Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Relative Worth of Flowers to Gold

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matt 6:28-29)

Jesus’ immediate message with these words is clear enough, I think. Stop worrying! Rest in the Lord. Who of you by worrying can add to your life? (6:27) Food, clothing, shelter – to say nothing of comfort, television, and fast cars – all these are in the Lord’s gift. Really, it is the Lord who provides for us in any case. We are all, each of us, everywhere, and at all times in the hands of the Lord – no matter how much control we feign to have over our lives. So, let go. Trust. Be at peace. This is simple. And it is difficult.

But if we are not familiar with Scripture, I think we miss some of Jesus’ meaning.

The glory with which Solomon was clothed was nothing to sneeze at. According to the first book of Kings, “The weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold” (1 Kings 10:14). That is almost fifty thousand pounds of gold. In today’s terms, he brought in almost four hundred forty million dollars a year – just in gold. He had so much gold, that with the excess, he had hundreds of shields made of beaten gold. Besides the gold, he was wealthy in silver, precious stones, ivory, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, mules, apes, and peacocks (1 Kings 10: 10, 22, 25).

Solomon upon this Throne
from  frontispiece to the Song of Songs 
in the Tripartite Mahzor manuscript, 1320
He sat upon “a great ivory throne… overlaid with the finest gold.... At the back of the throne was a calf’s head."  There were twelve lions arrayed on each end of six steps leading up to the throne. "The like of it was never made in any kingdom. All king Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold… none were of silver, [because silver] was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon. King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom” (1 Kings 10:18-21, 23).

I think it is important to bear all this in mind when we hear Jesus say that Solomon in all his glory was not clothed so gloriously as is… a lily.  Clearly, not as the world judges glory does Jesus judge glory. Now a lily is wonderful. It’s my favorite flower, and flowers are indeed glorious creatures of God. Regarding these, Jerome waxes poetic:
“For, in sooth, what regal purple, what silk, what web of divers colours from the loom, may vie with flowers? What work of man has the red blush of the rose? the pure white of the lily? How the Tyrian dye yields to the violet, sight alone and not words can express.” 
Such poetry may do little, however, to convince worldly men of the relative worth of flowers to gold. After all, they reason, a small bit of gold buys many flowers. Yet the Lord Jesus – by calling flowers more gloriously clothed than Solomon – has disparaged gold, and silver, and precious stones. He accounts material wealth of little worth, which hearkens back to an earlier point in his sermon: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24).

Now what is mammon? Some of the Fathers suggest that mammon is a name of a demon of greed or even of “the Devil, who is the lord of money.” But the word mammon simply means riches, treasure, wealth, or possessions. It is money – sometimes in a personified sense: the almighty dollar, the golden calf. We cannot serve God and money. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad in and of itself to have wealth – but it means that we must not live our lives with money as our master. The acquisition of more and more money as an end in itself must never become the purpose of our daily labors. “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10).

Notice that Jesus does not say that we can serve mammon, provided that we serve God first. He says that we can’t serve God and mammon – we can’t serve mammon at all if we are to serve God. On the contrary, our mammon is to be put into the service of God – and not just some of it – but all of it. Not just ten percent of it. As a friend of mine says, ten percent is a bad tip. One hundred percent of our money belongs to God.

The discipline of tithing is good and important, but we misunderstand if we think that it means that a tenth of our money belongs to God and we get to keep the rest to do with as we please. All of our money is for God. All of it. None of our goods are ours alone. We are the stewards and not the masters of what God has given us – and it is all to be used for the glory of his name.

I don’t believe this means that it is wrong to spend money moderately on entertainments, for example. I think it’s okay to go to the movies or to eat out or to buy art, because I believe that God wants us to enjoy the life he has given us and that this too can give glory to God, if by this means we take delight in God’s creation and if we also remember to give him thanks for every good thing. But I do believe that we need to be conscious of how we use what God has given us and always prayerfully seek God’s intentions for whatever wealth we have.

We must ask, Is God calling me to embrace poverty or to give all that I have to the poor and needy? He does that, you know. Or, how is he calling me to use my wealth? Whatever we have, he is to thank for it and he has his purpose for it. Serve God and not mammon and then you shall have nothing to fear.

The Lord’s point about anxiety – that we ought not to worry about food or clothing or the like – and his point about money – that we cannot be devoted both to money and to God – are intimately bound up together. When we worry, what do we most often worry about? Well, speaking for myself, I worry about money – and I don’t think I’m alone. The way out is to give it all to God – to remember that it is all his anyway and to seek to use all that we’ve been given for the glory of God and not our own glory apart from God – for the glory of God’s creatures who utterly depend on him is greater by far than the glory of any amassed human wealth.

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