I am presenting this message tonight at a meeting of pastors and lay leaders who are concerned about the economy. I’d be interested in your comments.
Toward A Theology of Economics
1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
3Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”
5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
9Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Thinking About The Economy
We don’t have time today to review the almost countless articles, books, interviews, YouTube videos, podcasts, newscasts, newspaper reports, and other media all saying pretty much the same thing — the economy is in big trouble.
Unemployment is approaching 10%, and the government has promised us that, “Yep, before this is over it will hit 10%,” or more. And that’s just the latest bad news.
I’ve been following the economy with more interest than understanding for months. I bought several books, read Paul Krugman’s column in The New York Times, subscribed to Nouriel Roubini’s economics website, and engaged in long conversations about the economy with a member of my church who is a former international banker, responsible for financing international business deals in South and Central America.
My conclusion from all of this reading, listening, and talking is this — the economy is in big trouble.
So let’s see what sense we can make of subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, securitized assets, and the like. Actually, we’re not going to make any sense of any of those things, because I haven’t the foggiest idea what those terms, and the other 1,000 terms like them, really mean. I’ll leave that to our other guests this evening.
But what I do want us to do is this — I want us to think about the economy. But not in the ways that all of us, pundits and non-pundits alike, have been trying to think about it. I want us to think about the economy differently tonight. I want us to think about it theologically.
Of course, we can’t think about every facet, nuance, and detail of the economy, even theologically-speaking, so I have titled our time together, “Toward a Theology of Economics.” The idea being that the word “Toward” means we’re heading in the right direction, but we probably are not going to get there, at least not in the 20-minutes or so we have to think together.
Moving Toward a Theology of Economics Means Thinking Differently
One of my favorite books of the last 5 years is the book, Freakonomics, subtitled, A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything. Apparently, Steven Levitt was a rogue before Sarah Palin took the title. Anyway, Levitt teaches economics at the University of Chicago, and is a wunderkind of sorts among economists. Levitt’s particular gift is looking at things in society differently.
His co-author of Freakonomics, Stephen Dubner, writes,
“As Levitt sees it, economics is a science with excellent tools for gaining answers but a serious shortage of interesting questions.”
So, Levitt asks interesting questions, such as, “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” Now that’s a pretty interesting question, and as you can imagine the story that provides the answer is both fascinating and too long for me to tell completely, so get the book.
But, the short version is that Sudhir Venkatesh, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, began interviewing members of the Black Disciples gang for a research project. In the course of those interviews, one of the gang members, their bookkeeper actually, gave Sudhir several spiral-bound notebooks containing the gang chapter’s accounts — income, expenses, salaries, overhead, cost of weapons, and so on — things all respectable gang businesses had to keep records of.
Sudhir talked to Levitt, and together they analyzed the contents of the gang’s books. What they found was that first, the gang was organized pretty much like a McDonald’s franchise — owners, bosses, workers, and wanna-be workers. Income came from the sale of drugs, club dues, and protection money paid to the gang by businesses. The head of that unit, or that particular gang franchise, made about $100,000 per year. But the guys next on the gang organizational chart made about $7/hour, and the street dealers made even less — about $3.30/hour. Thus answering the question, “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?”
So, the first lesson of our theology of economics is — Things aren’t always what they seem. That is especially true when you’re developing a theology of economics.
What Do We Mean By ‘Economy?’
Okay, let’s back up just a minute and ask ourselves, “What do we mean by economics?” Because if we’re moving toward a theology of economics, we might mean something different than what a Steven Levitt or a Paul Krugman or a Nouriel Roubini might mean when they use that word.
I am sure you all know this, but for the record, our English word “economy” comes from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which meant “the management of the household.” But, it also had the implication that the manager was managing the household for another, meaning the master of the household.
You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Economics is more than money. Economics encompasses everything about managing the household, including, but not limited to money. And a theology of economics has to be more than “how can we get our members to give more?”
Okay, in the interest of time, let’s go ahead and define what we mean by “household.” Since we’re headed toward a theology of economics, let’s assume that the household, the enterprise being managed is God’s created order. Everything God made, over which God gave humankind dominion.
So, this is God’s household, this creation of God’s. And, we are the managers. We’re God’s economists.
So, the second lesson is — economics is the management of God’s household, and we’re God’s economists.
What Are We Supposed To Do?
So far, we’re making good progress. We’ve determined that things are not always what they seem, and that economics is really the management of God’s household.
