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Sermon: Is Wealth Meaningless?

Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12

Peter was known as a bit of a lad in the office where I used to work. But one day, his world was turned upside-down. His girlfriend became a Christian. She joined a local evangelical church, and invited him to the Sunday night youth group.

Knowing I was a Christian, he talked to me about the experience on the Monday morning.

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I thought you Christians were not supposed to be worried about wealth and possessions. But we went to the home of the old boy who ran the group, and he kept going on and on about how much he loved his expensive new three-piece suite. How do you square that with Christianity?”

You can’t, can you?

Peter had a point. And maybe behind it for me is a thought that we as Christians have more of a problem with wealth and materialism than we like to admit.

And so in a week when our time in Ecclesiastes brings us to this trenchant passage about money, I think we need to consider the subject. Is it possible that we are not as distinctive from the world as we might be? Is it even possible that rather than hearing the biblical admonition not to love the world, we are more like spiritual chameleons, adopting the local colour with ease?

Make no mistake: we cannot dismiss this as just some stereotyping of Surrey residents. The statistics support it. Measured by property prices, we live in the wealthiest county in the UK. We have the second highest ratio of multimillionaires, beaten only by the concentration of Premier League footballers in Greater Manchester. I can assure you that my children have noticed it. They ask me why their school friends have multiple foreign holidays every year, while we always stay in the UK. I’m not complaining about being on a stipend, which technically is a living allowance and not a salary – I knew what I was letting myself in for. (Although I confess I’m touched when Mark observes that ministers do one of the most important jobs in the world, so they should be highly paid!) I just want you to know how obvious it is.

And if we do merge in with the local background, then consider this: I think I have told you before that in my first few weeks here, one of my colleagues raised this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Does the Gospel stand against the values espoused by so many people in this wealthy county?

I would have thought it does. I am aware that there are a number of people in our congregation on very limited, fixed incomes, and if that is you, I promise you I do not have you in mind. I also know that there are people here on considerable incomes, who are also generous. I am privy to some wonderful stories of generosity in this congregation. But generally it is always a danger for Christians that we accommodate to the culture. Partly that may be out of a desire to be accepted, but it is also partly because we find that culture attractive anyway.

So do we need to hear the force of the Preacher’s words in this passage, that wealth is meaningless? Hear chapter 5, verse 10 again:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.

One of the extremely rich members of a past generation – and I confess I can’t remember whether this was Rothschild or Rockefeller – was once asked, ‘How much money is enough?’ He replied, ‘Always just a little bit more than you already have.’

Furthermore, increased wealth is to some extent an inbuilt factor in Christian conversion. John Wesley noticed the phenomenon called ‘redemption and lift’. Finding Christ led to a reduced spending on bad habits, making for more disposable income. Not only that, imbibing Christian values of hard work led people to earn more money. Put these effects together and conversion helped people financially. Indeed, as Wesley’s own fame increased and he sold more books and pamphlets, he noticed that his own annual income rose from £30 (remember we’re talking about the eighteenth century!) to £120. However, he calculated that throughout those years he only needed £28 on which to live, and therefore he gave away any income he had over that amount.

I shall come a little later to some of the thoughts about how we might handle the financial blessings many of us have, but that was Wesley’s approach.

All around us we find the trappings and the temptations of wealth. I am fast thinking that there is a local catchphrase. I have heard it so often in this village: ‘You should go private.’ Whether we’re talking healthcare or education, there seems to be a local assumption for many: you should go private. More than one person who knows we have a very bright son has told us we should send him to the Royal Grammar School at Guildford. If we’re lucky, they have a second thought along the lines of ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t afford that.’ There can be occasions when there is no alternative but to take the private route, but around Knaphill I find many people who treat that option as an easy default.

All this happens in a world where at Addlestone we host one of the three hundred food banks in this country, where our denomination has contributed to the ecumenical report by the Joint Public Issues Team called ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’, which forcefully exposes the demonisation of the poor in our society. In the USA, a film has just been released called ‘A Place at the Table’, which documents the fact that 49 million people in that nation including one in four children – don’t know where their next meal is coming from. How appropriate is it for us to drink in Surrey values, especially in the light of this, let alone what is happening elsewhere in the world?

Some people deal with this by downsizing and simplifying their lives. A dear friend of mine quit as a director of his company, and he and his wife moved to a hamlet in the West Country, where they got involved in the local community in various ways. However, that approach isn’t possible for everybody. For some Christians to do that would involve denying the position of responsibility they have been given at work, and their sense of calling to it.

