Money Is How We Keep Score

The Good News is, “Jesus Came Explicitly and Precisely to be with Losers.”

David Clay / 1.25.21

Media mogul Ted Turner allegedly once commented, “Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.” Whether Mr. Turner really said that or not, he raises a good point. More than a convenient way of conducting economic transactions, money also offers one of the few objective, countable measures for keeping track of our overall success in life. Even the most innovative or profound individuals are widely considered failures in their lifetimes if they, like Vincent Van Gogh, cannot make their work pay. It’s no accident that we use much the same vocabulary to talk about both moral and financial value (the word worth is another prominent example). 

Christians have had a complex relationship with this kind of economic scorekeeping, mirroring the Bible’s own ambivalent attitude towards the accumulation of wealth. To cite a famous example, the sociologist Max Weber found the seedbed of capitalism in Calvin’s stringent doctrine of predestination. According to Weber, the early Calvinists decided that one highly favorable sign that God has elected you to salvation is the presence of a strong work ethic — that is, dedication to the calling he has given you. Since such diligence produces wealth, the thinking goes, financial success is a good (albeit not decisive) indicator that you have received God’s saving grace. The early Calvinists thus had theological motivation to cultivate a trade and accumulate the excess wealth that would eventually make the capitalist system possible. 

As theologian Bruce Gordon notes in his perceptive essay on the topic, the Calvinists were well attuned to the spiritual dangers of wealth. On the other hand, they sensed its attractiveness as an objective score-keeping mechanism (as long as that wealth was the result of virtuous behavior, of course). We modern believers might look askance upon this attitude, but the reality is that it’s not so easy to reject its validity. To say that money is a lousy way of keeping score is to open ourselves to the charge, perhaps from others (but more likely from some corner of our own minds) that we’re only saying that because we’re not any good at making money. Perhaps we didn’t major in a STEM field in college, or ate too much avocado toast, or failed to invest in FANG stocks a decade ago — and now we’re just stuck blaming boomers or globalism or something.* To return to Mr. Turner’s metaphor: It’s easy enough to declare a game unfair, rigged, or just plain stupid when you’re losing it. 

One solution to this niggling doubt is, of course, to make a lot of money and then confidently declare that money is not how we keep score. Alternatively, we could adopt the approach that the Apostle Paul took when faced with a similar situation. His opponents in the Corinthian church seem to have made much of the fact that Paul did not collect payment for preaching the gospel in that city (see 2 Cor 11:7). When wealth is equated with worth, those (like Paul) who have to work to live are demeaned.

 Paul was the equivalent of a car mechanic, not a respected academic philosopher. He probably smelled and didn’t wear the Corinthians’ fancy clothes. 

To their minds, his occupation as a laborer undermines the worth of Paul and his apostolic ministry by extension. Paul’s irritation with this accusation is palpable, as he spills quite a bit of ink explaining that (1) of course he could have legitimately asked for financial compensation from the Corinthians, but also that (2) he refused to do so in order that nothing would hinder the spread of the gospel of Christ (1 Cor 9). 

In other words, “I’ve got more important things to do than make money.” And that really is the case for many believers, and not just those engaged in professional ministry. Since the beginning of Christianity, believers have consciously chosen a simple lifestyle or even poverty to advance the kingdom of God. 

But what if we’re conscious that we didn’t exactly choose a tight budget? What if, in spite of all we tell ourselves, our lack of financial success continues to be a source of explicit or hidden embarrassment? Then we are in very good shape, indeed. After all, the good news isn’t, “Forget all the standards people apply to you. You’re fine just the way you are.” No one really believes that, anyway. Rather, the good news is, “Jesus came explicitly and precisely to be with losers.”

And that goes for losers of all stripes. If you do make a lot of money, then fortunately there is some other valid and important criterion for measuring a successful life according to which you are absolutely failing. Failure of any sort has the potential to make us eligible for fellowship with Jesus, as the only requirement is to know that we need him. No one in their right mind really wants to come in last — but even so, it is the last who will come in first. 

* To take my tongue out of my cheek for a minute, there are serious structural problems with the American economy, but that’s a conversation for a different time.  

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