Economics of the Reign

Biblical Text: Matthew 25:14-30
Full Sermon Draft

The text is the parable of the talents. We have trouble reading this today I think because the word talent itself has become on English word with a meaning. A specific gloss of this parable is part of our language just in the use of that word, talent. What this sermon attempts to do is hear the parable in parallel with last weeks, and not just accepting the embedded gloss. I did that because that embedded gloss skips the gospel. It delivers the moral punch without pondering the reason why. To me the talents is all about our big choice in this life. Who is God? Is God hard and capricious and untrustworthy, or his He full of steadfast love? Is the economics of the kingdom about scarcity or about love? The amount of talents, the returns, the numbers that catch our attention are so much yawn. What the Lord is interested in is the attitude of our hearts towards him. Do we trust him to do what he’s promised, or not? Are we fearful, or faithful?

A Picture of the Kingdom – Psalm 128

Psalms BonhoefferWe’ve been studying the Psalms. Originally following Bonhoeffer’s little book, but breaking off toward the end to look at a couple of Psalms of the day or those incorporated into the introit. But I’ve been casting around for a way to wrap up the study. For the one group I settled on the Songs of Ascent.

The Songs of Ascent were sung as you went up to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feasts. You have one scriptural picture of such a pilgrimage in the story of the 12 year old Jesus in the temple in Luke 2:41-52. There are a bunch of psalms so labeled right around number 128. And we imagined their catechetical use in the vein of Deuteronomy 6:7. Instead of answering “are we there yet?” and “how much further?” questions (although I sure those came up as well), as you walked by the way Dad might say Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD. And there are all kinds of questions that could be asked or suggested. We happened to look at what does ‘to fear’ mean in class, but what does blessed mean or who is included in everyone are just two others off the top of my head. Son, what do you think the blessing of the LORD looks like? Then sing the rest of the psalm and it answers the question.

Psalm 128:1-6
A Song of Ascents.
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.

The LORD bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!

The blessing of the Lord is: 1) peace, 2) useful and profitable labor, 3) Fruitful family life, 4) Good times for the people of God. Son, if you want to walk in the way of the Lord and live a good life, seek these things.

One of the things that I brought up was to what extent does that describe now and to what extent is the psalmist calling for the coming kingdom? Bonhoeffer’s key thought remember is that the psalms are OT prayers that reflect the Lord’s Prayer. And one of the points, taken by the class to greater or lessor degrees, was eating the fruit of the labor of your hands. My grandfather did this explicitly. He was so blessed. But this is something that at least from my perspective has been disappearing from our society. It is not even the goal often anymore. The goal is more to find a place to erect a toll booth or game the system by taking pieces of the labor of others. This is not a criticism of real capitalism. The trader buying for x and selling for y performs labor of either transport, discovery or just taste. It is a criticism of taking from x to give to y. If y is poor and needy, x should be moved to Christian charity. But to have z take from x, while taking a slice for himself ever bigger, in the name of y is not a blessing. And it eventually erodes that first blessing of peace as x, y and z all queue up to argue instead of doing useful and profitable labor. This can be fulfilled here to a greater or a lessor extent, but its true fulfillment is in the New Jerusalem. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Pastor Wilson looks at the effects of this in a “News this morning” way by way of Cyprus. A perfect example of not eating the fruit of your labor but losing peace arguing over other people’s labor.

Then the Cyprus debacle happened. The European Union demanded that bank accounts in Cyprus take “a haircut” in exchange for the next bailout, though they are now signaling “flexibility” on the issue because their stealing appeared to be stealing to too many people. We shall see what happens. I suspect that flexibility simply means slippery. Now bank accounts used to be private property, pure and simple, but not any more — whatever happens.

And you probably don’t need to be reminded that the money that was going to be used to bail out Cyprus was money that was stolen from somebody else, oh, weeks ago, and so we will not let that detain us. So the Cypriots wanted this bailout, see, paid for by some German sap or other, and they had a bunch of plump bank accounts of their own just sitting there. What did you expect?

When you attempt to govern a society of thieves with an elite corps of thieves trying to manage the whole affair, sooner or later a fight is going to break out over the swag. We are probably past the point of no return, and Europe most certainly is.

Have Some Respect for Yourself

I’m not naive about such things, but ask yourself – can you see George Washington, Abe Lincoln or Calvin Coolidge getting rewarded like this reported by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post (no GOP hack source there)…

Lew, who was White House chief of staff while Obama’s campaign was pummeling Romney over his pay and taxes, received a $945,000 bonus in January 2009 after a brief tenure at Citigroup — just as the bank announced huge losses and took a taxpayer bailout. Lew also invested $56,000 in a Citigroup venture-capital fund registered in the Cayman Islands — registered in the very building, in fact, that Obama labeled “the largest tax scam in the world.”

We used to have a series of words for such “bonuses”: graft, payback, bribes, corruption. The reward used to be a 6×9′ cell or at least retirement to private life.

The loopy signature man’s reward? The seat of Alexander Hamilton. Of course that was recently held by Tim Geithner, famous for not paying his income tax, so like the dollar, that seat might not be worth as much as it once was.

And Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), an outspoken foe of offshore tax havens, helped Lew defend himself…

Just a quick check, stuff like this actually seems important to God. Look at Deuteronomy 25:15. The promise of the land is attached to using honest weights in economic matters.
(Leviticus 19:36) Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.
(Deuteronomy 25:13) Do not have two differing weights in your bag–one heavy, one light.
(Deuteronomy 25:15) You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
(Proverbs 11:1) The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are his delight.
(Proverbs 16:11) Honest scales and balances are from the LORD; all the weights in the bag are of his making.
(Proverbs 20:10) Differing weights and differing measures– the LORD detests them both.
(Proverbs 20:23) The LORD detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him.
(Micah 6:11) Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?

