The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.

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Contentment

God says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” (Exodus 20:17).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way that only appears right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.”

Salvageable adds: Luther, like other Christians of his time, distinguished two commandments against coveting—one involving property bought with money, and the other involving relationships. (The prohibition against worshiping graven images was treated as part of the first commandment.) “Your neighbor’s house,” then, includes all the things in and around the house—your neighbor’s car, clothing, electronics, book collection, and so on. God makes certain property available to you, things you can buy with money you earned or received as a gift or inheritance. God has placed other property into the care of your neighbor. Each of you should take care of what God has given you, while also helping the neighbor to keep and maintain what is his or hers.

If your neighbor buys a new car and you admire the car but are happy for your neighbor, you are not coveting. You might wish you could afford a new car and regret that you are still stuck with your old car, but wishing and regretting is not coveting. When our neighbor’s good fortune annoys you and irritates you, then you are beginning to covet. Whenever it makes you unhappy to see someone else with a good thing you cannot afford, you are breaking God’s commandment not to covet. Envy toward the possessions of others is not part of the life God intended each of us to live.

Coveting is a sin against your neighbor. You cannot love your neighbor while you covet your neighbor’s property. Coveting is also a sin against God. You do not trust God while you remain convinced that he has not given you as much as you need. You cannot love God when you resent the size of the earthly property God has invested in you.

The opposite of coveting is being content. When we are satisfied with what we have—and thankful to God for what we have—we are not coveting. Paul wrote that he knew the secret of being content, whether he had a lot or only a little (Philippians 4:11-12). That secret is knowing Christ, trusting Christ, and being confident that Christ is caring for us in the way he knows is best. When tempted to covet, we look to Christ and not at our neighbor’s possessions. When we find that we have coveted, we ask Christ’s forgiveness and also seek his help to remain content. J.

Protecting property

God says, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

Salvageable adds: God would not protect our property from others if he did not want us to have property. In one sense, we own nothing. Everything that we have belongs to God and has been entrusted to us for a time. We will not keep any of it beyond the time we die. We are merely managers of God’s property. In another sense, though, what we are managing for God is ours at the moment. Therefore God forbids us to steal—to take from another person what God has entrusted to that person.

Jesus did speak blessings upon the poor and woes upon the rich. He said it is easier to push a camel through the eye of a needle that to get a rich man into the kingdom of heaven. But God does not hate the rich. He blessed Abraham, Job, David, and Solomon with riches, not because he hated them, but because he loved them. Not merely in terms of suffering, but in terms of property, God will not give us more than we can handle. What matters is not how much money you control; what matters is how much money controls you. When you are tempted to steal, to add to what you have in a dishonest way, you are falling under the spell of a false god.

There are many ways to steal. Burglary is done in secret, but robbery involves the threat of violence. Taking something from a store without paying for it is stealing. So is signing a contract to do a job, taking the money, and failing to do the job to the best of your ability. In his Large Catechism, Luther condemned those who trick other people by selling things for more than they are worth, or buying things for less that they are worth. Some people would call that good business practice, but Luther insisted that when one person cheats another in regard to money and property, that person has stolen from the other.

In the positive sense, this commandment puts us under an obligation to help our neighbors. Damaging someone else’s property is stealing; the sinner gains nothing, but the victim loses something of value. Therefore, we should help our neighbors improve and protect what belongs to them. This includes reporting to the authorities a fire or a crime in progress, making sure that our choices do not cost our neighbors money, and teaching children to respect the property of others.

As the commandment not to kill includes care for our own lives and bodies, so the commandment not to steal includes care for God’s property under our management. What we waste or destroy is not our own business; it affects our neighbors and harms our relationship with God. In his Judgment God will ask sinners how they managed the property he gave them for a time. On that Day we will all be expected to give an account of how we handled the wealth and possessions that were in our hands.

Yet Jesus has provided a way for us to escape judgment and punishment for our sins. In his parables he portrays himself as a thief, breaking into the devil’s house, tying up the devil, and robbing him of his possessions. When we steal and sin in other ways, we mark ourselves property of the devil. By his sinless life and sacrificial death, Jesus has taken us away from Satan’s power. Because of the price he paid to claim us, no Judgment remains upon us. This is not license to sin; this is power to resist temptation and to live as God’s people. Because we fear and love God, we will not steal from our neighbors, but we will help them to keep and improve what God has given them. J.

Woe to you who are rich

Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:24-25). Believers and unbelievers alike nod and applaud when Jesus scolds the rich. We know that he is not talking to us. He is talking to those people who have more than we have—those who could feed the world’s hungry and shelter the world’s homeless and cure the world’s ailing people if each of them just gave a fraction of the wealth they have acquired.

But who are these wealthy people?

If you have eaten today and expect to eat again before this time tomorrow, you are rich.

If you own more clothing than you can wear at one time, you are rich.

If you have a roof over your head and four walls around you, so that when it rains you do not get wet, you are rich.

If you can control the temperature under that roof, keeping yourself cool in the summer and warm in the winter, you are rich.

If you can press a button or two and be entertained by musicians, actors, or athletes, you are rich.

If you must control your diet and your exercise to keep from gaining weight, you are rich.

Explain to the impoverished people living in Asia and Africa your frustration when you set the TV to record a movie or a ball game and the recording is missing the last ten minutes of the production.

Explain to the homeless people living in American cities why you turn the thermostat down a degree or two after spending fifteen minutes on the treadmill.

Explain to Jesus why his scolding was meant for other people and not for you.

