The Freakonomics of Jesus

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Righteousness before God is possessed only by grace and that through the currency of faith.

Fasting, giving, devotional and family life, reputation as salt and light: all the things that have preceded Matthew 6:24 in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount involve the discovery of who you are through whom you serve. The Lord himself states it as plainly as possible: Kingdom people “cannot serve God and money.” So take inventory of priorities — how is time spent, and what holds your principal concern? To be rich and God’s servant invites problems. To be sure, money is merely a contrivance and not an “evil” per se. But “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) because we cannot serve two masters. The problem isn’t it but us. The issue with God and money is about the heart’s desire and the godly ordering of our wealth and power.

There are challenges, however, not only with idolizing money but also the rejection of the goodness of creation. Jesus saves us from the sinfulness of both and endows us with his Spirit to walk in after his manner when it comes to stewardship of wealth and power.

There’s room for optimism here. The disciple resolved “to lose his life for [Christ’s] sake” (Matt. 10:39) is not determined by wealth or power but determines how their wealth and power may be serviceable to the kingdom and take great joy in generosity. Baptism brings a transition from the realm of idolatry to the domain of Christ. New heart. New mind. Some Christians are so astonishingly liberated from the potential lording of money over their souls that they live by the Biblical maxim, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). They joyfully give from the abundance which they’ve received. Biblical examples abound, with Lydia being among the most well-known in the New Testament (Acts 16:11-15, 40; Phil. 4:2). She understood the issue of allegiance was a matter of love, just as Jesus taught: one love, one master. All things are received from his hand with thanksgiving. All things are available to his service.

James K. A. Smith, in the tradition of St. Augustine, identifies the correlation between loves and habits, whereby our loves condition our habits that evidence who or what we worship, namely the object that lords over our hearts. In turn, who or what we worship determines who or what we are, for we become what we worship; we are transformed into the image of our worship. [2] A life habituated toward money externalizes our habituated idolatry, revealing a life under the mastery of money and diminished by its values and deceits.

Who or what we worship determines who or what we are, for we become what we worship;

When it comes to love and allegiance, Jesus speaks unambiguously in the Sermon on the Mount: wealth is a thorny problem since it breeds idolatry. As N. T. Wright put it, riches, from a biblical point of view, are an affliction, an almost insuperable obstacle to entering the kingdom of heaven. [3] Our pursuit of health and happiness by way of wealth is bad for those who succeed by the standards of capitalism as well as for those who fail by its standards if, for no other reason, we’re incapable of serving two masters. [4]

Living in the West, even with runaway inflation, the vast majority of Christians are glutted with excess. Recoiling from contemporary greed and wastefulness to serve only our Master Jesus slouches toward austerity: a life of frugality and deprivation. This position, too, can be sinful in its world-denying minimalism. Indeed, repudiating the goodness of creation and the fullness thereof bespeaks of another idolatry: spiritualism at the expense of physicality and God’s commitment to a bourgeoning new creation beginning with the resurrection of Jesus the Son.

In Matthew 6:24-34, Jesus provides commentary on the Lord’s Prayer: the disciple’s life is one lived in such a way as to know what it means to ask for our daily bread. The disciple knows all they really need has already been provided by the Savior of the world. We need atonement. We need representation and substitution. We need forgiveness from God and perfection before the law. We need the way, the truth, and the eternal life. Jesus, then, is our daily bread in the ultimate sense. For he is “the Bread of Life” (John 6:35). Christ’s self-reference invokes the word of God and the Sacraments since he himself is “the Word made flesh” and the Sacrament that sacramentalizes the sacraments with his incarnate self-giving (John 6:51). And yet, as the world’s rightful and reigning King — the Christ of God — it belongs to him to provide for the material needs of his people. Jesus says as much: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matt. 6:31-32). The Gentiles, in love with wine and sex and power and wealth, have made idols of these things: Bacchus, Aphrodite, Zeus, Plutus, and Janus. This prompts the summary and climatic last verse of Matthew 6: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (v.33).

