Can “bad money” be accepted for a good cause?

Q.  I recently read the law in Deuteronomy that forbids bringing “the earnings of a prostitute” into the house of the Lord. I was reminded of the scene in Gone with the Wind where Belle Watling, who runs a brothel in Atlanta, wants to contribute money to support the city’s hospital for wounded soldiers.  No one else will take her money, but Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, who’s portrayed as an exemplary Christian, does accept it, figuring that the hospital needs all the help it can get and that Belle’s motives in this case are noble.  Do you think Melanie did the right thing, the “Christian” thing, in light of this law in Deuteronomy?  (She doesn’t challenge Belle to stop promoting prostitution, but she might be able to do that eventually, if they could slowly develop a relationship, for the purpose of which accepting this donation would be a necessary beginning.)  More generally, should “bad money” be accepted for good causes?

That last question gets answered differently by different people.

Mother Theresa was criticized for her willingness to accept money from figures such as Charles Keating, who was infamous for his role in the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, for which he was found guilty of fraud.  However, Mary Poplin, who lived and worked for a time with the Missionaries of Charity, writes in her book Finding Calcutta that the transfer of money from Keating simply illustrated for her the truth of the biblical statement, “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.”

On the other hand—perhaps to the opposite extreme—Amy Carmichael, founder of the Dohnavur Fellowship in India, felt she could only accept money from truly committed Christians who had given it in response to a direct leading from God.  (This was largely because she looked to the provision of unsolicited funds as a source of guidance and direction.)  She would not allow money to be raised for Dohnavur by “entertainments” or the sale of goods, and she actually returned money if she had reason to believe it had been raised through emotional pressure or manipulative appeals.

So maybe the decision whether to accept “bad money,” however this might be defined, for a good cause is something that should be left up to the conscience and leading of each individual, and we should respect what each person decides along these lines.  Margaret Mitchell certainly seems to have wanted us to admire Melanie’s Christian sympathy and kindness in welcoming Belle’s gift for the hospital, perhaps, as you say, as a first step towards a relationship that might help Belle ultimately recognize the evil of prostitution.

The law in Deuteronomy, for its part, is not specifically addressing the question of “bad money” for a good cause.  Rather, it is forbidding the Israelites to practice or permit temple prostitution, which was a financial mainstay of Canaanite religion.  Since Amy Carmichael founded the Dohnavur Fellowship in order to rescue Indian children from temple prostitution (a work the fellowship carries on to this day, along with organizations such as the International Justice Mission), we might say that she was honoring that law in its truest spirit, even if interpretations of its implications for accepting “bad money” for a good cause may differ.

Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (portrayed by Olivia de Havilland) speaks with Belle Watling (portrayed by Ona Munson) in the film version of Gone With the Wind.

“Give everything you have to the poor”–wouldn’t we all be homeless?

Q. Jesus said, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.”  If we as his followers actually did that, wouldn’t we all be homeless?

Your question illustrates the value of an important principle of biblical interpretation: “Narrative is not necessarily normative.”  In other words, just because a character in a biblical narrative—even Jesus—says or does something, that doesn’t necessarily set an example or precedent that everyone who wants to follow Jesus has to imitate.  Instead, we need to see what (if anything) the narrative itself says explicitly about whether the statement or action is meant to be imitated, what more implicit indications there may be about this in the immediate context, and how this particular passage compares with others in the Bible.

In this case, we may observe that Jesus doesn’t tell everyone he meets to give everything they have to the poor.  In fact, only a little bit after the incident in the gospel of Luke where Jesus meets this “rich young ruler,” he meets another rich, but corrupt, man named Zacchaeus.  Convicted by Jesus’ unconditional love and acceptance of the need to change his life, Zacchaeus announces, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  Jesus doesn’t respond, “Only half?  Cough up the rest, you slacker, if you really want to follow me!”  Instead he declares, “Today salvation has come to this house”—in other words, Zacchaeus has shown true signs of repentance and devotion.

