Idolatry and the Financial Crisis

Yesterday, I told you about a Lenten “carbon fast” proposed by two Anglican bishops. I am, to put it politely, skeptical of the spiritual value of their proposal. Still, I agree with the bishops that that the weeks before Good Friday and Easter are the right time to examine our lives, including our attitudes toward money and possessions.

This is especially important during these difficult economic times. Many of our personal and corporate behaviors most associated with the crisis are, in fact, spiritual failures for which the Christian faith has an alternative.

One obvious failure is our levels of indebtedness. As historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote, “Western . . . governments, corporations and households are groaning under unprecedented debt burdens. Average household debt has reached 141% of disposable income in the United States and 177% in Britain.”

Our financial institutions, he continues, are in far worse shape. “Some of the best-known names in American and European finance have liabilities 40, 60 or even 100 times the amount of their capital.”

While the Scriptures have something to say about the perils of indebtedness, they have much more to say about the human failings that prompted the “unprecedented debt burdens”—like greed and covetousness.

We are all familiar with stories about people who purchased homes they knew or should have known they couldn’t afford. It is not only home buyers who succumbed to covetousness. As the story of the financial crisis unfolds, we are learning more about how the risk-taking that led to the crisis was tied to compensation.

As Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times puts it, “Many banks took on far too much risk in the interests of trying to juice their profits,” which, in turn, led to higher executive pay. The fact that the money being risked wasn’t theirs made the “juicing” even easier.

We are now living with the wreckage caused by all this covetousness.

Ultimately, as Paul told the Colossians, covetousness is idolatry—it is worshiping and placing our trust in something man-made rather than the One who made man. It is seeking fulfillment and even meaning in something other than God.

Of course, whatever you trust and believe gives you meaning and purpose, and that is going to take precedence in your life. That’s why scarcely a chapter in the gospels goes by without our Lord warning against the dangers of wealth.

These warnings are so common and our love of possessions so great that many of us have tuned them out or interpreted the Scriptures in a way that turn Jesus’ obvious meaning on its head. We debate camels and eyes of needles so as to miss the point: Wealth and possessions can be snares to our souls.

Like all idols, what Jesus called “mammon” will fail its worshipers. The good times will stop rolling, leaving us with moths and rust—and that’s after thieves in three-piece suits have cleared the place out.

Sound familiar? Thankfully, Jesus also had a lot to say about lost sheep and prodigal sons. Which, if we truly examine our lives this Easter, pretty much includes all of us.

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