The point Jesus makes is more subtle for modern ears and less so for his contemporaries. We need a Lord who operates by an entirely different economy. Wealth, of course, is tethered to power. To have wealth is to wield power. To have power is to control wealth. In this way, the days of the first disciples are no different than our own. The gods (read: idols) of antiquity are still with us. It’s just that they go by more innocuous names. Jesus’ teaching on wealth, then, just like his teaching on baptism and Holy Communion, posits a hotly political challenge: God or Caesar (that is, any and all structures dominated by Caesar). Caesar, of course, was the most powerful, the wealthiest person in the Roman Empire. Caesar controlled all trade, all taxation, and all economic factors. Consequently, even feigned patronage to Caesar was life and salvation. No, you can’t serve God and money.

Yet, even this misses the deeper subtly: The Jews sought economic freedom every bit as much as geopolitical independence. They rejected the idolatry of Roman coinage (and yet hypocritically possessed and used it, as Jesus exposed in Luke 20:22-26) and used Jewish mintage in Temple transactions. As part of the Maccabean revolution (167-160 BC) and the First Jewish Revolt (68-69 BC), the Judeans minted their own coinage as a mark of sovereignty. In Jesus’ day, Lepta (sg. lepton), bronze coins minted by the Hasmonean (Maccabean) Dynasty, were prized, not because of their value (they were low-quality and nearly worthless), but because of what they represented. Jesus seems to be addressing, as he so frequently does, a sphere of misplaced trust and failing Jewish hopes: “You Zealots and Pharisees longing for revolution, no, you cannot serve God and money.” An economy of grace would be the revolution brought about by the Christ of God.

The Lord’s dictum, then, is rightly characterized as subversive to the prevailing power structures in its call to unconditional allegiance to him. As he powerfully spoke to his auditors then, so he speaks in the word of God to us today. Jesus threatens the ideologies of those who rule when, by his Spirit, he turns the loves—i.e., the hearts—of his people from the structures of wealth to the One who is our righteousness. Jesus’ people will not be possessed by possessions or the possessors. To seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness is to discover that which is given to us, not that which is achieved or curried as favor (especially in kiss-up prestige societies with strata of status): grace, not gain. Jesus’ words that we worry not about tomorrow because today’s trouble is enough is not just good advice but wisdom that reflects the character of God’s new creation manifest in Christ’s life and ministry. To live without anxiety about fleeting manufactured structures and systems is to live as a new creation, to know real peace and joy, no matter what’s in your bank account.

Jesus’ people will not be possessed by possessions or the possessors.

Jesus teaches us what it means to live in faith toward God for things necessary (forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation) but also needful things (food, drink, clothing, etc.). The domain where the two intersect is the kingdom of God on Earth: the holy Church where Jesus is present as “our righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). Here, the Lord provides the baptized with a community of trust where mutual sharing, giving, and caring are to take place concerning the overlapping spheres of necessity and need. Jesus moves “all these things” that we need into the realm of his divine care, undermining the allurement to idolatry by prioritizing our love and, therefore, habits of worshipful pursuit. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Christ is our righteousness.

Of course, the final conflict between Jesus and money occurs on the Holy Cross. Satan, lusting for divine power, uses money, in fact, thirty silver coins paid from the Jewish Temple treasury (Matt. 26:14-15), as the bargaining price by his betrayer, Judas. Every dimension of the Temple, now, including its monetary payment system for tithing, prescribed redemption prices, and the like, is judged and rendered defunct. With his own blood, Jesus will pay the price of ransom (Mark 10:48), which fully satisfies the divine economy. Righteousness before God is possessed only by grace and that through the currency of faith. Whereas the Temple money led to suicide, the atonement led to salvation. Serving money brings death. Love of God is life. The world’s economic systems are thus turned on their heads. What the King accomplishes with the payment of his own precious blood, he now freely gives in the proclamation of grace and gifts in holy baptism.

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isa. 55:1-3)