Justice and love, not -isms: how Christians should think about money

Once a week, I go to a pastor’s Bible study where we look at the texts assigned in the lectionary for the coming Sunday. (A lectionary is a yearly cycle of readings used in worship, designed to ensure that a wide variety of texts are heard each week; Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, many Methodists and Presbyterians, and others around the world use the three-year Revised Common Lectionary.)

This Sunday’s gospel text is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, in which the kingdom of heaven is compared to a vineyard where all the laborers are paid the same amount, whether they worked all day or came late, and the laborers who worked the longest complain about the unfairness of the wage scale. Because by human logic, it is unfair—and we like unfairness when it’s in our favor, but complain and get jealous when it’s in someone else’s favor. God’s grace is incredibly unfair—no one can earn salvation, no one is good enough to be saved on their own merit. We benefit from God’s grace, and then complain when the same benefits go to those less worthy than ourselves, as if we earned them and they didn’t.

This group of pastors discussed God’s grace for a few minutes, and then started dealing with the economic implications of the parable. How does God want us to organize our money? How does capitalism compare with this parable? How does socialism compare with this parable? How would market forces be affected if we were to live according to this parable?

As I listened to them talk, I realized the questions were good questions, but shared the same underlying flaw: they assumed that God’s “economy,” God’s views of money, fit within our own systems of how we understand and deal with money. Everyone likes to assume that God agrees with them; it’s comforting, and means you don’t have to rethink your opinions. (Oh, we say we agree with God, but often what we really mean is that God agrees with us, particularly if we haven’t approached our faith and our Bible studies with an open mind and heart.) But God is greater and deeper than we can understand, and can never fit neatly within our prejudices. God is neither a capitalist, nor a socialist, nor any other –ist.

So what’s this got to do with the economy, you ask? During the history of Christianity, various groups have tried for a time to live lives perfectly fitting God’s will; the Biblical example is in Acts, where the first believers held all things in common and shared with all as each needed. But humans being sinful creatures, no such attempt has lasted long before greed, jealousy, and laziness have interfered. That’s why we have human-designed economic systems such as capitalism and socialism and others today.

The thing is, God’s primary concern isn’t money, except how justice and love are affected by it. When you think about money, ask yourself these questions: am I using my money justly? Am I using it to support systems that are just or unjust? Am I using all the resources God has given me (money included) for just causes and out of love for my fellow human beings, or am I using it selfishly, for myself alone? What can I do with what I have to further spread love and justice in the world?

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