I’m not sure you’d get a good hearing these days if you told people to consider birds and wild flowers as financial indicators. But when Jesus talks about economics in the Kingdom of heaven that is exactly what he does. He tells his disciples to consider the birds and the lilies of the field and that they will teach us about where to find financial security. The kind of security we need to put God’s kingdom first in our lives. It’s something that we desperately need to hear a fresh today.
“The restoration of the church” says Deitrich Bonhoeffer ,“ will surely come from a new kind of community, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”
Nowhere is that more relevant for the church and Christians in western culture than Jesus teaching on economic priorities in the second half of Matthew chapter 6.. Martin Luther sums up very well the challenge that we face, he said that where ever the gospel is preached two plagues arise against it, false teaching, that assaults right thinking and sir greed that assails right living.
There is a new urgency also to re-examine Jesus teaching on economics as we face the ever growing reality of the global village we live in. “The world’s population is mushrooming’ says John Stott,” and the economic problems of the nation’s become more complex, the rich are still getting richer, the poor poorer,’ a situation that God’s spirit will no longer allow us to turn a blind eye to.” These problems are not just across the world anymore, they are part of our city and our neighbourhoods here and now. There is also the realisation that how we live is no longer sustainable ecologically.
At an even more basic level Jesus calls his followers to live differently than the world around them. When it came to spirituality it was to be different than the Pharisees that spiritual disciplines were about intimate trust not public performance. When it came to finances Jesus contrasts his way to that of the gentiles whose focus was on their material goods and needs. When it comes to economics we live with that prevailing gentile worldview today. Our identity is primarily that of a consumer, we live in a consumer society… we are tutored says Rodney Clapp that people basically consist of unmet needs that can be appeased by commodified goods and experiences.’ That the consumer should think first and foremost about meeting their own needs.
Jesus uses the metaphor of treasure, vision and slavery to call us to choose a different way to live.
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It needs noting Jesus is not challenging us about providing for ourselves and family, he teaches us to pray ‘give us today our daily bread’. The scriptures affirm good stewardship and hard work. Nor is he denying that the world is full of good things to enjoy. But the question is where are the important things for us, what is our priority, what are investing our resources, time and energy into. What are we accumulating?
When it comes to accumulating treasure, why says Jesus would you spend all your time and money on things that will rust and rot and get stolen? We’ve been burgled four times in the four years we’ve lived where are now. I can attest to the fact that stuff gets taken.
Rather says Jesus invest in heavenly things. Things of eternal value, that can’t get taken away, that won’t rot that won’t rust or tarnish. There of course has been some debate on what Jesus means here. What are treasures in heaven?
Firstly heaven is where God lives and reigns now. It is not the idea of putting aside stuff for our ultimate retirement to glory, or so we can buy a better room in Our fathers house.
Secondly, It is not the idea of the church in the middle ages that there was an economy of merit, that the good things we did earned us brownie points for God that we could earn our salvation, or at least buy ourselves and our loved ones relief from purgatory. Jesus has already shown us that the Kingdom of God is a grace economy. Our suffering our merit doesn’t buy us in.
The clues to what this means comes from the Lord’s prayer, where we are invited to pray first and foremost, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That we invest in those things, we work on developing a godly character, we invest in relationships, we deal with the blot on the name of God that poverty and injustice is in this world, we get alongside the poor hungry and thirsty physically and spiritually and let them know and experience the good news of God’s grace. That we simplify our lives and lifestyle, to care for our neighbour. We realise we have what we have to share it with those in need.
Jesus then talks about our vision. I remember hitching back from a friends place one night in the Waitakere rangers and I got picked up by an old guy in a Citroen DS21. As we drove through the dark windy scenic drive I began to wonder if I was going crazy. The headlights didn’t keep pointing straight ahead they swivelled and pointed where the steering wheel was turning. It was I discovered Citroën’s directional headlights. It’s a great illustration of what Jesus is getting at when he talks about our bodies and lives going where we fix our eyes on, just as the headlights gave the impression of pointing the way the car was to go.
