In 2008 my wife Robyn and I were living in Townsville. We were saving to go to Bible college, and because I’m financially illiterate we decided to check out a local investment company many of my friends and colleagues were raving about. You might have heard of this company, it was called Storm Financial. We went along to an information evening where we were told that the vast majority of Australians are saving for a comfortable retirement, that we tend to be risk averse with our superannuation and investing and that just by upping the risk and borrowing to invest in a market that is always, over the course of time, growing, we could have not a comfortable retirement but a luxurious one. We went back for a follow up meeting, and by God’s grace were either too disorganised, too turned off by the watery coffee, or too disturbed by their desire to itemise and borrow against every single thing we owned, including our CD collection, so we dodged the bullet. A few months later Storm Financial became major news as banks called in the loans they had taken out for their customers. Storm even made it into the final report of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation, and Financial Services Industry:
“The business model of Storm Financial was to provide advice in standard or template form, with minimal tailoring to the investor. Almost 90% of Storm’s clients were encouraged to take out loans against the equity in their own homes, to obtain a margin loan and use the funds from these loans to invest in the share market via index funds. In late 2008 and early 2009, many clients of Storm Financial were in negative equity positions, sustaining significant losses.”
A Royal Commission is an interesting phenomenon.
It’s the most powerful form of investigation or inquiry into an issue in our nation with the authority coming from the hand of the Queen, via a ‘Letters Patent’ that sets the terms of the investigation. Royal Commissions are an attempt to get to the heart of a problem, this Royal Commission identified a problem of the heart in its findings. It points the finger at greed, both systemically and for individuals working in the industry.
In a summary of his findings, Commissioner Kenneth Hayne said:
“First, in almost every case, the conduct in issue was driven not only by the relevant entity’s pursuit of profit but also by individuals’ pursuit of gain, whether in the form of remuneration for the individual or profit for the individual’s business.”
Later he highlighted the findings from his Interim Report, particularly in the area of financial institutions providing ‘fees for no service,’ where he said:
“…the root cause of the fees for no service conduct was greed: greed by licensees, and greed by advisers…”
The report also zeroed in on the practices of rewarding staff in these institutions for misconduct, a lack of transparency in these systems (especially around complex areas), and the problem of intermediaries involved in the provision of services who appear to act for the customer’s interest, but who are actually paid for by the institution – the ‘priests’ of these financial institutions aren’t interested in their flock, but the big business interests who employ them. The report is damning.
As I read these judgments I was reminded about words from God’s judgment on the failed leaders of Israel
As I read these judgments I was reminded about words from God’s judgment on the failed leaders of Israel in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, and Jesus’ rebuke of the religious leaders of his time who ‘devoured widows houses.’ Ezekiel is particularly strong in his condemnation of systemic, destructive greed. Speaking about God’s people, and the city Jerusalem, Ezekiel says:
“There is a conspiracy of her princes within her like a roaring lion tearing its prey; they devour people, take treasures and precious things and make many widows within her…
Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain.Her prophets whitewash these deeds for them by false visions and lying divinations. They say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says’ — when the Lord has not spoken. The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.” – Ezekiel 22:25, 27-29
He could well be speaking about those in our world who destroy the lives of others for unjust gain – and behind lots of the stories brought to life through the process of the Royal Commission were stories of injustice and destruction brought about by human greed. The catch is, that while the Royal Commission identified systemic problems, and greed as a motivation for companies and individuals, it may not have gone far enough in identifying the breadth of the system, or how far this heart issue reaches.
The sales pitch from Storm Financial involved painting a vision for what life might look like if only we had more good things. Storm was famous in town for the way it gave clients a taste of the good life with lavish parties and cruise holidays. Right up until they served up dishwater coffee they’d drawn me into the illusion that what they offered was just a wise investment strategy with incredible returns. The Storm Financial crisis wasn’t just fuelled by corporate or staff greed – but by the greed of the human heart. By the lure of greed for all of us. Who doesn’t want a luxurious retirement?
Ezekiel doesn’t let Israel off the hook. They can’t just blame greedy leaders in the face of God’s inquiry into their hearts. A few chapters later God says to, and through, Ezekiel:
My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. – Ezekiel 33:31
If God were to conduct a Royal Commission on YOUR life, what would he find?
If he were to examine your heart and the place money, or worldly comfort, occupies in it, what would a prophet say about you? Even for those of us not employed in the financial services industry, or not invested in the perpetual growth of the market, how might we be complicit in a system built on the idea that ‘greed is good’? The Royal Commission is the opportunity for a heart check – an inquiry into the state of your own heart – in the face not just of its findings, but another ‘royal commission’ – the inquiry and solutions offered by another king. Jesus.
In chapter 20 of Luke’s Gospel, his story of the life and teaching of King Jesus about the nature of God’s kingdom, Jesus rebukes Israel’s leaders in much the same way that Ezekiel did.
“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” – Luke 20:47
But this comes after he has had much to say about greed as a systemic issue that affects the hearts of all people, and that can be a real trap for those of us who are wealthy (if you’re reading this on an electronic device, chances are you’re wealthy in global terms).
