What does money have to do with salvation?
Isn't the whole-burnt offering an archaic, wasteful practice?
Can tithing be understood as a Church tax?
Isn't almsgiving simply giving a few spare coins to one in need?
Shouldn't parish fundraising use a ministry-centric approach?
An interview with Dr. Andrew Geleris, author of the forthcoming book Money and Salvation: An Invitation to the Good Way, challenges many of these notions after his study of Scripture challenged him.
After listening to the podcast, consider these questions:
Continue the conversation by joining the Summer Stewardship Series, August 2021.
Read the full episode transcript here
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos a podcast or the Ephesus School Network. Doulos explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director of the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. I'm thrilled to welcome my guest today, Dr. Andy Geleris, who serves on the board of directors for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative and for FOCUS North America. Some of our listeners might be familiar with his recent articles and presentations on the topic of generosity, money and almsgiving, which he has consolidated into a manuscript which St. Vladimir's Press is preparing for publication before the end of the year in 2021. Welcome, Andy, I'm so excited to discuss your new book!
Dr. Andy Geleris 0:45
Thank you, Hollie, it's an honor for me to be on your wonderful Doulos podcast.
Hollie Benton 0:49
Glory to God. Tell us a little bit about the title of your book, Money and Salvation: An Invitation to the Good Way. So what does money have to do with salvation? And how is this the good way?
Dr. Andy Geleris 1:02
Well, Money and Salvation was a title recommended by Metropolitan Joseph with whom I've discussed these issues many times. I think money is one of the most urgent topics that we need to talk about in the Orthodox Church these days. Among other things, an amazing utterly breathtaking divergence has developed in the Orthodox Church, between how often Jesus talks about money in the Gospels, and how often the whole scriptural corpus talks about money, and how rarely we Christians talk about money. Often, I've discussed this with bishops and priests and other ministry leaders, who often dread talking about finances, because they have a deep concern about the faithful and how they'll hear their words. They don't want to burden poor people, but they don't want wealthy people to think they're just doing fundraising. So they stay away from the topic. So the goal of my book, is to dissolve any such feelings of concern in the biblical and patristic teaching, in order to get to a biblical understanding of money. One of the things that I think is very important for us to know is that God longs for our salvation, far more than we do. Often, we, Orthodox Christians become so consumed, pay so much attention to the effort required in our individual ascetic pursuits, that we forget that it's God's initiative, even to bring us to salvation. He wants us to get saved even more than we want to get saved. And it turns out that money is one of the most important things we can do to find salvation. So no wonder God talks about money, so much more than we do, because he is passionate about helping us find salvation. And so we're reluctant to talk about money. And I think part of the reason is because we operate when we talk about money out of a different financial paradigm than God does. When we talk about money. It's typically because we need to raise money for the parish budget. We need a leaky roof to get fixed. We have a need for somebody in the church who is poor to have funding. We need a scholarship. You know, if we're a charitable organization, we need to raise money for ministry, Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative does phenomenal work. And we need money to do that. So when we talk to people about money, we're trying to raise money for good things. And these are worthy causes. These are spiritually very important ministries that are being done. But our conversations are focused on raising money. And I call that ministry-centric discussions about money. What's interesting, if you look at the Gospels, Jesus never did anything like that. He never did ministry-centric fundraising. He only talked about money in the context of how it would help people find salvation. So for example, when he talked to the rich young ruler, the rich young ruler came to him and said, How do I inherit eternal life? What do I have to do? Jesus asked him to obey the commandments and he listed all the commandments he obeyed. And then Jesus said one thing you lack, give away all your money to the poor, and come follow me. Now, why did Jesus ask him to give away the money to the poor? It wasn't to help the poor. It was to remove an obstacle in his own life that was a barrier to him finding salvation and eternal life. In the same way, in the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Jesus tells us to help the poor, the prisoners, the thirsty, the naked. But the reason is not because they need our help. He says because that is how we will love him. And that's how we donors will find salvation. In every parable and every discussion that Jesus has throughout the Gospels, his focus is always on how handling our money is important for our salvation. And I'll throw out a challenge to anybody: the first person who can find something where Jesus talked about something using a ministry-centric rather than a soul-centric approach to finances, I'll pay him $100. That's just for the first one, but I'm confident that I'll be okay on that. And by the way, when Paul did his fundraising for the poor in Jerusalem, you'll notice he did it in several of his letters he mentions that, but he never says how much the poor need the money. He says, you know, this is really important for you to give. This is valuable for you. God will bless you for your giving. I desperately wish that some of our development officers would tell people, you know, this will be helpful for your salvation, to give to the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative, to FOCUS, to St. Vladimir's Seminary. Because these needs are not random needs. God brings these needs across our paths for the sake of our salvation. If I meet somebody who's poor, and they come across my daily life, if I see somebody at the store, and I see them in front of me at the checkout line, and I see they're a little bit short in paying for the groceries, that's God's blessing on me for my salvation. And so those are the purpose of the needs that God gives us.
