Christopher Marlowe is quoted as saying “Money can’t buy love but it improves your bargaining position.” Marlowe was an “Elizabethan playwright” who influenced William Shakespeare and the events in Marlowe’s life were as extreme as some of his dramas. He was considered an irreligious reprobate and died a somewhat mysterious and controversial death. He was buried in an unmarked grave on 1 June 1593. (My information is from the fountain of wisdom: Wikipedia.) 

I mention Marlowe because his death was apparently over money, not an unusual cause, but one that provides some reflection.

Money has been around a long time: I read that the world’s first coins appeared around 600 B.C., among the Lydians, a kingdom tied to ancient Greece and located in modern-day Turkey. And coins could be buried for safety, so they lasted a long time. 

There are 113 references in the NIV Bible that mention money. One that many of us will know is 1 Timothy 6:10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” The context of this verse is about “godliness and contentment” with the reminder that we “brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”

Despite this warning and many others in the Bible about the “love of money,” we still find money the consuming goal and interest of our society.  Advertisements in our newspapers and magazines, on TV, our i-phone and on billboards shout at us to “spend more to save more,” shop at some gigantic sale, invest in some scheme, buy a lottery ticket, make a wager, get a “better” paying job, buy a brand new truck, car or house—the possibilities to make or save money are not endless, but they are futile.

I started thinking about money more seriously when we went to live among the Kewa people of Papua New Guinea. I thought about it because—at the time—the Kewa people did not have money and did not think about money. Their “economy” (there is no such word in Kewa) revolved around trade and bartering. Of course, people wanted more than what they had. If they owned two pigs, they would like ten; if they had three pearl shells, it would be more prestigious to have five; if they had one wife, two would be better. Pigs, pearl shells, and women is the title of a book that describes the consuming interests of the Highland men at the time when we first met them in 1958.

Pearl shells were traded from the coast and up the Kikori River until they reached the Southern Highlands, where the Kewa people live. However, expatriate gold miners and explorers began to saturate the “market” with them. But even in 1958 a pearl shell was highly valued—five of them would get you a fair-sized pig; 15 would be a good start on purchasing a bride; and dozens of them were necessary for compensation following or during warfare.

I learned something about their value by trading for them. The men wanted me to purchase barbed wire for their new cattle project and I asked them to pay me in pearl shells. Soon I had several, visible to visitors and carefully wrapped in bark. They would see my bank account and be impressed. I wanted to trade them for pigs but Joice was worried that the next step might be for another bride.

Money did come into the Kewa society and with it came many problems. The government began collecting taxes and the newly formed schools wanted fees—neither would accept pearl shells or pigs. The people later had cash crops like coffee and could sell enough to help a bit, but it was never enough. Instead the young men were advised to go to the coast for indentured labor on plantations and then send money back to the village to pay for their siblings’ education and the government’s taxes. The young men had to sign up with recruiters for a two-year stint and soon some villages consisted mainly of women, old men and children. Traditional values were changing, and it was all because of money.

It was often difficult for coastal recruits to get any money back to the villages: most of them could not read or write and were left to their own devices and ingenuity to help their families. At coastal sites the recruits also learned to play cards and gamble, now a persistent activity throughout the Highlands. Debts had to be paid in real money and compensation payments were soon in the thousands of “kina.”

In English we speak of the “almighty dollar” and “top dollar” as if our lives depended on money and, in some respects, it does: we buy food, clothes, cars and commodities with credit cards, our plastic currency. We need it to pay taxes, tuition, and innumerable debts. The sixty-four-dollar question is how we get it and how much it rules our lives.

One thing is certain: you can bet your bottom dollar that we are not going to stop thinking about money. But when we acquire it, does it really belong to us any more than our house or car? Or is everything we have simply “loaned” to us as stewards?

James 4:13-14 is a good reminder of what our attitude should be: “Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Karl and Joice Franklin
No longer using shells