“Frogs in the soup, unite! JUMP OUT!”

Sitting here on my back porch, sipping my beverage of choice, I’ve lately been thinking a lot about our finances. What does life on this farm (or more accurately this house in the woods), in the context of Scripture and the entire teaching of our Faith, teach about planning our financial futures?

Before I begin: First, I need to admit that I’m not a financial guy, and if at any point in this reflection I sound a bit “preachy,” please know that I am preaching mostly at myself! I have a long way to go in this, and as a seasoned old preacher once reminded me, “Whenever ya point, ya got three fingers a-pointing back atcha!”

Lately I’ve been reading through Sirach in my morning devotions. Anything there about our finances?

 

Frogs in the Proverbial Soup Pot

Across the way there is a spring fed stock tank. It was built there for the thirst of livestock, but it has also become the home for a school of goldfish and a mess of frogs.

Never in the history of mankind has life as frogs in the proverbial soup pot been tougher. The volume of voices inundating us with advice on how to live our lives—and particularly how to plan our financial futures—is excruciatingly contradictory. Imagine yourself a frog swimming in a large pot with a thousand other frogs all croaking at the same time: that’s the volume of advice coming at us from all sides through the media. “But with the confidence of their croaking, they must know more than me about financial matters! So I’ll just keep swimming along in this pot with everybody else.”

But maybe the Lord is calling us along a different path—maybe even to shock everyone, especially our portfolio managers—and not just swim against the stream, but to jump out of that pot!

Before some of us end up facing a Chapter Eleven (or Seven or Thirteen) bankruptcy, maybe we can learn something from the wisdom in Chapter Eleven of Sirach:

 

[7] Do not find fault before you investigate;

          first consider, and then reprove.

    [8] Do not answer before you have heard,

          nor interrupt a speaker in the midst of his words.

   [9] Do not argue about a matter which does not concern you,

          nor sit with sinners when they judge a case.

 

I suppose this is a good place to begin, because I’m sure any non-Catholics reading this―if you are like I was when I was an Evangelical Protestant minister—would be arguing, “But Sirach ain’t inspired Scripture!” But, as the writer of Sirach advises, “Do not find fault before you investigate…do not answer before you have heard.” As I mentioned in an earlier post, as far as we can tell from historical documents, the first official definition of the Canon of Holy Scripture—which became the standard for all Bibles for over a thousand years before the list was changed by the 16th century Reformers—was declared and recorded by the bishops gathered under Pope Damasus I in the Council of Rome in AD 382. This Canon included all the books presently in Catholic Bibles, and lists, as a part of the Divine Scriptures, “Solomon three books,” which includes Sirach. So maybe we ought to at least “first consider … nor interrupt a speaker in the midst of his words.”

 

Busy, Busy, Busy!

   [10] My son, do not busy yourself with many matters;

          if you multiply activities you will not go unpunished;

   and if you pursue you will not overtake,

          and by fleeing you will not escape.

 

We live in a frenzied world, and a culture driven by the false assumption of “progress” and the all-powerful saving grace of “human ingenuity.”

Photo by Böhringer Friedrich: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tadpole

From an early age, like tadpoles trying to find our place amongst the older frogs crowding around us, we have been prepared for a place upon the treadmill of upward mobility. Along this path the words of Jesus make little sense:

 

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life … but seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.

Mt 6:25-34

 

But we will all answer to our Creator for the “many matters” with which we have “busied” ourselves. When our Lord told the apostle John to write those letters to the seven churches, He warned, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:29). To five of those churches, He said “I know your works,” to another, “I know where you dwell,” and to another, “I know your tribulations” (Rev 2:2f). But in every case He gave promises of future and eternal blessings to those who “conquer.”

By grace we are empowered to resist the incessant croaking of the voices around us temping us to “multiply” our “activities” to such decibels that we can no longer hear the beckoning of God. How can we “pray without ceasing” when we are doing everything else “without ceasing”? But God does know our lives and our tribulations, and promises to help us conquer—if we are willing to trust Him, even if following Him means jumping out of the pot of “progress and upward mobility.”