Hollie Benton 6:18
Why is it, do you think, that we Orthodox Christians tend to focus on prayer and fasting and avoid discussions and practices of almsgiving?
Dr. Andy Geleris 6:28
Well, I think that, you know, as you are alluding to, you know, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three most important spiritual pillars of the Orthodox faith. And the problem is that almsgiving in English is a very old word, whose meaning we really don't understand. We typically think of alms as giving a few dollars to a homeless guy by the side of the road, or parish collection for Lent, for Food for Hungry People, or some special collection like that. But notice how we think about prayer in the church. Prayer isn't just, I go into my room and pray, we think of prayer as an expansive definition. We think of prayer as including morning and evening prayers, going to the liturgy. We talk about prayer as the Jesus prayer. We think about prayer as Bible study, as scriptural reading. We consider that all under the rubric of prayer. And when it comes to fasting, it's not just dietary restriction. Fasting includes avoiding gossip, lifestyle restrictions, and avoids spending less money. And in the same way, almsgiving really should be considered not just giving a few dollars to homeless people. Almsgiving has to do with all of our financial decisions. It has to do with whether we go into debt to buy something. It has to do with whether our parish should build a new temple, or do something else with the money. It has to do with our choices about lifestyles. What's interesting about almsgiving, if you really trace the derivation of the word alms, it's really derived from the Greek word eleos, which means mercy. So almsgiving is really mercy-giving. And as soon as you make that connection between alms and mercy, you realize that alms is not just a peripheral part of the Orthodox life. It's really central to everything that takes place in the Orthodox worship when we're in our liturgical services. By far the most common prayer of the people of God is, Lord have mercy. Well, mercy and alms are the same word by derivation. We could just as easily say, Lord, give alms. When we do the Jesus prayer, we could say, Lord, give alms. When we pray, Psalm 50, you know, we can just as easily say, have mercy on me, O Lord, say, Lord, give alms to me. Really, this idea of alms is something that I call it "hidden in plain sight." In the Orthodox Church, it's all over the place. And that's what one would expect, you know, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the pillars of the Orthodox faith. It should not surprise us that the idea of alms and mercy comes up everywhere. And why is it important? Well, you know, on the second Sunday, before Great Lent every year is the Sunday of the Final Judgment. And what's the Gospel reading on the Sunday of the Final Judgment? None of us really know, now, whether we're saved or not. You know, in some Christian backgrounds, they talk about assurance of salvation. You say the sinner's prayer, and you know, you're safe. That's not Orthodox. We Orthodox people constantly ask for God's mercy. The final judgment is the time we find out how is God going to answer that prayer? And we're told in the Sunday of the Final Judgment, an amazing revelation. The revelation, I don't think this is something that we could figure out on our own if God hadn't told us, is that the way God answers our frequent prayers, our hundreds, our thousands, our millions of prayers through our lifetimes, "Lord, have mercy" depends on how merciful we are to other people. Isn't that what the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is about? He says, as you show mercy to these people, you'll be saved. So if we're merciful to other people, God will show mercy to us. That's just an example of how central that our alms or mercy is in our church.
