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“Share, Save, Spend” in Lutheran Perspective

2007 - Share, Save, Spend Sermon Series At Mount Calvary

January 13-14, 2007  "Share, Save, Spend"
Dr. Kathryn D. Blanchard as the guest preacher introduced this years series of Share, Save, Spend. Dr. Blanchard will preach on Martin Luther's Pastoral Teachings on Money. Always one to speak boldly, Martin Luther is sure to engage us in very lively thought!

Her sermon is based on her award winning article "Martin Luther's Pastoral Teachings on Money, printed in Word & World Theology for Christian Mission, Volume 26, Summer 2006, Number 3, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN.

Sermon for Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, Excelsior, MN
January 13-14, 2007
Kate Blanchard, Guest Preacher

"Share, Save, Spend" in Lutheran Perspective

I want to thank you all for inviting me worship with you today. I'm honored to be able to speak at Mount Calvary about a subject I personally find fascinating--money! Surprisingly, for many pastors the hardest topic to address in their congregations is not sex or politics, but economics or personal finance. Mount Calvary seems actually to be doing a good  
job as a congregation of addressing economic issues; your web site has a prominent link to information about your stewardship ministry, and your "share, save, spend" approach is an important signal that your church is not content to keep silent on the topic.

But in most Christian circles, the idea of congregations actually discussing their incomes, jobs, or consumer habits together with an eye toward mutual accountability, seems taboo. Money is usually considered a private matter, something wealthy and not-so-wealthy Christians alike would prefer not open up to others' scrutiny. And this is strange, because both Christian scripture and Christian tradition have a lot to say about money! While we may not find any hard and fast rules that can be easily applied to our modern economic lives, it is not  correct to assume that a Christian's economic life is somehow isolated from the life of the church, or that religious concerns should be raised only after economic patterns have been established.

So today I will try to build on your "share, save, spend" model by looking at it through the economic teachings of one 16th century German pastor dear to some of you, Martin Luther. In spite of the radical differences between his economic culture and ours, his bold teachings on matters of wealth still ring true. Luther insisted that, like everything else in the Christian's life, our economic habits must be shaped according to God's justifying grace. I am here to encourage discussion in your church about what might constitute particularly Christian economic virtues, which go beyond just common sense or market prudence.

First, sharing.
It will probably not surprise most of you to hear that the concept of sharing is very big with Luther. It would seem somehow "un-Christian" were he not to at least give a nod to sharing as a good idea. But Luther's thoughts on sharing are very specifically shaped by his overwhelming theological emphasis on grace. A Christian is one who has received God's gracious gift of unconditional love. The Christian who receives this all-important gift of God's grace must then pass it on; and passing on grace is not only a spiritual exercise, but is a matter of concrete deeds and material goods. Serving the neighbor must take shape in earthly service, not just prayer. Luther writes, "the Apostle commands us to work with our hands so that we may give to the needy... that through [our own body's] health and comfort we may be able to work, to acquire, and lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need, that in this way the strong member may serve the weaker." In other words, Christians care of their own needs expressly for the purpose of being able to help others.

Luther doesn't think this should be a difficult teaching. The Christian who is "rich" in the "wealth of faith," is able to offer this service easily and with joy. After all, one who has received such great spiritual possessions need hardly cling to material possessions, which represent a much inferior good. Christians are supposed to serve the neighbor even when those people seem unworthy or ungrateful. When it comes to giving, Christians do not distinguish between people who deserve it and people who don't; Christians are people who freely spend themselves and all that they have, whether or not the recipient of our gifts is grateful or uses them as we would want them to. Luther wants Christians to give as God gives, lavishing good things on good and evil people alike. The rule of reciprocity that governs transactions in the marketplace does not rule a Christian's giving, which is an imitation of God's giving.

Moreover, Christians cannot help but share! In Luther's mind, those who are not always ready and willing to ease another's pain--with all  their available means--must be lacking in saving faith, since those who are truly  saved no longer need to cling to material comfort. "If you are rich and see that your neighbor is poor," Luther writes, "serve him with your possessions; if you do not do this you are not now a Christian."
(Believe it or not, Luther finds one major flaw in his own teaching on grace when it comes to wealth, because he fears that it makes most Christians lazy about sharing! It seems almost inevitable that hearers of the good news distort it in self-serving ways because human nature is weak and easily deceives itself. For better or worse, Luther recognizes that the message of grace lacks economic rules with teeth. "The longer one preaches the gospel," he wrote, "the deeper people are submerged in greed, arrogance, and sensuality," he writes.)

