In a world where children go hungry, how much money should you keep for yourself? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about the dilemma we all face in a world where some go hungry. We live in tension because of inequality, but it's better to be awake to that fact than oblivious or blind - even though it's less comfortable.

A Cambodian child extends her hand. Making you feel guilty.

A Cambodian child extends her hand. Making you feel guilty.

In this post, Part 2, I'd like to outline a way forward. In particular, 5 faithful ways of using our money. 

But first, a few caveats, because this is a HUGE area and there's just no way to cover it all in one blog post. Jesus spoke about money all the time and it would be foolhardy to think this post could cover it all:

  1. I won't be giving you a "Laundry List" of what you should and shouldn't buy. I don't believe a legalistic list would be wise or helpful (or comprehensive enough) - even though we'd all love to take the guesswork out of our purchases.

  2. I won't be writing about income, other than to say that all other things being equal, there is a good case for ethically maximizing our income (either current, or future income through investments) so there will be more to give away, AND an equally good case for avoiding the danger of riches which suck us in. A good rule of thumb is "faithful with a little = faithful with a lot". Are you faithful with a little?

  3. I won't be covering the practicalities of wise giving that is empowering to the recipient. I've written about that in other places.

I've been enjoying Derek Engdahl's excellent new book, The Great Chasm: How to Stop Our Wealth from Separating Us from the Poor and God.

Engdahl points out that Jesus told us He would be entrusting us with "a little" to see how we would handle it. If we do well, He promises to entrust us with "a lot". Sadly, we often misinterpret this scripture to be a plan for getting God to give us a lot of money:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”  [Luke 16:10-13]

Here's the thing that should give us pause. Engdahl points out that the "little" that God entrusts to us is our worldly wealth - all of it, over our whole lifetime. NOT, as the prosperity preachers like to portray it - a little money now, then if you're faithful, God will give you crap-loads later and you'll be swimming in bling and bathing in champagne.

Instead, God has entrusted you with money in order to test your faithfulness throughout your life. And the reward will be True Riches in the King-dome. Worldly wealth and true riches are being contrasted.

Jesus promises that compared to worldly wealth, these TRUE riches will be WAY better. He's saying, "If you think these few dollars in your bank account are awesome, wait till you see what I've got for you. It's WAY better than mere bling. It'll be TRUE riches."

So, when you re-calibrate your thinking to realize that money is not your reward, it's a tool and test of faithfulness, you will see that in fact, the primary principle for holding and viewing your worldly wealth is Stewardship. With eyes to see that all your questions about money are simply questions of stewardship, life becomes simpler.

"How much money should you keep for yourself?" is the wrong question. None of that money is "yours" to keep for yourself - it ALL belongs to the King and you are merely stewarding it for the Kingdom. Sure, it's in your bank account, but you've been entrusted with the exciting job of making sure it is well used for God's purposes. So, Engdahl lays out 5 areas that we are to use our worldly wealth for:

1. Basic Needs

Does a cheese-burger count as "daily bread"? Taking a poll in the comments below.

Does a cheese-burger count as "daily bread"? Taking a poll in the comments below.

In Matthew 6:11 Jesus instructs us to pray for our daily bread (or cheese-burger), which assumes that God is willing and able to provide it.

Rather than feel guilty for the fact that you have food and housing, education and medical care, work your guts out to see that EVERYONE can access these basic needs. This is part of the work of seeing God's Kingdom "come on earth, as it is in heaven."

No-one gains anything by your denial of these basic essentials. But many will stand to gain if you commit yourself to making sure they are accessible to others. This is what it means to love others as you love yourself.

The question is, what are your "needs"? It's easy to see that we all need food, clothing, medical care and shelter within reason. (I'm not sure the Donald Trump's gold-plated bedroom is a fair application of the "need for shelter").

But what of your other needs? The need for beauty, the need for exercise, the need for intimacy, creativity, rest, connectedness and so on? I happen to think these are also valid needs that God created within every human being in order to be fully alive and fully human.

