Free People and Their Money

A couple weeks ago, I preached the first sermon in a series about money at our church. Unfortunately, our recording only captured the first 15 minutes or so of the message. You can listen to that here. For the rest of the message, you can read the manuscript below.

NOTE: I was being translated into Spanish as I went, and I outran my translator a time or two. You’ll hear the change in rhythm as I tried to slow down. :)


When Robert and Omar invited me to preach I was of course honored.

And then Robert asked me, “Do you want to preach on sex or money?” which is like being asked if you’d rather be shot or stabbed.

So here we are.

My family and I have been blessed to worship here at Church of the Heights for nearly a year. And we’ve learned a lot.

We’ve learned:

  • that hips can be used in worship

  • that one of the great challenges of multiethnic ministry is we can’t decide which beat to clap on.

One of the most helpful things we’ve learned since we arrived in New York was from Johnny Acevedo’s sermon on Jeremiah 29. He introduced that passage by explaining that in a city like this one, some are here for opportunity and some are here because of trauma. He reminded us that in a congregation like ours, people who are here because of opportunity and people who are here because of trauma can sit beside each other on a Sunday morning.

This is no small thing. America is divided in a number of ways—urban v. rural; majority v. minority; and by class, economics. One pastor of a multiethnic church told me that learning to love one another across ethnic division is easier than learning to love one another across socio-economic division.

And here we are, a family made up of different ethnicities and vocations. People here because of opportunity and people here because of trauma.

We’re starting a three-week series on the topic of money this morning. As different as we are, in my observation, there are two kinds of people who worry about money: those who have some and those who don’t. Surely we all fit into one of those categories.

If there’s a single theme for the whole series, it’s that money is good—like sex. God is pro-sex and he is pro-money. The issue is how we use it, it’s status is our lives, whether we’re stewarding it the right way. So this series is money positive. Hopefully the series will encourage and challenge all of us, no matter what our perspective is.

Our passage this morning is kind of an odd one to start with. It’s not immediately obvious that this passage is about money. But it’s a good place to start the series, because it makes us think about what’s first in our lives. It makes us think about where we get our identity and our security. And I hope it will cast a vision for a uniquely Christian view of money.

And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)

Literary Context of Exodus 20

If you know anything about the Bible, you likely know about this section of the Bible. These are the Ten Commandments. You may not know what they are, but you know there are ten of them.  

  • We’re picking up in the middle of the book of Exodus, the second book of the Bible.

  • At the end of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God provides for his people during a famine by making sure they have property in the fertile land of Egypt. They not only survive there, but they thrive and are fruitful and multiply.

  • At the beginning of Exodus, some time has passed and Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, panics because this big immigrant population is out-reproducing the Egyptians and he’s nervous they’re going to take over. So he enslaves them.

  • People cry out. God hears. God raises up Moses to deliver the people. 

  • Chapters 2-15 are about Moses and how God works wonders to deliver the people from slavery.

  • Chapters 16-19 are some scenes about adjusting to life in the free world. It’s a bumpy start, but God continues to bless and lead the people.

Our passage today, Exodus 20, begins a section that runs through the entire book of Exodus and all of Leviticus—the Law (Torah). Then it’s repeated in Deuteronomy. The purpose of these books is to tell the people of Israel how they ought to live now. It gets very specific in places. The first verse—“And God spoke all these words refers to everything from here through Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

And there’s a promise attached to all these words God spoke. In Deuteronomy 15, God makes this promise:

“There should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and follow all the commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 15:4-5)

What we’re looking at today are the opening lines to this long, specific book of laws that come with a promise. If you obey all these words, there should be no poor people among you. He’s got my attention.

20:2 — “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Verse two is a short summary of that history we just covered. But it’s more than that. It also frames everything that follows in terms of what God has already done. God wants the Israelites to hear all the Law that follows with this framework in mind: yesterday they were slaves. Today they are free. All these words He’s about to tell them are instructions about how to live as free people. They don’t know how to live as free people. They’ve been slaves for generations. God has delivered them. But they won’t stay free by just living however they want. That’s really important. The Law isn’t just good advice. It’s how to live free.

