A part of Treasure & Ash, a series of short essays about money.
Very few Old Testament prophets had an employee-sponsored retirement plan. The prophets of old didn’t have to worry so much about planning financially for an old age that they were unlikely to attain. But in the modern era, as many clergy have found themselves blessed by church institutions that offer some security beyond their working years one could make an argument that the need to preserve a stable retirement can undermine their “prophetic” witness.
I have no desire to dispute or even disrupt that. I am not much of a prophet, and I really do appreciate working for a church that wants to me to live with dignity after I retire.
Instead, I’d like to look at another financial vehicle: mortgages. It seems to me that mortgages don’t go well with the Prophetic Lifestyle.
A mortgage (or any major debt) is something that is a part of life for most of us fortunate to own their own home. As debts go it’s a pretty responsible one, allowing us to hopefully build equity while creating a good home for ourselves and our families.
But how might our major financial commitments compromise our greater witness? The prophets were wild figures who had left their homes to deliver a tough message to the folk wherever that message needed to be carried. If they lived today, they wouldn’t be able to proclaim their message quite the same way if they had a 30-year fixed with Bank of America. The choices they would make – from where they lived to who they served to how they spent their money – would be constrained, and the power of their witness would be domesticated. They might even have just stayed home and poured out their testimony into a blog.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s value to living as nomads. Quite the contrary, stability is generally a good thing for both us and our communities. We need limits and we need things that bind us to communities beyond the whims of the moment, and a mortgage can be one instrument of that. But when so much of our money is committed to one place, each month, for 20-30 years, we lose sight very quickly of the choices that might have been.
Now, I have a mortgage and I don’t regret it one bit. I love my home and my community and appreciate that with every passing year I become even more invested in the place where I live.
My point isn’t that we shouldn’t buy houses or cars or take out student loans. My point, rather, is that the more we encumber ourselves with even the most normal of financial obligations, the fewer choices we have. And the fewer choices we have, the more domesticated we become. The less likely we are to speak and live and prophetically, and the more likely we are to get into the same financial ruts that limit our generosity and heighten our anxiety around having enough.
Most of have far more choices about how we spend our money than we think. In most cases, we simply made those choices long ago.