Hollie Benton 10:09
And the Lord has provided all mercy. He provides the mercy by which we can extend to others. I love this picture that you're drawing. I'm also so grateful for this distinction between ministry-centric approach, which sounds good! But differentiated with that is soul-centric and having a salvific purpose to almsgiving. That's remarkable. It seems like with the ministry-centric approach the temptation is to see money as my money. And I get to determine what causes are worthy of my financial gift. But on the other side, with a soul-centric approach, I see money not as my own, but as God's as the provider of all. And furthermore, I'm not in the seat of judgment to determine which causes are worthy or not. It's just so simple. Just like Jesus teaches through the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, "Give to him who asks you and don't turn away from one who would borrow from you." So just as God has given generously to me and has shown me great mercy, I'm discovering that when I practice mercy, almsgiving and generosity, not only might someone else benefit, but I benefit. For the sake of my own salvation, I am instructed to give and to extend mercy, as my Father has provided for me and shown me great mercy. Am I getting this right? What do you think?
Dr. Andy Geleris 11:29
I think that's an amazing insight, Hollie, and one of the paradoxes is, is that the Orthodox Church, in my experience is chronically underfunded. Our ministries are constantly needing to raise more money, many of our parishes need to raise more money. I think this is God speaking to us and calling out to us and saying, you know, you're doing it wrong. The essence of the Orthodox message is, the first thing we need to change in our lives, is our hearts. And once our hearts change, then we follow God. And the same is true of our money. What we need to do with our money is to stop the fundraising. All the fundraising techniques we use, the capital campaigns, the banquets we do with Orthodox celebrities and bishops, the red ribbons we hang around people's necks, the plaques we put on the wall, these are all imported from the world. And sometimes they raise a lot of money, but they damage our people, I would contend. These are appeals to pride and to proximity to power. On the other hand, if we concentrate our efforts on changing the hearts of people, and as you were saying very eloquently, about getting people to recognize that the issue of giving is between me and God, I have a hunch we'll raise far more money, because we'll be doing it God's way, instead of the world's way and God's way is always better than the world's way.
Hollie Benton 12:46
That's right. That's right, I have to say you have an entire chapter dedicated to whole burnt offerings. On the one hand to contemporary ears, the practice might seem archaic, perhaps even wasteful. Although I wonder if as wasteful as the fossil fuels we burn without any spiritual mindfulness or intention. And on the other hand, whole burnt offerings is really powerful imagery. So paint a picture for us. What comes from scripture about whole burnt offerings?
Dr. Andy Geleris 13:16
Well, I was really surprised when I started reading about and thinking about the whole notion of whole burnt offerings. What's interesting is that whole burnt offerings is a phrase that occurs in the Old Testament, it's like 350 times, and the word tithe, there's only 50 times. So whole burnt offering is referred to much more often. If you think about people who gave whole burnt offerings in the Old Testament, you know, it was Noah, it was Abraham, it was Job. And these are people who give before the Law. Okay, so in Leviticus, in Levitical Law, in Moses' Law, it talks about giving whole burnt offerings, but people gave whole burnt offerings even beforehand. And that suggests to me that there's an ontological purpose to that. But the crucial point that shows how important whole burnt offerings are, is the quintessential example of a whole burnt offering in the Old Testament, and that's Abraham, walking with Isaac up Mount Moriah. If you remember in that story, Isaac is carrying wood on his back and Abraham is walking next to him with a torch. And then Isaac asks the somewhat appropriate question, poignantly, perplexed, "Father, here's the wood. And here's the fire for the whole burnt offering, but where's the lamb?" And little does he know that God's commanded that he would be the lamb. Well, this is the clearest Old Testament type of the crucifixion of Christ. So what it suggests is the crucifixion of Christ is in a sense, God's whole burnt offering in our behalf. What's astonishing about the whole notion of whole burnt offerings, what really bothers us as Americans, is that nobody benefitted from a whole burnt offering. In the Old Testament, you brought a lamb or brought some other animal for a whole burnt offering, it was just consumed on the altar, and that doesn't make much of an impact on us. But if you translate the agricultural context of the Old Testament into our modern American capitalistic economy, in order to get this, we're going to have to say that one Sunday a parish said, we're going to collect the offering this Sunday, but everybody just please bring cash, no checks. After the end of the service, the priest takes the collection up at the Royal doors and lifts it up to God and offers a prayer of thanksgiving. Suppose there's a few thousand dollars there. So the priests then after praying, just carefully lays the money out on the altar, and then lights it on fire. We would then have a contemporary picture of what an Old Testament whole burnt offering is about, we