Money

The following story was published in the British Medical Journal in 1999, although I have also heard it elsewhere:

During the Second World War, the commandant of a Japanese POW camp in Thailand received an order from Tokyo requiring him to pay the prisoners for their work on the Burma railway – even though no funds were provided. After discussion with the prisoners’ representatives, a solution was agreed: it was decided that the camp should print its own ‘money’ on cardboard cut from old cartons, and this was used to ‘pay’ the men.

Remarkably, the introduction of this odd currency brought about some amazing changes in the camp. The men started trading their ‘money’ for goods (food and cigarettes) and services (hair cutting, shoe repairs, and so on). Some of them were so successful at these ‘businesses’ that they were able to accumulate considerable amounts of the cardboard money. Those prisoners who were too sick to work got no pay, but their better-off comrades contributed to a fund that was used to ‘buy’ extra food for them. Rumours began to circulate that the camp currency would be honoured by the Bank of England after the war; as a result, local villagers were prepared to sell eggs, fruit and vegetables to the prisoners, and the improvement in their diet caused the horrific death rate to fall significantly.

Not all was good, of course. There were instances of theft. There was gambling, and cheating. And a few individuals hoarded their ‘money’, which caused some resentment. Eventually, though, the war came to an end and the camp was liberated. And on that day, the camp money became worthless and the camp ‘millionaires’ found themselves penniless…

I find this story very interesting, because it shows how enormously beneficial money can be – if used properly. It also illustrates its temporary nature. Those little metal discs and pieces of paper in our purses and wallets are invested with great value – but only for a relatively short time. “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (I Timothy 6:7) When we die, we will leave them all behind. And when Christ returns and ‘liberates’ the earth, they will suddenly become completely worthless. Then, those of us who have stockpiled masses of them in our bank accounts will look very silly indeed.

In the meantime, whether we like it or not, our lives revolve around money – earning it, spending it, saving it, giving it – and there’s no shortage of experts (and adverts) telling us what to do with it. It’s worth remembering that money isn’t inherently evil. It isn’t money itself that’s the problem, but our attitude towards it (I Timothy 6:10). “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) If we really do trust Him to look after us, money is relegated to its proper place – an asset and a tool that we can use both for our benefit and to bless other people while we can. If we can’t handle this ‘trivial’ matter properly, how can we expect God to entrust us with more important things in the age to come? But if we use our worldly wealth wisely, we can convert it into heavenly treasure (Luke 16:9).

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