local church, economic wisdom, neighborly love, common good

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What Is Economic Wisdom?

The best workers make the best neighbors. How can we be generous and caring for our neighbor, whether it's local or global, if we have nothing to be generous with?

You might think, since I'm a pastor, that my most frequent conversations with people are about the struggles in their relationships, marriage, or singleness, which is true. I have a lot of conversations about those things. I also have conversations about people's spiritual struggles, their doubts, their existential angst. But my most common conversation with people actually centers around economics.

One Sunday, for example, an elderly woman in our church shared with me her concern about becoming a financial burden to her family. "Basically, I'm concerned about running out of money," she confided. "I'm not sure I'm going to have enough money for the length of my life. I'm going to run out of money. And I don't want to be a burden to my family."

To me, these conversations make sense because we wake up every morning to an economic world. Perhaps like never before in human history, as far as we know, we live in a global economy that impacts our lives in powerful ways. The latest job reports, housing stats, all that data is watched in nanosecond time around the globe. There's many, many pressures, not only nationally, but globally.

The world needs more than jobs

Several years ago I read an article in The Atlantic, "A World Without Work," by Derek Thompson. He makes this sort of prognostication about the fast growth of artificial intelligence and robotics, writing, "This will exert a slow, but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work." He explains what technology is doing to human work, both positive and negative aspects in terms of how it's disrupting different segments of society.

Technology not only shapes our culture, but work itself. One of the things I hear more and more today is not just, "Does my work matter?" but "Will there be work for me to do? How do I add the value? Can I make it a living wage?" These questions are not new, but are compelling across segments of society. The human need for security never ends.

As followers of Jesus, are we hearing the contemporary cry of the world right now? I believe the gap between faith and our work, between our worship and the world, perhaps is more massive than we imagine.

Jesus’ take on economic flourishing

The gospel speaks into every nook and cranny of life, so how does the Christian faith inform our thinking, our prayers, and our priorities when it comes to the global economy? How does it inform economic opportunity for others? Your work matters, yes, not only to God, but it also matters to my neighbor.

It's possible that in our lack of thought and engagement with the economic challenges of our day, which are massive, we're left with an impoverished understanding of our implications in that. What does loving God and loving your neighbor mean? Does it mean loving our neighbor in the sense of taking them soup when they're sick? Does it mean mowing their lawn when they're on vacation? Yes, these are good things. But Jesus had more in mind when he told us that God's will for our lives as image bearers, in redemption, is to love God and love our neighbor in a seamless way.

The great commandment speaks to the collaborative work we are called to do every day in our modern world. What if neighborly love fuels the economic flourishing, not only of our local neighbor, but our global neighbor?

Jesus spoke powerfully about economic life. We know he spoke a lot about money and work and economics in the first century. Jesus spent the vast majority of his life on this ravaged planet, being a carpenter, making things. That has incredible implications for what we do. It shouldn't surprise us that Jesus' stories are embedded in his vocational world as a carpenter, and the economic life of the first century.

The Good Samaritan: An example to follow

In Luke 15, the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus exemplifies how neighborly love is merely an extension of familial love. Jesus is explicit that the Samaritan does even more in the story, more than you would ever imagine or expect. He offers first aid, which is an expectation. But like the generous father in the parable of the prodigal son, he does even more than offer first aid.

The Samaritan businessman guarantees payment for whatever the robbed and injured man will need in this crisis. If you follow the amount of exchange to the innkeeper, it's a lot of money. In Jesus' story, there is a riveting contrast between the callousness of the religious leaders and the compassion of his businessman. What we often miss is another contrast.

The contrast is set between the economic injustice of the robbers and the economic generosity and compassion of the Samaritan businessman. Jesus goes out of his way in the story to describe not only this compassion of the Samaritan, but also the economic generosity of the Samaritan. The Samaritan not only has compassion, but he has the capacity.

Where did that economic capacity come from to help his needy neighbor? Economic capacity in that century — and in ours — comes from diligent labor and financial stewardship within the economic system of adding value to others. That's how it happens. The gospel empowers us to have neighborly love and transforms not only our work, but also our economic life. The gospel not only addresses our greatest impoverishment, which is clearly spiritual impoverishment, relational impoverishment. But the gospel also presses into economic realities and economic impoverishment in powerful ways. The gospel compels us to live in such a God-honoring way that we do honest work, make an honest profit, cultivate economic capacity, so that we can serve others in their economic needs.

What I think Jesus is saying, in a sense, is that the best workers make the best neighbors. How can we be generous and caring for our neighbor, whether it's local or global, if we have nothing to be generous with? We're all called to be generous with our time, talent, and treasure. We are called to be generous in sharing the gospel, of course, in the workplace with our neighbors. But we're also called to be generous with our financial resources. And they come from diligent labor and wise financial management.

Capacity matters, and it doesn't just happen. It's cultivated. It's nourished. It's directed.

Proximity invokes economic responsibility

We need to know who our neighbor is. Our neighbor is not only who we work with and those who are close to us, our neighbors are those who society says are not our neighbor. Proximity calls for responsibility. It implicates us in a globalized world.

When you think about helping your neighbor, we need to think first about work and how work creates value, how it brings capacity, not only for providing for us, but coming alongside the poor and the under-resourced. Work is never a solitary enterprise. You cannot help your neighbor well if you don't understand economics well.

We live in an economic world. We are tied together through economic life. Human flourishing and economic flourishing go hand in hand.

The greater Samaritan and the church’s future

Jesus is ultimately the loving Samaritan. He would not only risk his life, but lay it down on the cross for you and me because we are all that person left and beaten by the road. We need that fatherly love, that compassion. And we need the sacrifice and his capacity that met our needs. Jesus, again, had both the compassion and capacity.

Jesus is the one, true, good neighbor and he demonstrates his faithful work, not only in the carpentry shop, but also in his sacrificial atoning death on the cross. What does this mean for us? The world is wrestling with economic injustice, crying out for economic flourishing.

The world always needs love, sweet love. Jesus is the ultimate lover of our souls. We point to him. But the world also needs jobs. It needs economic vitality. And the world is crying out for that. What are we doing? What's our response? Are we committed to not only nourish Christ-like compassion, but also work to nourish and expand capacity?

An economist at Harvard, Raj Chetty, in a Wall Street Journal article, described the greatest need, writing that, "The greatest need in many of our communities is vibrant local schools and vibrant local churches."

Remember my elderly friend, the one concerned about not being a burden to her family? Her concerns, while valid, do not have to be the end of the conversation. It is one of the most amazing opportunities for the gospel, in a time when the church is marginalized in many ways, for churches to play a vital role in our communities. Jesus' teaching on the great commandment compels us to think not only about our compassion but our capacity, about how we can level economic wisdom for the good of our neighbors.

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