Your Money or Your Life?

I’d like to talk this morning about something that in many ways is talked about much too much … and in many ways isn’t talked about nearly enough. Money. Now you already know that we are an Interfaith congregation. So we aren’t going to be talking about politics, political theory or monetary theory – however tempting that might be … particularly with, well, we aren’t going there. We’re going to be talking about spiritual theory. A spiritual approach to money.

What?!! “Money is the root of all evil!” Case closed.

I disagree. Love of money may well be the root of much evil. Our headlong pursuit of money may well be the root of much evil. How we use and misuse money may be the root of much evil. But money itself is a simple fact. It exists. We created it. The question is: what do we do with it? How much importance do we place on it? How much of our lives do we turn over to it? That is a deeply spiritual question. And that’s what I’d ask us to ponder this morning.

At some point, if we don’t destroy the planet first, I think that one of the many ways historians are going to divide history is into fifty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years BTE. … Before the television era. Jack Benny was a star BTE. He had a show that in its day was, how should we put this? “Must hear, radio.” Now Jack Benny went on to become a bit hit on television, but it was his radio show that created his most famous skit. It’s where I’d like us to start this morning. Jack is walking down the street when he’s held up by robber with a gun. “Your money or your life!” the robber says. Silence. You can hear the audience laughing, yes, radio had live audiences! The robber repeats himself. “Your money or your life! Well?” Finally Jack says, “I’m thinking about it!”

It’s a good moment. A funny moment. But it’s also rather profound, because most of us answer that question without ever knowing that we’ve answered it. Our country has answered it, without ever really thinking about it. In many ways we’ve created a culture that answers that question for us. Now I’m not here to answer that question for anyone. What I do hope today and as we move forward, is that we can become a little more aware, a little more intentional with how we look at our relationship with money. Your money or your life? My hope is that we may answer that question with thought and intent, rather than just moving ahead.

One question to ask is how do our spiritual paths approach the subject? I think we already know. … Or think we know.

In Christianity, First Timothy, the actual quotation is NOT “Money is the root of all evil.” Rather, it is “The love of money is the root of all evils.” Money itself, then, isn’t the problem. It’s our obsession with it, our relentless pursuit of it. … And we’ll come back to this.

From Judaism, Ecclesiastes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain.”

From Islam, “Wealth is the fountainhead of inordinate craving.”

From Sikhism, “What is that love which is based on greed? When there is greed, the love is false.”

From Buddhism, “One road leads to wealth; another road leads to Nirvana.”

“The love of money is the root of all evils.” As I thought about it, I got the feeling that the reason we don’t like to actually quote what’s in Scripture is this: If money is the root of all evils, then it’s money’s fault, not ours. But if it’s the love of money that is the root of all evil, that puts the responsibility squarely in our own laps. No one to blame but us.

As I was writing this and reviewing how consistently all of our spiritual paths try to steer us away from greed, I was reminded of a favorite moment from a Bogart movie. The movie is “Key Largo.” Edward G. Robinson, of course, plays the gangster Rocco. Rocco is terrorizing a group that includes Bogart’s character. Why is he doing it? Bogart says, because “He knows what he wants, don’t you Rocco?” Rocco agrees, but when asked what it is that he wants Rocco is stumped. It’s Bogart who says, “He wants more. Don’t you Rocco?” Rocco agrees. “Yeah, that’s it. I want more.” He goes on to agree that no matter how much he gets, he’ll never have enough. If anything has come to symbolize what is going haywire in the U.S. and indeed around the world, and what our spiritual paths have been warning us about again and again over the centuries, it is this insatiable pursuit of more.

So how did we get here and what might we do about it?

First, there’s that old saying that a fish doesn’t know that it’s swimming in water because it doesn’t know anything else. I wonder if we might take a look at the water in which we swim. And the role of money imagery, so common to our everyday life that like a fish in water we don’t see it. We use it every day, and yet … we don’t see it. Oh really?? Example please!

Ok. Have you ever used the phrase when someone has done something you don’t like or approve of: “You’ll pay for that”? You’ll pay for that. There’s a cost to that. Or, if you agree with someone, “I’ll buy that.” If you disagree, “I can’t buy that.” We frame our discussion in terms of money.