How, then, might Christians respond and live distinctively within a culture that ignores God and worships Mammon instead? I would commend a passage such as 1 Timothy 6 as a great antidote to the perils of caving in to our culture. In the face of people who have wandered from the faith into deep distress due to their love of money (verse 10) he urges ‘godliness with contentment’ (verse 6). He then commands the rich to be generous, while at the same time remembering that God provides us with everything for our enjoyment (verse 17).

So what kind of Christian lifestyle might we pursue if we were content with the basics God gives us? It will look different for each of us – there is no uniform response – so if you are looking for a very simple ‘We should all just tithe’ sermon, I’m sorry. But let me offer the following thoughts.

I said earlier that I am paid a stipend, not a salary, and that the key difference is this: theoretically, a salary is ‘the rate for the job’ (or, perhaps, simply the result of a power struggle in bargaining between employer and employees). A stipend is a living allowance. It is meant to be enough so as not to be in want, and to free me to concentrate on my calling without the need to spend a lot of time elsewhere, supplementing my income. Now while that is a rather idealistic description and the reality can be somewhat harder, let me ask this: what if we as Christians prayerfully determined what would be a reasonable level of income for ourselves (including savings) and gave money away that would otherwise take us above that standard of living?

You could say I am suggesting something that is a variation on Wesley’s approach. You’ll remember I said that he continued to live on £28 a year, whether his income was £30 or £120. His motto was ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Is that an approach that commends itself to us?

I said also this wouldn’t be a simple ‘We should all tithe’ response, but tithing needs a mention. The tithes of the Old Testament were rather more complicated than some people like to make out, and the simplified version that is often preached – ‘Give ten per cent of your income to the church’ – doesn’t do that justice and also puts a disproportionate burden on the poor and lets the rich off lightly. However, back in the late 1970s, the American Christian social activist Ronald Sider suggested a variation that tried to address this problem. He called for Christians to adopt the principle of what he called the ‘graduated tithe’. People started out at a base level of giving a certain percentage of their income – say, the ten per cent. However, as their income increased, not only would their giving increase pro rata, they would also increase the percentage of their income that they gave away to the church and to the poor. Alongside that, he proposed other lifestyle decisions, like only buying a new suit no more frequently than every three years. If you want to read more about his ideas, pick up his book ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.’

Let me commend another practice to you. I believe this won’t be entirely new to some of you. I call it the ‘Bob and Kay Fund.’ Bob and Kay were a couple – both now sadly deceased – who were great friends with my parents. Bob had been an executive in the advertising industry but quit that to be the publicity and appeals director of the Shaftesbury Society. I know of at least one occasion when Bob and Kay were generous to my parents in difficult times. When pressed about it, they said they kept a special fund into which they put money, in additional to their regular giving to their church. They then used that sporadically to meet specific needs they came across. Is that something you could do, perhaps administering it out of a separate bank account?

What about our homes? I have heard it said that many people in this area are ‘asset rich but cash poor.’ Hospitality is one of the sadly unsung spiritual gifts in Scripture. Are there ways in which you could be more hospitable, and not just to your close friends?

Whatever giving you do, I recommend this question: am I doing this as a sign of my desire to build for the kingdom of God, and to play an active part in the kingdom community, that is, the church? Or am I just putting something in that I regard in a similar way to the subs I pay to the golf club, the tennis club or the fitness centre?

A final story: Martin Smith was the lead vocalist of the Christian rock band Delirious? Even if you don’t follow Christian rock, you may well know some of their songs, such as ‘I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.’ They sold huge numbers of CDs – at least, by the standards of the religious scene. Also gaining royalties as the main songwriter, Smith earned a very comfortable living. The band toured the world and occasionally made the pop charts.

It was on a visit to India, though, that Smith had his heart broken by meeting a young girl through an outreach to prostitutes and their children. He realised that these girls witnessed things they should never see, and would almost certainly soon end up in prostitution themselves. As a father himself, this distressed him hugely. He and the band set out to support Christian outreaches to them and their mothers.

But at a later date, he realised that he needed to build his own recording studio. He then had an attack of conscience. Could he really do this when the need in India was so great? The money he planned to spend on the studio would fund ten workers with the Indian poor. What should he do?

He built the recording studio. It was central to his calling to make music to promote Jesus Christ, and therefore he concluded it wasn’t greedy to do so.[1] Hence that’s my last point: in the use of your wealth, consider God’s calling on your life.

How, then, will you and I determine to use our resources in a way that makes our wealth meaningful rather than meaningless?

Sermon: Ruth Part 2, The Compassion Of Boaz

Ruth 2:1-23
“Is the Gospel against Surrey?”

That was my colleague Bob Sneddon’s question at my first staff meeting in this circuit.

