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Friday, September 23, 2016

"Money and Possessions" (Walter Brueggemann)

AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, (384 pages).

Money is a touchy subject for many people. That is why many preachers avoid talking about it because it has become so 'sensitive.' Yet, Jesus talks a lot about money and possessions. Preachers ought to get the hint, simply because the influence of money and the impact on possessions are profoundly pervasive in many societies. Wars have been fought on many fronts just to gain a foothold on the fountains of monetary gains. In this book, renowned author and theologian, Walter Brueggemann has gone beyond the gospels to take a look at what the entire Bible speaks about money and possessions. Put it another way, if the Bible is about God, it is also warning us about the dangers of idolatry.

Unlike commentaries that are inductive in nature, examining the Scriptures for what it is saying, this Interpretation series of resources are more topical in nature. They look at what the entire Bible has to say about certain important topics through the ages, from the biblical era to modern times. In this book, Walter Brueggemann expands, explains, and expounds on the application of money and possessions on a whole range of societal matters. Through both the Old and New Testaments, he identifies relevant areas of applications and points out the pervasiveness of this particular are of our life and contrasts that with what it means to live as a believer in a culture of individualism, materialism, and consumerism. If there is one word to describe Brueggemann's understanding of the Bible, it would be two words: "Counter Culture."

The author is currently William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. He is a popular speaker and writer and one his most impactful books is "The Prophetic Imagination." He resides in Concinnati, Ohio with his wife, Tia. He is convinced that the Bible makes "rich, recurring, and diverse references to money and possessions." Right from the onset, he argues that materialism is a threat to faith. He makes several striking observations. He says that the biblical worldview of seeing money as gifts from God counters the way the world structures of effort-reward. What we get is based on how much we invest. This makes the idea of works-based living very prevalent in societies throughout history. This brings along a lot of other implications like the tendency to hang on tightly to what we have earned, especially those things that had been won with sweat and blood. Such thinking impacts the spirit of giving and generosity in a negative way. There are also those who see the lack of riches and materialism as a punishment for those who didn't do enough to earn them. Thus, the rich look down on the poor and the wealth-poverty divide gets enlarged. This also leads to a corrupted view of charity where the rich despises the poor and offer handouts only as a way to enhance their own images. Other implications are the increase in individualism, selfish living, and greed. Brueggemann shows us the biblical views that are consistent from the Old to the New Testament.

In the Exodus narrative, Israel was warned about covetousness and God even enshrined that in the last of the Ten Commandments. There is a strong motif against material anxiety which is an antithesis of faith and trust in God. In Deuteronomy, we learn how riches impact neighbourliness. Readers are consistently warned about material things ensnaring them from generous living. The idea of the Sabbath is a test of how much Israel is willing to trust God as Divine Provider of all things. The historical books talk about Israel's life after they entered the Promised Land. We see how kings and leaders get tempted by material things and subsequently lead their nation downward. We see how materialism continues to exert its influence even when Israel was in exile. From the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires that conquered them, we see the rise of elite Jews who became wealthy and powerful. In these narratives, we see how the wealth and riches became connected with idols and worship. Money became a key driver in the restoration to the temple. The Psalms is an interesting summary of worship and living. Ps 1 begins with a declaration of the place of the Word of God being supreme with the rest of the Psalms detailing the struggles of the human heart toggling back and forth being human and desiring the divine. Proverbs and Job contain many practical ways to think about money and possessions. They all point out what it means to love God and to love neighbour. The Prophets present one of the most powerful examples of how the minority voice stood up against the majority culture. With amazing insight, Brueggemann weaves together his gift of prophetic imagination as he pulls in facets of socio-economic life. He even traces the disruption of the kingdom of Israel to a tax revolt in 1 Kings 12:1-19!

In the New Testament, he repeats what the gospels had been saying all along: Create an alternative economy anchored on God. Acts extends the influence of Jesus through the disciples and we see how the Holy Spirit works mighty wonders and counters the excessiveness and influences of material goods. Paul's ministry was also shrouded with lots of references to money matters and how the use and abuse of material things can lead to the rise and fall of a community at large. We learn from the pastoral epistles how money can be a test for leadership. We learn from the book of James about the practice of faith. We see the book of Revelation as the climax of an alternative economy.

I find the Old Testament parts of the book a lot more engaging, probably because of the author's expertise in all things Old Testament. Moreover, the length of the Old Testament material subtly suggests that Brueggemann has more things to say from the Old compared to the New. I was a little surprised at the brevity of the chapter from the Psalms. With over 150 chapters in this book alone, surely, there are a lot more that has been left out! Having said that, there are also many references to the New Testament in his treatment of the earlier chapters. He brings in pertinent aspects of the gospel. Using the topic of money and possessions as the key theme, he points out how pervasive it is for modern readers to be aware of.

Here are three thoughts with regard to this book. First, this book is counter-cultural in the way we see bible commentaries. While many of us are used to inductive approaches when it comes to commentaries, where the texts and contexts inform our interpretation, this series takes on a more deductive approach, or simply put, a more topical style of interpretation. Having said that, it is good to know that there are not many topics that allow us to do that. Money, possessions, and idolatry are common themes through the entire Bible, which is one reason to legitimize this approach. Second, see the book not simply as a warning against money and possessions, but against the excesses and the abuses of such things. Learn from history, from the folly of many of the ancestors of old. Learn about the way such material things have corrupted the people heart, mind, and soul. Appreciate the value of the Ten Commandments and the warnings against covetousness. If these things have the power to bring down kings and kingdoms, surely these things can easily bring any of us down. Finally, see this book as a book of hope. The Bible is relevant not just in history but very much so for today. If we can overcome the temptations of material things, just like how Jesus overcame the three temptations in the desert, we are on our way to a very profound growth and spiritual progression in our journey of faith. This temptation is not to be trifled with because it lurks not only in the shadows but has the power to influence us from the inside out. Perhaps, one of the most instructive passages from Scripture is this:
7“Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: 8Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. 9Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.
Billy Graham once said: "There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men." I am glad to say that this book does warn us precisely about this.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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