would have a picture of what the sacrifice of Christ was about. It was total waste. Now, if we were to have a priest, that would do something like this in one of our parishes, I guarantee that even before the end of the service, the bishop would be getting angry, furious calls, saying, "Look what this priest has done! You know, this money could have been used to help poor people even, it could have been help to pay off the mortgage, it could have been help for many other reasons." That's what the whole burnt offering is about. That's what Jesus sacrifice on our behalf is about. What happens when you start thinking like that is, all of a sudden, we have a way of thinking about offerings as having mystery attached to them. They're no longer utilitarian concepts. So a lot of times when we talk about raising money for our parish, or raising money for organizations is there's always a purpose for it. There's something attached to it, but God wants us to give for the sake, as you were saying before, for the sake of growing in mercy, so that we can become more like Him. So in a paradoxical sense, the wasteful offerings of people in the Old Testament, where they just burned, it kept a consciousness of the mystery of God's love and God's power at the forefront of their consciousness in a way that our utilitarian gifts, our collections for all kinds of purposes. We've lost that. So they were spiritually enriched by their offerings, and we are spiritually impoverished by our offerings.
Hollie Benton 17:27
We print on our money In God We Trust. But unless we see that on flame, do we really trust?
Dr. Andy Geleris 17:34
Absolutely. And the fact is, isn't that kind of what happens a little bit when we come to the Divine Liturgy, we make an offering of ordinary bread and wine, it's just ordinary, but then the priest prays, and the Holy Spirit comes down. And he transforms this ordinary bread and wine into the most amazing gift that any human being can ever receive. Well, if we're willing to embrace God's call, we can think about our offerings. In the same way, they're just ordinary checks, ordinary money. But if we're open to God's mystery, he will transform them in our lives in ways that we can't possibly imagine,
Hollie Benton 18:16
I really appreciate the scriptural insights, especially the challenges around how often, you know, money and whole burnt offerings and tithing and almsgiving are used in Scripture. And it's a real challenge to know that these are things that we like to avoid, probably because we struggle in serving two masters.
Dr. Andy Geleris 18:39
Unfortunately, in many of our churches, tithing has been seen by many people, both by clergy and laypeople, as the way that God gives to fund the ministry of the church. I think that's totally wrong. What it makes the tithe into is kind of a tax on the people of God. God doesn't tax his children. You know, as Jesus said, in one place, from whom do rulers collect taxes from, from outsiders or from their own children? We're God's children. God doesn't collect a tax from us. The reason for the tithe, if you look through sequentially, through the Old Testament, the first time that tithe was mentioned, regarding Abraham after he conquered Chedorlaomer and rescued Lot, he acquired a huge amount of possessions. He gave thanks to God by giving a tithe. The second time is when Jacob is at Bethel, and the angels are ascending and descending on the ladder. And he has a vision. He says, God, if you'll bring me back here safely, I promise I'll give you a tithe. He was being grateful. And one of the two most important reasons for the tithe is that it's a way for us to say thank you to God. One of my favorite people to listen to is a guy named Francis Chan. He has this little talk he gives, he says he was laying down one night in bed and realizing that every breath he has is from God. He would take a breath, and he would say, Thank you, God. And then he would take another breath, and then he would say, Thank you, God. Then he would take another breath. And you can see how every breath is from God. Everything we have is a gift from God. How do we say thank you? The tithe is one of God's gifts to us to say thank you. Now what's interesting is the third and fourth times that the tithe is mentioned in the Old Testament, God says the tithe is holy. It's holy to the Lord. If you think of what holy is, God is holy, the Holy Mysteries, the blood and bread of Christ are holy. So the tithe is holy. None of us would dare, you know, when the priest is handing out doing communion with the spoon, we wouldn't rush up and grab the cup ourselves and start drinking out of it ourselves. It's holy, we wouldn't dare touch that. The tithe is holy. So when we hold back the tithes from God, we're basically grabbing what's his for ourselves. And listen, God doesn't need our tithes. God doesn't need that holiness. But we need to participate with that holiness. And you know, the things that are holy, the priest blesses us with holy water. He blesses us with communion. He blesses us with all kinds of things that are holy. When we partake of things that are holy, like giving the tithe, God always blesses them. That's his nature. The third thing is God blesses tithing. If we really want to be obedient, you know, in the verses in Malachi as everybody quotes about tithing, one of the things God commands, it's a command from God. He says, test me in this and see if I won't bless you. So I can confidently say that anybody here listening to this who's not tithing, next time you go to confession, you need to confess to your priest, that you've disobeyed God's command to test Him in tithing.
