Thought for the Day - 07/04/2014 - John Bell

Having just come back from four weeks in North America, I’ve been pondering a rare practice which I saw in one of the churches I visited. The congregation published every year how much individual members contributed in their offerings.

I don’t know of many churches in the UK which would be keen to emulate this practice, though it used to happen in these shores at a time when people took seriously the principal of giving away a tithe - meaning a tenth of their income - to charitable purposes.

Nowadays that kind of financial transparency is avoided rather than encouraged. Billionaire philanthropists don’t mind their incomes being mentioned on the Sunday Times Rich List. But for other people the public disclosure of their personal wealth is avoided at all costs. For some it only happens as a penalty, inflicted after evidence is produced of unmerited bonuses or misappropriation of funds.

The allegation of financial impropriety is something which seems continually to beleaguer people in public office - whether in the parliaments of this or other nations, or in less prominent municipal authorities. But it is not limited to those in public office, nor is it something which is primarily endemic in the developing world.

This was borne in on me a few years ago when I booked a domestic flight. It cost £35, but the travel agent offered me a receipt for £110. When I queried him about the disparity, he said, ‘Many of our business customers ask for this. Just claim it on expenses. Nobody needs to know.’

It’s easy to point the finger when someone in the public eye is suspected of financial dishonesty, but the truth is that all of us, in different ways, may find ourselves tempted if not culpable.

If we once claim more on expenses than we should, or if we once pay in cash what should be paid for by card or cheque to enable VAT to be honoured, then any guilt which ensues is more likely to encourage us to do the same again, rather than to desist. For, if we are not found out, who needs to know? Why should we need to confess to it? …and in any case, who would grant us absolution? It’s money not morality.

The more I ponder this, the more I am convinced that money is one of the biggest spiritual issues of our day. It can be used - through generosity - to do immeasurable good. But it can also open the door to avarice, which, like jealousy, has an all-consuming power and no end of dehumanising purposes. No wonder Jesus said you cannot serve God and money. For money - to believers and non believers alike - can, when unaccountable, easily assume the mantle of divinity.

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