Wisdom, Wealth and Eternity: Valuing What Truly Matters

s-RICH-PEOPLE-MEETING-largeI can probably count on one hand the number of sermons I have heard from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Many preachers, I suspect, do not find the book as relevant or God-inspired as the others because it reflects a time in King Solomon’s life – the accredited author of the book – when he was at his lowest. Though Solomon started off his reign having a close relationship with God, his wealth and fame caused his heart to turn away from the one whom he went out of his way to build a house of worship.

Solomon amassed great riches and power as a result of the wisdom that he possessed. He was a shrewd king who worked his people crazily – so much so that when he died, the people requested that his son Rehoboam ease up on the workload that was put in place by his father! But he also made many strategic political alliances with foreign nations through marriage – the Bible states that he had at least 700 wives and 300 concubines representing various nations and people groups. As a result of his craftiness, he is known as being one of the richest people in the world. Says 2 Kings:

“Solomon received twenty-five tons of gold in tribute annually. This was above and beyond the taxes and profit on trade with merchants and assorted kings and governors.

King Solomon crafted two hundred body-length shields of hammered gold—seven and a half pounds of gold to each shield—and three hundred smaller shields about half that size. He stored the shields in the House of the Forest of Lebanon.

The king built a massive throne of ivory accented with a veneer of gold. The throne had six steps leading up to it, its back shaped like an arch. The armrests on each side were flanked by lions. Lions, twelve of them, were placed at either end of the six steps. There was no throne like it in any of the surrounding kingdoms.

King Solomon’s chalices and tankards were made of gold and all the dinnerware and serving utensils in the House of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold—nothing was made of silver; silver was considered common and cheap.

The king had a fleet of ocean-going ships at sea with Hiram’s ships. Every three years the fleet would bring in a cargo of gold, silver, and ivory, and apes and peacocks (2 Kings 10.14-22, the Message).”

There was nothing that the King could not afford! Everything and anything he wanted he had unlimited access to. For all intents and purposes, he should have been a very content and happy man. Yet, Ecclesiastes tells us what 2 Kings does not and allows us to get a sneak peak into Solomon’s heart as he evaluates all of his wealth:

“I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives. I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.

Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2.1 – 11, NASB).”

Meaningless. This is what Solomon concludes of the wealth, of the stuff that he has accumulated in life. Not only is the wealth meaningless; the striving that Solomon put forth to get that wealth was also pointless – no doubt something that probably cost the most vulnerable in his society the most! But why, after living a lifetime in fortune and fame did Solomon draw this conclusion? Because as he neared the end of his days, he realized that: (1) wealth was unable to deliver on the promise of happiness and (2) of all of the possessions he gained, none of them could be taken into eternity with him.

While Solomon may not be in the same place spiritually as he was when he first started his reign, the wisdom and insight that he possesses should not be negated. In fact, the analysis that he provides of his experience deserves much more attention than what most preachers and religious scholars typically provide. Perhaps if we heed Solomon’s advice, we could put forth a better theology that will also have implications on the way that we order society!

We live in a culture, in a nation that places a high priority on the bottom line. Like Solomon, we are willing to do anything and everything to be wealthy, even if it costs others. Indeed, built into our nation’s very economic structure is the oppression of Native Americans and African Americans – it is the land and labor of each that has made this country the fiscal powerhouse that it is. With increased globalization, however, our country is adamant about staying on top and so, we turn corporations into people so that they can continue making big profits, we ramp our already unjust international trade policies, and we continue to police people of color for the most ridiculous things including spitting, lurking, and consuming alcohol in public making them pay for simply being black and brown.

American theology, unfortunately, supports many if not all of these things. Our theology reflects an orientation towards blessing and prosperity and leaves little room for evaluating just how that prosperity is secured. In fact, in many Christian circles, people believe that material blessing is the mark of God’s approval on one’s life. Never for a moment do we ever stop to consider Solomon’s words, let alone any other biblical writer as it pertains to wealth and material possessions. Remember, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned to follow after Him and He met that quite literally!

