6318998_s“Psssst. Give an altar call now and half the church will come forward.” I was speaking at a church camp recently when the pastor of the church whispered the above suggestion. No, I am not that anointed a speaker. As part of my talk, I was personalising the lure of money. I was speaking as though money was speaking. I said things like:

Trust in me. I will take care of you. I will give you the desires of your heart. I can’t guarantee that you won’t fall sick but if you do I can get you the best medical care in the world. Travel? Nice things? No problem. Worship me and you will have more happiness in your life than you can handle. You will be popular. People will look up to you. You can continue to have religion. You can go to church. But trust in God? Hey, have you seen Him recently? But hold up a dollar note. Touch it. Smell it. Now that’s real! That’s security. So, come, worship me.

In response to my “money as god pitch,” the pastor suggested I give an altar call. He was speaking in jest (he’s an old friend) but we both understood the power of mammon. So did Jesus.

When Jesus wanted to make the point that you can’t worship both the true God and a false god simultaneously, He chose mammon/money to represent the false god, and not Baal, Jupiter, Mithra, or even Caesar (Matthew 6:24). It appears that through the ages, money is the perennial favourite for god pretender (cf. Colossians 3:5b).

But once in awhile mammon’s true colours are revealed. Once in awhile, the fact that money is no god at all becomes ridiculously obvious. The present global financial crisis is one such time. Here is one summary of the cause of the present financial crisis.

Bank and financial institutions throughout the western world acted as if the economic cycle was a thing of the past. Instead of understanding that the longer the debt-fueled boom lasted and the greater the debt burden became, the greater would be the carnage when the inevitable day of reckoning arrived, they acted as if the longer the good times lasted the more they could be regarded as a permanent fixture. The basic error, born of folly, ignorance and greed, is the biggest cause of the mess we are now in. (Lord Nigel Lawson, “Back to Reality,” TIME Asia, October 13, 2008, 23)

I am no economist but I would venture to suggest that the folly and ignorance that Lord Lawson mentions, were in fact fueled by greed. Scripture is very aware of the power of greed to warp our discernment (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and ndestruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. (NLT)

As many have pointed out, it is not money per se that is evil. The bible acknowledges the place of money in life. The problem comes when we love money, when we make it the main foundation for our lives, when we deify it.

This is no time for the church to be in any “I told you so” stance. Instead the church is called to reach out to the broken. Financial difficulties often reveal other areas of brokenness already present in the lives of people. Already we hear of marriages at risk and the rise of suicides. Mammon is no god at all. It cannot give life.

Besides, the church also have many who have tried to serve both God and mammon — and are reaping what they sowed. And there are many who are innocent victims of the present downturn. Now is a time for compassion, a time to try to rescue the victims of the new hard times. And to be on the lookout for prodigals who are headed home.

When I played the role of money in my talk in the church camp, I was preaching on the parable of the compassionate father from Luke 15:11-32. The younger boy gambled everything on mammon and went off to a far country. There he discovered, as we all do sooner or later, that money is no infallible god. Indeed it is no god at all.

The pain of the financial downturn of his day caused the prodigal to go home. There will be many prodigals coming home these days as well. For those who didn’t sell out to money (yeah, there may be a few), the elder brother shows us what we should not be doing. Instead we should follow the example of the compassionate father, and welcome home the broken hearted with open arms and with love.

But it is a time for lessons. It would have been better if we had not left for the far country to begin with. May the present financial turmoil teach us, again, that money is no god. We have such short memories. And money knows how to make a great pitch.