The Norfolk and Norwich Christian community website

Christian economics and prophetic actions

tenpoundOne way in which the church ought to be countercultural, is in our dealings with money, says Paul Overend.

Christianity has much to teach about economics and the inequality between rich and poor. Jesus teaches about money, both in what he says and in his prophetic deeds.

He advises people to give money away (Mk 6:8 {cf. Mt 19:21, Lk 18:22}, Mk 10:21, Mk 12:41); to be generous to the poor (Lk 14:13-14), to give to beggars (Mt 5:42), and to forgive debts (Lk 7:42, Mt 6:12, Mt 18:23-34). He praises both the rich Zacchaeus for giving half his possessions to the poor (Lk 19:8-9) and the generosity of the poor widow, who gave all she had (Mk 12:42). While he is critical of the rich (Lk 16:19f) and curses them (Lk 6:24), he blesses the poor (Lk 6:20). Indeed, Jesus’ ministry is identified as bringing good news to the poor (Mt 11:5, Lk 4:18): the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty (Lk 1:53). In short, Jesus warns that, “You cannot serve both God and wealth” (Lk 16:13). There is little wonder that those seeking to be perfect sought to live by the evangelical/scriptural counsels of poverty, from Benedictines to Franciscans.

But beneath such obvious references from Jesus about money, there’s more going on. By calling God our ‘Father’, Jesus invites us to be a part of God’s household. (The Greek for household is ‘oikonomia’, from which we get the English word economics.) This invitation was a challenge to the economic and political situation on behalf of the rural Galilean peasant, involving his challenging of Roman patronage (and tribute economics) with an ideal of the (free) patronage of God. Jesus’ turning over of the money changers’ tables is a reminder that in God’s house (and household) access to God should be free, even in the temple’s outer Court of Gentiles. God’s patronage liberated all people from the bonds of debt and tributary tax.

Even Jesus’ attitude to tax is challenging. While he refuses to be trapped for subversion over paying taxes, making his reply initially seem ambiguous (Mt 22:15-23), his actions show his critical intention. In the time in which Jesus lived, Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and of Perea (East of the Jordan), added to the tax burden of his predecessor Herod the Great, who had already taxed grain, for making bread. Herod Antipas raised a new tax, from fishing, to build a new administrative centre at Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee, which was well situated for extracting taxes from fishing. This new tax is quite literally portrayed (in Mt 17:27) when a coin is taken from a fish’s mouth in order to pay the taxes. By the feeding of people with bread and fish, freely sharing these taxed commodities, Jesus’ actions show a theological challenge to colonial administration. God provides these things! Jesus’ prophetic action is akin to Gandhi’s making salt in India in 1930, an action which defied the Salt Laws of the British administration, which held a monopoly on salt manufacture. Jesus’ prophetic action here confronts the imperial-centred politics of tax and control with a god-centred politics – a divine economics – of gift and gratitude. That there are twelve baskets left over not only shows the generosity of God, it symbolises that God provides for his people, the twelve tribes.

Theologically considered, the ordering of God’s household is based on gift, generosity and gratitude, rather than on financial exchange. It is initiated by God: in the gift of Creation; the gift of Christ in both the self-emptying of the Incarnation and Jesus’s own self-giving example on the cross; and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Salvation is based on gift – on grace rather than on merit. We can’t earn grace, that is divine gift. Our response is trust/faith, with our gratitude shown in thanks and praise. There is no hint of our being indebted to God: our response of gratitude is not coerced.

The practice of usury, charging interest on loans, is explicitly condemned by scripture (e.g. Lev 25:36-7, Ex 22:25, Dt 23:19 Ez 18:8-9). The church unanimously endorsed this condemnation until recently. There were condemnations of usury by the ecumenical councils from Nicea (325) to Lateran III (1179). Usury was outlawed in Britain by Edward I (‘Statute of Jewry’ 1275), and condemned even after the Reformation era, by both Pope Benedict XIV (in ‘Vix Pervenit: On Usury and Other Dishonest Profit’ 1745) and in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod’s ‘Die Wucherfrage’ 1869). It is remarkable them that this condemnation was so lightly and quickly cast aside by Christianity, leading to the emergence of capitalism and to Christianity being complicit with secular economic models. Islamic economics has shown that this wasn’t inevitable, and this is a key area of Islamic ethics that offers as a moral critique of Christianity’s acceptance and embracing of capitalism. Why should rich people lending gain at the borrower’s expense? Doesn’t this lead to an economics of indebtedness rather than a theological economics of gift. The consequences of those borrowing from shark loans and international debt demonstrate the abuse of power and control to which usury leads.

The World Council of Churches program on Poverty, Wealth and Ecology challenges present day economic market liberalism. Its work demonstrates that economics is not merely a political and philosophical problem (of economic growth and market fundamentalism) but a theological problem, involving our vision of God, justice, the environment, and requires our own transformation/repentance. Some impressive theological work is being done by the WCC under the title of “Alternative globalization addressing peoples and earth (AGAPE)”, largely by non-western theologians.

The recent AGAPE ‘Call to Action’ (2012) critiques patterns of consumption and  economic inequality, which has inevitably led to environmental exploitation and financial instability, and it calls for a transformative spirituality of engagement. It is born of from the recovery of a distinctive Christian theological and economic vision.
It is an urgent task for Christians to recover a distinctive identity and prophetic witness as God’s people, bringing justice, peace, ‘good news to the poor’, and a right relationship with the earth.

Rev Dr Paul OverendRev Dr Paul Overend is Assistant Priest at Wymondham Abbey

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users.

We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here.

To submit a story or to publicise an event please email: web@networknorwich.co.uk