How Money Buys Happiness
Scriptures: Excerpts from Proverbs; I Timothy 6:6-10
Proverbs has a complicated view of money. On the one hand there are verses like these:
10:15—“The wealth of the rich is their fortress; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.”
19:4—“Wealth brings many friends, but the poor are left friendless.”
22:7—“The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.”
Proverbs is not saying his is how it should be. It is not endorsing these principles. It is simply saying, “This is how it is. Money makes life easier. Wealth give you power. Poverty makes you vulnerable.”
We see this every time there is a natural disaster. I remember when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it flooded rich neighborhoods as well as poor neighborhoods. But the rich had so many more resources with which to recover. Those pictures we saw of desperate people crowding into the Louisiana Superdome for shelter—they weren’t rich people; they were poor people. The rich had loaded up their cars with food and clothes and driven out of town to stay with relatives or friends, or in a motel. The poor had none of those options. And when the flood receded, the rich and middle class had insurance to help them recover, or at least they owned the land on which they could try to rebuild. The poor rented the places where they lived, so even if they wanted to return to their homes, they were at the mercy of landlords who may or may not decide to rebuild.
The whole situation illustrated Proverbs’ point: “The wealth of the rich is their fortress; the poverty of the poor is their ruin.” Proverbs is realistic about the world. Having money helps. Having money provides a certain amount of security.
But it is a false security. Look at Proverbs 18, verse 11: “The wealth of the rich is their strong city; in their imagination it is like a high wall.” Notice how this verse paraphrases the beginning of chapter 10, verse 15: “The wealth of the rich is their fortress.” But then it adds, “In their imagination it is like a high wall.” That feeling of security you get from having money—it is an illusion. It is a false security.
28:22—“The miser is in a hurry to get rich and does not know that loss is sure to come.”
23:4-5—“Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.”
Wealth is an imaginary wall, which can disappear quicker than you think.
Which leads to what I call the “better than” proverbs, most of which concern money:
15:16-17—“Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure and trouble with it. Better is a dinner with vegetables where love is, than a fatted ox and hatred with it.”
16:8—“Better is a little with righteousness, than a large income with injustice.”
22:1—“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”
28:6—“Better to be poor and walk in integrity, than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich.”
If you notice, all of these Proverbs compare money to relationships, either our relationship to God or our relationships with others. As important as it is to have money, it is even more important to have good relationships, relations built on integrity and justice.
Because of this, Proverbs talks less about having money and more about how we use money. Look at Proverbs 14:20-21: “The poor are disliked even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends.” That verse echoes the observation made in Proverbs 19:4: “Wealth brings many friends, but the poor are left friendless.” Proverbs is not saying this is how it should be; this is how it is.
Right now in Seattle there is an outcry from folks in the Magnolia neighborhood about turning some of the buildings at Ft. Lawton into low income housing. People object that low income housing should not be located next to or even in Discovery Park. Meanwhile these buildings that housed military families for years sit empty. Most people favor more low income housing and shelter spaces off the streets for the homeless, but not in my neighborhood; not in my backyard. “The poor are disliked even by their neighbors.”
But then Proverbs issues a theological judgment—verse 21: “Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor.” Proverbs suggests, as does Jesus, that how we treat the poor affects our relationship to God. Jesus said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me,” and Proverbs echoes that idea:
14:31—“Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”
19:17—“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.”
22:9—“Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”
How we treat the poor affects our relationship to God.
So what is Proverbs attitude toward money? It is summarized in the last two proverbs on the insert. Proverbs 30:8-9 says, “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God.”
This reminds me of our first scripture lesson where the apostle Paul says to Timothy,
For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Proverbs knows that we need money to live. It also recognizes the relationship between poverty and powerlessness. But far more important than the amount of money we have is our relationship to God. Hence Proverbs 11:4 says, “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death.” At the end of our lives it won’t matter how much money we have made. What will matter is our relationship to God, a relationship given to us by grace through Jesus Christ and experienced in our love shown to others.
In the musical Hello, Dolly, near the end of the show Dolly makes this observation. She says, “Money, if you’ll pardon the expression, is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”
That, according to Proverbs, is how money buys happiness.