Second, saving.
While Luther was clear that Christians were not condemned to a life of poverty, and he did make allowances for one's personal health and comfort as long as  it was in service to the neighbor, he was also acutely aware that the line between saving  one's wealth and hoarding  it is a fine one. Let's take, for example, the Rich Man in the parable we've heard this morning (Luke 16:19ff). Luther sees him as a prime example of God's gifts gone bad. Though he thinks of himself as pious, the rich man is in fact wicked because of his self-serving attitude toward his wealth. Instead of recognizing it as material grace and therefore sharing it with poor Lazarus, who sits in squalor at his own doorstep, the "uncharitable and ruthless" rich man has "not a spark of Christian love in his heart." He hoards his wealth and takes pride in it, such that it defines him (and note that the parable does not even give him a name--"rich man" says it all.) Not only that, but he takes all of his comfort from it, thus leaving no room in his heart to receive the gospel. It is for this very reason, Luther notes, that "the gospel is preached not to the rich but to the poor." The materially comfortable--those with spare goods in our proverbial storehouses--are incapable of hearing the word of God because we are too full of the comforts of the world, whereas the empty poor have room to receive the good news. In a Lutheran perspective, any command to save money must therefore be evaluated first with relation to whether or not one leaves room in one's heart to receive the gospel, and secondly with relation to the neighbor's need.

Third, spending.
In some ways this is the trickiest of the three parts of your stewardship model because, after we've shared 10% and saved 10%, most of us probably think what we do with the other 80% is our own business! But according to Luther this is not the case. In fact, Luther had money on his mind in 1517, when he suddenly became famous (or infamous) for nailing his 95 theses to a Wittenberg church door. His primary sense of urgency in attacking papal indulgences (that is, certificates of forgiveness purchased from the pope on behalf of one's dead relatives) grew in large part out of his observations about their social and financial repercussions. Luther believed the doctrine of indulgences was not only theologically wrong (in that the pope could not forgive sins), but it also fostered bad economic habits. For one thing, he thought, wealthy Christians should be spending money on the poor rather than paying the pope to forgive Aunt Lena's sins. But in addition, Luther worried that poorer Christians were "squandering" on indulgences what they should have been spending on the basic maintenance of their own homes and families, so as to enable themselves to serve their neighbors.

At the root of this concern is that what Christians do with our money stems directly from what we believe about God's love. In other words, our purchasing habits reveal where our true confidence lies. What we spend our money on offers clues as to what we believe to be valuable. This is something for all of us to think about when we look over our checkbooks or monthly credit card statements--what does this purchase say about what I think is important?  Assistance in discerning our spending habits--as a community, rather than as individuals or nuclear families--represents a real growth area for the Christian churches in our day.

What comes before share, save, spend?
We've talked a bit about sharing, saving, and spending, but I want to leave you with one more idea that Luther addresses, which is not reflected in your current stewardship model. It has to do with how we acquire our money, rather than what we do with it once we have it. In some ways this is the most uncomfortable question of all, especially where Luther is concerned. And, again, communal discernment on these issues represents a growth area for Christian churches.

Let's return to Luther's sermon on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. He wrote, "Had you seen this rich man about whom I am speaking, you would have declared him blessed." The rich man was very likely a man of respectability in his community--much as affluent people are in our own communities today; he was admired and envied. In addition to just being a nice luxury, wealth is also frequently seen as a sign that we are doing something right, whereas poverty is typically seen as a sign of doing something wrong (or at least not doing as much  right as the rich people.) But Luther insists that wealth is not a reward for good works, it is rather a tool given in order to enable good works.

Moreover, Luther warns, fallen human nature is easily and willingly led to distort selfishness and greed into Christian virtues. Luther bemoaned the economic climate of his day--not unlike our own--which had turned the vice of greed into the virtue of prudence (think of Wall Street's "greed is good.") Accumulating wealth for oneself had "come to be viewed as talented, smart, careful stewardship" rather than as self-serving. But as Luther sees it, the underlying values of the marketplace are based on the necessity of profiting at the expense of others and are therefore utterly foreign to Christian values.

In his characteristically blunt terms, Luther claims that virtually all market transactions could be boiled down to one thing: theft. Everybody "scratches, scrapes, manipulates, and juggles prices so that everyone, from the princely ranks down to the servant ranks, becomes a wheeler-dealer." Luther leaves no room for doubt that this greed, by any name, is a sin against one's neighbors, and so he reminds his congregation that the way one goes about acquiring wealth is every bit as important as what one does with it. There is a difference between receiving wealth as a tool from God for the purpose of serving neighbors, and "scratching and scraping" for wealth in the marketplace so as to satisfy our own needs and desires. Luther wants Christians to "realize that we have received (all material goods) from (God's) hand" so as to recognize God's goodness through them. But the good gift of wealth can be an occasion for sin among those who seek to secure their own advantage with it. Money is therefore "a damnable treasure" in that it brings with it all kinds of perils and temptations.

