Get Un-Rich Scheme

Acts 4:32-35

You’ve heard of a get rich quick scheme, right? That unrequested phone call or internet pop-up with lots of promises:

Small investment!
Low risk!
High returns!

If you’re not familiar with get rich quick schemes, let me introduce you by way of one of the scheme-iest of them all.

It starts with an Italian who immigrated to the United States in in 1903. “I landed in this country with $2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes,” he said, “and those hopes never left me.” He learned English and worked his way up in a restaurant from dishwasher to waiter… until he was fired for shortchanging customers. Then he moved to Canada, where he became a bank teller for what turned out to be a shady institution that paid investments through the savings of its customers. Our man would remember that unethical business model later to his advantage, but in the meantime he’s left broke. So he writes a fake check to himself, but gets caught and thrown in prison for it. Once released, he heads back to the U.S. where he gets involved in smuggling illegal Italian immigrants across the border – which lands him in jail again.

This seems like a guy determined to get rich by illegitimate means, right? Well, just wait: the biggest is yet to come.

When he gets out of jail this time, he heads to Boston. While investigating some legal (but not very successful) business opportunities, he comes across an odd loophole in the form of international reply coupons. I’d never heard of those before this week; our man had never heard of them before, either. But immediately he recognizes an opportunity: These coupons allowed one person to send mail to another country and pay for the recipient’s response. They were printed in the country of purchase, and redeemed in the country of use. If there was a price difference between country A and country B, then there was a profit to be made.

So our man tries it out, sending coupons to friends oversees and hoping for a big return. Instead he gets a whole bunch of red tape that makes it difficult to really profit on this… but in the meantime, he finds some investors on the promise of big returns. 50% in 30 days, he says. 100% in 90 days, he claims. The coupons aren’t working, but investors start coming in so fast he can pay the current returns from the most recent investors. (Remember that failed bank?)

In February of 1920, he had made a respectable $5,000 off this scheme.
By March, that became $420,000.
By July, he had made millions – not in adjusted terms, mind you. Millions of dollars in 1920 currency. That is an unimaginable amount of money.

That is a get-rich-quick scheme:

Small investment!
Low risk!
High returns!

But it wouldn’t last; they usually don’t. The press gets curious, investigates, and exposes that there are no real profits. All the investors abandon the enterprise and the scheme rapidly unravels. Our man is arrested in August 1920 and went on to serve prison time, then serve even more time, and then is finally deported to Italy. Before he left, he told reporters, “I went looking for trouble, and I found it.”

Mug shot of Charles Ponzi; public domain.

Mug shot of Charles Ponzi; public domain.

The money didn’t last, but his name sure did: Charles Ponzi. You know, like a “Ponzi Scheme” – the prime example of a get rich quick scheme. *

Now contrast that with the Bible lesson for today, which is more like a get un-rich quick scheme. Here’s what Acts 4 tells us about the early church:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32).

This is not a small investment. It’s a big one. Shoot, it’s not just big – it’s everything! Many of us give to the church by the Jewish and Christian tradition of giving 10% to God. Some of us think that 10% is a bit extreme. This is SO MUCH MORE than 10%. This is 100%!

And this isn’t low risk. It’s huge. The early Christians put everything they had into this one opportunity. We know that this is the best movement someone could be a part of, but for all they knew, it’d end up to be some kind of Ponzi scheme.

What would make them do this? Were Peter and John, like, the best salesmen EVER – better, even, than Charles Ponzi?

Maybe it had to do with the high return.

“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).

Their first return isn’t money or possessions, but grace. In the Greek that’s charis. This word shows up earlier in the story of the first Christians; the believers are praising God and “having the goodwill (charis) of the people” (2:47). Here they’re not getting the people’s goodwill, but something even better: GOD’S goodwill, GOD’S grace.

The reason Ponzi’s scheme worked – and worked so fast – was that he delivered on their investments so quickly: 50% in thirty days, 100% in ninety days. That quick delivery of incredible returns boosts confidence and gets people talking.

I wonder if that’s part of the disciples’ success in convincing the people to make a big investment with a huge risk. Once we know about it, it doesn’t have to take long to feel God’s grace. Maybe these new believers heard the story of this Jesus Christ who died and lived again, and immediately they felt that grace – that goodwill, that forgiveness, that unconditional love. In that moment of a quick and incredible return, they knew this was something they had to invest in.

Grace is great, but it doesn’t pay the bills, right? So here’s an equally remarkable part of this “scheme”:

“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold” (Acts 4:34).

In short: it works. Maybe people didn’t get rich, but everyone had enough. And having enough is what it’s all about. Our greed will always drive us to try and get richer – to buy into stupid schemes like “international reply coupons,” whatever those are, to try and get rich quick. But God’s grace can teach us to be satisfied with enough – enough food, enough clothing, enough shelter, enough money – and when we have enough, then we’re willing to share what we have so even more people have enough.

So the early Christians are presented with this ridiculous idea they should never say yes to: “Big investment! Huge risk!” But they say yes anyway, and they benefit. They get a true, high return that lasts forever.

How about us?

We have the advantage of historical perspective. We can look back on things like the original Ponzi scheme from 1920 and say, “That was really stupid.” The investors didn’t know that then, but we know it now. We can also look back at the early Christians and the radical, crazy investment and risk they took – sharing all their possessions! – and say, “Wow! Turns out that wasn’t a scheme; that was the truth.”

But even with that advantage of perspective, many of us still ease into this deal like we’re not so sure, giving a small amount, sharing just a little.

What if we invested like we believe it instead?

There are many reasons that we put money in the offering plate each week, but here are a few that are important for today:

We make an offering because it’s a sign of our investment in God.
We make an offering because it’s a way to share what we have with others.
And we make an offering because we know we’re going to get a great return.

If you want to invest in God in order to share with others and get a great return, our church is a great place to invest.

The money in the offering plate goes toward ministries that benefit everyone. Most of them are offered at no cost: youth events and Bible studies, Sunday School and choir practice. Every one of us can come and participate, regardless of whether we can afford the materials or the time that goes into it. We fund that, together, by sharing what we have in common.

The money in the offering plate goes toward ministries that reach beyond our walls. The Welcome Table feeds 75 to 100 folks each week from all over our town. Vacation Bible School brings in kids who don’t go to our church, or any church, but who come and hear about Christ for a week. We budget money for those in need of emergency help, sometimes from our church and sometimes not.

The money in the offering plates goes toward a Family Life Center that we want the community to use. People come in and out of this building each week that aren’t members here. They’re playing basketball or pickleball or walking our track. They’re hosting family reunions and fundraisers and surprise birthday parties. We help fund that, together, by sharing what we have in common.

Every time we give into the offering, we invest in God, we share with others, and we get an everlasting return.

I have no idea what you give. You might give 10%, the traditional tithe. Maybe you give more like 5%, or 2%, or the-smallest-bill-I-have-in-my-wallet percent. Some of you, I’m willing to bet, give more than 10%.

Whatever you give, I want to invite you to invest in a way that means something. Give some thought to how much you give. If this was an investment, would you be giving so little that your return would be nothing?

I’ll be honest: If you start really putting your heart into this, God is going to call you to something that sounds really stupid:

Big investment!
Huge risk!

But this isn’t stupid. We know that. It’s the only investment we can ever make with a huge, everlasting return.


* Thank you, Wikipedia.

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