I have been following Ben Witherington III’s blog for some time, and although he is a prolific author, have not yet read any of his books. So when I noticed that amazon.co.uk were offering the Kindle edition of this book for free, I jumped at the chance.
The book is titled “Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis”. I don’t know if the publisher came up with this title, because in some ways it is misleading. The book itself covers more than just Jesus’ teaching on money – it actually surveys the entire Bible. And Witherington doesn’t particularly focus on the “financial crisis”, prefering to draw out Biblical teaching on money that is relevant whatever the state of your finances.
In his introduction, Witherington highlights the problem that Christian attitudes to money are rarely any different from the world’s. He is also eager to critique the prosperity gospel, which he believes is a severe distortion of the biblical message.
the self-justifying tendency of modern Christians to hoard wealth and live large have absolutely no basis whatsoever in the NT
The bulk of the book is then devoted to surveying the Biblical teaching on money and wealth. He organizes this into chapters on the OT in general, the Wisdom literature, Jesus’ teaching, James, Luke & Acts, Paul’s writings, and Revelation. It’s not an exhaustive study, but he picks out key representative passages from each portion of the Bible to discuss.
Along the way he is also keen to give instruction in hermeneutics (especially when dealing with Proverbs), and on historical background (especially on the economic situation in the time of Jesus). His chapters on James and Paul’s epistles read like commentaries in places as he goes into detail on some of the exegetical issues. Each chapter concludes with a “so what” section, that begins to explore what the teaching of that portion of the Bible means for us.
Amongst the key principles he touches on are the foundational concept that all things ultimately belong to God – our money is his even if we “earned” it. Tithing is not a New Testament command (he argues that those who insist on it should also refuse to lend money at interest). He is critical of the idea of saving up for a luxurious and idle “retirement”. The idea of “charity” too comes under criticism, since it forgets that Christians who are better off have an absolute obligation to help those who are less fortunate.
Jesus is all in favour of a person being rich – rich towards God that is, and generous towards one’s fellow human beings, especially the poor. What Jesus is not at all keen on is persons who are all about enhancing their own assets, portfolios, standards of living, or retirement accounts, which in one sense is what the rich fool envisioned.
He also raises the issue of reciprocity. Jesus explicitly taught that we should give with no though of return, an idea that seems almost nonsensical to our materialistic mindset. In his chapter on Revelation, he begins to explore the idea of “systemic economic evils”
Christians, like the culture around us, have become blind to the deadening effect of materialism.
Having surveyed the Bible’s teaching, Witherington devotes two chapters to some practical application. The first attempts to summarise a Biblical theology of money, stewardship and giving:
The Christian community must not allow any of its members to be in want.
Never once does Paul talk about a weekly collection for the local congregation. He just assumes that they know since they are brothers and sisters in Christ, they take care of their own.
If the purpose of making money now is so we can live in luxury and idleness later, it is not a biblical motivation
The second concluding chapter gives some practical suggestions on how to “deprogram ourselves from a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and self-gratification”. These incude:
- Develop a good sense of the difference between necessities and luxuries
- Make a commitment to ministerial projects that require a sacrifice
- If making money is no longer an issue, devote the rest of your life to ministry projects
- Evaluate your budget, especially discretionary spending funds
- Decrease the amount of waste in your life (“go green as rapidly as possible”)
- Stop hanging out with those who live in luxury
- Stop assuming that therre are no problems with capitalism
- Declare a jubilee year, forgiving a debt and lending money interest free
- Tear up credit cards
As can be seen from that list, not all of his suggestions will meet with universal approval from Christians, but I found them refreshingly direct. There is no question in my mind that Jesus’ teaching on money is deeply counter-cultural both in his own day and in ours, so we should expect a biblical theology of money to throw up some ideas we find uncomfortable.
Witherington also includes two appendices. The first deals with 10 myths about money, which are mainly countering verses that have been misinterpreted. The second is Wesley’s famous sermon on money, which I had often heard quoted but never read. His famous maxim of “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can” makes more sense to me now I understand that the “save” part does not refer to savings accounts, but to reducing your expenditure.
Overall I would say this was a very helpful and provocative book (and great value for money given Amazon’s deal!). Some readers may get bogged down in places, but if you do, just skip to the “so what” section. The historical background material is very valuable for better understanding Jesus’ teaching. The book covers very similar ground to Craig Blomberg’s excellent book “Neither Poverty nor Riches“. Blomberg’s survey is perhaps more complete, but Witherington gives more space to exploring the implications. I found it very helpful to let myself be challenged afresh as to whether my thinking about money is shaped more by my culture than the Word of God.