Jesus' Terrible Financial Advice by Jerry Bowyer
Jesus' terrible financial advice is that you cannot serve two masters. If you serve money, then you cannot possibly be serving God. God and Mammon are incompatible poles around which to orient a life; therefore, a life serving money puts you at odds with God. If Jesus' advice is right, many people, indeed most people, have put their souls in danger by serving money, which is a cause for 'terror'. That is what makes Jesus' advice 'terrible'.
That's the conclusion of Dr. John Thornton's new book, Jesus' Terrible Financial Advice. Dr. Thornton is a CPA, holds a PhD in accounting, and is the head of a university accounting department, so he's spent a lot of time thinking about money. Almost two decades ago, he embarked on a project to research, and then later write, a book about God and money. He started collecting every statement in the Bible about it, and what he found shocked him. He had intended to write a book about how one could use principles of the Bible to become wealthy. He knew such principles worked, because he had followed them himself. He and his wife managed to go through graduate school and not go into debt. In fact, despite the education and the birth of two children, the couple managed to double their net worth. So, imagine how helpful it would be to your goal of maximizing wealth if you could learn everything the Bible ever said about wealth!
The problem is that what the Bible says about wealth is that maximizing wealth is a lousy goal for your life. The book which Dr. Thornton had meant to write was gone, but instead, a more spiritually penetrating book was born.
So, does that mean earning money is a bad thing? No.
Does it mean that saving and investing are bad things? No.
Does it mean that money is a bad thing? No, but it does mean that money is a bad master. On the other hand, money can be a good servant when placed in service to a worthy goal. In other words, money is only as good as the purpose to which it is set.
According to Jesus, the purpose of life is to glorify His Father, and the chief rule of life is love of God and of neighbor. Money used for that purpose is money used properly.
Jesus tells a story about a man who accumulated so much grain that he needed to tear down his barn and build a bigger one in order to hold all of it. After long years spent accumulating wealth, he would finally be at ease…. Except that God spoke to him saying, "You fool, this night, your soul will be required of you." The fool lived for accumulation, but had no enjoyment of what he had accumulated. Simple accumulation makes no sense as an end in itself because money is for something. It is a proxy for something else of value; therefore, it points toward something other than itself. Classical economics defines money as a medium of exchange. This definition helps us to understand what Jesus said about money: It is not a goal in and of itself. A medium is something that acts as a channel, a means through which something else is accomplished.
In our recent discussion about his book, Dr. Thornton deployed his financial skill set to analyze the story above (known as The Parable of the Rich Fool) more deeply than I have heard anyone else do. Was the hoarding of grain a defensible strategy from a financial point of view? Very unlikely. Hoarded grain provides no return on capital. In fact, it tends to create a negative return: There is the problem of spoilage. If grain gets wet, it sprouts prematurely, or rots. Rodents eat stored grain, which both causes loss of stored supply and attracts disease-ridden vermin who may end up consuming other stored food stuffs.
In addition, there are warehousing costs. The giant barn is a substantial capital expenditure. Security costs money too. Hoarded grain is a magnet for theft.
Now, I admit that there are certain specific circumstances under which hoarding commodities such as grain may make sense; for example, in response to an anticipated shortage (like the patriarch, Joseph) or like a commodity speculator helping commodity consumers hedge against future price spikes. But this man is not engaging in either disaster preparedness or price speculation. He says nothing about a future famine or about selling at some future time. He only talks about taking his ease.
The rich fool is acting as a miser, not an entrepreneur, and it’s going to cost him money. There are few things in the ancient world more productive than grain. Keep harvesting it and then putting it back into the ground, and (under normal circumstances) it multiplies itself exponentially. It puts people to work. It feeds the hungry. It provides profit. The grain with its seed in itself is an engine of yield in both the agricultural and financial senses of the word. It multiplies wealth for all.
Far too often the evangelical conversation about money falls into utilitarianism: Ways to get out of debt, tools for budgeting, techniques to stop finances from causing marital conflict, pointers on how to stop worrying about money and get financial peace. Personal finance 'hacks' are all well and good, but what they are lacking is a teleology of money. What's money for? The Westminster Catechisms say that, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." That includes man's money. The catechism supplies the 'why' and that is essential because once you get the 'why' settled then you can move onto the 'what'.
The 'what' might be volunteering for charity, but it might not be. For example, expensive trips to an underdeveloped country to re-stack a pile of cinder blocks into a community center might be a great resume builder and a fulfilling bit of charity tourism, but is it really the best way to get kids a nice place to play? The cost of the plane tickets alone might exceed the cost of the building. If you are a high earner, you can build far more community centers and sink far more water wells by staying home, excelling at your job and making a hefty donation. If the 'why' is to serve God by caring for the poor, then the 'what' may well be to stay, earn, and cut checks, rather than fly, haul, and snap selfies.
Even if your 'what' is volunteering, it may well be volunteering in accordance with the comparative advantage of your gifts. The comptroller of a company may accomplish more good by volunteering to help a homeless shelter clean up its books than she would by ladling soup into bowls.
And don't forget the for-profit sector. The Christian conversation about money tends to short-change business in favor of alms. If the why is to serve God rather than self, then reinvesting into the business, expanding employment and at a generous wage, and improving service to the customer will often be a better way to serve than to give it away - especially in contrast to giving it away ostentatiously and racking up social status points.
According to Dr. Thornton, using money to focus on God instead of self paradoxically liberates the self, because idols enslave people. Idols are insatiable; we can never feed them enough of our lifeblood. The quest for financial status is unending and the thirst for luxury and security is unquenchable.
In case you feel like you missed out because Dr. Thornton did not write the 'how to get rich' book he had originally set out to write, have no fear - Moody has contracted with him to write that book now, too. Having helped the reader to get the 'why' right, now Dr. Thornton can in good conscience go on to write the 'how' of money. If you just can't wait to read it, a lot of the material can be found at www.gettingrichright.com.
Dr. Thornton and I sat down across a Skype line (frugally using the free version) to talk about Jesus' Terrible Financial Advice; the theology of double entry bookkeeping and the use of forensic accounting as an investment tool. You can listen to it all here