Walter Brueggemann on Money and Possessions

Walter Brueggemann is one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. I had the privilege of meeting him personally when I interviewed him in preparation to write a short biography of his life and work [1].

What makes Brueggemann’s writing so compelling is the wide scope of his scholarship. In every book Brueggemann writes he brings his vast reading to support his presentation. Readers are challenged to look at the text from different perspectives because his reading of the text provides new insights and applications to the life and work of the church in the world.

money-and-possessions

Walter Brueggemann’s most recent book is Money and Possessions, published in November 2016 by Westminster John Knox Press as a supplement to Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Interpretation is an outstanding series of commentaries to which Brueggemann has contributed the volumes on Genesis and 1 and 2 Samuel.

In Money and Possessions Brueggemann looks at money matters in both the Old and New Testaments. In his treatment of economic matters in the Bible, Brueggemann begins with the Ten Commandments. The divine injunction that prohibits coveting a neighbor’s possession (Exodus 20:17) is seen by Brueggemann as the basic guideline that should instruct members of the covenant community in dealing with one another.

In the introduction to his presentation, Brueggemann develops six theses that provide the framework for his discussion of money and possessions in the Bible. Below are the six theses that form the basis of Brueggemann’s argument:

As a way to begin this particular selective discussion, I propose six theses concerning money and possessions in the Bible that will provide a general frame of reference for the textual particularity that follows. In light of these theses I will survey, in canonical sequence, a variety of texts that variously witness to the truth of these theses.

1. Money and possessions are gifts from God. “All good gifts are sent from heaven above.” For that reason a proper response to such gifts is gratitude: “Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love.” This affirmation is grounded in the doxological confession that God is the creator of the world and all that is in it.

2. Money and possessions are received as reward for obedience. This claim that runs throughout the Bible voices a robust quid pro quo connection between obedience and prosperity. That connection is clearly voiced in Psalm 1, which functions as an introduction to the book of Psalms.

3. Money and possessions belong to God and are held in trust by human persons in community. In church practice, it is this claim that stands behind all thinking about stewardship. As is evident in the odd narrative of Isaiah 22, a steward is the “master of the household” who is responsible for its proper management, a role assigned to the human couple in the genesis creation narrative concerning having “dominion” (Gen. 1:28).

4. Money and possessions are sources of social injustice. When possessions are held in trust, they may be well managed according to the will of “the owner,” that is, for the sake of the neighborhood. But when possessions or money are viewed as “mine” without accountability, then they may be deployed in destructive ways at the expense of the common good.

The tradition of Deuteronomy is insistent that money and possessions must be managed in the practice of justice, that is, for the good of the entire community. That tradition further insists that Israel, in covenant with God and compelled by Torah, is to handle possessions and money differently from all others, so that economic resources are subordinated to the common good, that is, for the well-being of the neighbor, most particularly the neighbor without resources. Deuteronomy is clear that this is the mandate of the Creator-owner of worldly goods.

5. Money and possessions are to be shared in a neighborly way. A core theme of biblical faith is that economic practice and policy must be ordered to serve the common good. The term “neighbor” means other members, that is, all members of the community. All members of the community are entitled to the wherewithal for a viable life of security, dignity, and flourishing. This core mandate amounts to a rejection of any notion that the economy is autonomous and without reference to society. Thus the religious discipline that is required is nothing less than neighborly economics.

6. Money and possessions are seductions that lead to idolatry. The Bible attests that money and possessions are not inanimate objects. They are rather forces of desire that evoke lust and “love” in a way that compels devotion and eventually servitude. The Bible asserts that such commodities, notably silver and gold, are not innocent but are in fact addictive and compel loyalty that rivals loyalty to God. Thus Moses can warn Israel that the worship of such possessions can talk Israel out of covenantal faith.

After introducing his six theses, Brueggemann writes:

I observe further that each of these theses in fact voices a clear contradiction to the conventional wisdom of the ancient world and that in our own time each of them contradicts the uncriticized wisdom of market ideology. I am aware as I write that I do so in the midst of a market ideology (in which I am implicated) that occupies almost all of our imagination, and that readers will be situated in a similar way. It is this force of contradiction at the heart of the Bible that makes our study so demanding and difficult and which for the same reasons makes it urgently important.

Brueggemann then goes on to explain how his six theses contradict “the uncriticized wisdom of market ideology.”

Brueggemann has written an engaging book. I have not read the book yet, but what I have read so far tells me that this is a book that many people should read.

I hope to be able to review the book in my blog in the near future. Westminster John Knox Press has made the Forward and Chapter 1 of the book available for preview. I encourage you to visit Westminster John Knox Press and read the Foreword by Richard Horsley and Brueggemann’s first chapter. This is a book that probably should be added to your library.

Here is the link to the Preview: Money and Possessions

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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[1] Claude Mariottini, “Walter Brueggemann,” In The Encyclopedia of Christian Literature. 2 Vols. Edited by George T. Kurian, et al. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2010. 1:225-226.

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