From Jessica Irvine in today's SMH.
I wrote a tract about the financial crisis recently called When Money disappears overnight:
Here’s a story from Paul Sheehan, a senior correspondent with the Sydney Morning Herald, about some questionable advice he received shortly before recent stockmarket crashes in 2008:
I was advised by a very wealthy friend to borrow the full $1 million and put it into super. The cost of servicing the debt, he said, would be covered by tax-free dividend payments, and the rising value of the super would be free money. He made it sound so simple, and inevitable, perhaps because he had done so well for so long by borrowing to the hilt.
That was 18 months ago. Since then his company has collapsed. He has sold his waterfront mansion. He has left the country, with no plans to return for the foreseeable future. I did not take his advice. I borrowed nothing. Rather than leverage up, I de-leveraged down. I have no debt, no mortgage, not even a car. What I wanted was the ultimate luxury good, something invisible but palpable - peace of mind.
No doubt the collapses of various share markets in 2008 left quite a few rich individuals feeling slightly rattled about their ability to predict the direction of their investments. The world financial markets will occasionally deal out sharp and unpleasant reminders, on a massive scale, that it is possible to get a great deal of wealth together in a hurry, and then lose it even faster.
One of the most alarming aspects of these sudden losses is that even though they are, in one sense, completely predictable—yet in another sense they can catch us completely flatfooted. Here’s a similar, slightly older story involving the loss of money and far more:
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Let’s highlight some observations about both stories, for they are quite similar in some striking ways, even though they are separated by some 2000 years.
The first thing to notice is that the capacity for rich people to do and think stupid things has not changed with the passing of time. Rich people in particular have a tendency towards arrogance, and arrogance in turn means that we are sometimes blind to the obvious—such as, for example, the possibility that you can lose money at any time, and that when you die, you will lose it all. Now if we are honest, we are all capable of doing and thinking similarly silly things, but somehow when the folly of rich people is exposed it is more public and more embarrassing and—just quietly—more satisfying.
The second thing to notice is that despite this, and on the face of it, the wisdom of rich people makes a lot of sense. There are all sorts of reasons for this. The rich person, after all, must have done something right to get to where they are, even if it’s something as basic as handling their finances sensibly. If you follow their advice, there is a good possibility that similar wealth can come your way. And once that wealth has arrived, why not do what the man in the second story does, and step out of the rat race? “Relax, eat, drink, be merry”, says the rich fool to himself. Retiring early and enjoying the result of your labour just makes a lot more intuitive sense than working to satisfy greed—your own, or someone else’s.
The third thing, however, is that the loss of wealth is completely out of control of the clever schemers and dreamers who accumulated it in the first place. In the story that Paul Sheehan relates, another clever person might be able to say, ‘Well, if they had just gotten out of the market at the right time, they would have been fine’. But the whole point is, they failed—and no-one with any sense believes that failure can be avoided forever. Death, as Jesus’ story of the rich fool demonstrates, is the ultimate example of a failure that will part us from our money permanently. Death highlights, more effectively than any other means, the ultimate stupidity of putting trust in wealth.
A closer look
Having considered these two case studies of failed wealth, we could easily leave it at that. The message of these morality tales, and others like them, is fairly straightforward. That is, if you think that money buys happiness, then you are a fool. A satisfying end to the story, especially if you happen to be a bit challenged in the wealth department.
But there is a little bit more to Jesus’ story, and it is a message that turns out to be well worth paying attention to, whether we are rich or poor.
It’s worth saying, for example, that in the story of the man with big barns, the problem is not the amount of accumulated wealth. There’s a hint of the real nature of the problem when we realize that the man in question is talking to himself! Some would immediately say this is a sign of madness. But think: who else does the man have to turn to for advice? The fact that he can only speak to himself suggests the answer—no one. No family, no friends, God plays no part in his life. We don’t know for sure whether the man was actually alone, in reality. The story doesn’t give us that detail We can conclude, however, that this rich individual was completely self-absorbed and self-centred. The only one who mattered was the man himself. As a result, he dies alone, facing an awful question: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
One of the most fascinating things about the story is that Jesus ends up talking about a subject that he considers far more important than money. Recall that a man in a crowd has asked Jesus to settle a dispute about an inheritance: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
In his answer, Jesus absolutely refuses to judge in a matter of dollars and cents. But he doesn’t simply stop there. Rather, he points to a far greater judgement that is coming our way. It has nothing whatsoever to do with money, and it is relevant whether we are financially rich, or stricken with poverty. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
This night your soul is required of you
This is the real punch line of Jesus’ story. Rich or poor, we will have to face God one day.
Just before Jesus tells his story, he’s said this: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”
This is where the real message lies. It’s not enough to realize—true as it is—that we can lose our wealth in an instant, whether through stock market failures, death, or some other terrible turn of events. Jesus warns that there is a greater crash coming, and it lies in wait anyone who dies unprepared to meet God. The Bible makes it very clear that God is our maker and our judge, and he will judge every part of us—our use of money, our selfishness, our greed, and even the moral failures that have little or nothing to do with dollars.
So the real issue here, in Jesus’ story about wealth, is whether or not we are ready to meet a God who will judge everything we’ve done, thought and said.
Just one more thing
If we have not considered God’s judgement, Jesus’ words warn us that we should get ready for it.
But what next? Can we really find true peace of mind by forgetting about money and thinking instead about the judgement to come?
Elsewhere in the gospel of Luke, Jesus meets all sorts of people with varying attitudes to money. Some have a lot of it. Some have none. Some want more of it; some are already aware that at the end of the day, a lot of money is not going to be of much use in facing God. But Jesus’ message is the same whether he is addressing rich people or poor: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
If you are worried about the value of your wealth in the face of God’s judgement and the threat of hell, Jesus offers comfort. For Jesus is making far more than a simple observation that money can’t buy happiness. He is saying that rich or poor, if we have lost our way, he is able to save us from the judgement of God and has come into the world to rescue us in a way that money never can. Will you trust him?