Reading: ‘October tale’ By Neil Gaiman
The wisdom of that smart girl in the story we heard right back at the beginning can be summed up as something like – true meaning is not found in snapping your fingers and being able to get x, y or z, but rather it is found in the exchange of human experience, one to another, in a rich human life consisting of things done, not things owned.
This brings to mind all that Jesus has to say on the subject of money. The parable of the widow's mite she gives out of her poverty. Or his saying - “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Or Jesus’ rage in the temple – turning over the tables of those who make the Temple not a house of prayer, but a den of robbers. Money changers who inhibit the people of God from meeting with God. Or that passage from 1 Timothy - the love of money is the root of all evil. Money may not buy you happiness, but it helps.
Today we are so aware of the ills of poverty. Hunger, lack of drinking water, lack of education, lack of medicine, the lack of any kind of safety net. To champion poverty in a sense almost seems cruel. Take that widow who gives her final coin, gives all she has, is there really virtue in that? To give the last of what you have to a corrupt religious institution?
Jesus was the most radical of figures. His ideas about money are not difficult to reconcile with today – they are utterly impossible. “If you want to be perfect," Jesus said , "go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”
I have always found it rather amusing, listening to preachers throughout the years try and reconcile Jesus’ teachings about money with the reality of living an affluent western life. Take the camel through the eye of a needle saying. A popular work-around for this passage is to say that ‘the eye of the needle’ does not refer to the literal eye of a needle. But rather this was a nickname for a gate in Jerusalem, a gate so narrow that only one camel could pass through at a time – as long as it was not heavy laden.
Now this sounds good. The problem is there is absolutely no evidence anywhere of there ever being such a gate. It’s a good bit of dubious scholarship, to make us all feel a bit better. The bottom line is, the radical figure of Jesus, the apocalyptic Jesus, who believed he was heralding in the end of times, did not think you could both have money and go up there… But nor was Jesus ever faced with the challenge of living the ethical life in the western world. The ethical life which unfolds day to day across decades, as opposed to three short years.
To quote from my favourite book, the Catcher in the Rye… "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." A bit strong, but I think the meaning is evident. Despite all this, Jesus highlights the central importance of the money issue. It matters. Our relationship to it matters.
A few years ago a book came out by James Wallman called ‘Stuffocation’. It challenges the typical materialistic attitudes of the baby boomers (the value of life is measured in materialist terms – the house you own, the cars you drive, believing in the American Paradox – to have more, you have to spend more).
But now we feel exhausted by endless trivial clutter. Exhausted by the wardrobe, full of clothes, and yet there’s nothing to wear. Exhausted by the endless struggle, to find that one thing we need in the mountain of pointless crap. More is not better anymore. It’s worse, more hassle, more weight upon our shoulders. The Book then offers a solution.
Instead of looking for happiness or status in material things, you should find your status, identity, and happiness, in experiences instead. Material dreams are all well and good, but life is made up of memories which come from experiences. Now this re-frames money. It doesn’t make it unimportant, but it turns it into a means to an end, rather than the end.
The author James Wallman sets his readers a challenge at the end of his book – in the next month spend the same amount of money as you normally would in any other given month, but have at the end nothing tangible to show for it. In this way we might begin to reevaluate the role money plays in our lives, and have a richer and happier life too.
“You know what I never asked,” she said. “Is what about you? What would you wish for if I asked what your three wishes were?” I thought for a moment. I put my arm around her, and she snuggled her head into my shoulder.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m good.”