“It isn’t what you have, but what your priorities are.”
This is one of the very common comments tossed about by us when we start talking about our wealth, and I want to address it before any others because I tend to think that it alone is the one idea in this wealth mess that I haven’t yet resolved in my own mind. It’s of no surprise that I am especially intrigued with this idea intellectually, because it leaves a lot of room for shades of gray and I tend to inhabit that kind of a world.
On the one hand, there are two clear things which support this idea. One, I know some people with quite a bit of money who are extremely generous and give a lot to our local community, as well as to individuals in need. They have no particular attachment to the material things they own, and as some Christians are fond of saying, “It’s all going to get burned up in the end anyway. It’s just stuff.” In short, there are people who have a lot of material wealth but don’t consider that wealth an end in itself. Two, there are probably people who have very little but are very selfish about it. I can’t think of anybody I’ve met who is like this, but I have no doubt that they exist.
To continue, I know people who probably give half of what they make to one charity or another, and it’s difficult to look at somebody who makes a lot of money but gives half away and say they are somehow more greedy or less concerned with the poor than a person who makes comparatively little and gives only a small fraction, if any, to those more needy than themselves. There is unselfishness and there is selfishness, fully independent of resources. It isn’t what you have. It’s what your priorities are. Fair enough.
But on the other hand, there can be serious flaws in the basis of this thinking, and for over half of my life, I have not been able to get them out of my head. Before talking about them, there is something that needs to be delineated. The idea of priorities in the above few paragraphs needs to be explained a bit for the sake of completeness. There are two main issues at stake, which are concerns about greed and concerns about idolatry. So when a Christian looks at their possessions and says “It’s all going to be burned up in the end anyway; it’s just stuff,” he or she is typically making reference to concern with idolatry. It’s a way of saying “These things aren’t important to me in the way God and people are important to me. God comes first; not things.” I mention this just to note that I do see the distinction between the views; but as I hope to point out, the distinction becomes more or less meaningless to the discussion at hand. So. Onward to the flaws.
The first major problem I have with the idea of priorities is to me as obvious and unavoidable as the sun in the sky. There’s a simple way to say it, but I’ll first mention the way it came to me. Years ago, I was sitting around one day pondering the phrase, “It isn’t what you have, but what your priorities are,” when to my mind came the image of Jesus walking into my house, wandering through the rooms therein. As he walked around, he looked at the furnishings. He looked at the things hanging on the walls. He looked at the decorations. He looked at all my electronic toys (including, sigh… my computers). He went outside and looked at my four-wheeled toys. Nervously, wringing my hands, I followed him around. Finally, I could bare the silence no more, and offered, “I know what you must be thinking, but, it’s not what I have here, it’s my priorities in life that matter.” And with that, Jesus turned to me, nodded slowly, and said, “Yes. And I see what your priorities are.” The simple point is, what we have indicates what our priorities are. I cannot see anything more concrete, more clear, more obvious, more inarguable than this. Greed or idolatry? Irrelevant, really. Where your resources go, is where your priorities lie.
The second problem concerns the wealthy giving much and the poor giving little. Jesus touched upon this a bit when he spoke of what we sometimes refer to as the widow’s mite:
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)
Before I say what I’m about to say, I just want to notice that I’m posting this series out of my own guilt and confession of my extreme selfishness in a hurting world. I’m guilty, I’m sorry, and I’m hoping, wanting, to change. So I am not pointing fingers here. Really, I’m not; but it will easily seem so. I’ve heard people with a lot of money talk about what they give at church. And I’ve heard them talk in thickly veiled terms about how they give so much more than other people in church. Sometimes they’ll fall back to something like, “I give my ten percent, but I don’t see those people doing it.” To be sure, if a person takes home $100k a year and gives $10k a year to charity, they’re giving a whole lot more than the person who brings home $20k a year and gives five percent for a total of $1k. This argument makes a lot of sense numbers-wise, I agree. The only problem with it is that it’s not the way Jesus looks at it, and it’s bass-ackwards from the economic reality of the situation. Interestingly, it summarizes elegantly the two main ways of viewing things that we see in the politico-socio-economic rhetoric around us. The former people always view giving in terms of what is given. But Jesus defined giving in what was left. And so, as Jesus would see it, the person who is left with $19K has given far more than the person who is left with $90K. If you really must assign cold mathematics to it, let’s do it this way: the “wealthy” person has given approximately four and half times less than what the other has given.
Perhaps needless to say, I have very little patience for the Christian who drops a thousand dollars into a collection plate, drives his or her expensive car to a restaurant before heading to his or her fine home, to sit in front of his or her HDTV and think of how other people need to be giving more to further the work of the kingdom—while a brother or sister in God drops five bucks into the plate, leaves church by packing his or her family into a beat-up old wreck with plastic tape over the tail lights and cardboard for windows, to go home and scrape together something for lunch and wonder which bill he or she will have to let slide so that the family can eat during the coming week. In this scenario, I’d really like to hear some banter about “It’s not what I have, but what my priorities are.”
To summarize the “what I have versus what my priorities are” line of speaking, I’m thinking the following. The idea remains gray. I would be one of the very last people to try to second guess other people’s motivations and hearts, which are absolutely between them and God. Maybe a person has a sick kid or may not see another birthday. Spoil them rotten? Absolutely. I would. Or maybe a person makes far more, gives far more, works far more, and is devoted far more to the poor than anybody else, especially me, knows. I can absolutely allow for that. Or maybe a person, like me, is morally weak and is selfish, and needs patience and time with love in the meantime. No problem. We love each other in our weaknesses. And last of all, the Bible says some people have certain gifts and not other gifts, and it lists giving as a gift. So after all my talking, there’s no judgment cast. But I look inward, and I know the line doesn’t fit me. I know that for me, what I own shows my priorities. I know the line is untrue. If I truly cared for the hungry, the sick, and the homeless, I would have less so that they could have more.
I am a work in progress. May God move me.