God reminds them of this by starting with their identity. He is their God. That’s his identity. They are his people. That’s their identity. He wants them to be free. To be free, they have to be obedient. Ultimately he wants that obedience to flow from a sense of gratitude for what he’s done and from a sense of identity as his people.

This foreshadows the gospel of Jesus: God delivered first and then he gave the people instructions. He didn’t come to them in Egypt and say, “Here are my commandments. If you follow them, I’ll rescue you from slavery.” No. First he rescued the people without requiring anything from them. Then he said, “Now that you’re free, let me tell you how to live as free people.” As we’ll see, if the people don’t do what the Law says, they end up enslaved again. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point here is that there is a pattern that starts here and runs through the whole Bible: God always saves before he commands. Obedience always follows salvation.

So God sets it up by saying, “As you listen to everything I have to say, remember: I delivered you.” In response to that deliverance:

20:3 — “You shall have no other gods before me.”

This commandment is worded carefully. “Before me” literally means, “in my face.” Some translations say, “You shall have no other gods beside me.” The mental image is like there’s a shelf in Israel’s bedroom with one god—Yahweh—on it. And God is saying, “Don’t add any other gods to that shelf.”

That is, he’s not saying don’t “replace” me with a new god. He’s saying don’t “supplement” me with an additional god. It means you and I are in relationship and you can’t introduce another god into that relationship, so that it’s in my face.

Then he gets really specific:

20:4 — “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

God is being thorough. He’s saying, don’t make a statue (“image”) in the shape of any sort of animal that lives anywhere: in the sky, on land, in the water. That’s all the places.

This explanation feels like overkill. But you do this if you’re a parent (or you’ve heard it if you have a parent). With our children sometimes we get specific. We say, “Only color on your paper.” Then we add, “When I say only color on your paper, I mean don’t color on the table or on the wall or on your brother. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

God is getting specific like that.

And it seems like an odd place to get specific, because if we read this passage from our modern point of view, this command feels really easy to keep. There are a couple commandments further down the list that you could break on accident. “Don’t covet,” for example. Coveting is something you can accidentally do. You can catch yourself daydreaming about living in your friend’s apartment—the one with the view (you have the dumpster view). And you realize after a minute, “Shoot, I’m coveting. My bad.” Or maybe “honor your father and mother.” There are plenty of times I’ve been really rude to my parents and didn’t realize it until later. I realize, “Shoot, I didn’t honor my parents. My bad.”

But I have never accidentally slipped into polytheism. I’ve never thought, “Shoot, I’m carving statues of other gods. My bad.”

So practically speaking it seems like an easy commandment to keep. Why does God have to get so specific?

Historical Context

The reason is because for 400 years, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. And in Egypt, like in all the other nations on the planet at the time, everybody worshipped lots of gods. They had different names in different places: the Egyptians and Canaanites and everyone else called their gods by different names. But every people group had very similar gods—gods who ensured a good harvest. God who ensured the fertility of people and animals. Gods who sent rain—but not too much rain. Gods who secured victory in war. And you had to worship multiple gods because each of them had a specific job. If you wanted your crops to grow, you had to worship the fertility god. But he couldn’t help you in battle. If you wanted to win in battle, you had to worship the god of war. Sometimes worshipping these gods required you to do terrible things. Baal, a fertility god in Canaan, required human sacrifice. But some people thought it was worth it. Better safe than sorry.

During their time in Egypt, the Israelites had been deeply conditioned by their cultural context. They had deeply ingrained habits. For ten generations—that’s longer than there have been Europeans in America—they had been deriving their identity and security from worshipping other gods. They had picked up values and ways of believing and behaving from the Egyptians who enslaved them. They weren’t just going to change all their habits overnight. There’s a saying in rural places: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” God has taken the Israelites out of Egypt. It’s going to take a while to get the Egypt out of the Israelites.

And God knew this. He knew that the people who just came out of Egypt weren’t going to be tempted to abandon him and worship other gods altogether. He would always be their god of deliverance—maybe their war god. But he knew they would be tempted to look for other gods in addition to Him. He knew they would be tempted to worship other gods to hedge their bets. Maybe now that they live in the desert, they need a desert god (Egypt had one of those) or a god of traveling.

