn’t see the irony in buying a new jacket when I had two winter coats in the closet that were not completely worn out yet. The mistake is not in buying the winter jacket but in the attitude that wants to claim it as my own when God decides it needs to go on someone else’s back.

Why did Jesus only tell one man to sell all his possessions and come follow him? Yes, he did call some people to give up their jobs as the price for obedience, but they got to keep their plows and fishing nets. Every person approaches money from a different perspective and belief system. For the “rich, young ruler” the money was a stumbling block to following. Apparently, the same was true for Barnabas who did not see his ministry expand until he sold some of his land, giving the proceeds to the church.

Speaking of Barnabas, notice that God did not require everyone to do that. After Barnabas sold all he had and brought the money to the feet of the Apostles they used that money to take care of the needs of the Church. Soon after, people began speaking well of him everywhere. A young couple heard about his spreading fame and they wanted in on the good reputation. They decided to do a little deal together. They sold one of their properties and agreed to tell everyone they got it for a particular amount of money. But they actually received a lot more money for it than they claimed. They pocketed the difference and leveraged their offering as a way to look more generous than they were.

God gave Simon Peter a prophetic Word and he realized what game Ananias and Sapphira were playing. In his pronouncement of judgment on Sapphira (after her husband dropped dead) Peter tells her “wasn’t the land yours to do with as you wanted?” This reveals that there was no requirement in the early church that every wealthy person sell their lands and possessions.

So why does God tell some to do it and not others? I don’t have an answer for that question except this: Money, in and of itself, means nothing. It has a unique meaning to each individual, and God uses each person’s perception of money’s purpose and intrinsic worth to teach His unique lessons.

I know a young couple who had dedicated their life to missions. They both had felt God’s call early in their life. When they grew up and met each other, their love for each other, their love of God and the calling to mission cemented their commitment in marriage. I counted myself fortunate to do the premarital counseling for them. They were a delight to counsel and their marriage felt like a commissioning service.

In the first five years after the wedding, they had two babies. Along the way, the husband was offered a lucrative and prestigious job. He took it and God began to use them in giving and providing for the needs of the homeless and needy among us. One night, they came to our weekly prayer meeting and left the kids with her mother. After the prayer time, they retrieved the kids from Grandma and went home. That night, neither of them could sleep, so they got up and talked. Both of them had felt God’s presence during the prayer meeting. God was trying to tell them both something important. They decided to stay up and pray until the Lord revealed his will to them.

A year before, the husband had inherited a small house from one of his relatives. It was a mobile home with a regular house shell built around it. It certainly wasn’t fancy by some standards, but it was in a very quiet neighborhood, had a beautiful yard and most importantly, it cost them almost nothing.

That night in prayer, God showed them to give their house away. By the time they went to bed, they had inner peace about giving their only marital home to another young couple in the church. The next day, they asked me to confirm this was indeed the voice of the Lord. I admit my first reaction was to talk them out of it. I couldn’t imagine God asking such a faithful couple to relinquish the blessing that was their house. But as I prayed for confirmation, the only place of peace for my spirit was on the decision to give their house away. I called them that afternoon and confirmed God was telling the to sell their house.

It is now many years later. That couple went on to get theological training and are currently serving in full-time ministry. They reflect now that God knew exactly what they needed. They were becoming too content in their domestic stability. God needed to shake them back to the track he had for their lives.

But it would certainly be a mistake to make a pattern out of this particular calling. Just as Barnabas had a different path than Ananias and Sapphira were supposed to have, so too this couple had to strike down a different financial path than the best Christian financial counselor could design for them.

In the final part of this teaching, I want to lay down the fundamental principles necessary to build good things with our money and to keep us away from building roads to nowhere.

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