Read Psalm 49:1–12
It’s no secret that the Bible speaks with many voices and that those voices do not always agree. Many parts of the Bible, for instance, depict prosperity as a sign of God’s favor. That’s the main argument of Job’s three “friends,” who harangue him for thirty-plus chapters about his unacknowledged sins that must explain the sudden downward turn of his fortunes. Many of the sayings in the book of Proverbs either imply or flat-out state a blithe equivalency between trust in God and the amassing of riches. But in Psalm 49 it’s a different story. Here “those who trust in their wealth / and boast of the abundance of their riches” (v. 6) are depicted as foolish, not wise.
The psalmist goes on to say, “When we look at the wise, they die; / fool and dolt perish together / and leave their wealth to others” (v. 10), and he concludes, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; / they are like the animals that perish” (v. 12). It’s not a blanket condemnation of wealth, but it is a warning to those who trust in their wealth as a sign of God’s favor and some sort of guarantee of a long and happy life. “For the ransom of life is costly / and can never suffice, / that one should live on forever / and never see the Pit,” the psalmist intones in verses 8–9.
I have to admit to some ambivalence when it comes to such things as life insurance, 401(k) plans, and so forth. I recognize that prudence dictates that we “lay up some treasure” for the rainy days of retirement, but I also know that Jesus counseled us instead to lay up our treasures in heaven and instructed his followers to “strive first for the kingdom of God and [God’s] righteousness [or justice], and all these things [the necessities of life] will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33). Are my (admittedly modest) retirement savings some kind of betrayal of the trust that Jesus demands? Should I not rather throw caution to the wind and live a radically trusting life until I meet my end? Shouldn’t I give away more than I hoard, invest more in God’s commonwealth than in myself? If I have enough resources after retirement to travel around the world or buy a tricked-out RV in which to roam the continent, would that signify a failure of faith on my part?
We all tend to hedge our bets when it comes to these issues. The Saint Francises of our day are few and far between, and we tend to look askance at the few of them we do encounter, as though they were dangerous radicals of some kind. Well, maybe they are. What’s more, maybe we too are called to a greater degree of radicalness—of stretching the boundaries of our faith more than we find comfortable. What would happen if the world looked at the church and saw not a mirror image of itself—solitary individuals grasping for financial “security”—but rather a covenant community where people have bound their lives together in a profound way, operating on the basis of sharing instead of hoarding, of trust instead of suspicion? I personally think it would rock the world and provide an attractive alternative for people who are longing for authenticity, welcome, and money-where-our-mouths-are love.
That’s what it means, after all, to lay up our treasures in heaven: it is to invest in one another. In doing so, we invest in and build up the commonwealth of God, a beacon of pure, generous light in a dark, untrusting, greedy world.
Grace and peace,