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Jesus as Behavioral Economist - On Being Poor and Anxious

This is the third 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. You can start the series here.

Jesus as Behavioral Economist introduced a part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19-34) as a block of explicitly economic teaching, which we described as comprising a “from above” perspective (verses 19-24) and a “from below” perspective (verses 25-33). In the previous post we explored the from-above perspective. In this post we begin exploring the from-below perspective verse-by-verse.

From below, “God provides” means that economic anxiety has no place. Nature demonstrates that God provides for Creation, and people can expect the same — or more. (Matthew 6:25–30)

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

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In the most concrete sense, Jesus here speaks to the basic material needs of human existence — food and clothing. And he does so “therefore” — because of the immediately preceding from-above section. Because God provides for investing in heaven (6:19–21) such that God’s will is done on earth as in heaven (6:10), because God provides and encourages “good eye” light instead of “evil eye” darkness (6:22–23), because God provides and we don’t have to serve two masters (6:24) — therefore do not be anxious about your life. God provides, for the necessities of life just as for investment of plenty.

The basic needs of food and clothing are not just matters of physical existence, as Jesus is very clear — they can trigger anxiety. This anxiety about food and clothing is not limited to those who are in material poverty; one can have vast wealth yet also have a from-below perspective if they feel they do not have enough, if they feel they are lacking. Indeed, insecurity can and does strike those who have much material wealth.

Let’s revisit the story of John D. Rockefeller introduced in the previous post. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the business titan of the Standard Oil Company amassed wealth of staggering proportions, by some accounts possessing a fortune of about 2 percent of America’s GDP. (Based on America’s 2019 GDP, that would be about $430 billion in 2019 dollars, right at twice the wealth of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos combined.) Journalist Ida Tarbell investigated his business dealings, exposing their shady aspects and becoming highly critical of the business and the man. Her words upon talking with Rockefeller in person are striking:

There was an awful age in his face — the oldest man I had ever seen, I thought, but what power! . . . My two hours study of Mr. Rockefeller aroused a feeling I had not expected, which time has intensified. I was sorry for him. I know no companion so terrible as fear. Mr. Rockefeller, for all the conscious power written in face and voice and figure, was afraid, I told myself, afraid of his own kind.

Henri Nouwen has powerful words reminding us that even those who may appear to be very from-above, like Rockefeller, experience the from-below perspective and need compassion and deeper security.

More and more, my experience is that rich people are also poor, but in other ways. Many rich people are very lonely. Many struggle with a sense of being used. Others suffer from feelings of rejection or depression. It may seem strange to say, but the rich need a lot of attention and care.

From below, “God provides” means that economic anxiety has no place. God knows what we need. (Matthew 6:31–32)

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

Simply telling people to “not be anxious” isn't helpful, in fact could be invalidating and insulting if the underlying cause of anxiety isn't addressed. The “therefore” of these verses makes that connection. Because God feeds the multitude of birds, and people are more valuable than birds, therefore do not be anxious about what to eat — God knows what you need. Because God clothes the expanses of grass, and people are more valuable than grass, therefore do not be anxious about what to wear — God knows you need that too.

However from-below we may feel, Jesus reminds us that God provides for all aspects of the glorious Creation, so people (the divine image-bearers in the Creation) need not be anxious but at peace in receiving from the Creator who knows their true needs.

We invite you to continue reading more about the from-below perspective in the post that will publish next week.

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