 

Goin’ with the Flow

Once in the pot, though, it’s hard to get out, especially when “expert” frog advisers warn you not only to stay in but to keep pressing forward—“And if you do flee,” they warn, “you will regret it when the markets and the economy rebound!” The goal of financial and family security based on the anticipation of escalating wages, compounded interest, and accumulated wealth, especially in our present staggering economy, is forever elusive (Per that commercial we’ve all seen on tv, “Is a ‘gazillian’ even enough?”) because at the core there is a fine line between whether one has put his trust in God or in the anticipated trajectory of wealth.

 

[11] There is a man who works, and toils, and presses on, but is so much the more in want.

 

It’s not merely that we are never satisfied, but the path of upward mobility places us alongside others also toiling and pressing on, pulling us forward. And that other “still small voice” tells us that we now deserve and really need to have what they have: “You’ve earned it!” But in the process we either forget or never learn that happiness is to be found not only in the products of our labor, but in labor itself. If labor is nothing more than the necessary evil we must endure to produce the sources of our happiness, than we may forever remain “so much the more in want,” in this life as well as the next.

 

Whatever you do to the Least of These

[12a] There is another who is slow and needs help, who lacks strength and abounds in poverty;

 

Isn’t it true that those who are convinced in and possessed by the upward security of financial capitalism often look askance at those who are content with a simpler, “less sophisticated” lifestyle? “Look at that hayseed! So slow! Just can’t handle the pace! Man, does he need help! He just lacks the moral and mental strength to break free from the poverty of his ignorance!” And Sirach even adds later how the world gathers round and coddles the rich and influential, but ignores and shuns the poor and humble:

 

Humility is an abomination to a proud man;

          likewise a poor man is an abomination to a rich one.

   When a rich man totters, he is steadied by friends,

          but when a humble man falls, he is even pushed away by friends.

   If a rich man slips, his helpers are many;

          he speaks unseemly words, and they justify him.

   If a humble man slips, they even reproach him;

          he speaks sensibly, and receives no attention.

   When the rich man speaks all are silent,

          and they extol to the clouds what he says.

   When the poor man speaks they say, “Who is this fellow?”

          And should he stumble, they even push him down.

Sirach 13:20-23

 

So who do we listen to, and whose advice do we shun? Do we mostly trust and follow the rich and successful, the confident and charismatic, the attractive and winsome? And in the process do we merely patronize the poor and the humble, the simple and less ambitious? I wonder whether we would listen to the advice of a financial analyst if he fit the following description:

 

He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,

          and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men;

          a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

And as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised,

          and we esteemed him not.

Isaiah 53:2b-3

 

Happy is as Happy Does

   [12b] but the eyes of the Lord look upon him for his good; he lifts him out of his low estate

   [13] and raises up his head, so that many are amazed at him.

 

Unlike the eyes of those swimming around us in this soup pot, God sees us through different eyes. He sees our heart, our motives, our conscience, as well as our ignorance, and in the end evaluates our needs by the yardstick of goodness. And He responds in ways that “pass all understanding” (cf. Phil 4:6-7), especially to those along the path of upward security who envy the peace of those who have chosen the road less traveled.

 

[14] Good things and bad [“prosperity and adversity,” KJV], life and death, poverty and wealth, come from the Lord.

 

The soup in which we frogs are swimming assumes that there are always natural causes for all of life. If we’re healthy or we get cancer, it must be a function of our diet or exercise; if we get rich or end up poor, it was because of how hard we worked or how well we invested; if our life is a failure or a success, it all comes back to something we did or didn’t do. We’re even arrogant enough to believe that if the climate changes, we did it! But there is no evidence that anyone has ever altered the moment of death apart from the moment, from all eternity, planned by God.