I’m not just speculating here. Moses and God chat on the mountain for a long time—all of chapters 20 to 31. Then in Exodus 32, Moses goes down the hill to share all this information with the rest of the Israelites and when he gets there, they’ve already broken the first commandment. 

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’

            Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 32:1-4)

This golden calf was not a random innovation. They had the idea for a golden calf, because that was a popular image in Egypt. Hathor, a goddess represented as a cow, was the goddess of dancing and song, she was the “wife” of the high god, Ra. And she was the protector of travelers in foreign lands. As soon as the excitement of being delivered from slavery wore off, they fell back into the deeply ingrained cultural habits that they picked up in Egypt. They decided they needed a goddess in addition to God. The next verse makes this clear: When Aaron say this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow their will be a festival to the LORD” (32:5). They planned to worship both God and this new idol they made. They literally made an idol to place beside God.

You’re saying—I thought this sermon was about money. It is. Here’s the connection.

Coming to the Point

We are conditioned in America to think of money the same way the Israelites thought of other gods.

  • In America, money is a source of identity and security. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system. It can easily become a worldview—a way of viewing everything.

  • Consumerism intentionally produces desire and insecurities and tells us that the only way we can fulfill those desires or finally be secure is to have more money.

  • All our best financial advice is geared toward alleviating insecurity (something terrible may happen: be prepared; don’t be a burden on your children, etc.)

  • What we call the American Dream is really a promise: that if we all work hard and save carefully and invest wisely, we can all be rich.

  • This promise is so seductive that some Christians baptize it and what we get is the prosperity gospel, which essentially says, “God wants you to have the American Dream, and if you have it that’s a sign God loves you.”

  • We aren’t tempted to serve money instead of God. But we can find ourselves trusting in money in addition to God for our identity and our security.

You might say, “Hang on a minute. There are some good principles for wise financial management—like saving a percentage of your income and not being in debt—that come straight from the Bible.” Absolutely. I’m not saying we get everything wrong. I’m not suggesting that you be unwise with your money.

I’m saying we should all examine our hearts and ask:

  • Do I say I trust God, but really look for my identity and security in money?

  • Do I derive my value from how much (or how little) I earn?

  • Do I resist being generous because I’m scared I won’t have enough?

  • If I’m honest, are my behaviors and attitudes about money the behaviors and attitudes of a free person or am I living like a slave?

No one has the corner on this. You can be living like a slave if you’re burdened with debt. You can be living like a slave because you have lots of money and you’re afraid to spend it. We can be living like slaves if our financial goals—whatever they are—are more important than our walk with Jesus. It is absolutely possible to take a good biblical principle and turn it into an idol. Even if the idol is a good principle, it can still make you a slave.

If God wants us to live like free people in regards to money, you’d expect him to tell us how to do that, right? He does.

The first few commandments in Exodus 20 are about loving God: don’t have any other gods; don’t make idols; don’t misuse God’s name; remember the Sabbath. The rest of them are about loving your neighbor: honor your parents; don’t murder; don’t commit adultery or steal or give false testimony; don’t covet.

These are the bullet points of the Law. If you find yourself with a few free hours and think, I’d really love to read Leviticus, you can bet sure that whatever strange law you run across will in someway be telling you how to keep one of these ten commandments.

What you find when you start to explore these laws about how free people love God and their neighbor, it becomes pretty clear pretty fast that a lot of what it means to love God and love your neighbor has financial implications:

  • Loving God

    • Sabbath—no work = no pay

    • First fruits—don’t eat or sell first produce; give it to God

    • Tithe—after you’ve given your first to God, you give a percentage of total to God

    • Other voluntary offerings—additional giving out of gratitude

  • Loving Neighbor

    • Lending freely, charging no interest

    • Jubilee—forgiving debt and returning property (i.e., no one is bound by debt forever)

    • Not gleaning to edges of the field—not maximizing profits to the exclusion of the poor

    • Pay on the day the work is done

 Loving God and loving your neighbor, according to the Law, is expensive! And yet God promises, if we do it there should be no poor among you.

It’s important to catch what God is promising.

The American promise is, we can all be wealthy—the need not be any poor among us—if we all just work hard and save and invest wisely and no one is a burden on society. The emphasis is individual prosperity and the means is careful attention to your own situation.

