Monday, June 22, 2015

You Cannot Serve God and Poverty

 In Luke 16 and its parallel in Matthew 6 Jesus explains his parable about the shrewd servant by stating “You cannot serve God and wealth.” The translation of the last word in that sentence is much controverted; it could equally be rendered money, possessions, or mammon, but even as it stands in the NRSV, I want to completely affirm Jesus’ statement. It must be recognized, however, the saying does not lend itself to the common usage of this passage as an indictment of capitalism. Jesus’ position isn’t that wealth should not be pursued or that wealth is inherently bad; he only states that you cannot serve two masters. The point is that wealth should serve us – not us it, and we should serve God. From this point we may begin to pull back the curtain on the “Jesus as socialist” agenda.

It is quite true that you cannot serve God and wealth, but you also cannot be both anti-poverty and anti-wealth. Jesus is passionately concerned about the impoverished, and in order to stop being impoverished, one must gain wealth. Material poverty, by definition, is the absence of material wealth. Speaking of the evil of wealth while hoping to end poverty is an irrational position. A man who is poisoned cannot hope to live if he refuses the antidote.

Of course there is always a danger of greed and idolatry of wealth. Often wealth is misused even by those in the Church. Wealth and power often go together, and I think Jesus would agree with Lord Acton’s observation that power tends to corrupt people. But decrying wealth because of its potential corrupt is like decrying medicine because of the potential for overdose. It can be misused in some cases, but in the case of the disease of poverty it is the only known cure.

This leads another controversial saying of Jesus about money; that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils.” That is what 1 Timothy 6 says. It does not say that money is the root of all evil. It does not even say that the love of money is the root of all evil; the plural “evils” is found in the Greek. The words of Paul (or whomever wrote this particular letter) dovetail perfectly with Jesus’ critique in the synoptics described above. Making money the goal; loving it or serving it (as Jesus said) will lead to trouble. Money should be a means to the end of serving God’s kingdom, and when it is used in that way, it is good.

When businesses make profits that is the signal that they are creating wealth. Not only have they made something that their customers value (and thereby made them better off) they have also produced wealth, the antidote to poverty. Of course it is possible and desirable for impoverished people to make this antidote themselves whenever possible. But often times wealth injections from those with some to spar are possible as well. These include the great charitable works of the Church; they are often carried out by “non-profit organizations” but these depend upon others making a profit in order to fund them through donations.

Again the temptation to misuse wealth is always present. There are major questions to be answered about wealth distribution and the role of the Church and governments in that realm. Surely there could be more charitable giving of wealth than there is now. But before that conversation can take place, the wealth itself has to be produced. And for this task, more is better. We should beware of serving that which we create rather than him who created us, but that does not mean we should not create.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Isaiah 55: Milk Without Money

In Christianity, the ultimate future for the world is a renewed creation with new heavens and new earth. In that new creation there will be no economists.

Isaiah 55 presents one of the most picturesque descriptions of the new creation, and the first verse invites the reader to “buy milk without money and without price.” With this sentence, the economy is has gotten one item smaller.

Since economics is the study of scarce resources which have alternative uses, there is no need for it where there is no scarcity. Economics does not have much to say about the allocation of sunlight or air (in most case) since these are so naturally plentiful that everyone can use as much as he or she wants without depleting the total amount by any great amount. They are non-economic goods.

Most goods are scarce, however, and their relative scarcity and market value are represented by prices. Prices simply convey information about who wants what goods and what they are willing to give up to get them. In a monetary economy these prices are given in terms of money.

Isaiah says that milk will simply have no price and can be bought without money, which indicates that it is a non-economic good in the new creation. Milk will be as ubiquitous as air or sunlight; it will no longer be scarce.

Milk is not the only thing that is overflowing in Isaiah’s vision. The chapter goes on to conclude saying “instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress. Instead of the brier shall come up the cedar tree…” This passage harkens back to Genesis 3 in which human sin results in the earth being cursed so that the ground brings forth thorns and briers and must be worked to produce useful plants. Since the earth stopped bringing forth abundant produce, there was scarcity. Adam couldn’t grab fruits and vegetables left and right anymore; he had to work for them. But in the Isaianic vision, that curse will be finally undone and the new earth will no longer produce thorns and briers but myrtle and cedar. When creation is put back on track it will once again produce abundance on its own; there won’t be scarcity anymore.

And there is the end of economics. Since scarcity will become a thing of the past in the finished new creation, all goods will be non-economic goods. Economists will be out of a job, but not to worry; the milk there is free.