Certainly our actions have an effect on our lives and the lives of others, as well as the world around us, so those we are called before God to be good stewards of the gifts He has given us! However, it may be that there is far less connection than we suspect between what we eat or how we live and the good or bad events of life. It may be more a matter of God using whatever means is necessary to get our attention away from our false gods and back to Him.

 

[17] The gift of the Lord endures for those who are godly, and what he approves will have lasting success.

 

It’s interesting that those who focus their lives on attaining eternal salvation in the next life may be as imbalanced as those who focus on building financial security for the rest of this life. As Father Nicholas Grou wrote more than 200 years ago in his “Marks of a True Disciple,” our focus must not be on whether, as a result of our efforts, even our faith, we will be saved, for in essence this is a self-centered quest; rather our focus is to be, first, on giving glory to God; second, on growing by grace in holiness; and then, thirdly, trusting in hope our eternal destiny to the mercy of our Heavenly Father.

Reaffirming all that our Lord said in His Sermon on the Mount, the Apostle John wrote, “we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another…” (1 Jn 3:22-23). In other words, whatever peace and security we may want for our future comes as a “gift of the Lord” to those who focus their lives on Him and others—giving glory to God, growing in holiness, and loving others—not ourselves.

 

Rich is as Rich Is

   [18] There is a man who is rich through his diligence and self-denial, and this is the reward allotted to him:

   [19] when he says, “I have found rest, and now I shall enjoy my goods!”,  he does not know how much time will pass until he leaves them to others and dies.

 

There is, indeed, much necessary self-denial if one is to dedicate every effort along the upward path of mobility to financial security. There are some money managers—maybe some who are handling our own investments—who spend every waking moment in their high-rise offices, sacrificing family and friends, taking little time for leisure, all to focus every ounce of “diligence” on making the best investments. And, indeed, many of these men and women amass great wealth, but when they reach retirement, wallowing back in the security of hard-won 401k investments, the flower of health long past and no lasting family, they may find that what time they have left to enjoy the fruit of their “necessarily evil” labor is fleeting.

 

   [20] Stand by your covenant and attend to it, and grow old in your work.

 

This verse may sound like one must not swerve from the course he has taken, even if he’s but a frog in a pot of mythically progressive soup. But what is truly being called for is that we cut through the blinding crust of our assumptions and commitments to rediscover the one true underlying covenant of our being: that we were created in love in the Image of our Creator God, who established a Covenant with His people, which has been fulfilled in Christ, and into which through baptism we have been adopted. As John wrote, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn 3:1). It is in this Covenant that we must joyfully “stand … and attend to”—and not merely enduring our present work for the hope of future happiness, but growing “old in” our work, seeking His face in the simplicity of the present moment.

 

Happy is what Happy Trusts

   [21] Do not wonder at the works of a sinner, but trust in the Lord and keep at your toil; for it is easy in the sight of the Lord to enrich a poor man quickly and suddenly.

   [22] The blessing of the Lord is the reward of the godly, and quickly God causes his blessing to flourish.

 

The success stories and motivational Power-Point presentations of those who are apparently succeeding in the soup of financial capitalism can certainly be distracting. It can make one’s heart question, second guess, even “condemn us” for turning from the well-worn path of financial security. But remember that every human being is a “sinner” and can be wrong about the future; every successful investor can be wrong in the evaluations and explanations of how “what they did was the key to their success, as well as yours!” But everything comes from God, who rewards the “godly,” and the only trustworthy plan is to build your portfolio on this strategy: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Prov 3:5-6).

 

   [23] Do not say, “What do I need, and what prosperity could be mine in the future?”

   [24] Do not say, “I have enough, and what calamity could happen to me in the future?”

   [25] In the day of prosperity, adversity is forgotten, and in the day of adversity, prosperity is not remembered.

