I’ve been preparing recently for a talk on a “Biblical theology of money”, and one of the topics I have been thinking about is saving. Saving up some money for times of need in the future is almost universally agreed on as a wise financial practice. When looking for biblical support on the matter, I often go to Gen 41:1-36, where Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream of fat cows and thin cows. Through this dream, God revealed that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and so during the abundant years they should store up grain for the future.
I tried to apply this principle when I got married. At that time, both I and my wife were earning salaries – two incomes for two people. But I knew we wanted children, and so these were our “fat cow” years. Now over a decade later, we have one salary to support seven people (in fact nine at the moment, but that’s another story). The modest amount we saved up during the “fat cow” years is still in our savings account, and is earmarked to be used for our next car when the current one finally stops working.
There are other passages you could go to in support of saving, such as Proverbs 6 where the sluggard is told to learn from the ant who works hard storing up food during the summer months. The principle is similar – store up food while it is plentiful for the times when it is lacking. It is common sense, sound financial practise, and a value I want to instil in my children.
But when we come to the teaching of Jesus, finding support for saving is harder. In fact, in his stories and teaching, it is the people who save who are the fools and the people with no reserves at all who are the wise ones.
For example, in Luke 12:16-21 Jesus tells the parable of the rich “fool”. Why was he considered a “fool”? For “laying up treasure” for himself without being “rich towards God”. Matt 6:19-20 teaches the same thing explicitly: “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”. Which is pretty much the same thing as saying “don’t save up lots of money” unless you think Jesus had a particular aversion to wooden chests filled with gold coins and strings of pearls.
In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus praises a widow for giving everything away, when surely the prudent thing for her to have done would have been to save some of her money for food. By keeping nothing in reserve she had nothing left to trust in but God’s provision. This seems to have been Jesus’ motivation for sending his disciples out without any money in Mark 6:8. Again, this runs contrary to conventional “wisdom” – what church would dream of sending people out on a mission trip with no means of supporting themselves?
It seems that Jesus places a much higher value on a life which trusts God day to day than one which stockpiles money just in case. He taught us to ask for “daily” bread (Matt 6:11) whereas my preference would be for God to provide at least a month’s supply at a time.
Even more shockingly, he often encouraged those with financial reserves to get rid of them. In Luke 12:33 he tells people to “sell your possessions” in order to give to the needy. In Mark 10:21, the rich young ruler was told to sell everything. We often interpret this as some kind of “test” to see whether he loved Jesus more than his money, or whether he understood that you can hold nothing back from God. But what if Jesus simply felt that everyone ought to be able to live trusting God day to day for provision, and saw no sense in this man having a lot of surplus that he wasn’t currently using?
Does all this mean that saving is wrong? I’m not prepared to go that far, but this has made me reconsider whether I should present it as a particularly godly virtue. Obviously, extravagant consumerism where you spend all your income on yourself as soon as you get it is no more godly than putting some of it in a savings account. Spenders look to money instead of God for happiness, and savers look to money instead of God for security. Both are forms of idolatry.
There is one form of saving that Jesus wholeheartedly approves of, and that is what he calls “storing up treasure in heaven”. How you do this appears to be living a life of radical generosity and obedience to God. It means that we will sometimes do things that appear to be financially foolish, but in God’s economy, are the best investment we can ever make.