byFaith | 2.1.08
By Alan W. Dowd

Sometimes I wish the only version of the Beatitudes was Matthew’s. After all, in Matthew’s account, Jesus offers a pep talk to the “poor in spirit,” to those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” to the peacemakers and pure in heart.[1]

The good news is that I can strive to be those things. The bad news is that, just a hundred pages later, Luke’s account takes a sledgehammer to my neat little understanding of Christ’s message. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” Jesus declares emphatically, with no qualifiers or philosophical fuzziness to allow me to tag along. And then, as if to remove any doubt about His meaning, Jesus smashes the remaining pieces of my shattered notion of the here-and-now and the hereafter. “Woe to you who are rich,” He warns, “for you have already received your comfort.”[2]

Why all the anguish, you ask? Well, I’m not poor. And the odds are that if you’re reading this, neither are you. In fact, even the poorest of us in America are rich when compared to the rest of humanity and history. How rich? Consider how much we spend on things that aren’t even necessities. Every year, for example, we expend $12.4 billion on cosmetic surgery, $15 billion on boutique bottled water, $15.9 billion on spectator sports, more than $20 billion on high-end TVs.[3]

As Jesus warned, our wealth puts us in a danger zone full obstacles to living the abundant life—obstacles that are as old as the Bible and yet as new as the stuff Madison Avenue is pushing.

From Earth to Eternity

Perhaps the biggest obstacle created by wealth is the material we acquire with our wealth—or more accurately, how we respond to that material.

It is, after all, human nature not just to appreciate beautiful things, but to desire and acquire all the stuff that moth and rust destroy. Indeed, it has been this way from the very beginning. Eve “saw that the fruit of the tree was…pleasing to the eye”[4] and grabbed it. Another translation tells us, “She saw that the tree was beautiful.” Still another says the fruit was “pleasant to the eyes.”

Scientists increasingly surmise that our notion of beauty is not necessarily in the eye of the beholder. Reporting on research at the University California, The Oakland Tribune recently found that experts in the “neurology of aesthetics…suspect our sense of beauty—and perhaps a wealth of emotional and intellectual triggers—are at least partly hardwired.”[5]

In other words, it is natural to appreciate that which is beautiful—a Renaissance cathedral, a masterpiece by Michelangelo, a gleaming new house, even a well-crafted sports car. These created things reflect their creators, who sometimes even reflect the Creator. Indeed, at our best we are an expression and reflection of His boundless creativity. Genesis, it pays to recall, describes the God-made beauty of earth—plants and creatures, water and land, man and woman. The Book of Job adds texture to the beauty and splendor of creation by describing the chorus song of constellations, the mystery of conscience and wisdom, the storehouses of snow and lightning, the majesty of ocean waves. And that’s just God’s footstool. In Revelation, John tries to put into words the beauty of heaven by comparing it to rainbows and lightning, crystal and emeralds.

In short, our God is the author of beauty. And He somehow imbues us with a shadow of that appreciation for the beautiful and perfect.

Yet God recognized our weakness to wealth and the things—beautiful or otherwise—it can acquire. And He put us on notice that He would not take a back seat to the things of this world—whether it’s apples or Apple iPhones, golden calves or gold watches, Asherah poles or Acuras. “You shall have no other gods before me,” He declared. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”[6]

Yet that’s essentially what we do whenever we gaze too long at the forbidden fruit or focus on the created rather than the Creator. And so, there is a constant tension in our wealth-soaked world between having a healthy appreciation for beautiful, man-made things and succumbing to materialism.

It seems the more we focus on the stuff of this earth, the harder it is to see the stuff of eternity.

If the example of Eve doesn’t persuade you of this, consider what the temple tells us about ourselves.

