Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Much Is Enough?

[The man said,] ‘This is what I will do. I will pull down my barns, and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. I will tell my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years. Take your ease, eat, drink, be merry."‘ "But God said to him, ‘You foolish one, tonight your soul is required of you. The things which you have prepared—whose will they be?’ Lk 12:18-20

I have to admit this parable is disconcerting. Isn't the man's attitude the very attitude we are encouraged to have with regards to retirement in the 21st century? We are told that the wise person plans for retirement by deferring immediate gratification and investing (instead of spending) in order to store up wealth for himself in his "golden years." He 'earns' his retirement and is entitled to enjoy it. As far as the 'whose will they be?' part in the parable, the answer seems obvious: what the man has earned in his lifetime will go to his children as their inheritance.

My dad was smart with his money. He planned early, saved all his life, was frugal, made good investments, stayed at the same job (he was a teacher) for thirty years (maxing out the pay grade and securing a good pension) and retired when he was in his early fifties. He made sacrifices and is now enjoying the payoff and making sure my brothers and I have an inheritance. But is he a fool in God's eyes? Will he lose his soul at the expense of his wealth? I pray not; only God knows.

In grad school I tried to give a presentation on "A Theology of Wealth." I think I was trying to prove that it was a sin to have more than you need. But that is so hard to quantify. Do we really 'need' a house? A car? Shoes? There's no line to draw, and its all subjective. In short, I couldn't answer the question I posed in the presentation, mainly: How Much is Too Much?

I have a dollar. I can give this dollar to the poor or put it in my retirement account. The first option makes me generous; the second option makes me fiscally responsible. Is there a way to be both? The answer my wife and I have come up with is a compromise: tithing.

We give 10% of our net earnings to the poor (5%) and to the church (5%). That's it. No more, no less. If someone comes up to me asking for money on the street and I give them $20, that is simply $20 that is coming out of the 'tithing pot.' The tithing pot is a piece of paper I keep on the fridge totaling up the 10% of our earnings each week. I add, subtract, cross out. It looks like a mess, but it keeps us accountable.

Some days I am tempted to 'adjust' our tithe--maybe take it down a notch or so to 7%, or 5%. I don't think this is necessarily wrong, and we may in fact have to adjust in the future. But again, there you have that difficult business of trying to draw a line in the sand. I could say to my wife, 'We need to put more money away for retirement.' And it seems, these days, that that is a perfectly reasonable and responsible suggestion. But it takes money away from people who might need it more desperately than we do.

I think, in the end, God is more concerned about the state of our souls rather than the state of our finances. Our finances are something we worry about, and in this economic climate, it seems rightfully so that we would worry (then again, Jesus tells us not to worry about those things. Hm...) I think the important thing is to have a generous spirit that is concerned with the welfare of others, not just ourselves.

But in the end, we have to watch out for ourselves and our family too. My dad was good about taking care of the family, but he never really taught us much about giving to others. The way he figured, he paid his taxes, and that went to federally-funded programs that help the poor. I also got the picture from him that poor people were poor through their own fault, not being smart, making bad choices, etc., and that giving to them was like throwing money into a black hole, and that they got enough benefits from the government anyway.

But I want to teach my children to be generous (as well as fiscally responsible). I think God wants us to share what we have with those in need, as best we can. The more we do this, the more I think it becomes natural to give, and this affects our spiritual disposition. Tithing has been our way of striking this compromise between our own welfare and the welfare of others in need. And so far it seems to be working.

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