Faith & Reason: Readers' offer: how not to save money

What our secular society has lost in forgetting about Lent is a reminder that we should sometimes pause in our everlasting search for a bargain
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The Independent Culture
"WHY AREN'T you interested?" asked the salesman aggressively. "It's all about saving money." "I'm not interested in saving money," I replied, and shut the door firmly. He was looking at me with incredulous indignation, as if to say, "How dare she not be interested in saving money?" It was only later that I remembered that it was his electricity firm that was driving an unnecessary line of pylons across a beautiful area of North Yorkshire. The price wars of privatisation: such is the true cost of "saving money".

"If you're on pounds 20,000 a week and you're offered pounds 40,000, you'll take it. It's only human nature," commented Alan Hansen, with reference to football's new millionaires. Yet he had only just been describing how these young stars could not even go shopping without being mobbed. Are their riches really worth it?

"Everyone wants to win the lottery. It's only human nature," my students say to me (that phrase again!). Most of them tell me (in public) that money would solve most of their problems. Yet when they tell me their sorrows (in private), poverty is not mentioned. Instead, they reveal the sadness caused by illness, bereavement and broken homes, by drink, drugs and sexual exploitation, and by ordinary everyday acts of disloyalty, malice and irresponsibility. On the other hand, it is not money that brings a smile to their lips and a shine to their eyes, but rather the love of their families, the warmth of their friendships, the excitement of a new topic of study, the stimulus of a challenging work placement, the satisfaction of a successful teaching practice. ("I just love being in the classroom with the kids," you hear them say.)

"Only a crackpot would pay twice as much as they need for phone calls," to quote a current advertisement. If your bank balance is not your overriding concern, you are strange, mad, not really human. ("It's only human nature . . .") My own imagination was caught not by the telephone ad, but by the adjacent article. It told the story of Albert Juttus, who for 46 years had been living the life of an Estonian peasant in his bungalow in the Leicestershire countryside, drawing his water from a muddy stream. When he was in his seventies, the local council noticed his primitive life style and came to his aid with running water and a bathroom. Mr Juttus is unusual, but he is clearly both sane and human. He looks at his new flushing loo with wonder, wastes no regret on his years of poverty, and contentedly appreciates the fields and birdsong among which he lives. He remains a brave, resourceful, courteous and generous man; far from a "crackpot".

I feel similarly disorientated by discussions about teachers' salaries. There are enough compelling arguments against performance-related pay to fill an article longer than this one. (For example: do we really want to transfer to other jobs the unhealthy workaholism and the sexual inequality in pay existing among young professionals in the financial sphere?) Yet most people who do not work in education seem simply to take the benefits for granted. Isn't it obvious that a sane person expects to be paid more for working harder? Could anyone question it?

Jesus had surprising views on pay. The kingdom of heaven, he said, was like a householder. Early in the morning, he hired some labourers for a denarius a day. At intervals during the day, he went out and collected more workers, agreeing to pay them a "just" amount. At the end of the day, he paid all the workers the same, one denarius, whether they had started first thing, or late in the afternoon.

We find this parable hard to accept. So, unsurprisingly, did those labourers in the story who had been working all day. They grumbled about how unfair it all was. Jesus makes the householder answer, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree on a denarius with me? . . . Am I not allowed to do what I choose with my own money? Or do you begrudge my generosity?" (Matthew xx).

The key to the puzzling story lies in the amount of pay, one denarius. This was a day's wage for a worker, enough to keep him and his family alive. In other words, the householder is not worried about fairness or productivity, but about what the labourers need to be able to live and work. The point of money is not to increase our anxiety by encouraging competitiveness, but to remove it by relieving need. The point of money is not to motivate us to do our jobs better, but to free us to concentrate on taking pride in doing our jobs well. The point of money is not to enslave our minds with dreams of the jackpot, but rather to remove our immediate material needs and allow us to find true satisfaction in our relationships, our hobbies and our work.

During Lent, the Christian Church prepares for Easter by fasting, praying and giving alms. Almsgiving is obviously intended to help other people in their material need. But it is also to help us in our own spiritual need. A few people in our society are physically trapped by genuine poverty. Most of us are mentally trapped by the seductive fantasy that money is the ticket to happiness. Through Lent we can learn to liberate our imaginations.

Margaret Atkins is a lecturer in theology at Trinity and All Saints College, Leeds