Avoiding moths and vermin

I wasn’t going to get into Biblical foundations next, but last week’s liturgy was just too timely.

At the Ash Wednesday service at Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis and elsewhere across the country, the Gospel reading was from Matthew Chapter 6.

This is, of course, the chapter in Matthew that contains Jesus’ instructions to the disciples on how to pray — The Lord’s Prayer. This scripture lesson, however, was drawn from verses before and after that passage, in which Jesus tells his followers to practice their righteousness — praying, giving alms, and fasting — in private, and not publicly “as the hypocrites do.”

I thought it was interesting that we would kick off Lent talking about praying in privacy, just before I went out into the world with an ash smudge on my forehead — one of the most visible pronouncements of faith that I ever make. But that’s not the point of this blog.

3233536133_a140ddd337_m (1)The scripture reading jumped ahead to the end of Matthew 6 to address one of Jesus’ clearest statements, I think, for those of us charged with managing institutional assets: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust (or vermin) consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

(A few verses later, this is where Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”)

Now, I’m not saying that Jesus specifically forbade us to build or keep endowments. He was addressing individuals here, not institutions. And he wasn’t talking about blue chip stocks or derivates, which are (arguably) less susceptible to moths and vermin than were the measures of first-century wealth. I try to avoid staking out specific personal and professional strategies based on single verses.

Still, from the viewpoint of holding up each verse of scripture against the overall witness of Jesus’ ministry as a whole, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus would have been a big proponent of maintaining institutional wealth.

After all, this chapter of Mark is often linked to Chapter 12 of Luke, where Jesus tells the story of the rich fool — the man who collected such a bountiful harvest that he tore down his barns and built bigger ones, and then was notified by God that, “you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

When a group of us at Trinity went to work on a financial master plan and engaged early on with some Bible study, the passage where we spent the most time — in addition to Genesis 47, from whence this blog is named — was Matthew 25, the Parable of the Talents. A wealthy master goes on a long journey and entrusts three servants with varying sums of money (and talents were significant sums, perhaps as much as 20 years’ worth of a laborer’s wages) to manage in his absence.

When he returned, the two servants who had been given two and five talents had both doubled their master’s money. Jesus doesn’t specify how, although some translations reference “trade.” Perhaps one of them bought a large amount of frankincense and traveled to Nineveh, where he could exchange the oil for fabrics that he brought back to Palestine and sold for twice what he paid for them. Perhaps one bought a parcel of land and built a mill on it that created jobs and doubled the property’s worth.

The third servant hid his one talent under a rock so it would not be stolen. The master derides this man as lazy and wicked — “you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest,” which would have been the least that he could have done with it! — and casts him out of the community.

I don’t think Jesus was opposed to prudence.  Both the Old and New Testaments do talk about providing inheritances for children, but I believe in teaching those children that they have the same responsibility for providing for themselves, for giving to others and giving back to God, and to sustaining the future of God’s church, as we do and our parents did.

And institutions, unlike individuals, are not  going to reach a point where they are too old to work and need to have set aside assets to sustain them in their dotage

I believe in spending less than we acquire, in capital reserve funds, and indeed in giving at least as much out of our estates as we do out of our annual incomes to the work of the church. I just don’t believe in churches or any non-profits holding endowments in perpetuity. We shouldn’t bury it under a rock, or even in a hidden room under Trinity Wall Street, as Nicholas Cage discovered in the movie National Treasure. (Although to be fair, in the movie it was ancient Masons, not modern Episcopalians, who had placed that hoard there.)

Investing it in banks to earn interest is, indeed, the least of what we can do with it. What is the most?

So, now that I’ve started down this path, I’m going to tackle tithing next. But first I’m waiting for the suit of armor that I ordered on eBay to arrive.

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About J. Ronald Newlin

Non-profit consultant, museum developer, historian, Episcopalian, blues/punk bassist
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