Pastoral Perspectives

When price-tags are switched

When I first came across the news that Hong Kong billionaire Joseph Lau had spent close to US$80 million on two diamonds as gifts for his 7-year-old daughter (Straits Times, 13 Nov), I confess I was rather envious. After all, most Singaporeans can only dream about having a million dollars in our bank account. Yet here we have a property magnate who within just a span of two days had spent a record of US$48.4 million (S$69m) on a 12.02 carat diamond and another $US28.5 million for a rare 16.08 carat pink diamond from auction house Christie’s. And just when I thought that such extravagance is bordering on insanity, I read about Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian parting with US$170.4 million (S$242.2 million) for the painting of a nude woman by Amedeo Modigliani.

As much as I enjoy visiting museums and appreciate creative expressions of all kinds, I acknowledge that I am neither an admirer of diamonds nor an art aficionado. I find it difficult to understand why humanity can be so obsessed with shiny stones? How can something which is lifeless and unable to give life be worth what the multitudes will never earn in their lifetime and deprive generations of life itself since those millions could have been channelled to their welfare instead? How can a product of Nature and mere chance be lauded as a prized possession while the unique handiworks of the Almighty God often remain exploited and are denied of dignity in many of those countries where the diamonds are found?

Likewise, it baffles me that a painting should fetch such a handsome profit simply because it is one of a kind and its creator has since passed on. To me, it smacks of pretentiousness and hints of a marketing scam since the painter could have easily replicated his masterpiece if he wanted to. I doubt any of us would have known any better. Moreover, why should all those money go to line the linen pockets of auction house executives while so many artists never get to enjoy the fruit of their own labour when they were still alive? To what extent does the work of these middle-men benefit society and contribute to human flourishing?

Being Christians, we understand that the Fall has affected our economic system and asserts a significant influence on how things are priced in society. Sin has a way of distorting everything such that in the words of Oscar Wilde, “People these days only know the price of everything but do not know the value of anything”.

As we enter into the season of Advent, I suppose inevitably we will also be thinking about giving and receiving gifts for Christmas. But before we head off to the malls or add items to our carts, let us learn to be grounded in God’s Word lest we fall prey to the consumeristic mindset and allow slick advertising to steal our hearts. Unless we are convicted that a life given to acquiring possessions is but vanity and striving after the wind (Ecclesiastes), it is easy to buy into the lie that we will be made happy when we have more things.

As people who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ (1 Cor 6:20, 1 Pet 1:18-19), we are to rest in God’s truth that all that we are and have, including our wealth comes from God (Deut 8:17-18, 1 Chron 29:13-16). For those with money, our temptation is to become self-sufficient and possibly resorting to self-justification. We mistakenly believe that as long as someone can afford it – just like how the millionaire can afford those rings or painting- he can go ahead and buy whatever catches his fancies. Thus, it is no surprise that some of us will hardly bat an eyelid when we swipe our cards and then saunter off with our swanky shoes and designer bags.

For others, the temptation may be to give in to envy. For the average Singaporean, it is more likely that we are always thinking that we do not have enough. Instead of comparing with the rest of the world, we compare ourselves with those from a particular socio-economic bracket. The problem with envy is that it will eat us up and lead us to begrudge God’s goodness just like the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-15).

Thankfully, Christ has come to offer us another way of life. In 2 Corinthians 8:9, we are reminded that “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich”. As we continue to reflect on God’s costly grace, we can trust that beginning from within ourselves, many things will change. After all, “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). If He can save us from sin and the dominion of mammon, switching the price-tag of created things will hardly be a problem.

Rev Edwin Wong

November 29, 2015