A Christmas Sermon

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MagiChristians celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. But for too many of us, it’s the season that unravels the careful financial planning of the previous 11 months. So this year, instead of trading your financial goals for a mountain of gifts and debt, take a moment to contemplate how a spiritual perspective can help you put your wealth in perspective.

In Christianity, my religious tradition, we are only stewards of our wealth. We are entrusted to use it wisely to meet the responsibilities we’ve been given. Thus our money belongs to God, and we must first ask ourselves, “What does God want us to do with his money?”

You may find a spiritual perspective on wealth either strange or presumptuous. But for all of us, money is an unconscious placeholder for what we value. The way each family uses money expresses their beliefs. Even when someone uses money hedonistically, it reveals their worldview. More commonly, our use of money negotiates a plethora of competing values such as education and recreation, security and travel, or children’s needs and parents’ needs.

Every spiritual tradition promotes certain actions and ideals as beautiful, virtuous and true and discourages others as ugly, sinful and false. Having a spiritual view of wealth management, whether based on the Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Baha’i, or any other faith, helps us purposefully apply our values and use money to meet our goals.

The wisdom we gain from our spiritual traditions challenges us to consider our wealth from a new perspective. In the Christian tradition, the words directly attributed to Jesus, often marked in red in the Bible, have the highest authority. But whatever your religious faith, consider the words of Jesus as a prophet and spiritual leader. In the gospel of Matthew (23:23), Jesus says, “You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

Giving a tenth of your income each year, or tithing, is a noble endeavor. Many people use this percentage as a benchmark of their generosity, but Jesus offers us a greater challenge and an important warning. He cites three values that are particularly germane when dealing with our perspectives toward wealth management: justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Justice, the first virtue, is acting fairly. The notion of justice seems to be instilled universally in the human mind and heart. We all recognize injustice, especially against ourselves! But the truth of justice is that all people, regardless of their wealth, have equal value in the eyes of God. Although most believe this to be true in the abstract, wealth can make people act otherwise.

We tend to treat those with power and wealth with more respect and deference than those without. And if we have acquired wealth, we may think ourselves better than others for having done so. But being more productive does not make us more valuable. True justice values every person. And its opposite is pride, believing ourselves better than others because we have wealth, status and power.

In the Christmas story, the wise men come bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. They bring him gold because he is a king. Some have cynically mocked the golden rule, misquoting, “He who has the gold makes the rules.” The gift from the magi reminds us that Jesus has the gold, and with him as king, justice rules. Wealth need not make us prideful, and we can treat others with equity and humility.

Mercy, the second virtue that Jesus mentions, translates as kindness toward those in need. Mercy is also a universal virtue. Few would argue against being tenderhearted and compassionate. Although the goodness of mercy is universal, unfortunately the practice is not. Statistics show that the more money people possess, the smaller percentage they give to charity.

If mercy is the virtue, greed is the vice. Making progress toward our financial goals need not blind us to those struggling behind us. Part of our careful planning and budgeting should include cheerfully helping those charities and individuals in need. Jesus emphasizes that becoming generous and merciful is even more important than giving a fixed percentage of our income.

Frankincense, the second gift of the wise men, was used to offer prayers to God. It reminds us to have faith that a power greater than ourselves cares for us. Every person among us needs mercy.

The third virtue, faithfulness, involves a covenant relationship with God to trust ultimately in the spiritual, not the material. If we are not vigilant, the many things we buy with money can become the center of our lives. We can find ourselves literally worshipping material goods.

In his book “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis warns, “One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realize your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing checks, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.”

The Old Testament law in Deuteronomy 8:11-18 makes this temptation even clearer: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant.”

The opposite of faithfulness is fear. We fear that God has forsaken us or is indifferent to our struggles. But fear can paralyze us. And if we do not take risks, we are unable to live and enjoy fully the life God has given us.

The final gift of the magi was myrrh, a bitter gum used in death and burial. In the Christian tradition, it reminds us that even at Jesus’ birth, his death on our behalf is foreshadowed. As the apostle Paul writes in the letter to the Romans (8:32-34), “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? God is the one who justifies; Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, He intercedes for us.”

If God is for us, we can trust him, and take courage no matter how dark the future may appear. Look to integrate finances with your spiritual traditions to reflect the best of your values and live life holistically.

Seek to avoid pride, greed and fear is a common mantra in investment management. Jesus substitutes the positive virtues: justice, mercy and faithfulness. Don’t think more highly of yourself if you have money. Be generous to those in need and trust that God cares for you. Remember these principles this Christmas season, and you will remember the one whose birth we celebrate.

Follow David John Marotta:

President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.