They think we are stupid. And as far as I can tell they are right. But getting better would require having a moral space to stand on, and being willing to use it. Since they’ve convinced everyone the the Scriptures are fusty old things, Christian orthodoxy is hate, and that they have the higher enlightened morality, this is what we get. Nero fiddled while Rome burned and then he blamed the Christians.

Three Interesting Items

1) From the Economic Files, Tyler Cowen injecting a heavy word into the discussion. I think he (maybe Academic Economists in general?) might be stumbling back to a more fundamental understanding of the economy. I remember studying all these models and even building some in prior work and they all worked pretty well, until they didn’t. That didn’t work phase was usually because something big had changed, but if you are focusing on your model and that quarter or even worse that month, you didn’t empirically know what the big things was. You knew it in your gut, but everyone would say, “no, stick with the model for now.”

Trust was broken, most of all in the financial system, but like a wet spill this has soaked into many parts of the economy and polity…In one very real sense, the economy is well below potential output (though less than many people think, due to the great stagnation). In another very real sense, that gap cannot be exploited in the short run by reflationary policy. Once again, it requires a reestablishment of trust. Trust is more easily broken than repaired.

[If you want to see a prime example of the moral blindness, or the unwillingness to consider more fundamental things such as trust, take a look at the comments which take Dr. Cowen to task for using a morally laden word, trust.]

2) An emotionally tough family reflection about the results of the way we live now. This is the story that would go along with last Sunday’s sermon. This is also part of the call of the church to bind the wounds. This generation’s wounds are deep and possibly fatal.

What strikes me most powerfully about the defenders of the sexual revolution is their immovable abstraction. Always the matter is couched in terms of rights, or individual desires—what I want, what I may pursue. That this sexual laissez-faire destroys the common good, by undermining families and rotting whole neighborhoods from within, seems not to matter. Honest sociologists can give us the numbers, of children growing up without fathers or mothers, of the incidence of venereal diseases, of births out of wedlock, of delinquency and crime. I think instead of the people I have known.

3) An editor at Real Clear Religion (part of the burgeoning empire of Real Clear X sites) is thinking along the same lines as I was on the Pew Survey finding more “nones”. The biggest difference is that they don’t think that compounding effect across generations has happened, where I ended in saying that is exactly what we are seeing right now. The statistical numbers are just catching up with the reality. He ends with this.

Fischer’s take was that the Pew survey is basically reinforcing the poll results that they’d worked with a decade ago. And he offers this thought:

“One open question is when this becomes self reinforcing — when the ‘nones’ raise no-religion children, when the cultural climate changes.”

To me, the latest Pew survey brings to mind the chorus of an old union organizing song: “Which side are you on boys? Which side are you on?”

Political and religious pressure from the right is pushing folks who once would have been happy to sit in the middle to pick a side. And increasingly, the side they pick is away from religion.

What he doesn’t address is if that is a good or a bad thing. Is that a call for further gap straddling? Or is that a recognition of Jesus saying things like “I’ve not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matt 10:34). The nature of gospel is to cause a division.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Text: Joel 2:12-19

Joel is one of the 12 short little books at the end of the Old Testament. 12 so called minor prophets. And we don’t really know when he wrote. The best guess is that he is early. He is the 2nd of the 12 short prophets which are thought to be roughly chronological. But the larger historical situation might not be that important to hearing Joel’s message. The immediate event that spurs his prophecy was a plague of locusts of unusual size. One day the field are ripening, a good harvest looks probable, fair winds are blowing…and the next those winds bring uncontrollable clouds that devour what was so promising.

Fathers hide the remaining wheat from wives and children – because they need seed for the planting. The daily bread becomes not so daily. The rich and privileged bail themselves out, while the poor are left to glean after the insects.

What was probably shocking to Joel’s original listeners was that he described God as being at the forefront of that army of locusts. That the plague of locusts was a warning – a mirror – for Israel to recognize their spiritual state.

We don’t really have trouble with locust any more. Our pesticides take care of such plagues. We can’t control the weather, but if Florida freezes or Iowa floods, we can always just ship stuff in from California or Kansas or Argentina. And it is dangerous making a comparison from Israel to any modern state. The church is Israel – not the United States.

But I don’t think it is much of a stretch to look at financial contagions, foreclosures and persistent unemployment as a swarm of a kind. Some people saw the signs building – but there isn’t much you really can do. Nest eggs are guarded jealously after in hopes they “come back” like seed stock. The rich and privileged bail themselves out, while everyone else is lectured about moral hazard. And all of it swimming in a devouring cloud of 15.4 trillion in debt – almost $50K for every man, woman and child in America. $250K for my family alone – more than 5 years wages. Given the bacon I ate yesterday I might not have 5 years.

A mirror to see our spiritual state?

But the promises of God remain. Joel quotes Moses – after the golden calf episode. “Return with all you heart, with weeping and with mourning. Rend you hearts, not your garments. Return, for the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He relents over disaster.”

And where does God relent? Where are hearts rent? “Call a solemn assembly, gather the people, consecrate the congregation. Elders and Children and infants. The Bridegroom meets the bride there.”

The later prophets would rail against hypocritical gatherings. Israel would rend garments and not hearts. But Joel’s prophetical call is timeless because God’s work is timeless. The bridegroom still meets the bride here. God is gracious and merciful and abounding steadfast love.

The Lenten season is one of repentance. For looking in the mirror. For rending hearts. We put a very solemn note with the Ashes. An outward symbol of the examination of the heart. But like the cross, a symbol the reflects hope. Because this God is faithful. With Him there is forgiveness. Amen.