I have met many Christians who say, "The story of a man building an enormous boat to save every type of animal that exists while the entire earth is covered in water is clearly literal and historical." In the next moment, they say, "Jesus' call to radically love our enemies is an ideal that's definitely not meant to be applied universally."
Let's call this "selective reading." Mennonites have a long, beautiful history of saying, "Jesus meant what he said." We try our best to conform our understanding of God and the Bible to Jesus' words. But even we can be guilty of selective reading. I'm referring to the parts of Jesus' ministry where we tend to say things like, "Well, Jesus didn't actually mean we should give our wealth to the poor – he was simply using that as an example."
The topics of money, wealth, and Christian economy are as vital to the rebirth of the Christian church as they are uncomfortable for Christians to talk about. Why? The economy of a faith community should be in stark contrast to empire economics.
The Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament – can help us understand how Jewish culture shaped Jesus' message. In the Old Testament, we find a narrative illustrating a massive contrast between the Israelites' economy and those of the surrounding empires.
In the Exodus story, the Israelites are living as slaves and making bricks that are stored in Pharaoh's warehouses [Exodus 5:6-21 NRSV]. Much like today, we see an empire where the ruling class has an excess of resources and the suffering lower class can't access them. After being liberated from Egyptian society, God establishes new norms for how Israelite society should function.
Instead of hoarding resources like Pharaoh, God commands the Israelites to take only what they need for each day [Exodus 16:4-5, 17-18 NRSV]. Aside from demonstrating God's faithfulness, this prevented hoarding and ensured that everybody would always have enough food.
In Leviticus, God gives more detailed guidelines – instructions about gleaning, the Sabbath, and the year of Jubilee – to prevent the Israelites from becoming like the oppressive empire that once held them in slavery.
John the Baptist prepared for Jesus' message by teaching that repentance must be lived out in our economic choices and how we care for our neighbor [Luke 3:8, 10-14]. When Jesus begins his ministry, he makes it very clear where he stands in terms of participating in the economics of empire.
Jesus was a homeless person: "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" [Matthew 8:20]. And he gleaned for his food [Luke 6]. Being homeless and poor is a significant part of Jesus' message. When Jesus invites us to follow him, it inherently means living with the detachedness of someone who owns nothing.
Jesus also teaches that it's impossible to pursue both God and money. He says we should live with the same "recklessness" as he did. Our preoccupation with everyday needs, such as food and clothing, are a sign of weak faith. It's imperative that we live with the abandon of the birds and flowers, for which God cares faithfully. The things we need will be provided when we pursue God's justice and kingdom, which exists here and now [personal paraphrase of Matthew 6:24-34].
There's so much more Jesus has to say on the issue:
- He tells the religiously-obedient rich young man he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor before joining him [Luke 18:18-23].
- He describes the rich entering God's kingdom as being more impossible than threading a needle with a camel [Mark 10:23-28].
- He teaches that we should "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" because ultimately money is a valueless human construct that is, at best, a tool [Mark 12:13-17].
- He tells the tax collector who gives half his possessions to the poor and repays those from whom he swindled, that his actions bring salvation to his house [Luke 19:1-10].
- In a righteous rage, Jesus destroys the oppressive, capitalistic-driven system in the Temple that kept folks from encountering God [Matthew 21:12-17].
Economic sharing is a reoccurring theme Jesus often spoke about and concretely demonstrated in the way he and his disciples lived.
The early church
One way to test an interpretation of Jesus' teachings is to look at the early churches, who were filled with disciples and folks who actually heard Jesus speak. Their understanding wasn't diluted by years of rationalization or distorted by the eventual Constantinian marriage of Christianity to empire.
In the early church, economic sharing was a defining trait. In Acts 2, it says that church community "met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord's Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity" [Acts 2:42-47 NLT]. The result: God caused the community to grow and prosper, so that "all the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. [...] There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need" [Acts 4:32-35 NLT].
Practical, urban application
So, here's the thing: I feel like I'm a good person. I love my family and spend time with them. I give loads of time to my faith community. I drink fair-trade coffee. I recycle. … I feel I've done more than the average person to show love to marginalized people. But when I am reminded how concerned the ancient Israelites, Jesus, and the early church were about making sure everyone had enough while rejecting the economic values of empire, I'm reminded of how oblivious I am to my own abundance.
I have more than enough. I have three or four pairs of shoes. I have more than a week's worth of clothing in my closet. I like video games, new music, and pants that fit well. None of those things are bad! These stories of communal fasting, returning land, and giving away everything aren't meant to focus on self-deprivation. They're all meant to help us understand what a faith community should look like and what it means to love.
You might ask, "There are people who have so much more than me and people who have so much less. How do I know if I'm doing it right?" Jesus isn't calling us into competition with one another. Jesus wants us to understand what it means to have "enough."
Wrestling with Jesus' call
Gandhi said, "The world has enough for everyone's needs, but not everyone's greed." Aren't many of our "needs" actually "wants" we think we need? Developing our concept of enough is an important journey that exposes an uncomfortable reality: "The more I think I need, the less I'm able to love my neighbor with my wealth."
A clear tension emerges from this topic of Christian economy: a tension between how things are and how they should be. And, while it's imperative that faith communities dive into that tension and wrestle with it, we must first accept that the easiest solution – slight changes in spending habits – can't be the only response because capitalism cannot save us.
For this reason, the solution cannot simply be giving money or donations to charity, because: "Charity isn't justice. Charity accepts the status quo. When we do charity, we give out of our affluence to help the poor; we don't actually sacrifice our affluence to destroy the distinction between the rich and the poor. We mustn't settle for charity when justice is required," says Mark Van Steenwyk, Anabaptist author and activist.
To truly be able to reconcile this tension, we can't simply change systems. The Scripture says we can sell everything we have and give the money to the poor, but if we don't have love, our actions are hollow [1 Corinthians 13:3]. Instead, we must change how we understand love, and we can do this by placing ourselves in relationship with those who can teach us what enough really looks like. Such relationships can be like a mirror to help us know when we're consuming more than we need.
Blessed to be a blessing
I feel very, very blessed, but I know the reason God blesses us is so that we can bless others. Therefore, I refuse to own something that I wouldn't be willing to share or give away.
Common Prayer: A Liturgy of Ordinary Radicals summarizes it beautifully: "For Christians, redistribution comes out of a love of neighbor; to love our neighbor as ourselves means we hold our possessions loosely, for the suffering of another is our suffering, and another's burden is our burden." Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals
NOTE: This blog post touches on ideas that have been around for quite a while. See: Relational Tithe, Inc.'s "Economy of Love" and "The unKingdom of God" by Mark Van Steenwyk.