Yes, we all give at the office. We all support Christian outreach which includes help for the poor. Some of us donate our vacation time to take trips to other parts of the world where we can help those less fortunate than ourselves… for a week or two.

The fact remains that we are rich. Ninety-nine percent of the people who have dwelt on this planet could not even imagine the comfort, the medical care, and the entertainment that we take for granted. We are the one percent whom God has blessed with material comforts, not because he loves us more, but because he expects greater acts of mercy and love from us.

You will do more when you have paid off your student loans or your credit card debt. You will do more when you have retired from your job and have paid off your mortgage. You will do more once the government gets off your back with high taxes and too many regulations.

Jesus did not wait before he offered you help. He looked into this world from outside of time and saw your cold-hearted regard of your neighbors, your addictions to wealth and comfort, and your neglect of his most basic commandments. Jesus had compassion, not only upon your neglected neighbors, but also upon you. He set an example for you, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, using the power he had to make life better for others. His example has become a Substitute, so that when his Father looks at you, he sees righteousness instead of sin. As a Substitute, he became also a Sacrifice, so that when his Father looked at him on a certain Friday afternoon, he saw your sins and treated them as they deserved. Jesus thought of you that day. He said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

This forgiveness is not license to remain addicted to wealth and comfort, or to remain cold-hearted toward the poor. This forgiveness is wealth, and wealth is meant to be shared. As God has forgiven us, so we forgive one another. As God has given us hope of a better world, we share that hope with those around us. God loves us, and he teaches us to have his compassion toward those who need it the most.

Our treasure is in heaven, not on earth. Abraham and Job and Solomon were wealthy men, but God did not hate them for their riches. Like them, we can be poor in spirit, no matter how much we own in this world. Being poor in spirit is not measured by how much money you have; it is measured by how much money has you. When we judge ourselves by worldly standards, we know we are not rich, because we don’t even have enough money to buy everything we want. When we judge ourselves by heavenly standards, we know that we are rich, because our investment is in the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, and nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.

This wealth we share. We forgive those who sin against us. We share the hope we have in Christ Jesus. And, because God has blessed us with riches in this world, we do what we can, when we can, to serve God by helping others. After all, we were created to do good works, prepared for us from the foundation of the world. J.

 

The cost of being poor

One of the oddities of our current economic system in the United States is that it is costly to be poor. I cannot offer any brilliant solution to fix that problem, but for those who haven’t noticed the problem, I can describe it.

Banks favor wealthy people over poor people. Keep a minimum balance in your account, and you will be charged fewer fees to use the bank. If you are close to breaking even but you accidently overdraw your account, banks will charge a fee for attempting to spend money you don’t have. Wealthy people never have to worry about insufficient fund fees. Of course it would be ridiculous to demand that banks change the way they work. A bank would go out of business if it waived these policies for everyone who is poor.

If you are wealthy, it’s easy to get a loan. Banks are happy to lend money to customers who are able to repay the loan. If you are poor, you are unlikely to get a loan. You might have the greatest invention in the world and just need a few thousand dollars to start a business, but if you don’t already have those thousands of dollars, they are difficult to find. Again, no one can change the way loans work; banks would go out of business loaning money to people who cannot repay those loans.

Credit cards are a wonderful convenience when you are able to pay the full balance every month. That’s really the wisest way to use a credit card. They can also be a convenience, though, when you have a sudden unexpected emergency—a car repair, for example, or replacing a broken appliance. The danger of that convenience is that now you have a debt that increases monthly due to interest charges. Then, if money is tight for other reasons and you miss a payment, penalties are added to the debt you already have. Credit works that way, and its basic rules are not going to change. But the credit card business is more likely to hurt poor people than wealthy people.

Rural poor have fewer resources than urban poor. They cannot take advantage of mass transportation, and they are farther away from social services offices. However, the urban poor face additional costs that the rural poor (and the wealthy) do not have. Living in the least costly neighborhoods coexists with greater danger from crime and from gang violence. For that reason, property insurance and automobile insurance are higher for people who live in those areas. These higher insurance costs lead to higher prices for gasoline and groceries in the city. Moreover, sales taxes usually are higher in the city. Higher prices and higher insurance rates make it difficult for families to save enough money to move to less dangerous and less expensive surroundings.

“There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess—if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5). The Law of God demanded compassion and justice for all people. Every seventh year debts were forgiven, slaves were freed; and every fiftieth year property that had been sold was returned to its family. God’s people were commanded to help the widow, the orphan, and the refugee. A cloak that had been given as security on a loan was to be returned by sundown. In the courts, poor people and rich people were to be regarded equally. Workers were to be paid their wages at the end of each workday. Harvesters were commanded to leave behind scraps for the poor to glean.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). God knew that his commands would not be obeyed. Jesus reminded his apostles of this verse when they objected to the perfume that had been poured on him. They said that the money would have been better used to help the poor. Jesus answered, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.” Poverty cannot be ended by legislation. Taking money from the rich to give to the poor did not end poverty in Robin Hood’s day, and it will not work today.

On the other hand, God still expects compassion from his people. The knowledge that there will never cease to be poor in the land motivates Christians to help as they can. No one deserves to be poor. Some wealthy people use their wealth in various ways to help the poor—gifts of food, clothing, or shelter; scholarships to open opportunities for the poor; financial support for libraries, museums, and hospitals; endowments to fund research to combat diseases and other problems that plague poor people more than wealthy people. Investing in businesses that provide jobs also gives help to the poor.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, “It’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either.” Until the Day of the Lord, there will never cease to be poor in the land. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are asking God to help the poor as well as ourselves. Our compassion for the poor is the beginning of God’s answer to this prayer. J.