Meaningless. Wealth is utter meaninglessness. Oppressing people in order to get it is pointless, hoarding it is stranger still. But then what in life actually, truly matters?

Solomon provides us with perspective once again. He advises us to live simply – eat, drink and enjoy our labor! To me, Solomon’s sage advice means that there is value in providing for the needs of self, family and the community. Working so that you can provide clothing, shelter, food and transportation for your loved ones makes sense and is even spiritual stuff. However, building bigger and better simply for the sake of having more not only is meaningless but it robs other people of their capacity to provide for their basic necessities. Contrary to popular thinking, it is not about narrowing the gap between the winners and the losers; it is about eliminating that gap altogether.

But Solomon also encourages us to set our minds on eternal things, which means that whatever lapse he has taken spiritually has not altered his ability to see the big picture. God matters and spending eternity with him is pretty important stuff. Anything that detracts from that, including wealth, is simply not worth pursuing.

Tax Payer Protection Pledge

Today, 277 members of Congress signed a pledge to never, ever raise taxes. And today, 277 members of Congress signed a pledge to make sure that our economy permanently fails. The comparison, or leap to judgment may sound drastic but that is exactly what is it when you look at the fact that our nation is growing numerically every second of every day. To say that taxes will not increase under any circumstances undermines the fact that as we continue to grow, our needs for services and government also continues to grow.

Neither does it takes into consideration the current needs of the economy. If our economy is thriving, this pledge is in effect and if our economy is failing, this pledge is still in effect. To me, this seems like a very poor strategy and renders our country ineffective and non-competitive.

Instead the pledge advocates for a top income tax rate of 25% for both individuals and businesses. I suppose that these provisions were put in place in order to appear as if the playing field was being evened. However, this does not even the playing field but only worsens the vast inequity that exists when it comes to paying taxes, as those who have the means can reduce their tax burden and those who cannot are left footing the bill. Oh yeah, the pledge also states that it (members of Congress) will vote against any measure that eliminates deductions and credits. Now who does that benefit? Surely not me, and most likely not you!

These provisions were born out of a desire to ensure that American wealth stays within the top 10%, if not 2% of all Americans. This pledge does not benefit those in the middle class at all, and definitely not the lower class, simply because local economies are not being stimulated and because funding for much needed services is being taken away.

Which brings me to another point: these provisions force the government to shut its doors on the programs and services that many people in the middle and lower class use. ‘If we cannot afford it,” people argue, “then we should not have it.’ Easier said than done, especially when so many lives depend on these services (health care, education, child care assistance, affordable housing, transportation, etc).

It seems to me that this pledge only protects a select few, and I am definitely not one of those few. So, Grover Norquist, where’s the protection for the rest of us? From where I am sitting it does not look like it exists!

Disclaimer: Lest someone accuse me of not trusting in God, I want to assure you that my question in the last paragraph is for satirical purposes only!

Riches

Before he died, Agur the oracle asked this of the LORD:

Two things I asked of You, do not refuse me before I die: Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches, feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or that I not be in want and steal and profane the name of my God. Proverbs 30.7-9

I find it interesting that Agur understood the connection between his wealth or lack thereof and how he related to God. He did not try to deceive himself into believing that he could hold on to the world’s wealth and still try to serve God. He also knew that poverty could cause him to dishonor the name of the LORD, out of a genuine desire to feed and clothe himself or his family.

Let me ask ourselves the question: which side of the coin do we find ourselves on? Are we so rich, and increasingly getting richer that we are beginning to deny our need for the hand of the LORD in our lives. Or are we suffering in abject poverty, wondering where our next meal is going to come from or where we are going to lay our heads tonight? We may not be able to do a whole lot about our poverty, as our poverty is often the result of injust laws and decisions that other people make. But we can do something about our wealth, we can freely give and hold nothing back. Not only will we cause our hearts to be more tender to the LORD, but we will also safeguard against people taking the name of the LORD in vain as a result of the situation they find themselves in.