I Kings intricately details the man-made-beauty of the temple, with its fine cedar planks, floors of pinewood and gold, sanctuary overlaid with gold, golden altar, and hand-crafted cherubim. As British theologian Robin Griffith-Jones notes, hanging outside the anteroom to the sanctuary were luxurious tapestries “with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvelous skill.” Blue and white marble adorned the sprawling temple grounds, he explains, adding, “The façade of the sanctuary, 150 feet high and wide, was sheathed with gold. It faced east and was dazzling in the morning sun.”[7]

Christ’s own followers marveled at the temple’s “beautiful stones” and “magnificent buildings.”[8]

Simply put, the temple was breathtakingly beautiful, and it was dedicated to God. Yet as New Testament theologian Peter Walker has suggested, the temple—and even the HolyCity itself—ultimately became a kind of idol.[9] Jesus Himself asked the religious leaders of His day, “Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?”[10]

Greater still is the One who indwelt the temple. But Isaiah reminds us that the actual temple, Jesus, was so commonplace and ordinary that He was overlooked by mankind. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him,” the prophet writes, describing the Messiah’s appearance as “disfigured” and “marred beyond human likeness.” He was, according to Isaiah, the very opposite of beautiful, “like one from whom men hide their faces.”[11]

This juxtaposition between the man-made temple and the God-made temple should give us pause. It should remind us that focusing on earthly things distracts us from eternal things; that there is a fine line between admiring something and succumbing to materialism, between worshipping the Creator and the created thing.

As the psalmist writes, we should turn our eyes “away from worthless things.” With an echo of the psalmist, Paul calls upon us to think about “whatever is lovely”—whatever is truly beautiful, lastingly beautiful. 

Treasure Tests

So how do we do that? How do we know where to draw the line between appreciating beauty and worshipping it? When does admiring that which is “pleasant to the eyes” turn into materialism?

I would submit that the dividing line which separates the abundant life from the danger zone of materialism is different for each of us. In this regard, it pays to recall that Jesus didn’t tell Zaccheus or Jairus or Joseph of Arimathea—all men of considerable means—to go and sell all their possessions. But He did tell the rich young ruler to do just that. Why the distinction? After all, those other wealthy men had as much or more land and gold as he had. But unlike them, his wealth was holding on to him, and he was holding on to his wealth. It was not just a means to an end beyond himself, but rather an end in and of itself. It was his god.

Even though the dividing line is drawn in different places for different people, there are some tests that can help us determine if we have crossed the line.

How’s My Vision?

In the story of Eve and the forbidden fruit, vision—or lack thereof—is the gateway to sin.

What Eve sees is not sinful. After all, the tree was created by God. The fact that she sees it is not sinful. After all, the tree was “in the middle of the garden,” where Adam and Eve could see it all the time. But how she sees it is sinful.

Eve looks upon the tree and its fruit with hungry, selfish eyes. Lured in by the serpent’s promise that “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God,”[12] she wants the fruit for her sake, to satisfy her desire. Max Lucado observes in Six Hours One Friday that “Her eyes never looked up,” toward God. Instead, they were transfixed on the object of her desire—on the created rather than the Creator.

The fruit was beautiful and it was good, like the man-made temple, but her actions turned it into poison.

Our eyes can easily be seduced and blinded by the stuff of this world. When we gaze too long at things, when we linger near the danger zone, our eyes—or more accurately, our vision of right and wrong, needs and wants, indulgence and propriety—fail us. And when that happens, it affects everything. As Jesus explained, perhaps with Adam and Eve in mind, the “eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness.”[13]

What Does Man-Made Beauty Evoke within Me?

In the 1830s, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville argued in his landmark work Democracy in America that by pursuing the same material enjoyments possessed by one’s neighbors—by keeping up with the Joneses, as it were—there could emerge “a kind of virtuous materialism, which would not corrupt but would enervate the soul.”

It was essentially the same argument made in the 1987 film “Wall Street” by the slithering character Gordon Gekko: “Greed works,” he said. “Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

We know they’re both wrong. Just ask Adam and Eve. But let’s be honest: A Mercedes S600 (at $144,000) or a BMW M5 (at $82,000) is a lot easier on the eyes than a Yugo or an Achieva. Likewise, Prada is better than Payless. And a brand-new, custom-built house is prettier than an aging bi-level. As we have already discussed, we naturally appreciate and gravitate toward beautiful things. The question is: What do those beautiful things trigger in us?

Does the neighbor’s Mercedes make you jealous or does it simply make you stop and look at a beautiful automobile? Does a custom-built “McMansion,” with all its shiny door knobs, marble countertops and wood flooring, scramble your notion of needs and wants or does it bring a feeling of quiet admiration for the designer’s work? 