Elsewhere in the Bible people are told to make good use of their wealth, administering it wisely and generously, rather than simply giving it all away at once.  Regarding the wealthy members of the community of Jesus’ followers in Ephesus, for example, Paul told Timothy, after warning strongly against the love of money: “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”  Note that this is another way to have “treasure in heaven”!

So why the difference?  The narrative makes no explicit statement that limits the instructions Jesus gave the “rich young ruler” to his case alone.  But there is an implicit statement in Matthew’s version of the incident that helps explain why Jesus spoke to him the way he did: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  In other words, having to give up his wealth was a “deal breaker” for him when it came to following Jesus.  Sensing this, and seeing how devoted he was otherwise, Jesus challenged him to let go of the one thing that was holding him back from joining wholeheartedly in the kingdom of God.

Wealth does not pose the same obstacle for everyone, and that is why Jesus’ words here should not be universalized.  However, there is still a universal quality about them, because in any given person’s life, there may be something that holds them back from wholehearted kingdom service, and they must be willing to part freely with it if they are to “follow Jesus” in the truest sense.

For example, in my work with students and other young adults over many years, I’ve seen that a romantic relationship with someone who isn’t interested in following Jesus often presents such an obstacle for a person who would otherwise make a tremendous contribution to the kingdom.  The obstacle might also be an indulgence someone doesn’t want to give up, or the approval of other people, or a comfortable life (even if not a wealthy one).

So while we might not all be called to sell everything we have and give the money away, we are all called to forsake anything that would keep us from following Jesus wholeheartedly.

Jesus and the rich young ruler. Unknown artist, Beijing, 1879.

What did the ancient priests do with offerings and money taken to the temple?

Q.  What did the ancient priests do with offerings and money taken to the temple?

For the most part, the money and other offerings (animal sacrifices, grain, etc.) were used to fund the activities of Israel’s worship center, which was first the tabernacle and then the temple, and to provide a living for the priests and Levites who worked there.

(Although the tribe of Levi had no territorial inheritance within Israel, the Levites had their own individual homes where they lived when they weren’t on duty at the temple, and they worked the fields around them to provide some of their own support.  But when they were on duty, they were fed and clothed from the offerings that worshipers brought.  This was necessary to make up for their lack of a tribal territory.)

However, there was one other important way that these offerings were used.  The law of Moses also told the Israelites:

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

In other words, as I explain in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews, “every third year, the tithe [one tenth of the year’s produce] was gathered and stored locally to provide for the poor.  These were the food banks of ancient Israel.”

In the guide I then ask these group discussion questions:

• Should followers of Jesus today give a tenth of their income to God? If so, should they give all of it to their church, or can they also give some of it to help the needy?

• Are there food banks or soup kitchens in your community? Have any of your group members volunteered there? If so, ask them to share about their experiences. (Your group may wish to arrange a time to serve together at one of these places.)

We today can support a community life of worship and help those in need by emulating the generosity that is modeled for us in ancient Israel’s system of tithes and offerings.

Donations to a food pantry operated by an Episcopal church in San Francisco

Do we in the West need to worry that Jesus said, “Woe to the rich”?

Q.  In the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke, Jesus says,
Woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.”
Do we in the West need to worry? I mean, we’re rich compared to a lot of the world, we’re well fed, we’re doing pretty ok, you know?

When we consider the full counsel of Scripture, I don’t think we are led to conclude that being wealthy, in and of itself, brings on God’s judgment.  Many of the sayings in Proverbs, for example, teach that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and a reward for living right, according to godly wisdom:

“The blessing of the LORD makes rich,
and he adds no sorrow with it.”

Wisdom is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.”

But we do need to have the proper attitude towards wealth.  Paul writes to Timothy, “Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment.  Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others.”

These are important warnings for us to hear in the West, where we get so many cultural messages that we can and should trust in wealth, and where we don’t always get this kind of encouragement to be generous and share.

I think the kind of wealth that brings judgment, according to the Bible, is wealth that has been acquired at the expense of others who have been reduced to destitution through oppression and exploitation.  James, writing in the same wisdom tradition as Proverbs, warns about this:

“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

The book of Proverbs itself, while it generally regards wealth as the result of hard work and poverty as the result of laziness, also recognizes the reality of oppression:
A poor person’s farm may produce much food,
but injustice sweeps it all away.

