Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 24, 2000
Money is an extension of the self
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
A man was known throughout the town for his great wealth and tightfistedness. He never contributed anything to charity or supported any effort to alleviate the suffering of the poor and needy.
The chairman of one of the community's worthy charitable organizations decided to approach the rich man at his office.
The fundraiser began: "Sir, our records show that despite your great wealth, you have never given to our drive."
The rich man fumed: "Oh, really? Well, do your records show that I have an elderly mother who was left penniless when my father died? Do your records show I have a sick brother who is unable to work? Do your records show that I have a widowed sister with three small children who can barely make ends meet? Do your records show any of that information?
"No sir," replied the embarrassed volunteer, "We did not know any of that."
"Well, if I don't give anything to them, why should I give anything to you?"
As a pastor and bishop, I can readily identify with the confused and perplexed fundraiser in the story. I'm not always sure about how to talk about the Church's pressing need to raise money and, contrary to the stereotype, I hardly ever preach about money.
However, as I try to psyche myself up for another run at the annual Bishop's Appeal, I keep pondering the simple question: "What is the meaning of money?"
Money is a complex reality in our culture and economists debate its precise origin and function. But certain meanings are clear.
First, money is an extension of the self. From the centre of our being our own body extends itself in gestures to embrace, defend or engage other human beings immediately present to us. From this perspective, money is a means of extending the impact of our person and our power, our ideas and values, beyond the immediate perimeter of our physical presence.
Through investment, money also reaches out beyond the perimeters of time, expressing one's hope for the future and even influencing that future. Money can also be used as a way of indicating our self-worth; it is frequently used as a measure of a person's success and prestige.
Second, money is also used in our culture to gauge the value of our work and production. A designer gown and a mass-produced dress are priced differently, as are a Rolex and a Timex. A doctor earns more than a drug store clerk.
However, sometimes we wonder whether the amount of money is commensurate with the worth of the object or service rendered - for example, the skyrocketing salaries of professional athletes.
Third, money is used as a medium of exchange and symbol of relationship. In exchange for service or goods, we offer an amount of money. Sometimes this is a fixed amount, sometimes it's more subtle as in the case of a tip.
As a symbol of relationship, the exchange tends to be one of love freely given and accepted as in the case of money tucked into a birthday card. Here it is freely given to signify an existing relationship without any expectation of service in return. Money can even work beyond death when for example, the money distributed through a will indicates the relative esteem, or lack thereof, for certain members of a family.
The Bible both reinforces and tempers some of the meaning our culture attributes to money and wealth. In many strands of the Bible, wealth is considered a blessing of God, a sign of one's self-worth as favoured by God. Yet, elsewhere, the prosperity of the unjust is considered to be one of the great challenges of faith in God.
Paul saw money as having profound symbolic value, able to be a sign of the Gentiles' reverence for the Church of Jerusalem, a sign of solidarity and unity, of personal thanksgiving to God for the gift of faith, and the medium of acceptable sacrifice to God as an act of devotion.
Money given by the Gentiles to the Church in Jerusalem was considered a means of investing in God's future and relieving the distress of the poor.
Jesus, while endorsing almsgiving, warns that this should be done unobtrusively and not in order to appear righteous in the eyes of others. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is an implicit exhortation to use one's wealth to attend to the needs of the poor. Furthermore, this is the advice Jesus gives to the rich young man who seeks to follow him.
The Bible is wary of judging the worth of human beings by the criterion of wealth. The poor are blessed in that they often display an openness and dependence on the divine, a much more telling criterion of human integrity and worth.
We also know that the Bible is aware of what money could do to the human person. Wealth could be a competing loyalty, diluting one's attention to God, dulling one's sensitivity to the needs of others and limiting one's freedom to make the right choices. Wealth and money could become "mammon," an idol demanding servitude, the wrong treasure in which to invest one's heart.
As is the case with our own culture, the biblical meanings of money are diverse and subtle. However, there is a unifying theme: the meaning of money is linked to the dispositions and intentions of those who hold Caesar's coin in their hands.
"Now about the collection made for the saints . . . every Sunday, each of you must put aside whatever you can afford."
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
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