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April 29, 2010
When I was buying plane tickets and booking accomodations earlier this week for a summer trip to Europe, I was surprised by all the little “insurance” add-ons I was being urged to purchase.  For an extra 20 euros, I could buy the right to receive a full refund on my ticket if for any reason I needed to cancel my travel plans.  For an extra 15, I could buy full coverage for any lost baggage.  For 10 (this was my favorite), I could guarantee myself a 75 euro refund if my flight arrived more than an hour late.  Now, needless to say, these little promises of security had little allure for me--my reaction was, “Heck, that takes all the fun out of it!  What’s the point of traveling if there’s no uncertainty?”  After all, I am the guy who intentionally proposed to my future wife when I really didn’t know if she would answer yes, just because I thought the uncertainty made it more interesting.

It got me to thinking, though, about the ubiquity of this sort of thing in our society.  There’s insurance for everything.  We’re currently in the process of downgrading our bank account from a “Silver Account” that offers lots of extra perks, like Car Breakdown Coverage, Mobile Phone Insurance, and European Travel Insurance, which promises me (among many other things) a £30,000 payout if I lose a limb while trekking up to an altitude of 2,500 metres.  
We surround ourselves with hedges against risk, and everyone from our grocery store to our bank is trying to sell us a few more hedges.  Our entire financial system is built the same way: we have moved far beyond the standard risk-control measures of diversifying stocks and bonds or even buying mutual funds or futures contracts.  Now there are elaborate ways for shorting, hedging, covering shorts, etc., to protect oneself against price changes in these assets.  Almost any kind of bond now has accompanying credit default swaps, which are essentially insurance you can buy against the risk of the bond defaulting.  The homeland security system and the “war on terror” follow the same logic--we will pay whatever it takes to take out this dictator here, add this airport screener there, establish a few new government agencies, all to protect ourselves against any unforeseen risks.  Our entire society is based around risk management, around the idea that, if you can shell out enough money, you can protect yourself against suffering from any unexpected tribulations or discomforts.  (And then, of course, we get things like the Icelandic volcano, which throw a wrench in every clever little system of control and risk management.)  
And this gets me to thinking about a crucial insight that I gleaned from Doug Jones back in the day: we think that the problem with money is when you get greedy--when you want more and more and more money, more than you could possibly need, when you turn money into an idol.  But as long as it’s simply a matter of “good stewardship,” a matter of using money and seeking money to provide for your family, to protect yourself and your family against unnecessary risks, to save up enough to ensure long-term financial security for you and your heirs, etc., then it’s fine.  Even the very wealthy can continue to rationalize continued acquisition in the name of security, stewardship, etc.  But this is to miss a lot of the Biblical message against mammon, against the way that people turn it into an idol. 
Consider Luke 12:13-34, one of Christ’s most sustained discussions of money.  He begins with the parable of the rich fool, warning us, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  Then he describes the rich fool, who sounds just like a prudent capitalist: “And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store my grain and my goods.’...But God said to him, ‘Fool!  This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”  In other words, by storing up his wealth for the future, he was putting a false confidence in it, forgetting that his life was in the hand of God.  Christ goes on to offer the famous words, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.  For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them...Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried.  For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them.”
It is in this context--one of faith in money as a means of security, not some kind of distorted insatiable greed for it--that Jesus tells us to let go of money: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.  Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”  To which we say, “But Jesus, we don’t need to worry about those things anymore.  See, we’ve invented ways to make sure our moneybags do not grow old--they’re called variable annuities--and we don’t have to worry about thieves anymore, because we can buy high-tech security systems; and as for moths, well, we’ve got loads of ways to take care of that, plus we have homeowner’s insurance for any unforeseen dangers.”  How is it that we do not realize that it is precisely this that constitutes an idolatrous attitude toward money?!  “Oh, when Jesus tells us not to serve mammon, he’s just concerned about people who are full of idolatrous insatiable greed.”  What could be more idolatrous than a view of money that trusts it to protect us against any unforeseen circumstances, that seeks to guard against every danger, to control every variable, to make us masters of every bit of our lives? 
“Fool!  This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

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