“A budget is a moral document.” I’m not sure who first said it, but it’s a phrase I’ve heard at many a vestry meeting over the last several years. I love this phrase because it is a helpful reminder that the most excruciatingly boring part of an annual vestry meeting-going over the annual budget-is not merely a method of lessening my time in purgatory through earthly suffering; it is a practice of ethical exegesis. As Jesus reminds us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). We only have to review our bottom lines to discover what we actually believe.
For instance, we vow in our baptismal covenant that we have committed ourselves “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” But what does our investment portfolio say about us? Where are we actually placing our treasure?
We also say in our baptismal covenant that we have committed ourselves to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” to “strive for justice and peace among all people” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” But what does our operating budget say about us? Where are we actually placing our treasure?
One way of understanding that a budget is a moral document is descriptive: our money is a neutral tool that simply reflects what we actually believe as a community of faith. It reveals to us not what we say we believe, but how we actually live out those beliefs.
Yet there is another way of seeing that our church’s (or our own household’s) budget is a moral document. Rather than describing our values, money might actually be prescribing them. As the General Synod’s Task Force on the Theology of Money came to see, money in our age is not neutral: “The unavoidable force of market economics serves to shape the human person in the market’s own interest.”
Like a tide flowing in and out, money pushes and pulls us in directions we may not even realize. Like a stream of water flowing over a stone, it shapes us. “We need to be aware of this, and to be concerned about it,” the task force’s reflection warns, “because many of the ways in which we are shaped (usually unconsciously) by the money economy are deeply opposed to the values of the Gospel.”
A perfect example is this very article. When I began writing this reflection, I immediately made the assumption that the treasure Jesus was asking us to account for in the gospel was our money. But what if, like St. Lawrence, I began with the assumption that the treasure of the church is the poor and the marginalized?
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Jesus is not asking us where we are putting our money; he is challenging us to consider what we count as treasure in the first place.
Money has captured my imagination. Even in my attempts to critique it, I have not escaped it. And that makes sense. I spend a lot more time with money in my hands than I do with a prayer rope or St. Matthew’s Gospel.