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Money: tool or master?

Thursday, 12 July 2018  | Hannah Weickhardt




Money. Finances. The dollar. In perusing a book on the art of small talk, not once does it mention money as a legitimate topic of conversation. Does it have to be such a touchy topic? And what is its place for us, as Christians?

Money is important for living: for meeting our needs of food, water, clothing and shelter; and for allowing us to go about our day-to-day activities. It enables us to go beyond our needs and satiate our wants. And the amount of money one may have, and the frivolity with which one uses it, can determine one’s social rank - and we have an aversion to being ranked lower than our peers when it comes to conspicuous wealth. Money may be a touchy topic, but complexity, idolatry or misuse should not prevent us from discussing something that is so central to our lives. As we shall see, there is a beautiful simplicity to money, and understanding this should free us to use it as it was intended – a tool – and to treat it based on what it is – an object.

Money[1] arose as a means of exchange. Having a form of easily tradeable currency reduced the need to carry around items to be traded and the need to engage in multiple transactions to obtain a desired good or service. For example, a certain amount of currency enabled you to buy a cow rather than carrying around ten sacks of corn to trade for the cow. It allowed you to pay the labourer for repairs using a medium of exchange which he/she could then directly trade for tools and supplies, rather than exchanging the work for chickens which would then be traded for tools and supplies.

While on the one hand money simplified the trade process, on the other hand it altered the nature of human interdependence. As you traded with less people to obtain goods and services, you dealt with less people per transaction. However, as the amount of material possessions has grown, the number of transactions undertaken over time has increased. For each item or service that is obtained with money, we rely on less people to gain it; but as we simply cannot produce on our own or within our community everything we need for living, we still rely on the ability to trade, resulting in an increase in trade and in the amount of goods and services to be traded. This is why money has such great value – even though it has changed the nature of interactions in commerce, it still enables human interdependence as people continue to trade on a daily basis. In and of itself, though, what is it really worth?

Currency or money as a basic good or object has value only because of the way it is used. It is a symbol of value trusted enough to be a guarantee of material wealth and value in your possession, as seen above; or of value that you anticipate coming into your possession, as we shall see below.

Take the case of a loan. When you use money from a loan to trade, you are trading with value that is actually someone else’s which you anticipate will be yours at some point in the future. As a tool, money is ‘clever’ enough to grant what you would like now, even with a present inability to pay. Conversely, when money is handed to you, it may not be a true representation of that person’s actual ability to pay. They may be using money as a tool in the hope that a service of equal value will come into their possession in the future. In both cases, money creates a situation in which one may trade with what is not yet theirs. The worth of money is in the promise of its future worth.

Money acts as a representation of value. In and of themselves, coins and notes are simply the value of the metal or paper they are printed on; in countries such as Australia this value is almost insignificant. Furthermore, because they are merely a representation of value, money can be used to facilitate trade of goods and services even if you do not possess the equivalent value at that point in time. The value of money comes from its value in the convenience of the trade process, in acting as a guarantee. Like a hammer or spanner, drill or even laptop, money or currency is then simply a tool for the trade. It enables greater convenience and the simplification and better facilitation of the trade process, through the use of an often valueless item.

Understanding the basic origin, nature and value (or inherent lack of value) of what we call money should help us understand how we ought to treat it – as an object. It is no idol or thing to be worshipped because it has no inherent power. It is nothing noteworthy or magical to be worshipped due to any level of intrinsic strength or ability; and it is nothing to be loved: ‘the love[2] of money is the root of all kinds of evil’ (1 Tim 2:6). Even though people live for it, kill for it, get buried with it and fight for it, in and of itself money is weak and ineffective. Even if we use it as a motivation to get up each day, to extend life, to embellish or adorn, or as a reward, money itself is not life-giving or life-changing. It is what it represents in its value and enables as a tool that has such power and sway. Though at times people put it to harmful use, this is not the fault of money; the fault lies with the user. Money is simply an object, and a highly enabling one.

Understanding the origins and nature of money as a convenience to the means of exchange, and as having no value intrinsically in and of itself, rejects the notion of it having to be a touchy topic conversationally – it enables us to talk freely as we discuss what money is enabling in our own lives. Money is a tool to represent value to others in society, to trade with others in society and to live in society. As we come to realise that we cannot avoid, escape or get away with knowing nothing about this thing called money, we see it is nothing powerful or lovable in and of itself. Money is not something to fear, nor is it something to pursue at all costs. It is a reality to be lived as we seek to provide for our and others’ needs and wants, stay alive, and, more than that, live well. It is something that when used well does not leave us feeling used but free - free to love and serve other worthy pursuits.

Hannah Weickhardt is an inadvertent adherent to the discipline of Economics after being given a book as a home-schooled Year 9, which made very little sense at the time. In her determination to make sense of it, she took up the study of Economics, completing two university degrees, and has combined this with general reading and deeper reflections on life and how we live it.



[1] I am excluding money systems that exist in the form of gold, silver and other valuable materials and referring to modern money systems of paper and coins.

[2] This word has been deliberately italicised as this verse is often misquoted, excluding this necessary word 'love'.




Comments

Rolf Van Wollingen
July 25, 2018, 12:32PM
Clearly written and informative article, Hannah! Perhaps it is the wealth that money is supposed to represent which is the real culprit? We imagine that our bank balance represents our wealth; but it is a deceptive and uncertain basis for our security or hope.
Hannah Weickhardt
July 28, 2018, 4:11PM
Agreed, the appearances of wealth can be deceptive. A friend also pointed out when discussing this article how some people like having money just for the sake of it - they recognise it is simply an object and tool and enjoy amassing it nonetheless.
Ken Rolph
July 31, 2018, 9:12PM
This reminded me of an old radio series, Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe (who could slow time). She referred to money as paper which had been blessed by the Treasury Wizards.

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