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Jesus as Behavioral Economist

This is the first post in a series that takes a behavioral economics perspective on Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. If Jesus and behavioral economics seems a weird or even irreverent mash-up, we understand your concern. But as you’ll see, Jesus understood and spoke to the psychology underpinning our relationship with material resources. Whether for your classroom, workplace, or sanctuary, or simply for yourself, we hope you'll find this helpful.

Before we dive in, let’s all be on the same page, at least generally, about the meaning of behavioral economics. The University of Chicago Explainer Series provides a nice thumbnail review, from which we pull a few snippets: “Behavioral economics combines elements of economics and psychology to understand how and why people behave the way they do in the real world. … Behavioral economics is grounded in empirical observations of human behavior …. [T]he field of behavioral economics considers people as human beings who are subject to emotion and impulsivity, and who are influenced by their environments and circumstance.”

Now, imagine Israel some 2,000 years ago. Millennia before Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and their long-time collaborator Richard Thaler articulated behavioral economics. Humanity didn’t have the accumulated knowledge base we have today, or the corresponding contemporary vocabulary. There weren't words like “behavioral economics," but that doesn’t mean people 2,000 years ago couldn’t recognize and name what was happening in, to, and around them.

With that context, we’re collectively at liberty to read and understand Jesus as a behavioral economist with a different language set, including his famous Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew chapters 5-7).

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Matthew 6:19–34 presents a long block of explicitly economic teaching from Jesus, dealing with issues of money, food, and clothing. There are a variety of opinions about exactly how this block should be subdivided. In our analysis, we see and understand two major, economic parallel units — verses 19-24 and verses 25-33 — with verse 34 encapsulating the full block of teaching.

These two units provide complementary economic parallels and perspectives that frame the gateway to Partnership Economics. We name these perspectives “from above” and “from below,” and subsequent posts in this series do a deeper dive into both. For now, Matthew 6:19–24 is the view from-above. Only people who have some economic prosperity need to be told to avoid treasuring for themselves on earth. Matthew 6:25–33 is the view from-below. People of economic poverty are anxious about food and clothing. These two units address the distinct perspectives of prosperity and poverty, but they do not offer distinct ethics. Rather, Jesus points the prosperous and poor alike to the core economic conviction of his kingdom message: God provides.

These complementary perspectives do not pertain strictly to prosperity and poverty in a narrow monetary sense; this is not merely about how much or how little one has monetarily. These perspectives are best understood in terms of one’s relationship with their economic goods.

From-above, one has the perspective of sufficiency if not abundance — having “enough,” however much or little that may be. From-below, one has the perspective of lack — not having “enough,” however much or little that may be. The perspective from-above is characterized by the sense of plenty — feeling prosperous and needing a way to securely employ that prosperity. The perspective from-below is characterized by the sense of lack — feeling impoverished and needing a way to feel secure.

Classical economics doesn’t factor peoples’ emotional response or relationship to their material resources; behavioral economics does, in order to account for the realities of the whole person instead of a hypothetical ideal of pure rationality. In the behavioral economics context, note that both from-above and from-below include needs related to security, whether securing one’s prosperity or securing one’s survival.

The final summary statement of the full block of teaching goes to the core of the matter theologically and economically: “do not be anxious.” This is grounded in serving the true God, not Mammon (deified money), prioritizing the kingdom of God above economic comforts. Jesus succinctly names the pervasive experience of people in relation to economic resources (anxiety) and addresses the root of such anxiety by reorienting where we seek ultimate security. Throughout this block of economic teaching, Jesus recognizes and speaks to the realities of human experience that underlie our economic actions — what today we call behavioral economics!

Even if he lacks 21st-century digitized data, Jesus's teaching is empirically grounded in astute observations of the human condition. His communication is shaped by the vocabulary of the times, yet he speaks to deeply universal issues — resources, anxiety, and the priorities that underlie them — in deeply resonant ways. The people of Israel 2,000 years ago experienced anxiety in relation to economic resources; are we less in need of “do not be anxious”? May we have ears to hear the way to true security in Jesus's theologically-grounded behavioral economics.

Having introduced Jesus as behavioral economist, in the rest of this series we'll explore these from-above and from-below perspectives, united by the single conviction that God provides, flowing toward an ethic that we call Partnership Economics. We invite you to continue with us in this exploration and send us your thoughts about this series.

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