I think this is the kind of wealth Jesus is warning about in the Sermon on the Mount:  wealth that has been acquired through injustice and oppression.  And so there are some implications for those of us who live in the West.

First of all, we must pay others fairly and not exploit them.  (For example, we shouldn’t underpay recent immigrants who don’t have the means to ensure that they’re compensated fairly for their work.)

But we also need to do what we can to support equitable economic relations globally.  It must be admitted that we currently enjoy many unfair advantages in global trade.  To do what we can to counteract this, we need to be aware of sourcing, make an effort to purchase fair trade products, boycott companies until their overseas workers are treated properly, and so forth.  This means an investment in awareness and a commitment to action in response to what we learn.

Hopefully in this way we can become people who are “rich in good works and generous to those in need,” as the Bible encourages us to be, and we will not be the subjects of any of the woes that Jesus pronounces in the Sermon on the Mount.

Would Jesus drive the bookstores and cafes out of today’s churches the way He drove the moneychangers out of the temple?

Q. What bearing do you think Jesus clearing the temple of money changers and people selling animals for sacrifice has on modern megachurches that have cafes and/or bookstores in them?

Carl Heinrich Bloch, Jesus Cleansing the Temple

As I understand it, the main problems in the Jerusalem temple in the time of Jesus were that (1) commerce was displacing worship as a central activity and (2) sellers were actually cheating buyers. So today, if commercial activities are supporting the worship and outreach of a church instead of displacing it, and if the prices are honest, I think these activities can be legitimately conducted on the premises.  Bookstores can make useful resources easily available, and cafes can provide a great gathering space.

As I observe in my study guide to the gospel of John, “A certain amount of commerce was necessary to support the operations of the temple in Jerusalem.  Worshipers needed to buy animals to offer in sacrifice.” (Many of these animals would then supply food for shared meals).  “They also needed to exchange their Roman coins for other coins that would not be offensive within the temple (since Roman coins called the emperor a god).  In the time of Jesus, all of this commerce had been moved right into the temple court, which should have been reserved for worship.”

The equivalent today would be a church selling books, videos, and other paraphernalia right in its sanctuary, or running a cafe in the same space where worship took place, while the worship was happening.  Under those circumstances, we could see how commercial activities, even if pursued in support of the church’s overall mission, could be crowding out worship.  So these activities need to be kept in their own appropriate places and times.  And of course the pricing should always be honest and fair.

I think we also need to be very careful of other kinds of supporting activities.  A while back I visited a church and saw something like this in the bulletin.  “Notice to visitors:  Your presence on our property today constitutes your permission for your image to be used in photos and videos promoting our church.”  As important as it is to let the surrounding community know about the church and its activities, I wondered whether someone who was visiting the church because they were sincerely interested in finding out more about what it means to follow Jesus would be getting the right message from a notice like that.

Because it’s so important to conduct supporting commercial and promotional activities in a way that doesn’t impinge on the church’s mission and message, in my study guide to the gospel of Mark, when groups discuss the temple cleansing episode, I invite them to consider this question together:

“Changing money and selling doves were necessary for the ongoing operation of the temple. . . . But these commercial activities had now overtaken the temple area to such an extent that prayer and worship were being crowded out.  If you’re part of a community of Jesus’ followers, share with the group how it handles the necessary commercial side of its existence and what measures it takes to keep this from crowding out spiritual activities.”

I think that’s the question you’d like all of us to consider.

Does the Bible say we shouldn’t pay or charge interest? (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post we began to explore the question of whether the Bible says we shouldn’t pay or charge interest. We saw that the term nešek is sometimes translated “usury” or “excessive interest,” especially when paired with the term tarbit. But other times nešek is translated simply as “interest.” The difference is important for those who want to live by the Bible’s teaching.

