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On Wealth

Sermon passage: (Ecclesiastes 5:8-20) Spoken on: July 31, 2016
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ecclesiastes

Tags: Ecclesiastes, 传道书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Title: On Wealth
Date: 31 July 2016 & 07 Aug 2016
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Last year, Mr Philip Ng, CEO of Far East Organisation, wrote a testimony on his Christian faith. As he reflected on Matthew 6:20–24: “You cannot serve both God and Money”, he said, “These are stirring words. I am in business and business is about money. But money and possessions can possess us. How then do I serve God as a business person? The way to do this is to realise that I am a steward; money has been entrusted by the Lord to me to be managed responsibly.” [1]

In his long reflection on money and wealth, Mr Philip Ng echoed many conclusions that can be found in our passage today. We think that since we earn our own money, and we spend them on our own possessions, naturally we think we possess our money and possessions. But Philip confessed that it could easily be the other way round: “But money and possessions can possess us.” How does this happen? The Preacher gave many examples. One, they can control our desires. 10 Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. When you are poor, you think that “if only I have so much, that will be enough.” But trust me, when that day comes, you will set another bigger target. Human nature is such that there will never be enough.
There was this scene in the final season of Breaking Bad, where someone was offering 15 million to the main characters Jesse and Walt, to buy out the entire business. There were 3 partners, so they could each get 5 million. And Jesse was persuading Walt to accept the buyout:
“Look, when you, uh, when you started this thing, did you ever dream of having $5 million? I know for a fact that you didn't. I know for a fact all you needed was 737 000, 'cause you worked it all out, like, mathematically.” [2]
Then I remembered that at the start of season 2, Walt did calculate all the money he needed for his family, college fees and living expenses, while accounting for inflation. Walter White was intelligent and analytical, and finally he arrived at the figure 737 thousand dollars. [3] 5 million was far beyond what he ever needed when he started the business. But in the end, Walt couldn’t step away; because he knew that by staying in the business, he could earn millions more. You will always want more.

There’s an easy way to satisfaction and contentment. You focus on what you have, not what you want. It’s that simple. You might think that if you have more, then it’s easier to focus on what you have, instead of what you want. You think that if you have less, you would want more. But ironically, it is often the other way round. For most people, the more you have, the more you want.

Money and possessions can possess us. One, they can control our desires. Two, they can control our consumption. The Preacher says, 11 As goods increase, so do those who consume them. This describes another reality, whereby the more you have, you also need to spend more. I intentionally used the word “need”, because keeping up with the Joneses is often a necessity. Once I drove to an expensive place for a birthday dinner. My little Nissan stood out amongst all the luxury cars. It was like the one wearing shorts at a black-tie event. By the way, I love my little Nissan, so please don’t think of this as a complaint. But I’m just saying this to say that I can sympathize with the peer pressure as one moves to a better neighbourhood when you upgrade your residence. “Keeping up with the Joneses”, that’s a phrase coined for those living in the suburbs during the rapid economic expansion in America in the last century. The more you have, the more you spend; but the more you spend, the more you then need to spend.

Money and possessions can possess us. One, they can control our desires. Two, they can control our consumption. Three, they can even control our sanity. The Preacher continued, 12 The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. The Preacher did not explain the reasons for sleeplessness, but I can come up with a few guesses. More money often means more responsibilities. You have to spend more time to work, just to keep your income secure. More money also means more worries. Even Philip Ng who is a multi-billionaire admitted: “I do worry. The last time I looked, I think my business is quite secure. But who can tell? And all businesses have debt. I do not have personal debt, but I have corporate debts. While I think our companies are safe, I have my share of worries.” So do you really own your possessions, or do your possessions actually own you, keeping you awake to service your loans?

All these I’ve described are merely the personal costs of more wealth and possessions, they leave you still unsatisfied, they need you spend more, and they make you lose sleep. But let me be clear: I am not being negative or judgemental about this. This is just stating the facts. There is a Chinese saying: 君子爱财,取之有道。As long as you know the cost, and you do it ethically, it’s a personal choice how wealthy you want to be. Everybody has their own benchmark, and I’m not really inclined to judge. If you feel the cost of wealth is too high, and it is affecting you and your family, you can take it down a notch. If you feel you can suffer more for a higher standard of living, that’s up to you too. I’m not the type of pastor who is bothered about the worldly possessions of others. My job is to tell it like it is, so that you go in with your eyes open.

But it is a totally different ball game when evil is involved. Here, I have a prophetic calling to judge. Now, we know that money and possessions can possess us. But when evil is involved, it can even possess the entire society. Paul warned in 1 Timothy 6: 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

What happens when greed leads to evil, and it grips society as a whole? Ecclesiastes 5: 8 If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. 9 The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields. What the Preacher was describing were corrupted officials in cahoots with one another: 官官相护. You would expect that in a proper system, those who are higher up would clamp down on those below. But the Preacher said “do not be surprised”; the profit from the corruption may go all the way to the top.

