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Rev. James Ellis, III Headshot

Money, Money, Money

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In the song "Up All Night," which features his friend Nicki Minaj, popular hip-hop artist Drake said this: "I prefer the better things. / People with no money act like money isn't everything. / I'm having a good time. / They just trying to ruin it. / Shout out to the fact that I'm the youngest brotha doing it." I understand the theme of Drake's lyrical assault of us lowly, common folk, but I must disagree with it. While people with no money do sometimes act like money isn't everything, they are largely a small, marginalized group. Last I heard no one was knocking down the door for membership there. I know lots of people who, relatively speaking, have little or no money and very certainly do act like money is everything. Even so, in rising to a higher spiritual altitude, even begrudgingly, we come to find that life is about more than money.

I realize that this isn't a popular message; never has been really. Renowned English writer G.K. Chesterton reminds us, however, that "Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves" (see "The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton"). We love fantasy and celebrity, and money always helps underwrite both or so we think. It seems foolish that we would place our faith in something (money) that is so fickle, yet we do. Jesus knew something about this component of the human condition and thus declared: "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (or money)" (Matthew 6:24).

That reminds me of Judas. This was Jesus' homeboy who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 27:1-5). Along with the other disciples, Judas walked and talked with Jesus virtually every day; breaking bread together, healing the sick, bringing hope to the hopeless and feeding the multitudes. Unfortunately though, Judas conspired with a group of religious rabble-rousers called the Sanhedrin to kill Jesus, which they did. Jesus was handed over to the authorities on trumped up charges, after which he was convicted and sentenced to death in the form of crucifixion. No one bet on Jesus rising from the grave on the third day, but he did.

Judas was tormented on account of how his spoils were obtained, but whether you or I make an ethical or unethical living, in the eschatological finale of life money will not matter. Judas' betrayal of Jesus was ultimately an economic calculation spurred by a wicked heart. He wanted to move on up with George and Weezie Jefferson to a deluxe apartment in the Jerusalem sky. He salivated at the chance to become a big baller, shot caller with his bribe, or to at least have a running start at social stardom. Judas wanted his slice of the American pie. He wanted to achieve "The American Dream." Maybe he hoped to one day send his children to the best nomadic institutions that money could buy. Maybe he hoped to live in a gated community with the safety and security of life in a highly sought-after zip code. Dare I say that we are more like Judas than we care to admit?

Quiet as it is kept, money is merely a tool that we are called to use in further accomplishing God's work in this world. This is only possible, however, if we make the conscious decision precisely to not love money, to use money responsibly rather than be used by it. You can love money just as easily in the hood as on Capitol Hill, just as much on a rural dairy farm as a secluded suburban cul-de-sac. You can love money without having as much as you would like or having a stockpile of it. Loving money is a crisis of spiritual allegiance not physical location. Martyred pastor-theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer left us with this sage wisdom: "Let none say: God has blessed us with money and possessions, and then live as if they and their God were alone in the world. Possessions are not God's blessing and goodness, but the opportunities of service which God entrusts to us" (see "A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer").

If we spend our borrowed time here on earth striving for upward mobility or trinkets of success and abundance, then we have missed the boat. Chasing money is a surefire path to loneliness, depression and emptiness. Engaging in this rat race, like Sisyphus perpetually pushing a boulder up a hill, is simply and unequivocally the opposite of what pleases God. Loving money may seem cool now, but its long-term side effects are devastating and irreversible.

Just ask Judas.