Jesus as Behavioral Economist - On Being Better Together
This is the fifth and final 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.
The core conviction that “God provides” fundamentally (re)shapes our relationship to economic goods and to our fellow human beings, whether from-above or from-below. From-above, in the perspective of plenty, we receive God’s provision and invest it securely and productively with one another rather than anxiously hoarding for our divided selves.
From-below, in the perspective of poverty, we receive God’s provision gratefully as part of a glorious Creation rather than anxiously comparing ourselves with those who appear to have more.
God provides for our needs — economic and relational, countering our underlying anxieties about both — through our partnership with each other. In partnership together, loving neighbor as self, God secures our material resources and our psychology that are otherwise prone to insecurity.
Matthew 6:34 — Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
This verse summarizes all of Matthew 6:19–33, Jesus’s profound, as-needed-in-the-twenty-first-century-as-the-first, life-giving Sermon on the Mount teaching on loving your economic neighbor as yourself. “Do not be anxious about tomorrow” applies to those from-above and those from-below alike. Remember Henri Nouwen’s observation that materially rich people may be poor in other ways, and note the corollary that materially poor people may be rich in other ways. Don’t be anxious about how to manage your plenty (materially or in other ways), nor about how to manage your poverty (materially or in other ways).
Whether from-above with the perspective of enough or from-below with the perspective of lack, whether materially or in other ways, do not be anxious but trust that God provides what is needed and seek the realization of God’s provision in the mutually beneficial partnering of those with plenty and those in need. The partnership of mutually beneficial interacting — love as a verb — among those who have various forms of plenty to meet each other’s various forms of need makes for a sufficient and satisfying day.
Matthew 6:34, and the teaching it summarizes, are not calls for shortsightedness or endorsements of poor planning; quite the opposite! Recall that the opening verses of this teaching, Matthew 6:19–21, are about investments that truly last, and here in the closing verse of Matthew 6:34 Jesus does not command an irresponsible ignoring of tomorrow but rather speaks against our anxious attempts to control tomorrow. “Begin with the end in mind” fits Jesus’s teaching.
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Good strategy knows the long-term purpose to be achieved and how day-to-day activities move toward that purpose; Jesus points to the long-term purpose of the kingdom of God coming, the desired end of God’s will being done on earth as in heaven — that is the “tomorrow” that we “therefore” (as Matthew 6:34 begins) do not need to be anxious about. With that end in mind, we can go through each day as a beginning that has sufficiency (and, yes, trouble) in moving toward that ultimate purpose.
In Jesus’s vision, we don’t irresponsibly live like there’s no tomorrow, or aimlessly do things that lack alignment toward a meaningful tomorrow, or anxiously try to create tomorrow in our own image; we handle the trouble of the day knowing that it is a sufficient step toward the tomorrow that God provides.
The Leviticus 19:18 command to love your neighbor as yourself, framed theologically in love of God, is echoed explicitly by Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew (22:34–40), Mark (12:28–34), and Luke (10:25–37), and with variation on the theme in the Gospel of John (13:34–35; 15:12–17). As just shown, even beyond direct quoting, this principle of mutually beneficial interaction is also at the heart of larger instruction from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, including, in pointed ways, for economic matters.
The command to love your neighbor as yourself is then further echoed by Jesus’s followers in New Testament writings, both as concise instruction (Romans 13:8–10; Galatians 5:13–15; Philippians 2:4; Colossians 3:12–14; James 2:8; 1 Peter 4:8–10; 1 John 4:19–21) and in narrative form (such as the Acts 2:42–47 and 4:32–37, stories of koinonia and accounts of the Apostle Paul’s ministry). This core biblical thread of “love your neighbor as yourself,” which can be well understood as “seek mutual benefit with your neighbor” or “partner with your neighbor — including your economic neighbor — for mutual benefit” continues beyond the biblical period into the eras of the early church, Roman Christendom, the Middle Ages, and Renaissance and Reformation.
Much more could be said about this core principle in each setting, and in future posts we’ll write more, but for now suffice it to say this is a principle that has proven its worth across an impressive variety of times and places from its grounding in ancient Hebrew devotion to YHWH and highlighting in Jesus. Even with such a track record, if this concept faded in more contemporary cultures, we could question its import for our own time and place. However, this core principle of partnership, including its economic aspects, is also carried forward by someone who holds no less a title than “father of capitalism.”
“Jesus as Behavioral Economist” Series Recap
Common but inaccurate understanding: Jesus advocates for the interests and concerns of others only (“other-interest”), without any regard for self-interest and no matter the cost or harm to self. To follow the example of Jesus is to completely sacrifice self for the sake of others. That perspective simply isn’t what Jesus advocated, as we’ve shown in this series.
Necessary correction: Don't passively absorb almost 2,000 years of second-hand portrayals about a significant person or his thought. Go to the source itself. What does Jesus actually say?
See for yourself: Jesus does advocate for other-interest, but his view of other-interest is clearly paired with self-interest (ethic of mutuality). Jesus's own summary of the whole of God's teaching, following the Hebrew Scriptures and further exemplified in Jesus's most famous sermon, is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself — within the love of God, pursue mutual self-interest and other-interest.
Love your (economic) neighbor as yourself, from-above and from-below. From this ethic of mutuality, can you see why and how better capitalism is possible?
What about you? Share your story, question, comment, idea, disagreement -- yes, we welcome disagreement for the sake of mutual benefit! -- with us at blog@PartnershipEconomics.com. We will give a thoughtful response.
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