The brunt of Luther's attack here is directed against those of us who never overtly trespass any laws; he wants to define stealing more broadly than just outright theft and argues that we are all thieves. Humans are almost incapable of resisting the urge to benefit at our neighbor's expense. Luther leaves no possibility for Christians to believe that our economic behavior is somehow purified by mere legality. In sum, for Luther here is a right way and a wrong way for Christians to deal with money; the right way is governed by grace, the wrong way by self-love.

So where do we go from here?
Living before the Industrial Revolution, Luther could not have conceived of the kind of globalized economy we live in today--in which a car or a strawberry or a pair of jeans may bear the fingerprints of hundreds of people from multiple nation states; in which buying a home with borrowed money is a most respectable rite of passage; in which giving to churches and established charities gets one a tax deduction; in which TV viewers in Minnesota can, while eating our dinner, see live footage of dying famine victims in Sudan. The age-old question "Who is my neighbor?" has an ever-changing answer as the world gets smaller. Lazarus is no longer necessarily on our doorsteps; he might be across the tracks or across an ocean. Nevertheless, Luther makes several points that are significant for our edification here and now.

First, what Christians do with our money is indicative of what we believe about God. Christians today could benefit from scrutinizing our economic habits together, to see what it says about us and where our ultimate comfort lies. Many Christians of integrity may find our answers to this question disappointing.

Second, God's economy is one of grace rather than reciprocity. Jesus did not counsel his followers to give only to the "worthy" poor, but to all ask for help. When Christians today give, we should consider why we are giving. Is it because we are spilling over with God's grace; or because we hope to receive, if nothing else, at least some gratitude in return? Luther reminds Christians that God's grace to us is free, and that our own giving patterns should therefore imitate God's.
Third, not all wealth is the same. It cannot rightly be called a blessing when it is obtained unethically or comes at another's expense. Before we share, save, or spend therefore, Christians must give a long, hard look at the means by which we obtain income. Moreover, Christians must keep in mind that wealth--like God's love--is not something to be hoarded, but is rather freely given to us expressly so that  we might pass it on to our neighbors, just as we would wish our neighbors to do for us if and when we were in need.

And finally, Luther emphasized that fallen humans are masters of self-deception. We manage to justify virtually any economic decision we make. (We convince ourselves that another pair of shoes is not a luxury, even when others lack clean water. Or that buying a house for much less than its owners paid for it is not profiting at their expense. We save up for our own children's first-class educations; meanwhile we vote not to let our tax dollars go to help poorer people's children.) If nothing else, Luther's reminder that wealth can be a hindrance to hearing the gospel should give pause to any of us who did not go to bed hungry and cold last night.

Of great importance in economic life is for the church bodies to lead by example. If Christian churches are to promote concrete acts of love in place of self-interest among individuals, we will have to model it as communities.  (This may mean forgoing a million-dollar organ in favor of running a justice ministry; devoting at least ten percent of the church budget to outside missions; or perhaps something as simple as taking the money that would normally be spent on Easter lilies and giving it to a family facing eviction or overwhelming medical bills.) Different churches will of course make different choices based on their own contexts, budgets, and local needs. But genuine faith--that is, the grateful receiving of God's saving mercy--will always manifest itself in an open-handedness toward one's own possessions. More importantly, it will manifest itself in concrete acts of love toward one's neighbors.

This sermon is enhanced by reading the essay,  If You Do Not  Do This You Are Not Now A Christian: Martin Luther's Pastoral Teachings on Money  To obtain a copy of the essay, click on 13 February 2006, Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN

At the time of writing the essay, Kathryn D'Arcy Blanchard, a Ph.D. was a candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University, 2005-2006 winner of the annual Word & World Essay Prize for Doctoral Candidates. In her essay Blanchard notes that for many pastors "the hardest topic to address in their congregations is not sex or politics, but personal finance." She offers insights from Martin Luther that might help pastors speak to this touchy issue -- understanding Luther's very sharp warnings against greed within the Reformer's insistence on God's unwavering love and grace.

The following three weeks featured continued the sermon series by the Pastoral staff at Mount Calvary.

January 20-21, 2007  "Share"
Jesus blesses us and says when we gave to the least of these who are members of his family, we gave to him. He even takes it further and judges those who did not give food, drink, a welcome, or a visit during sickness or prison. The invitation is to live with open hands.

January 27-28, 2007  "Save"
Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, "God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven yearsࣔ�ټthe seven lean and ugly cows are seven years." Financial wisdom includes planning ahead for those lean times.

February 3-4, 2007 "Spend"
The familiar parable of The Good Samaritan illustrates caring for our neighbor and showing mercy. It concludes with the exhortation to "Go and do likewise." Have you ever noticed that the Samaritan gives the innkeeper 2 denaraii to care for the wounded man and also tells the innkeeper he will repay whatever more he spends caring for him?


Kathryn D'Arcy Blanchard is an assistant professor of Religion at Alma College in Alma, MI and has a theology and ethics from Duke University.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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