A likely solution to this problem has come from recent advances in biblical scholarship, which have suggested a subtle distinction between nešek and tarbitNešek seems to mean charging a certain percentage of a loan for each given period that it remains outstanding (for example, 5% per year), while tarbit seems to describe requiring a debtor to pay back a fixed amount more than was borrowed.  These were, apparently, two different practices of moneylenders in biblical times.

The latest update to the NIV (2011), which incorporates many such advances in scholarship, reflects this new understanding by saying in Ezekiel that the righteous person does not lend to the needy “at interest” (no longer “excessive interest”) or “take a profit from them.”  In this version Proverbs now speaks similarly not of “exorbitant interest” but of “interest or profit.” Nešek is now translated as “interest” rather than “usury” in Psalm 15, and the translation remains “interest” in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

The answer to the question, then, is that in Ezekiel and in other books, the Old Testament opposes interest of any kind, not just excessive interest.  (Nehemiah, for example, demanded that his fellow returned exiles refund the 1% interest they were charging their fellow Israelites.)

So is this a principle we should follow in our own day?  Should we not deposit our money in banks that will lend it out at interest, and should we not use credit cards so that we won’t be complicit in others charging (us) interest?

In deciding such matters, we need to appreciate the difference between the biblical context and our own.  In the basically cashless ancient economy, those who were very poor often had to borrow the food, seed, and clothing that they needed. But they had nothing to guarantee these loans except their land or persons.  And so adding even a small amount of interest or profit would likely make it impossible for the poor person to repay the loan. This would lead to land forfeiture or slavery. In other words, the real objection is to predatory lending that exploits and victimizes the poor.  The Israelites were to fear God and help the poor freely instead.

We do have at least one hint in the Bible that in other, more commercialized contexts a reasonable amount of interest that allows lenders to offer a needed service and make the profit necessary to stay in business is permissible.  In Jesus’ parable about the three servants who were entrusted with money during their master’s absence, the master–who represents God–says to the last servant, “You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest” (Matthew 25:27).

However, as a matter of stewardship and godliness, we certainly shouldn’t use credit cards to buy a lot of things on impulse and be saddled with debt that keeps us from effectively participating in God’s work around us through our gifts and investment.  Self-control, savings, and discerning stewardship are important things we can build into our lives by asking carefully about paying interest.

Whatever convictions we reach in the end about charging or paying interest, we are clearly called to help the poor generously and freely, and actively oppose any practices that exploit them.

Does the Bible say we shouldn’t pay or charge interest? (Part 1)

Q. In Ezekiel there are several mentions in the NIV of “usury or excessive interest.” Is there any linguistic reason to translate it that way, or is it just to accommodate modern readers’ comfort with charging interest? I had heard that usury originally meant charging any interest at all.

There’s not currently a study guide to Ezekiel in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series (one may be published in the future), but I’m very glad to answer your question. It deals with an issue that comes up in other books such as Proverbs, Psalms, and Deuteronomy, for which there are guides in print or in preparation. It’s an important question for those who want to live by the Bible’s teaching.  Should we not deposit our money in banks that will lend it out at interest? Should we not use credit cards so that we won’t be complicit in others charging (us) interest?

The challenge in translating the passages you’re referring to in Ezekiel is how to render two separate but related terms, nešek and tarbit.  Why does Ezekiel use both terms when he says, for example, that the righteous person “does not lend with nešek or take tarbit“?  Is this a poetic parallelism, the juxtaposition of terms that are synonyms?

The 1984 version of the NIV takes it this way, translating the terms as “usury” and “excessive interest,” respectively.  The two words also appear together in Proverbs, where this version combines them into a single term:  “He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest [nešek and tarbit] amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.”

But translating nešek alone as “excessive interest” is, as you observe, inconsistent with the way the 1984 NIV usually translates this term elsewhere. It does render nešek in Psalm 15 as “usury,” but in other passages the word has the sense of ordinary interest: “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest” (Exodus); , “Do not take interest of any kind” from a fellow Israelite” (Leviticus); “Do not charge your brother interest” (Deuteronomy).

So which is it?  Does the Bible say that we shouldn’t charge or pay any interest at all, or just exorbitant interest?

I’ll share some thoughts about this tomorrow . . .