But, it’s right here that we have to ask, “What are we supposed to do?” How do we manage God’s household exactly, and where do we find some guidance for doing it?
Well, we could get some help from financiers and global economists who tell us that economic growth is the goal of all economies. This year the US economy is expected to grow by about 2%, but China’s by about 9%. And so on down the roll-call of nations and growth rates. But, aren’t these the same guys who got us into this mess? The-growth-is-the-goal crowd, who like Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street, taught us that “greed is good.” And so, they gave us the greatest economic crisis since World War II, and a near-miss at another world-wide depression. Maybe we need to look elsewhere for guidance.
We could also look at the global business managers who continue to move production from developed countries to developing countries, looking for the lowest labor costs in places like China, Viet Nam, and other developing nations. I used to be one of those — I ran a small manufacturing company that produced goods in China. I told myself that low wages were better than the subsistence farm life Chinese workers endured.
I told myself that until I toured some of the factories and saw the horrific working conditions that existed. OSHA would close those plants in a nano-second because workers’ lives and health are endangered every day. And some of those workers are involuntary or underage workers.
Do you know what the big deal about Chinese New Year is? Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year as they call it in China, is a period of two-to-four weeks just before spring when all the factories close and production stops. But, do you know why this is so important? Because hundreds of thousands of workers from the rural areas of China will travel from their factory dormitories in Guangdong or Wuxi or Nantong, back home to visit their families.
This is the only time of the entire year that most have to see their loved ones, who include wives, parents, and even their children. The dorms in which they live crowd dozens of workers together in barracks-like settings that are usually under-equipped with restrooms, showers, drinking water, and the simple comforts of home. I am no longer a globalist, as you can imagine. So, maybe we need to look elsewhere for our model to manage God’s household.
An Example From Nature
Of course, both Scripture and nature give us ample examples. Actually, Jesus used nature as the example of God’s economy. Jesus said,
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26
Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27
Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life[a]
28“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
So, this is God’s household, but God also provides everything we need, including food, drink, and clothing. And, to worry about this stuff is to act like a pagan — one who doesn’t believe in the One True God.
A Characteristic of Economics: Extravagant Abundance
Debbie and I have had a vegetable garden for the last two years. And the words of Jesus we have just read were illustrated in our garden. We planted about 25 or so tomato seeds, and set out about that many tomato plants this year. But, on each plant, dozens of tomatoes grew. And when we cut those tomatoes open, thousands of seeds came gushing out. As a matter of fact, we had about a dozen volunteer tomato plants from last year because tomatoes fell on the ground, and rotted, but the seeds fell onto good soil and sprouted. (That’s another parable, by the way.)
God’s household, the natural part of it anyway, exhibits an extravagant abundance.
And that’s the first characteristic of our theology of economics — extravagant abundance. God did not plan for shortages. We have more than enough oxygen to breathe, more than enough water to drink, more than enough sunshine to fall of the earth.
We do not have a shortage in God’s household, we have a problem with distribution. Some of us have more that the rest of us. Now I realize that capitalism is based on just that idea — some people get rich, and some don’t. But remember, we’re moving toward a theology of economics, not a politics of economics.
God’s economy is not a giant, finite pie with only so many pieces to go around. There is an extravagant abundance, if we manage it correctly.
Unfortunately, there are too many examples of how we are not managing it correctly. Climate change, global warming, poverty, disease, and so on. But, let me give you an example a little closer to home, from the Lowe’s store in Danville.
Every spring we make the trek to Lowe’s to buy plants — flowers, mostly, because we grow our vegetables from seed.
Lowe’s has a great variety of both annuals and perennials, and it’s convenient for us to shop there. But this spring, I picked up a pot containing a plant which read — “Unlawful to propogate this plant. Copyrighted by….” whatever the name of the company was.
Some bio-geneticists have figured out how to produce a strain that has some unique characteristics. And, they’ve decided that they want to keep all the profits from that discovery for themselves. They want to sell you a new plant every year. You can’t share a clipping with a friend or fellow-gardener, or even root another for yourself.
That isn’t extravagant abundance, that’s greed.
Another Characteristic: Exceptional Generosity
Okay, we’re making progress. The second characteristic of our theology of economics is exceptional generosity.
Not only does God provide the food, the drink, and the clothes we need, in other words, our necessities, God provides it to everyone.