However, since these are not basic survival needs, each of us will have to pray for wisdom to find the right balance. Meeting these needs is a big part of loving ourselves. And we are called to love others as we love ourselves. 

2. The Needs of the Body of Christ

In Galatians 6:10, Paul encourages us to have a commitment to the well-being of our Christian community, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers."

We see this lived out in Acts 2 and Acts 4, where we are told that the believers shared everything in common and that there were no needy in their midst. That's pretty mind-blowing if you think about it. But it is a picture of God's Kingdom on earth. If we, as followers of Christ, can live this out in the decaying ruins of our society, then we point the way towards a practice of mutuality that will transform the world.

So, what is your sacrificial financial commitment towards other Christians? How are you using your resources to support others in the family of believers who are struggling?

3. The Mission of the Church

The people of God are called to follow Jesus in bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:18), and a significant portion of our resources must be committed to the needs of those on the margins of society.

I'm a firm believer that every budget is a theological statement - it reflects the priorities of that church or individual. So, the needs of the poor, who are so central to God's Kingdom must be reflected in our budgets and in our mission strategies.

Jesus' encounters with wealthy seekers inevitably resulted in a call for redistribution of some portion of their wealth to the poor.

When a pious young man came to Jesus in Mark 10, Jesus called him to give away EVERYTHING and become part of His travelling community of radical sharing (joining a radical sharing community strikes me as an important component of this level of giving).

In contrast, Jesus' conversation with Zacchaeus resulted in a commitment to give HALF his possessions to the poor (he also promised to repay 4 times the amount he had cheated anyone). This is similar to John the Baptist's challenge to those with two shirts to give one to he who has none. That's also HALF.

So, there is no hard and fast rule here. But one potential starting point for what we owe towards poverty alleviation, would be half our wealth. What do you think? 

4. Radical Hospitality

Hospitality, especially when extended to those who are not normally welcomed in our society, has long been a central part of the Christian calling. Jesus welcomed and benefited from the hospitality of Mary and Martha, who likely owned the home he stayed in.

Meanwhile, Paul encouraged us to use the good china for welcoming the homeless - "extend hospitality to strangers" (Romans 12:13) and hospitality was one of the deal-breakers for becoming a bishop (1 Timothy 3:2).

There is a recurring image throughout Scripture that when we extend hospitality to strangers, we are welcoming the divine, "entertaining angels unawares", or even welcoming Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).

When we were part of a Christian community of radical hospitality in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, we had some fun arguments early on about what kind of food we should buy with our pooled resources. At that time we had an open table most nights for our homeless friends to join us for dinner. The guys on the team were all for buying the cheapest teabags so we could maximize our budget. The girls on the team were all for buying teabags that actually tasted like tea. In the end the girls won, and we made a rule of thumb that when it came to welcoming the poor we would lean towards generosity rather than simplicity.

5. Joyful Celebration

Finally, Engdahl saves a special category of our spending for parties. Nice! He points out that Jesus gave special instructions on how to behave at a dinner and who to invite to the feast (Luke 14:7-14). Hint - it's the poor and excluded, not those who can pay us back. Jesus himself went to wedding parties and even provided the alcohol (John 2:9).

Celebration is a reflection of God's abundance and joy and over many years of living with the poor I've learnt that radical discipleship needs to have an equally radical commitment to beauty, joy, laughter and fun. 

In fact my poor neighbours tutor me in this principle. Though they live on very little, they LOVE a good party and look for every excuse to celebrate. Almost every day, the children in our neighbourhood ask me about my birthday party or Christmas or some other celebration they have heard of. It's a reminder that laughter and joy cost nothing. And they are gifts the poor have in abundance.

There is so much more to say about how we spend our money. I recommend you pick up a copy of Engdahl's book for a more thorough look at this thorny topic. He's done a great job grappling with all kinds of questions.

Let me know in the comments which of these areas God is challenging you to focus more on. I'd also love to know more of your how you figure out your finances justly.