There was a photograph in The Times this week of a man buying a strongbox, and the caption invited you to wonder whether this was where you should put your money in these days of financial meltdown. It set me thinking about the wisdom of that unique thinker who once reminded his listeners that it was better not to store up riches, because storehouses (or strongboxes) could be burgled, and material goods were liable to rust and decay.“Invest in the eternal,” he told them. “Because where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be.” Like most of his comments, that is not only, perhaps not even primarily, a religious formula, but an analysis of how things work for human beings. It’s been very striking these last two or three weeks to see the fear, despair and outright panic of people whose chief security was based on their investments. It was clear that the world of global finance was where their treasure and therefore their heart was; they had no “eternal treasure” to fall back on.
Some people are putting their money into bricks and mortar on the basis that in the end the housing market will revive – which is probably true, unless the whole global economic system collapses, in which case nothing can be certain: for anything that is valued in terms of its status as a commodity, as opposed to its utility, for example, as a place to dwell, is subject to the winds of economic chance when so much depends on confidence. In the end, if people do not have confidence in currency, or currencies fall sharply, money will lose its value too and people may even resort to barter as they did in the Weimar Republic in the days before Adolf Hitler took control of Germany, and as they are doing in present-day Zimbabwe. All this might happen, though I think on balance it probably won’t. But it shows up how impoverished in any non-material sense our globalised liberal existence is, and what shallow foundations it has in the eternal.
The capitalist way of thinking (based on early Protestant work ethics) trains us to store up riches in the form of luxury goods or other high-value items (e.g. antiques or paintings if you live in the West, cattle if you live in Africa), or invest in financial institutions or manufacturing or service industries on the basis of a good return in dividends or interest. That is how the global economy works, and has worked for many centuries. But of course it depends on trust, and when trust is lacking it won’t work. Financial institutions won’t lend, even when the business is a viable one; valuable investments can become worthless overnight if the stock market takes a nose-dive. Oddly enough, the same is true of the eternal treasure: Jesus’s advice was not to hold on to money but to give it away to those who were in need, and in doing so buy into the eternal values, or as he put it, “you will have treasure in heaven”. But this is also a matter of trust – that the eternal treasure is secure and “real” and will sustain us; that there will be people to help us in our turn; that “what goes around comes around”. To live simply and generously deals in non-material riches, and brings non-material rewards. But as Jesus also reminded us (a bit later in the same part of Matthew 6), you cannot serve two masters; you cannot love both God and money.
I know who I’d put my money on. But perhaps that could be better phrased....