By J. Mark Bowers, reprinted from the Chalmers Center. Part two of two.
What is God’s economic ideal for us? When we look back at the gleaning laws (Leviticus 19, Deuteronomy 24), we see God’s vision for how his people’s resources should build communal justice. Grounded in trust that Yahweh is the owner and sustainer of all, his people were free to leave the edges of their fields unharvested in faith, choosing to make less profit, yet creating access to work and livelihood for the poor, immigrant and widow. Along the same lines, the Sabbath commands allowed both people and the land to rest. Sabbath required God’s people to relinquish profit maximization as the ultimate goal; economic growth could only be good and right if it allowed rest and health for people, animals and even the land itself. This is where the consumerism of American culture, exported to the rest of the world in the name of growth and development, really departs from God’s design. In the economics of his kingdom, more does not always mean better.
At closer examination, the biblical authors link the exile of God’s people to their failure to practice God’s laws, which were meant to give a foretaste of the shalom that Jesus will one day bring to his world. The warnings of the prophets tell all. God’s people were on the hook to use their resources to foster justice for the whole community, but they didn’t trust him. Instead, because they were obsessed with their own prosperity and comfort, the prophets say: they built their homes by injustice, denied the poor their wages, and “added house to house until they lived alone in the land” (Isaiah 5:8). Isaiah mourns: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard; your houses are full of things stolen from the poor. How dare you crush my people, grinding the faces of the poor into the dust?” (Isaiah 3:15). Financial health for God’s people requires faith, interconnectedness, and generosity – an upside-down vision for money that aims at so much more than individual prosperity.
The ultimate goal for God’s people in financial stewardship is not upward mobility or personal security, but trust. We need no longer fear scarcity, for he is the king, the abundant owner of all. The kingdoms of this world teach us to grip tighter to what we have. In their economies of scarcity, they cling to the security of wealth. The kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus who embodied God’s economic vision for our lives, stands in stark and beautiful contrast to the world’s culture of fear and scarcity. Mirrored to God’s vision in the Old Testament, the way of Christ invites us to trust that Yahweh really does own all things on heaven and earth. Our good master invites his children to live as his managers in his kingdom economy of abundance.
How do we begin to live out God’s economic way, seeking financial shalom together?
At the Chalmers Center, we believe Faith & Finances is a great place to start this conversation. Through Faith & Finances, hundreds of local churches in North America are wrestling with these questions together, starting communities of financial learning across economic lines. Followers of Jesus at all income levels are rethinking their goals for finances in line with God’s larger story, redefining financial health as restored community.
Faith & Finances casts an upside-down vision for money management – engaging the difficult tension of being in the world, yet not of the world. We encourage learners to use financial best practices, yet remain open to the reality that Almighty God sometimes makes foolish the wisdom of the world. On one hand, we use best practices in managing and growing our money, and yet on the other, our wealth is not managed for the same goals as the culture around us. On the surface, the way God’s people manage money does mirror conventional wisdom at times – in setting savings goals, managing risk, tracking expenses and avoiding debt. Yet, for God’s people, the ultimate end for financial stewardship is not wealth or security, but to learn to trust him as the owner of all things.
In our years of doing this work, we’ve found that financial education is a form of discipleship – not a program or class, but a journey. Like any voyage, the process of learning together can be as valuable as the outcomes. Knowledge and practice are interwoven as a new community forms.
The greatest stories of change coming out of Faith & Finances are those where people of different income levels, races and backgrounds are coming together to form upside-down communities. They share knowledge and develop relationships, reversing the trends of economic segregation that plague our nation. In the United States today, our citizens are increasingly likely to share a neighborhood only with people whose household income mirrors their own. This makes Americans today increasingly likely to interact, build relationships, and form alliances solely with people who are most economically similar to them.
As the neighborhood landscape of mainstream culture conforms to these new divisions, we envision God’s people bucking the trends of growing class segregation. We long for Yahweh’s ancient vision, made flesh in the coming kingdom of Jesus and the establishment of his church, where the haves and the have-nots are bound in community to each other.
Financial shalom happens when people of all income levels come to trust God, and not ourselves, as provider. Much of financial education material today is laden with individualistic messages that will not lead us to restored community. Social mobility is a tempting, easy motivator for promoting good stewardship; however, workaholism, hoarding, and self-reliance are not fruits of God’s kingdom, but cultural messages of autonomy.
Financial flourishing is one sign of God’s provision – not the end result of this work. In context, the teachings and parables of Jesus about wealth, possessions, and the kingdom of God don’t make sense as messages of individual fulfillment, try as we may to fit them into that mold. In this bigger vision of financial education, we need to look beyond teaching people who are materially poor to become middle class; instead, together, we must strive toward God’s larger work of redeeming all things – encouraging upper-class, middle-class and low-income people alike to fill the unique roles God has created them to play with their money.