Money and the Way of Wisdom by Timothy Sandoval

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Money and the Way of Wisdom

The recession has us all on edge about our financial future. Where to turn for advice? Try the Bible.

Jon M. Sweeney talks with Professor Timothy Sandoval

Timothy Sandoval, Ph.D.Timothy Sandoval is the ideal person to write a book about money. As Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Chicago Theological Seminary, Professor Sandoval teaches on the Bible as well as on the Bible and Economic Ethics. He can tell us a lot about the Bible's insights on making money, using money wisely, and what is more important than money.

His book is called Money and the Way of Wisdom: Insights from the Book of Proverbs, published by SkyLight Paths Publishing.

explorefaith:  Dr. Sandoval, I’m guessing that you didn’t have any idea just how timely your book was going to become, when you wrote it. It just published in December 2008. Now that we’re in the midst of a historic economic crisis, you must find that people are more drawn to what you have to say?

Professor Sandoval:  I didn’t have any idea that the crisis would coincide with the publication, but I had been convinced by critics of our economic system that it is vulnerable and that some sort of downturn was inevitable. And I was convinced that for many of us today the pursuit of wealth is a major preoccupation, but one which may not serve our souls well.

explorefaith:  Your book deals with the biblical book of Proverbs, applied to today’s situation. Why would an ancient Hebrew scripture have much relevance for our lives—dealing with things like promotions and layoffs, investments and shrinking 401Ks?

Sandoval:  That’s perhaps the most important question. For some people, the Bible is the Word of God, while for others, it’s simply a classic piece of literature. My experience in teaching has convinced me that anyone who comes to ancient scripture with a serious and open mind always leaves with more insight and much to reflect on for their own lives.
But more to the present moment: In one sense Proverbs has almost nothing to say specifically about layoffs and shrinking portfolios. It was written in a very different time and place and in light of an economic system different from our own. Yet, the current situation can cause us to reflect on how we understand our relationship to material things, and on how we are most likely to find true happiness. If our current situation leads us to take up those questions, Proverbs can prove a valuable resource.

explorefaith:  Proverbs in fact tells us how to become wealthy, doesn’t it? That’s what many of the preachers on television seem to say. 

Sandoval:  I actually don’t think Proverbs tells us how to become wealthy and in my book I argue against this view, which as you say is widespread among certain segments of contemporary religion. Rather, the book uses images of riches and poverty to ascribe worth to two different “ways” of life—the way of wisdom and righteousness and the way of folly and wickedness. The way of wisdom is valuable like material wealth—something we all know the practical worth of. When we adopt the virtues of wisdom’s way (like social justice) wisdom produces something of great value; it  leads to well being. But this well-being is not merely the possession of material riches—though of course any sort of well-being must include a certain level of material wellness.

explorefaith:  Doesn’t Proverbs in fact say that God rewards the righteous—here and now—and that God punishes the wicked? Does that mean that if I’m doing poorly, I must be living a wicked life in some way?

Sandoval:  It’s true: Proverbs speaks about how God rewards the righteous and thwarts the wicked. But I don’t think it follows from this that one can simply read the moral status of a person off the economic status of a person—so that, as you say, “If I am poor I must be wicked.” This is because for the sages who wrote Proverbs these kinds of claims were not intended to be empirically verifiable. You couldn’t know it just by observing someone. Rather, they were more like statements of faith that also could motivate their audience to choose to pursue a virtuous life of wisdom over a morally inferior way.

In the book I liken this claim to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous assertion that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. By looking at the history of racism, genocide, war, oppression of the poor, et cetera, we might be inclined to think that the arc of the moral universe bends toward injustice. I think Dr. King’s claim and the claims of the sages are meant to assert something, in faith, about the genuine moral structure of the cosmos. Creation favors justice, a life of virtue or wisdom, despite appearances to the contrary. These claims actually invite us to get on the right side of the moral cosmos.

explorefaith:  Let’s look at two short passages. Can you tell us how we should interpret these?

I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries.(8:20-1)

Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous. (13:21)

Sandoval:  In the first passage (8:20-21), Woman Wisdom—a personification of the moral way of wisdom—is speaking. As I explain in Money and the Way of Wisdom, these lines appear at the end of a series of verses which, rather than asserting that wisdom produces wealth, claim more and more forcefully that wisdom, and wisdom’s virtues like justice and righteousness, are incomparably more valuable than any wealth.

But here the lines do seem to say that wisdom will provide wealth. What’s happening? Is this a contradiction, an ambiguity in the sages’ teaching? It’s important to remember that many verses in Proverbs use figurative language to make their points. That is, we can’t read them simply literally. This is obviously the case here since Wisdom is personified as a person. Since Wisdom isn’t literally a woman, we ought to conclude that she doesn’t literally fill people’s treasuries or storehouses. Rather she offers them something of great worth, something valuable like full treasuries.