Is the Gospel against Surrey? We are the wealthiest county in the country, filled with butchers and bakers and movers and shakers. It is natural that when we pledge allegiance to a Jesus who upturns the moneychangers’ tables and the values of wealth and power that we ask hard questions about discipleship in this particular culture.

This may make you think, “Oh no, I’ve heard it before. Someone has just assumed that everyone in Surrey is rich and the streets are paved with stocks and shares. Doesn’t he know that several in this congregation are on limited incomes? Not another preacher here to condemn us, surely?”

No, I’m not here to condemn – although we must acknowledge that the message of Jesus poses uncomfortable challenges for his followers.

Rather, if we are to face the facts that Jesus challenges his disciples radically in the area of lifestyle, we need not simply to be hectored but to be offered a positive rôle model.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Boaz.

What would the Gospel life look like if, like some of our neighbours, you could spend Christmas on a cruise ship, or going to Australia, or merely going skiing? I think Boaz gives us some clues.
The narrator introduces Boaz to us as ‘a man of standing’ (verse 1). Because of his wealth – we shall soon hear that he owns land and servants – he has a position of influence in his society. This man could fit into Surrey.

But what kind of man? Plenty of people with standing in their communities prove to be uigly characters. This expression, though, can also mean that he is noble in character. As we shall find out, that is true of Boaz. If we want to know how influential and powerful people might live the life of faith, Boaz is worth our attention.

For certainly he is a man of faith. Note how he greets his workers: ‘The LORD be with you!’ he says, and they reply, ‘The LORD bless you!’ (verse 4).

Is this just some liturgical exchange? If so, a harvest field is a curious location for it. Is it simply the routine pleasantries of the day? It could be, but what we pick up from the rest of this episode is a man who has a good relationship with his workers and with others. So I believe his greeting, ‘The LORD be with you’ is genuine.
This, then, is a man who carries his faith into everyday life. One executive once said that at home his order of priorities was God, family and then work. However, when he got to the office, he reversed those priorities: work, family, God. Not Boaz. Putting his faith as his top priority influences everything about him. It shapes the way he conducts his business. This is more than someone whose faith means that he doesn’t swear and he doesn’t steal the paperclips.

A favourite story of mine about this concerns a man who was an elderly Local Preacher in my home circuit. No-one – but no-one – preached like John Evill. He had been born in Swansea and was a toddler at the time of the Welsh Revival. He preached like the Revival was still happening.

In his working life he had been the Secretary of the Enfield Highway Co-Operative Society. He used to tell a story about his interview for that job. “Mister Evill, if we give you this job, will you put the Co-Operative Society first?” he was asked.

“No!” he replied. “The Church of Jesus Christ comes first in my life!”

And he didn’t mean that he would huddle away in the church and not give due time to his work. Jesus was number one. That affected how he did everything. He took the Lordship of Christ into work every day.

Boaz does the Old Testament equivalent. But how does it manifest itself? There are several ways we see in this passage. One of them comes in that simple warm exchange of greetings with his labourers. This is a man who works on having positive relationships with his workers. They are not cogs in the machine, they are not merely the recipients of his orders, they are made in the image of God, and so they are treated with dignity.

When we were considering whether to move our children from Bisley School to Knaphill School, one of the things that impressed us about Kevin Davies, the Head at Knaphill, was the rapport he had with his staff. Yes, he was in charge, but there was a warm relationship evidenced by an easy humour between them. If someone who to my knowledge has no explicit faith can do that, how much more can the Christian manager?

A Christian friend of mine called Dan Collins is an entrepreneur and the founder of a company in Hertfordshire called Fresh Tracks. One of the things his outfit does is lay on innovative team-building events for organisations. Starting in their early days with quad biking, they now run a chocolate challenge that has featured on the TV show The Apprentice, and other events where teams have to make sculptures, wooden toys and films. The company has five core values:

Relationships matter
Fun
Ideas are our life blood
Waste is wrong
Wealth creation for distribution.

These may not be overtly religious values, but then Fresh Tracks is not a specifically Christian company. However, it is clear to me that Dan has taken his faith to work as an influencer. Certainly others recognise what he is doing: he also tutors for the Cranfield School of Management.

So if I am a Christian in a senior position, am I thinking: how can I so take the Lordship of Christ into my daily work that I am known as a boss or a manager who blesses their staff?

But Boaz goes further. He crosses boundaries and seeks justice for the poor. What does he do when he learns that the unfamiliar young woman is a Moabitess, that is, a foreigner from an enemy country, and that her story is known as one of tragedy and suffering (verses 5-6)? Not only does he underscore his foreman’s decision to let her work in the field (verse 7), he especially protects her. He puts her with his own female servants (verse 8) and issues orders that the men are not to touch her (verse 9).
That command is quite significant for Ruth, if it is true as I argued when I preached on chapter 1 last week that when Naomi’s son ‘took’ her in marriage, that most likely indicated a forced abduction, and that she is therefore a woman who has been the victim of domestic violence at the hands of a man. In the words of one commentator,

Boaz is hereby instituting the first anti-sexual-harassment policy in the workplace recorded in the Bible.[1]

Also, she can drink the water the men have drawn – in a culture where foreigners would draw for Israelites and women for men, this is extraordinary[2].

