In it for the money

Money. The economic crisis we’re in, prompted by the pandemic, makes it a particularly touchy thing to talk about right now. But truth be told, it’s always been difficult.

Even in the best of times, some pastors hesitate to bring budget issues or the matter of tithing before their congregations. They know from experience that some folks will roll their eyes in response, and complain, “Money, money, money. That’s all they care about is money.” Some will even leave, hoping to find a church where they won’t be bothered. (Presumably, that would be a church with an expense budget of, say, zero.)

There’s a reason that Jesus taught, famously, that “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt 6:24, NKJV).  “Mammon” is from the Aramaic for “wealth” or even “property”; thus contemporary translations render the word as “money” (NIV) or “wealth” (CEB, NRSV).

Jesus was not blathering in the abstract about being too materialistic. Picture him in the Jerusalem temple, angrily overturning the tables of the money changers, accusing them of making his Father’s house into a “den of robbers” (Matt 21:13, NRSV).

What was the problem? After all, given the rules for offering sacrifice, the money changers were performing a necessary service (think of the currency exchange window at international airports). Ditto for those selling doves. Penitents relied on the fact that they could buy what they needed when they arrived at the temple, and not have to bring an animal — or even the correct currency! — with them.

But Jesus objected to turning a holy place of worship into a place of business. Moreover, those doing business in the temple courts weren’t there out of charity. They were there to make a profit, even from the poor. To Jesus, this was cause for righteous indignation; to everyone else, it was just business as usual. Turn a nice profit from people’s need to come in repentance before their God? Hey, it is what it is.

This is not, of course, the only place in the Bible where we’ll see money and religion get cozy. The same issue cropped up at the end of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus.

And this time, there was a riot.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the city of Ephesus was both the administrative seat and the crown jewel of the province of Asia. It boasted the temple of Artemis, heralded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Massive and imposing, adorned with the work of master sculptors, the temple was quite the sight to see. (Imagine a six-story building with an additional pitched roof and a footprint nearly twice the area of a football field, and you’ve got the size of it.)

Paul had been ministering in Ephesus for close to three years. Through him and his associates, the gospel had penetrated the entire region, and it was time to move on. He made plans to visit Macedonia and Achaia again, possibly to receive donations from the churches there, before heading to Jerusalem with the money collected, which was designated to help the poor.  From there he planned to go to Rome, then on to Spain, a new frontier for his missionary work (Acts 19:21-22; Rom 15:23-26).

But he couldn’t leave, apparently, without one more major crisis — a crisis which, in Luke’s mind, demonstrated the continued sovereignty of God.

An Ephesian silversmith named Demetrius made a good living selling miniatures of the temple of Artemis. These were not souvenirs for tourists. The worship of Artemis had become a mashup of ancient and local traditions, and people came to the temple from far and wide to petition the goddess, offering the little silver shrines they had purchased from Demetrius and his fellow artisans.

We should remember that folks like Demetrius were not of the upper crust of Ephesian society. They were working stiffs who depended on the system of temple worship to eke out a living. Anything that interfered with that was a genuine threat to their way of life.

Unfortunately, Paul and the gospel he preached were just such an irritant.

Thus, Demetrius gathered the silversmiths and other artisans together to complain about Paul: 

Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her. (Acts 19:25-27, NRSV)

Here, of course, there is nothing about Jesus or the grace of God. Demetrius focused on only one part of Paul’s message, taken out of context — the part that made him nervous. He and his colleagues could not afford the loss of social status or income that the gospel threatened. The language at the end of Demetrius’ speech has a faint ring of piety to it, but it’s clear that his concern was more about money than religion.

This was not a cool-headed strategic planning meeting. Luke doesn’t say it directly, but it seems that Demetrius’ intent from the beginning was to stir up a mob against Paul.

And as we’ll see, he succeeded.