Jesus’ Economy

Did Jesus of Nazareth have anything to say about money and the economy? Anything relevant to today?

The answers are yes and yes! Seven observations are made by the master – all of which are relevant to issues ranging from the U.S. fiscal cliff to European recovery to Chinese protection of intellectual property. Here they are – seven economic guidelines that still echo true today:

  1. Incentivize work. Incentives are like a double edge sword. As Jesus said when sending out his followers to cure the sick among the towns of the land: “the laborer deserves to be paid.” That’s the positive message – reward those who put forth the effort. If this is the carrot, there is also the stick or disincentive applied to those who don’t perform. Describing his followers as branches of a tree of which he is the trunk or the vine, Jesus warns: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
  2. Budget in advance. Rhetorically, Jesus asks: For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him,saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?
  3. Help those in need, but be realistic about the results. No question about it, Jesus was an advocate for those of lesser means and the outcasts of society, calling out: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
    Here or nearby - overlooking the Sea of Galilee - is where Jesus delivered his time-honored Sermon on the Mount. He blessed the poor (or the poor in spirit) and also counseled quick reconciliation with adversaries.

    Here or nearby – overlooking the Sea of Galilee – is where Jesus delivered his time-honored Sermon on the Mount. He blessed the poor (or the poor in spirit) and also counseled quick reconciliation with adversaries.

    But while we can aspire to do better, the issues of poverty and inequality will never be fully solved. Jesus the realist observes: “The poor will always be with you.” Help those who can not do it on their own and those ready help themselves – with a helping hand. Or as he would say to one seeking healing: “Take up your bed and walk.”

  4. Get your fair share, no less and no more. As Jesus is reported to have said (by the non-canonical but very early Gospel of Thomas): Give the emperor (i.e., government) what belongs to the emperor, give God (i.e., charity) what belongs to God, and give me (we know what that means) what is mine.” The right balance of payment is subject to negotiation (essentially a market transaction). But government would be well advised to follow in the footsteps of the Master who suggested that: “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
  5. Expect return on investment. While Jesus suggested that wealthy followers sell their possessions and give to the poor, he also counseled prudence. In a well known parable (or story) told by Jesus, a wealthy nobleman rewards two servants who invest on the nobleman’s behalf and generate a profit back to the owner while punishing a third servant who stored his share of investment money in a handkerchief, avoiding loss but showing no return. For Jesus, the moral of the story is very simple and stark: “to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”
  6. Live abundantly – and for the moment. With money, Jesus suggested a long-term view. With life, he offered a different perspective, saying: “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” For some, the abundance might be monetary. For most, abundance of life will be found in the realm of relationships with others and with the divine rather than economic success. And he made clear that life is about the here and now:

Don’t worry and ask yourselves, “Will we have anything to eat? Will we have anything to drink? Will we have any clothes to wear?”Only people who don’t know God are always worrying about such things. Your Father in heaven knows that you need all of these. But more than anything else, put God’s work first and do what he wants. Then the other things will be yours as well.

  1. Settle disputes quickly. Jesus makes this clear in the context of clearing one’s conscience before spiritual worship. He advises to be first reconciled with your adversary with these words: “Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.”

If there is a single them running throughout the kingdom economy of Jesus, it is summed up by what his perhaps his best known saying: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

And so it should be two millennia later, whether struggling fiscal cliff issues in the U.S., continued financial crisis in the European Union, piracy of intellectual capital in China, or even those warring factions in hot spots like Syria and Afghanistan.

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