Jesus is, at one point, asked to step in as a sort of financial planner, or estate manager, for two brothers. To act like King Solomon did all those years before and dispense wisdom and justice on a legal dispute, this time about an inheritance.
He says, famously:
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” – Luke 12:15
And then he conducts a royal commission; an inquiry into the state of our hearts, not by hearing our stories, but by telling one. How you react to this story, and its challenge about your priorities, reveals something about the place greed plays in your heart.
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” – Luke 12:16-21
Imagine you’re that ‘rich’ person; you’ve worked hard and received a reward – or perhaps your investments in property, your business, or the market, are paying off handsomely. Imagine that your dreams of a luxurious retirement, or leaving a big inheritance for your kids, is now possible. Jesus says placing your hope or security in this sort of harvest, or future, is foolishness in the face of death – and an internal investment plan is both much wiser, and provides freedom from destructive greed (he’s also just spoken about a different sort of eternal harvest – the pursuit of people – back in chapter 10, as a much wiser investment plan).
We know greed is destructive – we didn’t need a Royal Commission to discover that, but it discovered that all the same. We perhaps are much more comfortable with greed being something done to us than something we do. Both our Queen’s Royal Commission and Jesus’ royal commission reveal that greed is a heart problem. The Royal Commission offers a variety of proposed solutions – changes in practice – for our financial institutions, which will be welcome changes, but which ultimately do nothing about the heart problem of those in those institutions, and say nothing about the more widespread issue of greed in our society. Too many of us are enslaved by money and the pursuit of pleasure and comfort in this world. Jesus invites us to see that problem at work in our own hearts, and he offers a heart solution – to be consumed not with taking as much as possible in this world, pursuing luxury and comfort in this world, but with giving because our hearts have been changed so that we don’t treasure the things of this world, or ‘set our hearts on what we will eat or drink’ (Luke 12:29), but treasure heaven. This brings a different set of solutions and practices when it comes to money.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Luke 12:32-34
Investing your money to grow your investment is not inherently sinful. I’m thankful for superannuation – and the risk you’re prepared to take with your superannuation fund or your investments is ultimately a matter of wisdom. Greed is sinful. Greed leads to destructive behaviours and the abuse of those beneath you in the economic pecking order. King Jesus calls us to a life of generosity – not using our money to climb the ladder at the expense of others, but using it to raise the status of others (by giving to the poor) as we lower ourselves (by selling our possessions) because we’re bought in to his kingdom.
Jesus tells a parable about people who invest a sum of money in different ways that only works if we assume that investing, with some degree of risk, can be a wise and good thing to do (Matthew 25:14-30), he tells another (weird) parable on the road to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel, where his kingdom is about to be launched at the cross. In the ‘parable of the shrewd manager’ (Luke 16), Jesus describes the action of a worldly ‘manager’ – the sort of investment manager worthy of a Royal Commission – who, in the face of judgment, gives generously to a bunch of people who owe his master, their ‘banker’, a stack of money.
“I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” – Luke 16:19
Which seems like strange advice unless the example of the ‘pagans’ who treasure worldly things (Luke 12:30), and the Pharisees who devour widows houses (Luke 20:47) are in the background. These are people who use wealth to buy status from those above them at the expense of those beneath them (like many of the stories we heard in the Royal Commission). Jesus calls us to use our wealth for the sake of those less well off than ourselves, because this is where we are freed from money and greed, rather than mastered and enslaved by it. This is where Jesus famously says:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” – Luke 16:13
Maybe you’re not buying the financial plan Jesus is selling. Maybe you’re tempted to scoff and think that you can serve both God and money. When I was sitting listening to Storm Financial – planning to save for Bible College – there were moments where I wanted to believe I could manage to be pursuing a luxurious retirement and wealth, while also serving God’s kingdom. But that would have destroyed me – and the temptation to turn to security here and now is always present. There was another group who had this reaction, who thought they knew better…
“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” – Luke 16:14-15
God knows your heart. The Royal Commission is God laying your heart bear and inviting you to consider where your treasure is and the place money and the things of this world occupies. It invites you to count yourself among the greedy, but to find real solutions to that in his generous kingdom, following his generous king who gave himself up for you. If you were at our ministry dinner last week, you’d have heard Terry, who’s part of our Stewardship Committee, and a financial planner. He said:
“Money is a good slave, but not a good master. If you keep it as a slave in your heart it’s a great thing to have lots of it, because you’ll give heaps away. If it’s your master, it’s a burden to have a lot of it as it’ll consume you with worry and anxiety.”
His advice on how to avoid being enslaved is to have a plan to use and give money, rather than to be consumed by pursuing it.
“We should be wise with our money, we should be thought out, we should plan, we should be thankful and not waste.”
That wasn’t the picture Storm painted. And it’s a picture that involves putting money in its right place in our heart because Jesus occupies his. Jesus is worthy of our devotion; he is a good master. Money is not. His is an eternal investment plan, those offered by our financial institutions are not. What does Jesus’ Royal Commission reveal about your heart? What habits of the heart might you adopt to start teaching your heart to treasure Jesus and his kingdom above the kingdoms we might want to build here? Our 12 Week Challenge is an opportunity to do a detox of the heart when it comes to money, you can find some ideas in week 3 of the bullet journal (PDF)