I’m a multi-billionaire . . . just not in Canada. I keep a genuine Five Billion Dollar banknote from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe pinned to the wall above my laptop screen to mock the so-called no-god of Mammon.
The Zimbabwean dollar has had a troubled past. From its introduction in 1980 it’s been reintroduced three additional times, each time lobbing off zeroes to make sense of the actual amount. The currency met its end in 2008. It’s face value became meaningless in the with a 231,150,888.87% inflation rate (yes, you read that number right). People now use American dollars as well as other African currencies to trade.
My church supports missionaries at Village of Hope, a mission work in Harare. On a trip to a local store rumored to have some food, one of the missionaries found a 20 lb bag of onions for Five Hundred Billion Dollars. After trying in vain to figure out what that price actually meant, he decided to buy it. By the time he got to the till, the price had increased to One Trillion. Put that in perspective: back in 2008, the banknote on my wall would have purchased me about 1 1/2 oz of onions.
The God of Mammon is fickle construct and deserves to be mocked. Why, then, are so many of us Christians captivated by its golden charm?
. . .
Back in verse 16, we were told that true love lays down its life for another, just as Jesus died for us. That’s a big order to fill. Here, John narrows down the epic scope of divine love to something believers can act on immediately. He stated the question negatively: how can God’s love—that majestic self-sacrificing love of Jesus—abide in someone who:
- Has the World’s goods.This is a logical place to start. You can’t give what you don’t have—but how many of us have absolutely nothing to give? Poor by our standards is not necessarily poor. Have you heard of the Global Rich List? It’s a website that calculates your net worth on a scale that considers the entire world. It’s a paradoxically humbling thing. For example, if you make just $20,000 Canadian per year, that puts you in the top 12% of the world’s richest people. While that should make you feel better about your financial situation, it certainly challenges the thought that you can’t afford to give. If you’re reading this post on a computer, it’s fair enough to say that we have the world’s goods. This phrase isn’t an excuse.
- Sees a brother or sister in need. Sometimes our vision breaks down. We may recognize that we’re wealthy, yet shelter our eyes to the needs around us. It’s easy, especially in our Christian subculture, to ignore the needs around us in a misguided effort the “keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). But that’s only half of what James said. Keeping ourselves unstained is tied up with caring for orphans and widows. I suspect the “stain” James had in mind was more self-centredness. Back to our text: one thing that’s important to note about this phrase is the singular construct. All along, John spoke in the plural: “children of God” (1 John 3:1), “everyone who commits sin” (1 John 3:4), “Those who have been born” (1 John 3:9), “those who do not love their brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:10). Here John switched to the singular: “who sees a brother or sister in need” (v. 17). It’s impossible to demonstrate practical love to “the world” in general. Loving that one person God puts on your heart, on the other hand, is very doable.
- Refuses to help. I love the way the Greek text phrases this. The NRSV reads, “yet refuses help.” The text is literally, “shuts his splanchna“. Splanchna are guts. When Judas killed himself (in the Acts 1:18 account), his splanchna are what spilled out of his belly. John chose a graphic metaphor: how can the love of God abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, sees the need in a brother or sister, yet closes their inner being to the need. It sounds like a good description of what I do sometimes when a World Vision commercial airs.
So why do we shut our guts up? Why do we close our heart and refuse to help when we have the means and see the need? Let me suggest a few reasons:
- Good old-fashioned selfishness. We like nice things. If we give the worlds goods to others, we can buy less nice things. It’s as simple as that.
- We don’t know where to start. This has plagued me in the past. The need is so great in the world, where on earth can we begin? John’s shift to the singular helps. I’m not called to save the world—that’s Jesus’ job. I’m called to help my neighbour. Singular. Pick someone and make a difference.
- We’re cynical with aid organizations. It’s healthy to have a bit of wise skepticism when dealing with humanitarian aid organizations. No one and no system is immune to temptation and abuse. The problem is when we let our skepticism paralyse us. Yes there are abuses. Consider that a challenge: do your research and give accordingly. Better yet, give your “world’s goods” to those who need them directly. Sure, you will not get a tax receipt, but since when did Christ and Caesar get along so comfortably anyway? When Jesus was questioned about taxes, he caught a fish with some money in its mouth (his way of mocking the no-god of Mammon).
- Bad theology. There’s a whole world of health-wealth nonsense out there that tries to appropriate the corporate promises to Israel selfishly and individualistically. We don’t need to be blessed financially: we are already blessed. Our job, if we claim to have God’s love living inside us, is to be a blessing to our neighbour.
- Fear. For being a no-god, Mammon sure looms large in our lives. We fear not having enough money to send our kids to school. We fear not having enough money saved for retirement. We fear the compound interest of credit card debt. We fear the bank’s control of our house. I follow Martin Luther’s council, so wisely quoted in the epigraph to C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Thus my Five Billion dollar bill.
. . .
To sum these verses up, “all talk, no action” is not a Christian way to live. Look at God’s speech. He spoke and the word flashed into existence. His speech is more than just sound waves vibrating through air: his speech is action. For God, to speak is to act. It’s only us creatures that have divorced the two.
We can say that we love our neighbour but unless that speech is reinforced with action, it has all the beauty of “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1 NRSV). In fact, all-talk-no-action actually undermines the talk itself. I can tell my neighbour who has run out of money before the end-of-the-month cheque arrives, “I love you” until I’m blue in the face. Until I invite him over for a meal, my words are worthless.