Paying Myself First

My mother will be so proud of me. This week, I set up an automatic transfer of funds from my checking account to my savings account; a very modest amount once a month. Mom’s been preaching “pay yourself first” for as long as I can remember. I used to follow her advice when I was a recent college graduate making little more than minimum wage, but somewhere along the way I abandoned the habit when I accumulated enough to put a down payment on my first house and got married.

Why is starting a good habit so hard and losing it so easy?

Better still, why did it take me so many years to return to this sage and time-tested practice of the financially fit?

It’s because I couldn’t get past the idea that $30 a month is a pretty pathetic amount to save. Surely I should practice a bit more austerity than that! Yes, I could. But having that “not good enough” attitude for several years hasn’t yielded very good results. A little is better than none. It’s the habit that matters, not the amount. At least for now.

The story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is not unlike my journey toward establishing a plan to save. The disciples were paralyzed by their perception of lack, or not having enough to make much of a difference. Five crackers and two sardines – some little boy’s lunch. Jesus could have asked the disciples to scan the crowd and accumulate more from all the other people. That would have been the sensible thing to do. But Jesus is rarely sensible. He blesses the generous but modest offering of a mere child, and somehow everyone in the crowd eats their fill.

I’ve always suspected it was the example of the boy that inspired everyone else to share what they had. Even if that explanation were true it wouldn’t be any less miraculous. In fact, that would be pretty darn stunning. These people were not the Jewish elites. They were the masses, the marginalized and poor. They were desperate for a miracle and they followed Jesus from place to place because he gave them hope. If they were packing eats, they sure wouldn’t be planning to share. That might be their only subsistence for the day, or the month.

The first reading from the second book of Kings is a mirror reflection of the Gospel. Twelve barley cakes made from the first fruits of the harvest were, by Hebrew law and tradition, meant to be presented at the temple and consumed only by the priestly class who served there. The prophet Elisha commanded that the cakes that are supposed to be set aside for God be given to a gathering 100 or so people during a time when there was a severe famine in the land. The protest of Elisha’s servant was not just because there were only 12 cakes to go around, but that they were dipping their hand into the proverbial offertory basket and taking out what was intended for the priests. The message of today’s first reading is clear – in God’s world, human need trumps human tradition.

The message of the Gospel takes God’s concern for His flock even further. Not only does God want to meet our basic human needs, but He also is not limited by our lack – of resources, talent, or imagination. God already has a solution to every problem we could throw at Him. A good friend of mine likes to remind me that there are no problems, only solutions I don’t like yet. Another friend says frequently, “God doesn’t call the qualified; He qualifies the called.” If I supply the willingness, God supplies the power, without fail.

Still, it is difficult for me to have faith in God’s care when so many people are suffering, both and this country and in many third world nations where basic needs like water and shelter are limited at best. I feel so powerless to do anything that I do nothing.

What if I paid myself first in heavenly currency? I know I can’t buy my way into eternal life – Jesus already did that – but there is plenty of scriptural evidence that my eternal reward will be proportional to my generosity and service in my temporal life. If I want to pay myself first in my “bank account” in heaven, I need to make that small step to be the hands a feet of Jesus to someone in need. Just like that $30 a month, it’s the habit that matters most, not the amount. And as I practice the habit, I can grow it. I can do more as the spirit leads.

Perhaps today’s act of faith is to sponsor a child in Haiti through my church, or put some spare change in the collection for the school we sponsor there. Maybe I can buy a $20 raffle ticket for the small inner city church we help support. Maybe school supplies for Appalachia. Maybe fresh blackberry jam for a friend or neighbor, or baby diapers for my favorite waitress whose baby is due next month.

There are so many ways any of us could multiply loaves and fishes. Sometimes when we give, it should be privately. Other times, sharing about the experience may be exactly what God will use to make a miracle happen.


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