The same would be true of the “wealth” that gets spoken of here too. Wisdom doesn’t offer literal wealth but something that is valuable like material riches are valuable. In fact, the Hebrew term lying behind the translation of “wealth” is not one of the usual Hebrew terms for wealth, but rather is a word that regularly refers to “existence.” In other words, what wisdom offers is not valuable material riches, but a genuine and full way of being.

The second passage that you quoted, Proverbs 13:21, is a good example of the kind of statement of faith that I already spoke about. Probably any of us, if we were to reflect for a moment or two, could think of examples from our lives that would contradict the claim of this verse. Many of us probably know very good people—religious, spiritual people—righteous people—who do not enjoy the level of material blessing an initial reading of this might suggest they should be enjoying. Instead, they struggle to make ends meet. Likewise, we hear of unscrupulous Wall Street manipulators who prosper.

This verse is sketching the way the world ought to be, and the way it is in its true structure. The verse motivates those who hear and understand it to pursue ardently the virtues of wisdom’s way, not material riches. It encourages them to be just and righteous. One further point about 13:21 that underscores this, is that the term translated “prosperity” is simply the Hebrew word meaning “good.” When we understand this we can see that the verse actually says nothing explicit about wealth. The claim is simply that “good” comes to the righteous. And Proverbs’ conception of a good life includes much more than material goods and emphasizes the well-being that comes from adopting the virtues of wisdom’s way.

explorefaith:  Isn’t it kind of cold comfort to say to the virtuous poor, “You should actually be happy, because you may not have wealth … but you have wisdom and truth”?

Sandoval:  In my view, it’s not simply cold comfort, but it’s immoral. And it wouldn’t be something that belongs to the way of wisdom, according to Proverbs. In Proverbs, images of wealth demonstrate the worth of wisdom and images of poverty underscore the way of folly.

But when I discussed Proverbs 13:7 (which indicates that a poor person can be rich in virtue and a rich person without wisdom possess nothing of genuine worth, despite his wealth) in my book, I struggled with my words for just this reason. I didn’t want to imply that the sages were saying what your question implies. The virtuous poor shouldn’t simply be pleased because they have virtue. The sages didn’t believe that.

In fact, although Proverbs uses wealth and poverty language figuratively to value virtue and vice, as I say, they also speak clearly and repeatedly of the obligation to care for the poor without blaming them for their poverty. On occasion, they even indicate that poverty is not the result of the poor’s moral failing, but the moral failing of others.

explorefaith:  In Money and the Way of Wisdom, you quote sages of various religious traditions who have taught that it’s nearly impossible for wealthy people to avoid sin. Do you think that that’s true?

Sandoval:  In ancient Israel’s wisdom tradition there is a clear suggestion that material wealth and its pursuit is not in and of itself a bad thing. It does however put one in a sort of moral danger. Its value is so great, and what it offers is so appealing, that it can become the primary or exclusive object of our desire—something which the tradition says belongs only to God. It also can lead one to ignore or trample on the demands of justice.

In the Christian scriptures, First Timothy 6:10 captures this subtly when it says, not that money is wicked, but that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil. I don’t think it would be difficult to find modern examples of how a misplaced quest for profit has led to disastrous ends, to evil. The Enron accounting scandal leaps to mind, but probably all of us could think of other examples.

explorefaith:  Who is worse: the wealthy person who gives modestly to others, or, the poor person who gives to no one?

Sandoval:  I don’t know. It’s one of those questions the value of which is not to find a definitive answer but to explore the implications of any answer, especially since both the rich and poor person in the question seem to be “types” of persons. It may be that both are equally guilty since the issue has to do with one’s relationship to one’s possessions and to others. The rich person who only “gives modestly” may actually give quite a bit in comparison to one who is of lesser means. Yet her moderation in giving might suggest she is one who is overly attached to her possessions and not sufficiently attached to others. The poor person who gives to no one may be in a similar situation.

But imagining what the obligation of the poor person might be, is a bit more complex. Proverbs stresses the obligation of those with means to care for the poor, although the commitment to community that Proverbs highlights is a virtue valid for all. The poor person might also be the victim of injustice, or may be one whose community has failed her. Proverbs after all is quite realistic and knows that sometimes even the friends and family of a poor person will abandon him because of his needy state (see 14:20; 19:4,7).

explorefaith:  When it’s all said and done, Proverbs seems to be about the “good life.” What would you say the “good life” is, according to Proverbs?

Sandoval: Yes, I think you’re right. Proverbs is about the good life, what it is and the way to reach it. What the good life isn’t for Proverbs is the constant pursuit and accumulation of wealth. Instead, the good life has to do with adopting certain virtues and values that belong to the way of wisdom. For Proverbs, the preeminent value is justice and righteousness. This has primarily to do with caring for and protecting the poor and vulnerable in society. But the premium that Proverbs places on other social virtues is also clear, for example attending to the needs of family and community. It is these virtues that lead to genuine security, genuine “wealth.”


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