There is that phrase people often use when it comes to shopping.. “I’ve had my eye on that for quite a while’. Right (whose said that) Adverts are made to be eye-catching. They bombard our senses with what we should buy. I was in a doctors waiting room and I found a magazine which had he byline ‘all about the good life’ the whole thing was about the most prestigious car to own the best jewellery to buy, the best fashion to wear the best luxury holiday destination. It was full of ads that imagined the good life as being about these consumer goods. I found myself fascinated, fixated. Jesus reiterates his teaching on treasure by saying that our lives will go where our focus is. That can be on the things of this world or as the book of Hebrews encourage us running the race with our eyes fixed on the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ. When focused on that light can we really settle for the dark emptiness of things.
Then Jesus turns to say you can’t serve God and mammon (or wealth). Ronald Sine says that this generation of young people at University now are going the first generation since the second world war who will not have a better standard of living than their parents. They will not be able to afford to live in the kind of homes that they were brought up in.’ He goes on to say if they decide that that is their goal, it will consume all their time and energy simply to achieve it.’ They will have nothing left for anything else. Even the good Christian folk. That’s a good definition of serving the master of mammon. We are seeing that at the moment in our neighbourhoods, in many homes the need for both partners to work full time to service a mortgage, while paying off student loans. house prices spiralling upward. Sine suggests that the time has come for Churches to point to a new model for housing. Living simply, living communally. Sadly I fear that the church is unable to do that because we have for years been trying to prove Jesus wrong trying to serve both God and money.
This is going to be contentious, but church buildings can be a good example of that. Winston Churchill said that you spend time shaping a building then you spend the rest of your life being shaped by the building. It’s easy for a community of faith to be caught in the dilemma of servicing a building or serving Christ. Buildings can be a great help to mission and equally a hindrance. Like with all matters of economics we need to keep asking what is our priority where is our treasure, who is the master we serve?
Now Jesus moves to show us a different way to live, the right place to invest and to find financial security.
He invites his followers to consider the sparrows that do not sow or reap but rather trust their heavenly father to feed them. It was great as I was wrestling with this passage this week to look out my window and see birds coming and getting a drink and having a bath in the bird bath in the garden outside my window. They show us says Jesus that we can trust our heavenly father who knows our needs even before we ask him. We are more important than sparrows to God and we can rap and sow, so we should not worry about those things. And says Jesus can anyone actually add another day to their lives by such worrying. In fact modern medical science tells us that anxiety and worry can do just the opposite.
Likewise says Jesus don’t worry about what you will wear, I mean consider the lillies and flowers in the field, they are here today and gone tomorrow but not even king Solomon looked so wonderful as they do. Trusting God enables us to have financial security that God cares and God provides. Yes Christians have responsibilities and need to work and will have troubles, Jesus tells his disciples that today has enough worries of it own, but by being prepared to trust God for our daily needs we have the freedom to focus on the god stuff; The important stuff, the eternal kingdom of God stuff. It enables us to focus on justice rather than just us, the concerns of others rather than our own comfort. To make decisions about what we need and what is really an unnecessary luxury.
Some people like St Francis of Assisi have taken Jesus literally in this and turned their backs on the society of his time, stripping off even the clothes of his rich merchant family to trust God and walking off naked to follow Jesus. We might think that radical and crazy but Francis ignited one of the most amazing revivals in church history. Thousands of people have followed him and committed their life to following Jesus and living a simple life caring for the poor, Franciscans can be seen in every nation round the world today serving Jesus.
Living simply and communally is growing round the world, there is a new monasticism people take that trust and priority in the kingdom of God to downsize and go and live in the harder neighbourhoods to be light and salt there. Others simply live simply so they can give sponsor children, develop a compassion budget and share what they have with other people.
Jesus is short on nuts and bolts on this passage. The call is for us to take Jesus seriously when he challenges about our priorities. Economics is where the rubber hits the road. In Luke’s gospel discipleship is measured by how deep it impacts on our pockets. More than anywhere else how we differentiate ourselves from our materialistic consumer society shows that we are not just living that lifestyle that Shane Claiborne calls , the western dream with Jesus sprinkles.