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Jesus as Behavioral Economist - On Being Wealthy and Anxious

This is the second 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 this post we explore the from-above perspective verse by verse.

God provides. Why risk the loss of stored treasures when God provides securely? (Matthew 6:19–21)

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This is investment advice — Jesus says invest for the long term, the really long term; invest in things of eternal value. Such advice fits well the “do not be anxious” theme — don’t invest in things that make you lose sleep at night, don’t invest in things that you have to keep worrying about — invest in things that are secure. In a financial world obsessed with so-called securities, Jesus teaches the kinds of investments that are truly secure — treasures in heaven.

What is meant by heaven? In the “Lord’s Prayer” earlier in Matthew 6, Jesus teaches, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth as in heaven. This serves as a strong caution against viewing heaven as exclusively otherworldly, completely detached from our current world. Investing in heaven, according to Jesus, is to be done in ways that are realized on earth! We're not to store up treasures on earth, but neither are we to ignore earthly things — we're to invest in heaven while seeking the realization of God’s heavenly will on earth.

These verses are also risk management advice. Risk management in the larger economic sense is a huge and complex field that admits by its very name just how limited it is — risk cannot be eliminated, only managed. In our sea of constantly swirling risks, Jesus’s words to counter the risks of moth and rust and thief may seem quaint — but if people had anxiety about those risks, we should not pretend that we are subject to any less anxiety given the modern risks we face.

Jesus's approach to risk management is both simpler and sturdier than most. Invest in things that can't be destroyed (by moth, rust, virus — microbiological or digital, disease, storm, market downturn, economic bust, war, exchange rates, depreciation, and on and on). Invest in things that can't be stolen (by thieves, cyber thieves, thievery of fraud, the thief of inflation, and on and on). Invest in things that simply aren't subject to risk, at least not in an ultimate sense, because they are rooted in the ultimate reality of God.

Divine Counselor by Harry Anderson

God provides. Ample receiving of God’s provision must result in fruitful use of that provision. (Matthew 6:22–23)

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

The “evil eye” here is an expression for stinginess, and the good or healthy eye means generosity. If your eye is good — you are good toward others — you have good relationships with others, then your whole body is full of light. There is less anxiety for you . . . and for them, meaning the collective “body” is better, too. This corporate ethic lightens the whole “body” — both those dealing favorably and those favorably dealt with are lightened. Corporate bodies can be either stingy or generous and subject to the same teaching here about promoting light or darkness, creating anxiety or reducing it based on the use of economic goods in relationship with others.

We often think of exploitation as happening by the rich toward the poor, and that is a problem to be resisted. Yet, exploitation of others happens both ways. Those with fewer resources are also subject to greed (the stingy eye) and motivations less than generous as they view those with more resources. This can result in trying to use resourced people for their resources rather than pursuing genuine relationships with them in the spirit of love your neighbor as yourself. Wealthy people experience fear, worry, and, yes, anxiety as they come to be suspicious of people’s “evil eyes” toward them. Henri Nouwen rightly cautions that we not let our concern for the poor “carry with it a prejudice against the rich.”

God provides. Why leave God’s service to pursue what God already provides? (Matthew 6:24)

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.

A divided self creates great anxiety — no one can ultimately serve two masters. And trying to creates tremendous stress/anxiety. Imagine trying to work two full-time jobs for completely different companies/masters, much less keep up two different 24/7 agendas. Numerous studies show the negative impacts of stress from multi-tasking on even minor tasks; being pulled by two different ultimate agendas — God’s and Mammon’s — simply doesn’t work.

Here's a good spot to correct misunderstandings about the word “Mammon.” “Mammon” is used very distinctively here as a personification or even deification of monetary/material wealth. As a common noun, mammon is a neutral term for material goods, requiring modification as “unjust mammon” when under criticism (see Luke 16:9). In Matthew 6:24 Mammon is not neutral, is not just another word for money, but is a personified pursuit of wealth that demands religious devotion as a god, resulting in loss of control and self-enslavement. The full Luke 16:1–13 context of Jesus’s teaching on mammon/Mammon is aptly summarized by Nick Spencer: “As a parable and a teaching, the story cuts the ground away from absolute property rights in favour of relationship. Earning stuff, owning stuff, lending stuff, owing stuff: that’s all fine, just so long as it doesn’t lead you to sacralise stuff.”

Probably few people feel sympathetic for the astoundingly wealthy, like John D. Rockefeller or his modern equivalent. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rockefeller had amassed a fortune estimated at $430 billion (in 2019 dollars), more than twice the current fortune of Elon Musk. Journalist Ida Tarbell investigated Rockefeller’s business dealings, becoming highly critical of the man and his Standard Oil Company. Her words upon finally meeting him 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 also observed:

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.

Indeed, Jesus, the behavioral economist, knew that rich people struggle. And as we’ll find in the concluding post of this series, he provides wealthy people a way to let go of their anxiety. But before that, in the next post, we explore the from-below perspective.

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