 

No one except God knows tomorrow; not even the most astute financial analyst and his carefully developed computer models of anticipated stock performance. Verse 23 reminds me of hearing my banker explain, with cocky assurance, how the portfolio of my investments was on track to provide all our future needs—one month before everything crashed in 2008! And what about those who at the same time had just decided their portfolios had reached sufficient security for them to retire—only to discover a month later that their net worth had been cut in half! It was Steinbeck’s superb book, “The Grapes of Wrath,” that beautifully illustrates how when one has lost everything, it’s hard to remember the days of contentment.

 

   [26] For it is easy in the sight of the Lord to reward a man on the day of death according to his conduct.

   [27] The misery of an hour makes one forget luxury, and at the close of a man’s life his deeds will be revealed.

   [28] Call no one happy before his death; a man will be known through his children.

 

How will we “be known through” our children? What will we have left them? Will they remember us as people who sacrificed everything to gamble on some fleeting financially secure future of things and wealth, or people who were willing to sacrifice everything else except to love God and to love them, to enjoy being with them, to “have no anxiety about tomorrow,” to “not complain of want” but “to be content… in whatever state I am” (Phil 4:11), and to find ways to honor God in everything we did?

Remember that no one can read anyone else’s mind; no one—even the best counselor or confessor—knows the truth of our inner most thoughts. So when we look at someone else’s life and determine that they must be “happy,” we may be very, very wrong, for in the end it may be only those closest to us—and after we’re gone that will only be our children—who truly have an inkling of whether in this life we ever experienced true happiness. As Isaiah the prophet wrote in Isaiah 55, using interestingly the context of farming:

 

   Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;

   Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

   For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

   For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

   For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:6-11

 

For men will be Lovers of Money

And may I add, again as I sit sipping in the safe security of this back porch, two more verses from later in Sirach:

 

   Do not revel in great luxury, lest you become impoverished by its expense.

   Do not become a beggar by feasting with borrowed money, when you have nothing in your purse.

Sirach 18:32-33

 

Boy ain’t this descriptive of our present financial soup, especially the unfathomable trajectory of our present national debt!! We have dug a bottomless pit of debt because as a nation we have reveled in countless luxuries—blessings upon blessings which we gradually have taken for granted as rights! As a nation, we have “progressed” beyond the simplicity of the responsibly contented to the upward mobility of the irresponsibly greedy, and even though we have long since bypassed our budget and resources, we continue to demand the luxuries of our Americanism which, of course, “is ours by right!”

As a result, we, as a nation and as individuals, have been oblivious to advice like that given in these verses: “Do not become a beggar by feasting with borrowed money, when you have nothing in your purse!” Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa!

The more we can by grace extricate ourselves and our families from the encumbrances of this soup (this world) in which we live, the freer we can be to live without anxiety and for the glory of God.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.

1 John 2:15-17

A final word from Fr. Thomas Dubay:

Poverty of fact and of spirit contributes to the radical self-emptying that is a condition for this fullness of prayer and joy: “Having nothing, possessing all things” (2 Cor 6:10). God forces himself on no one. If I cling to things, he lets me have my things. If I am empty of things, he fills me with himself.

(from “Happy Are the Poor” (Ignatius Press), pg. 164)

As I said in the beginning, I have a long way to go. May the Lord help us empty ourselves of anything that keeps us from Him.

5 thoughts on ““Frogs in the soup, unite! JUMP OUT!”

  1. Very nice to be reminded of these things. It is easy to get caught up in the soup sometimes. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Hi Marcus,

    I enjoyed and will re-read your reflections again about Sirach. My favorite biblical passage is Sirach 2. I have made it my own personal prayer and reflection about my life and following the Lord. Sadly, I was speaking to my non-denominational friend about this strong “manly” verse but his bible did not have Sirach. Do you know why this is? What is it that propted Luther to have this book removed from the protestant version of scripture?

    Matthew Costantino

  3. Excellent reflection on our fallen nature -creatures in constant guidance of our Heavenly Father!
    Thank you, Marcus, for your fiat to the Lord and may He continue blessing your daily toil.