God’s promise is, You can be a community that eliminates glaring financial equality if you only love God and love your neighbor the way I’ve commanded you to do it. The emphasis is not on individual prosperity but on corporate prosperity.

This text says, If you start right and derive your identity and your security from God and not from additional gods, including money, you will be free to serve God and love your neighbor the way God intended. If you do that, your community will be marked by economic equality that mirrors the spiritual equality you share as my children.

Holy smokes. Is anybody excited by this vision?  

Reality Check 

It’s important to point out here that in the same chapter where God says you should not have any poor among you, he also recognizes that there’s a gap between his ideal and the reality.

“There will always be poor people in the land” (Deuteronomy 15:11) 

Catch that. You shouldn’t have any poor among you (verse 4). You will always have poor among you (verse 11).

The Israelites never actually achieved the ideal that God set out. And the reason they failed is because they never got the First Commandment right. In almost every book of the Bible after this, God has to remind the people not to hedge their bets with other gods. They never learned to derive their identity and security from God. All through the Old Testament they broke the first commandment. They constantly followed other gods. Constantly. And because they never loved God the right way, they never loved their neighbor the right way. They never lived as free people in relationship with God. They came out of Egypt and then, all the way through the Bible, they lived as slaves to other gods and other nations. 

The Old Testament prophets accused Israel of two crimes: idolatry and injustice. They go together. If you don’t get your identity and security from God, you’ll get it in ways at someone else’s expense.

How depressing.

Except that’s not the whole story. There was a group of people in the Bible that did just what God commands here. They eliminated all other competing gods and fixed their eyes on the one true God. They found their identity and security in God and it freed them to live as free people.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. (Acts 4:32-34)

Catch that last phrase: there were no needy persons among them. It’s the exact same phrase as the promise in Deuteronomy.

And the really remarkable thing is, they didn’t do it by keeping the Law. It doesn’t say, And all the people bore down hard and were obedient and there were no needy persons. It says, “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all…”

It’s tempting to think that the vision God gives us of a free people living like free people is impossible now. It’s easy to think the Law was building a nation from scratch. If you do it right from the beginning, it can work. But this is 21st century America. Christians can’t have their own banks. We have to work within the system.

The earliest Christians in Acts 4 worked with the system. In a system that was far more unjust and oppressive than ours—the Roman Empire—they were a counterculture marked by grace. And that grace created a real dynamic difference—a community of faith in which there were no needy persons.

For 300 hundred years after the book of Acts, the Empire recognized the difference in the way Christians lived. An emperor named Julian started building hospitals and homeless shelters and distributing food to Roman citizens. Rome never did anything like that before. Why did they start? Because Christians were putting them to shame!

One official believed it was “the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle” that did the most to spread Christianity across the empire. He said, “For it is disgraceful when … the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.”

The way to correct the situation was to get Romans to start behaving like Christians in economic terms: “Teach also those who profess the Greek religion to contribute to such services, and the villages of the Greek religion to offer the first-fruits to the gods.” 

Of course Rome’s project didn’t work, because they were trying to keep a law. The Christians were motivated by grace.

Blessings and Curses

This is as good a place as any to talk about the rest of verse 5 and 6:

for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

These are uncomfortable words. I’m a father. I don’t want my children to suffer on account of my misbehavior. Also I have a father. I don’t want to suffer because of his misbehavior. What’s going on here?

Two things:

First, God is talking, in part, about the natural consequences of disobedience/obedience. If you teach your children to find identity and security in idols, it may take a few generations for that impulse to work out. The book of Judges is a great place to see verse 5 play out in Israel’s history. One generation teaches the next to worship other gods, to hedge their bets, and the consequences are multigenerational.

Second, the emphasis falls on grace. Notice the disparity. There are brief consequences for disobedience (4 generations max). There are long benefits for obedience (1,000 generations) for obedience. As always with God, the promise is greater than the curse.

Grace is an important place to end. Because the life of freedom we’ve been talking about is only possible by God’s grace. The grace of Jesus empowers us to put our hope in the one True God, to find our identity and security in him. Only then can we live like free people with our money.