Monday, June 09, 2008

What Jesus Taught: Economics

This past sundays sermon follows.
The content is all my own based on reading Warren Carter and Richard Horsely.
The format of the sermon was inspired by a sermon delivered by The Rev. Terry Hamilton that I found at the following website. I like the simple and direct approach that she took in dealing with a difficult and controversial issue that I decided to use the format myself.

Luke 7:36-50
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus* to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,* and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus* said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ 48Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ 49But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ 50And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Money is a taboo subject for churches. The reactions of the church to applying the gospel to economics and finance seems to fall into camps in my experience. One, a dogmatic approach which focuses on tithing, giving ten percent of one's income to the church. This falls short of what Jesus taught in two ways; giving in concentrated on meeting a requirement, which the Pharisees did, and Jesus criticized. One is not giving from the heart, but to meet a demand. Second, it focuses on institutional giving. Jesus wasn't talking about giving to an institution, but to the poor in general.
On the other hand, some churches tend to ignore the topic altogether. Discussing one's finances in public is not polite. There is the obligatory fall stewardship sermon, but otherwise the topic is generally not brought up. This ultimately fails too. Again, Jesus' teaching is focused on supporting an institution, not subversively created justice in an unjust system. And it allows us to divide our lives before God... Jesus can have my heart, by my wallet is mine.

I have three points I hope to make today about what Jesus taught about Kingdom Economics.
First: the Gospel Favors the poor; Jesus sought out the poor, particularly those enslaved to debt and his message was meant specifically for them as well as a criticism of the wealthy elites.
Second: The way we think of wealth in America today (in many churches) is not really connected to the Bible because we assume that wealth in the property of the individual without connection to a larger community.
Third: Jesus urged his disciples to think of wealth in terms of the community as opposed to the individual. Wealth was a tool for communal good instead of individual right or good.

1. The Gospel Favors the Poor
As we saw a few short weeks ago, Jesus began his ministry in Luke chapter four by proclaiming good news to the poor, the forgiveness of debts and the year of the Lord's favor. Strange we have missed the economics of Jesus message, for when we start to look and listen with open ears, we hear economics everywhere. Jesus began the sermon of the Mount or the Beatitudes with the proclamation of blessing to the poor. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he specifically mentioned debt; 'forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.'
Some of our favorite Jesus stories have economic themes; the Young Ruler who seeks eternal life in Luke... which leads Jesus to encourage him to 'sell all you own and give to the poor.' the Good Samaritan, in which an unlikely foreigner becomes the hero, pays money out of his own pocket to care for the injured Israelite he finds on the road-side. The story of Zacchaeus, who has grown wealthy by collecting taxes for the Romans and defrauding his neighbors. When he meets JEsus he offers to repay those he has defrauded four times what he took and then to liquidate half of his wealth to distribute to the poor. This, Jesus calls salvation. Jesus would describe the Kingdom of God in terms of a King who forgives debt in Matt 18.

Without a doubt in my mind, Jesus meant to be talking about wealth and finance. Debts was not a metaphor, but a real concern for Jesus and he purposely challenged the wealthy elites who grew rich on the labor and oppression of the peasantry. He purposely challenged his disciples to care for the poor and put their very salvation in economic terms.

2. We assume our wealth is our own.
This is a popular concept in our culture, perhaps a bedrock belief. We tend to admire those who build wealth, attian impressive houses, cars, clothes, and retire early to florida or arizona. They have worked hard for their money and deserve to reap the benefits.

Luke 12 tells a story of Jesus in which he tells a parable of a successful businessman. He is so successful that he cannot find enough room for all his harvest. So he goes on an expansive building project to protect his wealth and plan an early retirement. In our cultures terms, he is a success. He did what we see people do with their wealth all the time, expanded, invested, and used for his own benefit. 2000 years ago Jesus told a success story for today... except that JEsus does not let it stay a success story. He has God call this man a fool. He has only considered himself in this parable and the use of his wealth for his own benefit. His view of wealth, which I suggest is not so different from our own... God labels foolish.

Luke 16 contains the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man eats wonderful food and dresses in the finest clothes. We are not told that he was cruel or injust. We are not told that he exploited anyone for his wealth (although it was rare in those days to grow rich without exploitation.) Lazarus sits outside of his gates and waits for the scraps from his table. Both men die. The rich man lands in torment and Lazarus at Abraham's side. The rich man's sin, as I see it anyway, was woeful ignorance of the suffering of the poor. He thought of his wealth as his own and the poverty and suffering of others as having no connection to him. This view of the world lands him in torment. I think these two stories show us that Jesus did not condone a personal and private view of wealth. Both characters in these stories are punished because they only thought of themselves and their wealth. Our money is not simply our own when we pledge ourselves through baptism to the Kingdom of God.

3. Wealth as Communal Salvation
So how did Jesus expect Jesus to think of wealth? Lets get back to our original story in Luke 7. Jesus is eating with a Pharisee, who would not be an elite, a part of the richest in society. But a pharisee would have been much wealthier than the peasantry, wealthy enough to throw a banquet for his friends. These banquets as I understand them were meant to both gain the Pharisee honor among his socio-economic peers, as he impressed them with the fruits of his wealth. This would also perhaps be a chance to gain the eye of someone in the elite class, who he could serve and gain more honor, prestige and wealth. The woman's presence is an offense because she cannot contribute to his honor or his wealth. this dinner is only for the wealthy and influential. His wealth is not meant to benefit her.
But notice that in Jesus story, the character with the highest honor and wealth, the King, is willing to sacrifice his own profit, his own wealth, in order to enable the poorer retainer to survive. Honor and status is gained through generous, even sacrificial sharing of wealth. this is the challenge to the pharisee, who sees his wealth as his own and his honor as tied to his disconnect from the poor. Jesus tells a story in which wealth is shared and honor ascribed to those who associate with and care for the poor.
The Zacchaeus story fits into this economic ethic as well. He gives half of his wealth and pays back four times what he has defrauded. He has put his own wealth and honor in jeopardy in order to benefit his neighbors and his community.
I think even Matthew 25 fits into this ethic. Salvation is given to those who have fed the hungry and clothed the naked. These actions presumably would stake a certain claim on ones own wealth. It would cost those who fed and clothed, and this ethic of sharing for the benefit of the community brings them into the kingdom and the very presence of Jesus.
God Bless You All


Alex said...

I like Luke 6:35. Jesus urges us to lend money and not even care whether we get paid back. Sons of the Most High! A much higher title than Banker! Very cool concept!

Alex said...

Jesus spoke good "Beverly Hills"--

Luke 6:35:

35 "But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked." NIV

Lift up our eyes to the Hills!

Jesus spoke, so we could listen, learn and love! Amen!


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jennifer said...

What Jesus Taught: Economics <---- that's what i was looking for
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