In his guide to the Beatitudes, Walk This Way, Tim Woodruff concludes that God “already knows we have passions; what he wants to know is whether we have any passion for the things of God.” Does God take a back seat to other interests, desires or wants?[14]

For many of us the answer to that question is, sadly, yes. I know it is for me at times, which gives me a chance to emphasize that I am not preaching from a glass house—or pulpit—here. I have far more than I need and yet less than I want. I am reminded of Proverbs 30, which asks God to “give me neither poverty nor riches…otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say who is the Lord, or I may become poor and steal and dishonor the name of my God.”

I must confess that this candid, if cowardly, prayer is often representative of my view of wealth.

So I try to test and check my Pavlovian responses to Madison Avenue and its slick, seductive marketing. It may be human nature to want what is pleasing to the eyes, but I have traded in my human nature for Christ’s.

Appearances Matter: What Am I Driving?

Speaking of testing ourselves, we should constantly consider how the things we do, buy and consume reflect on God.

Conspicuous displays of wealth and excess are simply out of whack with Christ’s example of sacrifice. Yet it’s easy in a wealthy society like ours to acquire things of beauty and to unwittingly give the impression that we are enthralled by these created things rather than the Creator. And so we try to convince ourselves that the person with the newer house, faster car, glitzier laptop, bigger TV or fancier clothes is the one with the materialism problem—not us.

For instance, to redirect and rationalize my own materialism problem, I may quietly criticize a neighbor’s brand-new Mercedes Benz as an excessive, unnecessary extravagance. But all the while, a friend who drives a 15-year-old clunker may think the same about my shiny, newish Honda Civic. And the single mom in the inner city, who has to catch three buses to work her two jobs outside the home, may think the same about that 15-year-old clunker. And the AIDS orphan in Kenya, who walks to fetch water for his siblings, may think the same about the bus.

Perhaps Christ’s “Woe to you who are rich” observation was His way of warning us that our material blessings can become a kind of spiritual burden. To ease that burden, He challenges us to store up treasures in heaven—not on earth.

Motives Matter: What’s Driving Me?

Testing our motives is yet another key to steering clear of that line which separates the abundant life from the danger zone.

The abundant life is one of reflection, not perfection. God wants us to reflect on our failures and triumphs, our highs and lows, our desires and dreams. In doing so, we discover the real motives behind our decisions and actions. Motives matter to God. As Proverbs 16:2 puts it, “Motives are weighed by the Lord.”

So, identifying what your motives are in choosing which car or house or TV to buy—or how many of them to buy—can help determine if you have succumbed to materialism.

For instance, a friend tells the story of how, when he was young, he wanted to buy a BMW to prove to others that he had money—a wrong motive, a materialistic motive. When he grew older, he wanted a BMW simply because he liked the car and appreciated how beautifully crafted it was—at worst, an innocuous, innocent motive.

Those around him may never have known his motives, but God did. And that’s what matters most. In the end, it is what God thinks about our hearts—not what I think about your riches or what you think about mine—that matters. Only you and God really know if you have crossed that line between admiring something and coveting it, between appreciation and acquisitiveness, between the danger zone of blessing and the woes of wealth.

[1] Matthew 5: 3-12.

[2] Luke 6:24-26.

[3] Jefferson Graham and Michelle Kessler, “Techno-enhanced televisions take big step into spotlight,” USA TODAY, January 1, 2005.

[4] Genesis 3:6.

[5] Ian Hoffman, “Scientists ponder beauty and the eye of the beholder,” Oakland Tribune.

[6] Exodus 20:2-4.

[7] Robin Griffith-Jones, “The Gospel According to Paul,” HarperCollins 2004, pp.60-61.

[8] See Luke 21 and Mark 13.

[9] Peter Walker, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem: The HolyCity,” Sojourners, September-October 2000.

[10] Matthew 23:17.

[11] See Isaiah 52:14 and Isaiah 53:2-3.

[12] Genesis 3:4.

[13]Luke 11:34.

[14] Woodruff, p.95 and p.98.