Jesus said, “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” So, if you’re a bad, wicked person, it will probably still rain on your garden. The sun will still shine on your tomato plants.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus healed all their sick. (Matt 12:15) Not just some, or even many, but all. Everyone who was sick got healed that day. Exceptional generosity.
Of course, the cross stands at the center of our theology of economics. The cross is God’s best example of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity.
Little children learn a verse that captures both the idea of extravagant abundance, and exceptional generosity — John 3:16.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
God gave all God had — his only Son — that is exceptional generosity. God gave God’s only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Extravagant abundance is all the salvation we could ever need, made available to anyone, everyone, all who believe — without limit, without qualification, without hesitation. There is enough for all, and it is available to all.
The cross is God’s comment about economics. The cross is God’s object lesson to the world about giving. The cross is God’s acceptance of all who will stand in its shadow.
The same Jesus who died on the cross, God raised from the dead and has made him both Christ and Lord. Now, we have no problem believing that Jesus is Lord of the first century, or that Jesus is the Lord of heaven. But, we need to realize that Jesus is also Lord of the economy, the real world in which we live.
Which brings us to our final theological characteristic.
A Third Characteristic: Eternal Consequences
A third theological characteristic of managing God’s household is this — our management of God’s household, God’s economy, has eternal consequences. Listen to Jesus in Matthew 25 —
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
The interesting thing in this passage is that both groups, the righteous and the unrighteous were totally surprised that their managing of God’s household had eternal consequences.
I wrote about this passage last week in my blog under the title, “Foolproof Evangelism Needs No Training or Budget.” My point was, this is something every person knows how to do, and can do immediately. I got some amazing responses. One respondent said,
You call this EVANGELISM!? No wonder America sinks in its depravation and sin! How about: …faith comes from H-E-A-R-I-N-G THE MESSAGE, and the message is heard through THE WORD of God.
My reply was, “These aren’t my words, take this up with Jesus.”
But, my point is this — how we manage the economy, God’s household, has eternal consequences.
Back To Ananias and Sapphira
Which brings us back to Ananias and Sapphira. I really like this story.
In the brand new church of the book of Acts, believers were practicing this theology of economics that we have been discussing. They realized that while some had more than others, that all would have enough if they pooled their resources. They recognized the extravagant abundance of God’s blessings. They just had to solve the distribution problem.
So, they sold what they had, and pooled the money. Those who sold property brought all the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Everybody had plenty, an abundance, because they were generous with those who needed it most. From abundance to generosity the early church experienced God’s favor and blessing.
But, Ananias and Sapphira decided they wanted the same recognition others had enjoyed. So they sold their property, but they decided not to give all the money to the church. They would keep back some. Rather than see abundance, they saw limit. “This is our only piece of property,” they must have said. “We deserve some of the money for ourselves.”
So, when Ananias brought the money to the apostles’ he said the same thing everyone else had said — “We sold our property, and we are giving the proceeds to the church.”
Peter knew Ananias was lying. So, Peter said,
“Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.
At that, Ananias fell down dead. They carried him out.
Three hours later, his wife, Sapphira arrived at church. She probably expected to be greeted with cheers and hugs for their generosity, but instead Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter rebuked her just as he had rebuked Ananias, and she falls down dead.
An amazing story, that’s also a little scary, but what does it have to do with a theology of economics?
Just this — Ananias and Sapphira believed in one economy, but lived their lives in another economy. They wanted the benefits and blessings of believing the right thing, without really having to do it.
And that’s where we find ourselves today. Living one economy, but wanting the benefits of God’s economy. Especially when the economy we live in is in big trouble. Peter said they were lying to the Holy Spirit. Their theology of economics had eternal consequences for Ananias and Sapphira. What about ours?
It is not enough for us to figure out what to do in this economic crisis. It’s not enough that we find something that works. Our understanding of economics begins with God.
For if we understand that God provides all we need, we can live our lives out of God’s extravagant abundance.
And, when we realize that there is plenty to go around if we share with one another, then we are practicing exceptional generosity.
Our actions will not only have immediate effect, but more importantly, our actions will have eternal consequences.
But, the protest is always, “But in the real world, things don’t work like that.” “No one else will act like this.” But isn’t that the point, that we, the followers of Christ are different? That our confidence is God, the God who made heaven and earth. So, even if no one else manages God’s household like we do, we can still do it. After all, we’re reading about first century Christians in the book of Acts, not because they failed to change the world, but precisely because they did change the world. But remember, in economics things aren’t always what they seem.