Have you noticed that we spend time? Indeed, we spend our lives. Again, all money imagery.

Oh good grief, they’re just words, what does it matter? I think it matters a great deal. I really do. I deeply believe that words matter. We’ve been here before, but it bears repeating. The words we use shape not only our actions but our thoughts. Our words become our worldview. And if the words we use revolve around money, then that, even without our knowing it, shapes how we see and relate to the world … and how we see and relate ourselves.

All right, fine, maybe so. But how do we break ourselves of this? It’s part of our culture and has been for centuries. Indeed it has, which is why our spiritual paths keep bringing it up.

Still, it should come as no great shock to anyone here that I have a few modest suggestions about how we might change our vocabulary … if we choose.
War doesn’t cost lives. War kills people.

Perhaps we can cease to spend time with our friends. Perhaps we can be with our friends. Not, “I’m going to spend time with Philip today”, but “I’m going to be with Philip today.” Words do matter.

Perhaps we can be with our children, and not think of it as spending time.

Perhaps even more importantly, we can begin truly to live our lives, not spend them.

Let us not spend our days. Let us begin truly to live them, and to cherish the living.

Just words. Just ways of phrasing what we do. But I think that by choosing our words a little more carefully, we can answer the call and indeed the plea of all of our spiritual paths and begin to break free from our enslavement to money … our love of money … our passion for money.

So we come back to the theme: Jack Benny’s dilemma. “Your money or your life?” The spiritual question is where do we put our effort: our money or living a meaningful life?

But it’s much too easy and, to be just a smidge judgmental, rather stupid to say, “Money doesn’t mean anything. Money is unimportant.” Not true. Money is important. Without money we don’t eat. Without money there isn’t a roof over our heads. Without money we may not get the medical care we need.

What we are saying here is that money is a poor excuse for meaning.

We humans carry, if you will, the curse of sentience. We know we are alive and we know that we will die. As my great granddaddy used to say, “No one gets out of this alive.”

I’ve quoted from “Man of La Mancha” before, and I probably will again. At this moment in the play Cervantes says, “I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … I have held them in my arms at the final moment … their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question: ‘Why?’ I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived.”

So the question becomes, what shall we make of our lives? Shall we “spend” our lives? That brings to mind the miser who painstakingly doles out his money, careful never to spend too much. Or, as Ben Franklin put it, “He that is of the opinion that money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.” I do miss Ben.

Or will we choose to live our lives, rather than spend them? And if we choose to live, where does our meaning come from? If we spend our lives, it becomes so very simple. Meaning is defined for us. He or she who dies the most toys wins. But if we choose to live, then meaning isn’t defined for us. So where shall we find it?

Other than suggesting that we take note of the water we are swimming in, I can only refer each of us to our own chosen spiritual path. Somewhere in there, I think we’ll find, among other helpful suggestions for finding meaning, a version of the Golden Rule. Love your neighbor. Treat others as you would be treated.

But I would like to offer what I believe can be a helpful tool for taking note of the water we are swimming in. A budget. If we have a budget already, let us be with that budget for a while. If we don’t have a budget, it might be enlightening to make one, to go over how we use money.

This may shock you; it certainly shocked me when I came to the realization not all that long ago. But a budget is a real time spiritual document, a spiritual reality check. What??!! Yes.

There’s theory. There’s proclaimed belief. And there’s what we actually do. Where does our money go? And it what order does it go? What are our priorities? Our budget will answer that. It can be a bit of a shock, but our budget will indeed answer that.

And our budget is not just about money. Where do we spend our time? Or, as I would prefer to put it, where do we choose to be?

Your money or your life? In many ways, I’m preaching to the choir here, and I know it. But there remains much we can do in how we speak, the words we use to communicate. We talk about the importance of candles and of light. Let us be bringers of light to our fellow fish in this ocean of a dollar-driven culture. Let us be aware of what is around us. And, if we dare, let us be bringers of change.

Your money or your life. May we choose life.


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