What has Boaz done? For him, it’s not all about the bottom line. It’s about compassionate justice.

How can all this play out today for Christians who have power and influence? It surely makes the case for being counter-cultural. It cannot only be about maximising the return for shareholders. Yes, profits may be needed to sustain a business and for people to flourish in employment, but the kingdom of God is about a righteousness that incorporates justice and faithfulness. It may well involve going against social convention. It may mean leading a team in which we say that we will neither practise nor tolerate bullying or oppression.

And remember, Boaz follows through on this. It isn’t a one-off gesture. He invites Ruth to join his workers at mealtime, something that she wouldn’t have expected. The text suggests that as a stranger, a foreigner, she had kept her distance until the invitation.

But not only that, Boaz, the big boss, serves her the roasted grain himself (verse 14). He leads by example in humbly serving the stranger. No wonder, then, that his words soon after that to his men to ensure that she has plenty to glean (verses 15-16) carry extra power. For Boaz, even in a culture where the word of the boss was law, his attitude is, ‘Do as I do, not simply as I say.’ Christians in leadership cannot require of their subordinates what they are unwilling to do themselves. Everywhere in Scripture healthy leadership is by example. That is why the Apostle Paul tells people to copy him. It isn’t arrogance: it’s a principle. That is why Jesus said he had set an example for us to follow. Same thing.
And in giving that order to his men, Boaz demonstrates one more thing I want to highlight about how he uses his power and authority. It’s a justice matter again. Not for him the idea that he can look good by letting Ruth glean a little, his instructions are designed to ensure that she has plenty for her needs and for Naomi’s. In fact, Ruth takes home so much (verse 17) it’s hard to imagine how she transported it all! So he doesn’t opt for the minimum effect he can have on the payroll, the least damage to the balance sheet. If he is going to do something right, it will have the potential to have a cost for his business, so that people may receive what they need in order to participate in society.

All this is all very well, but much of it could have been said in one form or another by someone giving a talk on how to run a business ethically without necessarily referring all of it to the life of faith. Which is why I want to draw this to a close by highlighting how God is the seam running through the story.

Some parts are obvious, whether it is Boaz saying, ‘The LORD be with you!’ (verse 4) or his recognition that Ruth has ‘come to take refuge’ under the wings of ‘the LORD, the God of Israel’ (verse 12). In the light of his godly behaviour, Naomi says, ‘The LORD bless him!’ (verse 20). In all these ways, God is explicitly acknowledged in the story.

But there is another hint, too. There is a comment I take to be ironic when Ruth first goes off to work in the field:

So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech. (Verse 3, italics mine)

‘As it turned out.’ Is this luck? Are you kidding? Jews didn’t believe in luck, and nor should Christians. Later, someone would write in the Book of Proverbs,

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33)
For the Jew, nothing happened by sheer chance. There were no coincidences, only what some Christians call God-incidences. Ruth’s arrival in the field of Boaz is of a piece with the cause of the famine and the bringing of Naomi back to Bethlehem with Ruth. This is the hand of God. This is providence.

Now I don’t know how you see providence. I certainly don’t see it as the Christian version of ‘fate’ but as God using his free will, which is greater in power than ours. But on any account, God has silently brought Ruth and Boaz into the same orbit.

And this is something to remember. However much power or authority we might seem to exercise in this life (at least in comparison to others), we are not in charge of our destinies, or the destinies of others. He is bringing people across our paths all the time for us to bless in his name. Indeed, that is also true for those who do not have the wealth and influence that others have.

Is it a coincidence that we are in certain networks, neighbourhoods and friendships? Of course not. God has either placed us there or allowed us to be there.

Now we are in those places, it is our responsibility in his name to say, how can I exercise my faith by engaging in positive relationships? How can I put my faith into practice by a concern for the kingdom of God that manifests itself in faithfulness and in justice for the poor and the unpopular? How can I cross boundaries in Jesus’ name? How can my example match my beliefs?

In this week’s episode, we see only the beginnings of Boaz’ influence for good. Much more will come, as those who know the whole story will testify. How much of a difference can we make for Christ in the world by being attentive to how we use the power we have been given for good and for justice?


[1] Daniel I Block, Judges, Ruth (The New American Commentary), p 660.

[2] Ibid.