Hollie Benton 21:47
Really, if I'm honest, I have to confess that often money is my master, and I am under its yoke of slavery. Money really can be the source of a lot of worries for people - not having enough of it, protecting it, saving it, clinging to what we do have, being mindful not to waste it. You can't serve two masters, you can't serve God and mammon. It's one or the other. We know that Christ offers a yoke that is light when we serve the instruction of our Heavenly Father as master. So for someone listening today, whether wealthy or poor, what's a small step a person could take to practice generosity, in such a way that aligns with that gift of salvation proclaimed at every liturgy?
Dr. Andy Geleris 22:35
Well, I think that any act of generosity, if life is tough for us, now, we can just - we don't have to give money. Just smile at people who you happen to pass by. If you have a little bit in your life to be grateful for then tithe to the church. If you have more to be grateful for, give extra money, and do it out of the sense of mystery of what God's wanting to do. And if, let's just suppose that it's impossible for you to believe anything that Hollie and I've been talking about, at least have the humility to recognize in yourself how hard that is. You mentioned the verses from Matthew 6, and I think from Luke 12, where Jesus says, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." My wife will tell you that for decades, I've told her, honey, you know, I believe the whole gospel. But these few little verses, I really don't believe. It says seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you - because I really want a bank account, I want to have a brokerage account, I want to have these things. I don't believe. I confess now, I confess now before you, Hollie, I don't believe it. But I want to. But you know, not believing it allows me to have humility before God. I can come and say God, you know, I'm doing the best I can. That's all we need to do. I don't want anybody who's listening to what I'm saying to feel the slightest amount of guilt, or feeling bad. At least, if you can take small steps, God will bless them, I guarantee God will bless our smallest steps. I recognize this is hard for many of us, in the Orthodox Church. We often don't teach about money. We're not familiar with these concepts. You know, our greatest monastics and our Desert Fathers talked a lot about prayer and fasting and love. But they didn't say very much about money. We can't find books about it. But this is something we desperately need in the church. And I think every time that any parish or any organization finds that they're in financial need, I think it's a call from God to reevaluate, you know, as you were talking about before, are we doing soul-centric fundraising? Or are we doing ministry-centric? And I guarantee you the soul-centric fundraising will be far more powerful. You know, listen, we live in a fallen world. We're all weak people. I'm a very weak person. The hardest verses in the Bible for me are where Jesus says, Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. At least we can have humility, and humility to say, you know, God, I'm doing the best I can, but it's not very good. Please, Lord, give alms to me.
Hollie Benton 25:10
Thank you so much for your research and your commitment to this important topic for Christians. It's a challenge. It's a gift. And thank you for allowing me to preview your manuscript. I'm so grateful for the discussion questions you pose at the end of each chapter, which I think are going to be very useful for people to use in a parish study, Bible study as well. When will your book come out? And when will people be able to order it?
Dr. Andy Geleris 25:36
It's in the final stages of editing now, so I hope it'll be available by the end of the year. And I should add, I encourage people to buy it, but that's not because I get anything out of it. All the profits, all the royalties, go to St Vladimir's Seminary. So every copy of the book you get is, in a certain sense, a donation to St. Vladimir's. So please buy lots of copies for the sake of St. Vladimir's.
Hollie Benton 25:56
Wonderful. Thank you so much for this. It's a real blessing. I just appreciate the passion and the delivery and the study. It's a blessing. Thank you so much for this conversation, Andy.
Dr. Andy Geleris 26:07
Thank you, Hollie. It's an honor.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai