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The book critiqued in this podcast is Through the Eye of the Needle: The Doctrine of Non-Accumulation, by Roger Hertzler.


The basic idea

  • Our society and the church are materialistic.
  • Christians have ignored the clear teaching of Christ that we are not to store up treasure on earth (Matthew 6:19-21).
  • "Christ says that nothing on earth has any real value except that which can be converted into Heavenly treasure before we die" (77).

What's helpful:

  • Indeed, the Bible teaches that we are to provide financially for the generation behind us, not the generation following. (That is, we are to take care of our elderly parents, not leave an inheritance for our [often] adult children.) The greatest legacy we can leave them is spiritual, and in fact we may be hurting them if the most significant thing we leave them is our money (56). However, see Proverbs 13:22 and 2 Corinthians 12:14.
  • Older people will have no problem giving away their money and possessions when they know that the rest of the church will provide for them.
  • The teaching of the church in the Patristic era, for example: "How can they follow Christ, who are held back by the chain of their wealth? . . . They think that they possess, but they are possessed instead. They are the bondslaves of their money, not the lords of their money. They are slaves of their profit" [Cyprian, c. 250 AD). While some of the views of the 2nd and 3rd century church go beyond the teachings of Jesus (usually in the direction of strictness), the spirit of their radical discipleship is evident.
  • From Hertzler's chapter entitled "An Exchange of Values":
    "... [The] enemy is “a wrong value system.” It is a value system that tells us the things of this world have genuine value (as opposed to being worthless). It tells us that having much of this world’s wealth is somehow better than having little of it. None of us are exempt from the effects of this erroneous value system... The world says that stocks, bonds, gold coins, land, and savings accounts have real value. Christ says that nothing on earth has any real value except that which can be converted into Heavenly treasure before we die. The world says that financial security is something we all should strive to achieve. Christ says that financial security is something that will destroy our faith and steal our love. The world says that it is honorable to leave your children financially well off. Christ says that such a move would endanger their souls, because a rich person will hardly enter the kingdom of God... If you can completely internalize this upside-down value system, it will revolutionize your life. That which you used to think was important will now seem trivial. Your passion will become the kingdom of God..."
  • There is not doubt that Jesus warned us in the strongest possible terms of the potential of wealth to blind, numb, and choke us (Luke 8:7,14; Revelation 3:14-19).

What seems off-base:

  • Biblical interpretation
    • Dismisses Mark 14:3-9 in passing without dealing with the fact that the actions of the woman in anointing Jesus' feet were, by the author's criteria, wasteful (60). After all, hadn't Jesus taught us to sell our possessions and give to the poor (the heart of Judas' objection [ Mark 14:5; John 12:6])?
    • Little flock of Luke 12:33 -- apostles or all Christians (59)? How can we discern who Jesus is referring to? (I admit it seems to me this is for all Christians, but even then the passage has to be interpreted.)
    • The Parable of the Talents is exegeted carelessly, even though the author's conclusions seem on track (49). This does not inspire confidence in his method.
    • Zacchaeus appears in a note, but nothing in the body of the book explores this man, perhaps because his example does not support Hertzler's thesis (102).
  • Unduly radical implementation?
    • Wesley used his own life as an example: “I gain all I can” in profitable labor; “I save all I can” by frugal living; and “by giving all I can, I am effectually secured from ‘laying up treasures on earth.’” These were no idle boasts: As Wesley’s royalty earnings grew, his self-imposed annual personal budget stayed at 30 pounds, until 98% of his income was given away. He lived up to his promise that “If I leave behind me ten pounds . . . you and all mankind bear witness against me that ‘I lived and died a thief and a robber’” (67).
    • Advice [for Americans]:
      • Clean out your retirement accounts (80). Give up your financial goals. Join a church that teaches and practices the doctrine of non-accumulation (82). If you haven't been giving at all, start immediately with a tithe (10%), whether you think you can afford it or not. And many other pieces of advice... (83)
      • Okay to keep $20,000 in the bank if you are "a business owner who needs to make payroll every two weeks," but wrong for "a laborer who is just trying to prepare for a 'rainy day'" (81).
      • I think such advice contradicts the NT teaching that we should aim to do something useful with our hands so that we may give to those in need. Earning more you are able to help more; this much seems obvious. And allowing your money to grow increases your ability to give.
      • Distinction between tools and investments, but discerning the difference is somewhat arbitrary. "... at a minimum, Jesus' command to 'sell and give' applies to those assets that qualify as investments."
    • Does not take culture into account.
      • Everyone accumulates, even Hertzler. The line between accumulation and non-accumulation is not always obvious.
      • Reminds me of those who push a tithe on gross income. Sounds like a great idea, but how can it be implemented across the board?
      • Are we to strive to recreate the standard of living of the first-century Mediterranean world?

Conclusion

  • The book serves a valuable purpose: making us think about the biblical teaching on possessions.
  • Yet it is simplistic, ill-suited to the real world. Moreover, it over-interprets the teachings of Christ.
  • Perhaps rather than focusing on the negative (non-accumulation), we should emphasize the positive qualities I am sure are behind Hertzler's thesis: generosity, hospitality, sacrifice, mercy. For God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6).
  • No one on his death-bed laments, "How I wished I had made more money." Death, the great leveler, confronts all of us with the truth (see Psalm 49). Rather, people say, "How I wished I'd spent more time with my loved ones... I should have lived my life in the light of eternity." For reminding us of the worthlessness of human wealth in the light of eternity, Hertzler does us a great service.