Today, we may not have kings, but we have official 1. You may have heard of the drama unfolding across the causeway: The US Department of Justice said it would seize more than $1bn (£761m) in assets allegedly bought with funds diverted from the state fund and alleged that "Malaysian official 1" received hundreds of millions of dollars from 1MDB. The individual, who was not named but was referenced 32 times, was described as a "high-ranking official in the Malaysian government". [4]
美国司法部提出民事诉讼,指控有马来西亚官员及基金高管利用1MDB进行贪污洗钱,并提出要没收不当挪用款中超过10亿美元的资金。美国司法部长达136页的法庭文件称,1MDB被人侵吞巨额资金,在2009年至2015年期间挪用的资金规模高达35亿美元,并通过美国、新加坡、瑞士、卢森堡等多地银行账户非法转移,然后流入马来西亚某些个人的腰包。尽管文件并没有点名道姓,但美国司法部出具的法庭文件中,32次提到“马来西亚一号高官”。 [5]

Like I said earlier, I am not judgmental about personal wealth since it is a personal choice. But if this wealth is from corruption and oppression, then I have only deep disgust for these people. This is not for moral reasons alone, but also out of a religious conviction. Today, we think that democracy would solve everything. Only those with merit would be elected. But when evil sets in, everything changes. Today, money can play a big part in elections. That happens in neighboring countries, even in America itself. What can we do in a place like Singapore? Unfortunately, money laundering has gone global, and Singapore as a regional financial center is especially vulnerable. I see the good work that MAS had done in dealing with the 1MDB incident, to punish those who are money laundering through Singapore. This good work must be supported and continued.

Besides corruption, another way in which evil can grip a society is to equate possessions with identity. There is a predominant belief that: You are what you own. And when you lose everything, you think that you are nothing. In a meritocratic society like Singapore, a side effect is that your worth as a person is tied to your material worth. The Preacher observed this: 13 I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners, 14 or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when they have children there is nothing left for them to inherit. To me, we must deny the materialism of a society. Our value as a person lies in God.

I observed this personally. There was a man who in his younger days was quite rich, he even owned a few properties. But due to his greed, he lost everything. This isn’t the sad part. The sad part is when he lost his possessions, he lost his self-worth. He kept thinking people looked down on him. He belittled himself. He measured his relationship with everyone around him based on how he was treated. And that even included his relationship with God. I tried everything. I was nice to him. I counselled him with the bible and prayers. Once, out of frustration, I even scolded him, hoping to wake him out of his self-pity. But for the longest time, he failed to see his self-worth in God. Only on his deathbed, through the love of everybody who visited, did he realise that he meant so much to everyone. I’m thankful that he repented in the end. But, I felt sad and angry that it came so late, because so much of his life was wasted due to his wrong worldview. Our gospel must fight and win against the materialism of this world. This materialism is the evil I’m talking about. If not, our gospel will mean nothing. Till the very end, this is what I observed in this man, though I did not say it to his face: 16 This too is a grievous evil: As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind? 17 All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger. Brothers and sisters, don’t let this happen to you.

In Philip Ng’s reflection, he said, “At the end of the day, we take nothing with us. I saw this when my father passed away. He had built up the family business, literally with his bare hands. When it came to the end of his life, he left everything behind. As the Chinese saying goes: “You cannot take it with you, your coffin will be empty.”” The Preacher says the same, 15 Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.

Brothers and sisters, what then is the gospel? The purpose of this sermon is a wake-up call. But it is not a wake-up to the reality of life, and then make you feel depressed at its vanity. The Preacher wakes us up so that we learn to fear God. By that, I mean that we learn to live our lives and to perceive all our wealth and possessions with God in mind. And so he concluded: 19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. 20 They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

I want to end with my personal insight on this ability to enjoy wealth and possessions. You might think that everybody knows how to enjoy. But that’s not totally true. In Chinese, we have a word for pleasure享乐 and a word for joy 喜乐. We may all have the ability to enjoy pleasures, but here it says that joy comes from God. There is nothing wrong with wealth and possessions if they are obtained ethically. You can even enjoy them for pleasure. But pleasures are very transient in nature. In the midst of pleasures, some keep yearning for more. Some fear its disappearance so much so that they cannot even enjoy the moment itself, like the last day of an overseas vacation. Some don’t even enjoy their wealth, they just want them in the form of money; they just like more and more money. The Preacher asked: 11 And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them? Pleasure and joy are different.

So I pray that you can find true joy in your wealth and possessions. Many Christians derive their joy by seeing themselves not as an owner, but rather a steward of these possessions. They find meaning in their toil, by making use of these God-given resources for the blessing of others. I think that is a worthy calling. You can also discover your own joy that comes from God. Your joy can come from sharing your wealth with the needy. Your joy can come from feeding your family. But remember, it is not possessions that they need, though that is important. The best inheritance you can give them is your life and your faith. Trust me on this one, because I’ve done a LOT of wakes and funerals. I’ve never heard eulogies where a family member says, “My father is so good, because he left so much wealth and possessions for me”. It is always about the life and faith he or she left behind. Think about the next generation, and ask, “What legacy do you want to leave behind?” You should give yourselves, far more than wealth and possessions. With that, you will find true joy in your life.

[3]In Season 2, episode 1, Walt calculated: Adjusting for inflation – good state college – adjusting for inflation, say $45,000 a year, two kids, four years of college...$360,000. Remaining mortgage on the home, $107,000. Home equity line, $30,000, that's $137,000. Cost of living, food, clothing, utilities, say two grand a month? I mean, that should put a dent in it, anyway. 24K a year provides for, say, ten years. That's $240,000, plus 360 plus 137...737. $737,000, that's what I need. That is what I need. You and I both clear about 70 grand a week. That's only ten and a half more weeks. Call it eleven. Eleven more drug deals and always in a public place from now on. It's doable. Definitely doable.