Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Misquoting Scripture

It was a beautiful day in early June. I was wrapping up my first year in seminary, and my bishop and his wife had come to stay a night and visit me within my formative community. Graciously, several of my friends and fellow seminarians agreed to have tea on the lawn, and we all gathered in a somewhat-circle—some in chairs, some on benches, others on the grass. Somehow, the subject of stewardship came up, and, according to the ancient and unspoken rule of seminary life, when someone’s bishop stops to visit, everyone gives his seminarian the chance to impress. Quoting a relevant passage of scripture, I declared boldly, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.”

Immediately, from the shocked and deeply concerned faces sitting in the circle, I could tell that I had screwed up the quote. My bishop, in as pastoral a tone as he could muster in that overwhelmingly embarrassing moment, said, “No, I think you’ve got it backwards. Jesus said, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’” I wanted to submerge myself in my cup of tea and hide below the surface of the brownish, barely milky liquid. Thus began the new unspoken rule of seminary life: whenever you’re around your bishop, don’t quote scripture unless you want to look like an idiot.

Perhaps it could be forgiven me. In my cocked-up version, I had said the logical statement—where your heart is, there will your treasure be. The thing you care about is the thing you are most likely to support with your money. That’s the way the world thinks. Actually, as Jesus points out in today’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 6:16-23), it works the other way around—where your treasure is, your heart will follow. The thing you support financially is the thing you develop a genuine concern for. Getting the quote right completely changes our approach to faithful stewardship. We aren’t called to give money to the things we love. We are called to give money as an expression of our faithfulness, and that act of faithfulness changes our heart, aligning it with God’s kingdom priorities.

Although it might be a distraction at this point in my reflection, when I read the first lesson for today (Deuteronomy 4:15-24), the first thing I thought of was stewardship. The passage actually focuses on graven images and idolatry. Moses pleads with his people, “under[taking] to explain the law,” by pointing out a counter-intuitive relationship. If you make a graven image, you’re likely to want to worship it. I had always imagined that an idol-maker/idol-worshiper started with the notion of a god and then followed it up by making an image of that god. It seems, however, that it works in reverse. If you make a statue or model of something, there’s a good chance you will eventually be drawn to worship it. That’s because it’s a lot easier to worship a god you do see than the one holy and infinite God whom you cannot see.

Waiting to fall in love with God and God’s church before making a financial commitment is the modern form of idolatry. We are not called to give money to the things we like or care about. We are called to give our first-fruits to God and then allow that act of faithfulness to engender within us the love we seek. If we only support those things that we like, then we are worshiping the gods we choose and not the God who transcends us. We can’t afford to wait until we fall in love with the god of our choosing. It’s too easy to worship a god we can see or can mold into the deity that suits our needs. Stewardship, like true worship, is an act of blind faithfulness that draws our heart to the one true God.

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