A Prayer-shaped Investment Strategy
A sermon based on Proverbs 22 & James 2 by Nathan Nettleton, 10th September 2000
The Bible highlights the consequences of the worlds unjust economic system, and we, as the church, are called to find ways of living out our prayer for justice.
One of the big changes in our society in the last few years has been the rising prominence of investment advice and information. A few years ago you would have only heard about share prices on the evening news if there had been a massive stock market collapse. Now, every news broadcast includes a summary of the stock market action for the day. If you listen to talk radio during the day you will hear more stock market reports than weather reports.
It seems that everywhere you go, someone is trying to advise you on how to invest your money. And if you listen to them for long enough, youll start to believe that the most significant factor shaping your future is how you invest your money. Its a lie though. The most significant factor shaping your future is how you invest your life. How you invest your time, your energy, your passions, your commitments these are the things that will really shape your future and determine the quality of your life. What you do with your money will hopefully reflect those things, but for those who fall for the lie, it determines those things instead.
The Bible has more to say about money than it does about any other moral issue. It doesnt say that it is impossible for a person to be both wealthy and godly, but taken as a whole, the Bible does seem to suggest that the odds against it are so high that it is probably not worth taking the risk. Our reading from the book of Proverbs is as good an example as any. The first verse advises us to set out to acquire a good name rather than great wealth, a good reputation rather than a triple-A credit rating, and it just seems to take it for granted that you have to choose between those things, that you cant really have both. Why? Well this passage again is fairly representative of the biblical views as a whole in that it associates wealth with injustice.
Modern economic theory is built on a false myth called unlimited economic growth. This myth says that the economy can keep on growing without limit - that the total pool of available resources can just keep growing so that everyones share of the pie will keep growing. It is an obvious lie, because the planet we live on is a closed system and its resources are limited. As long as we understand wealth in terms of material acquisitions, there is a limit to the wealth can be created in one place without diminishing the resources of another place. If all of us in this room began buying and selling to each other without any outside interaction, we would not be able to all end up with more money or material resources. The only way any of us could get wealthier would be if some of us got poorer. To get wealthier in comparison to everyone else, you have to take more out of the system than you put into it (which is called profit) and that means that you are becoming wealthier at the expense of others.
Take the planet as a whole and its exactly the same thing. Sure, if you discover a new oil field or something, you can inject some more resources into the economy and it grows, but it is still a closed system, and the money you make from your oil field has to come from someone. Of course the economists dont want people to be getting poorer, because consumers without the means to pay are no use to the economy, but thats the way it is. The basic goal of the business world is to move money out of the pockets of consumers and into the pockets of those who own the companies. And in a closed system, that means that the majority are getting poorer. If you find that difficult to accept then its up to you to explain why it is that the majority of the worlds population is getting poorer. Every year the worlds total economic figures show that more and more of the worlds money is owned by a smaller and smaller percentage of its population. If you can explain that in some other way than that our whole economic system makes that inevitable, then Ill be ready to retract my accusations.
If you read the passage from Proverbs as applying to nations rather than just to individuals you might begin to see that it speaks very loudly and clearly to the situations that dominate the nightly news day after day. You begin to see that it desperately needs to be read out at the World Economic Summit meetings. If you invest in injustice, you will reap dividends of disaster. Dont rip off the poor just because theyre easy targets and your lawyers can make sure you get away with it.
Why are so many people from the worlds poorer countries trying to get into Australia, even though our government and its fancy lawyers are absolutely intent on ensuring that our immigration laws keep them out? Because countries like ours have pocketed the money that used to be in their countries, and they just want to be where the money is. They just want to live somewhere where there are resources and opportunities. Why wouldnt they? Proverbs says that if we use our lawyers to keep them out or lock them in tin sheds in the desert and grind them into the dust, then we can fully expect God to rise to their defence and grind us into the dust.
But it also tells us what to do if we want to be blessed, if we want to really maximise our returns. Open your hands, open your table, share what you have with those in need. Now that of course is very bad economic advice. It gets the resources moving out of our pockets instead of into our pockets. But it never said it would make you rich. It said it would maximise your returns, it would ensure you great blessing. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek, the generous, the ones who share. Their lives will be enriched and filled with love and hope.
All this is easy to say, of course, but what are we to do with it? To a large extent, we are trapped. Our lives are embedded in an economic system that we have no control over. We are required to participate in the heartless worlds of business and global economics simply to put food on our tables and to clothe our children. And we mostly live with the nagging fear that if we are not increasing our share of the pie, then well soon end up with no pie at all. We are locked in to structures of injustice simply to survive.
Well thats true, but it doesnt have to be the end of the story. We may not be able to overthrow the system by ourselves, but we can resist it and subvert it in small but sometimes powerfully symbolic ways.
The fact that we gather here to worship around this table is a start. When we gather here we are investing some time and energy in something that is not about making a profit. We are coming to a table that is open to all, a table that we can only approach if we are willing to stand side by side with those whose bodies are broken and lives poured out by the wealthy and the power-hungry. We would of course, make a mockery of that if we did what James objected to in his letter and got more excited about the presence of the wealthy and powerful in our meetings than we did about the poor and broken. But assuming our worship has integrity, and if this is no isolated token act but a real investment of our lives, if we are seeking to live out the words we pray and make sure our faith is shown to be alive in our works, then what we do here will increasingly condition us to rebel against anything that stands in the way of making the communion that we express at this table a reality in the world.
There are bigger questions that we can ask of ourselves, though, questions which I can ask but I can certainly not answer in a few minutes here. They are questions about whether we can actually find ways together to live out our prayer far more radically. I dont think any of us can do much alone to break free of the unjust economic structures. But I wonder if it is actually possible to do a whole lot more if we do it together. And I wonder whether the reason that churches are dying all over the western world is that that is the most crucial question facing people and the churches are not doing anything about it. I think that the answer is yes, but I dont have the details. I think it is possible for small communities of people to join together in a common commitment to living lives that are shaped by such a different spirit that they can break the grip of injustice. And I think it is possible for a a few small communities to blaze a trail that will ignite a fire of subversive hope and enable others to find new pathways to life. And I think that if, together at this table, we offer ourselves to the Christ who can open our deaf ears and restore our speech and drive the demonic forces out of our lives, then we might begin to catch a glimpse of the crazy, hope-filled, love-soaked vision to which he is calling us.