Wealth, bounty, scarcity, money, are complex—layered with meaning. We use money all the time, frequently worry over it, try to manage it—but to really think about it is pretty daunting. Money is a tool in a world based upon exchange; it can’t be avoided. At one time people exchanged goods, services, labor, poultry—but today we use money in our transactions. As in any event in the world we can look at our transactions on the surface or we can see beyond the surface to the deeper layers—where meaning lives.
Seldom do we—especially in this powerful nation—have transactions which begin and end between two people.
Nilton Bonder, in his book The Kaballah of Money, describes four layers of meaning—I’m taking liberties because theologically Bonder and I are on different pages—but overall his book echoed my own reflections about the nature of wealth.
On the material level our transactions are this for that—four dollars and a molto vente caffe latte. On the emotional level the molto vente caffe latte may bring us a moment's warmth, energy, and some pleasure. If I buy from a small businessman it will contribute directly to his financial well-being. Here the layers get wider—his well-being is involved in my choice to buy my coffee there and not at a mega chain—and that will touches the world on a spiritual level. That means that I choose to make my four dollars mean more than it will mean at a huge chain that where my four dollars will be four of millions. The good will that I offer along with my money may go unspoken—but it is experienced by the businessman who knows exactly what he is up against. I have included a moral perspective in my choice of where to spend my four dollars. Let’s say that I ask the owner about fairly traded coffee and ask if he might be willing to sell some. I offer that I would be willing to pay more to benefit more people and to buy my bulk coffee from him. We commiserate over the risks of small businesses. No matter what he does I am expanding the circle of moral and spiritual awareness by asking him about it. The final layer of the transaction may take place out of my sight—he may choose to offer fair trade coffee; he may choose not to do that for years or ever. The eventual ripples of the transaction happen out of my sight—and perhaps, even, after my lifetime. But they exist whether I see them or not.
Nilton Bonder says, “the world is, for conscientious human beings, a world of ever more intricate systems of livelihood—our family feeling is larger, wider, and our perception of hospitality is sharper.” Hospitality—as though we all share one home and make our stay in that home sweeter, more wonderful, if we live in hospitality toward one another. I feel a strong sense of hospitality when our share of the organic farm co-op comes in each week. I feel pleasure that the land is being loved and that small farmers are making a living. The circles of hospitality are very wide—as food comes to me and I’m nourished both by the food and the interactions with the other co-op members. Ultimately, I am investing in the well-being of my family, the farmer, the other people in the co-op, and the future of the earth and that is priceless in the long run—the layer of transaction which is out of my sight. We’re making our home more hospitable.
…The Rabbis call this yishuv olam — settling the world. It’s acting and living justly so that the household account of the world is settled. It means being willing to see beyond the superficial level of money to the deeper layers where the world is balanced or out of balance. It means knowing ourselves well enough to know what it is we really want—or what’s needed to make the world a better place.
To settle the world, to make of the world a hospitable place with enough for everyone—this requires a sense of our relationship with one another and the rearrangement of our desires into something that connects each person back to the common wealth. So that each person sees themselves as in partnership with the world.
So much of what we desire—what we really hunger for—is priceless. Still we set the conditions for those things by settling the world—by making the world more fair—more just. Not simply in our own corner but for all creatures...
Excerpted from a sermon delivered at Unitarian Universalist Church of Lafayette, IN, on October 3, 2004.