Jesus as Behavioral Economist - On Being [Relationally] Poor and Anxious
This is the fourth 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 anxiety of what to eat and what to wear is not limited to those in material poverty; those who are materially wealthy may be poor in other ways, may also feel the from-below insecurity of what to eat or wear. In our current culture we cannot miss the pressure among the well-off in matters of food, drink, body, and clothing. Those who are materially rich and don’t have anxiety about eating, drinking, or wearing something at all often replace that with anxiety about eating, drinking, or wearing the "right" things, however they may be defined by trends of the moment. The more material wealth one has, the worse this pressure can be.
Even if you have no experience with red carpet celebrity attention, consider how simply speaking in front of a relatively small group of very supportive people increases your level of self-consciousness about your appearance. For those in the public spotlight, whose careers and psyches can be subjected to cruel scorn when any of their appearances is dubbed a miss rather than hit, Jesus’s words to not be anxious about what you eat, what your drink, your body, what you wear are sorely needed.
Image Credit: Mohammed Hassan | Unsplash
Social media now creates a showcase in which eating, drinking, body, and clothing are intensely scrutinized, and not just for public appearances by public figures. You can be minding your own business, unknowingly have your name and likeness posted by someone else, and experience anxiety from being on display in ways uncomfortable to you. Part of Jesus’s remedy is the theological focus — don’t worry about what critical people think moment by moment, trend by trend; don’t worry what your interior insecurities say — focus on God who knows your true needs and cares for you in life-giving ways as part of the glorious Creation.
From below, “God provides” means that economic anxiety has no place. Seek the kingdom, and all will be provided . . . through partnership with those of the from-above perspective! (Matthew 6:33)
But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be added to you.
Instead of anxiously seeking for yourself, whether by having material wealth but being in insecure servitude to it (Matthew 6:19–25) or by experiencing insecurity in basic material needs or social expectations around those needs (6:25–32), seek first the kingdom of God. The cardinal teachings of the kingdom of God, echoed and expounded upon in the Sermon on the Mount teachings we are here examining, are to love God with all of all you’ve got and to love your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–37). This is what it means to seek first the kingdom of God; this is what it means for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.
For those who may be religiously devout in a way that has been detached from economics, we cannot overstate the significance of the fact that Jesus commands “seek first the kingdom of God” as part of a block of teaching that overtly and definitively deals with money and material resources. For those who may be economically inclined in a way that has been detached from religion, we cannot overstate the significance of the fact that Jesus offers a way for “all these things” — material resources and the behavioral aspects that drive people’s approach to them — to be added to all who need them. Jesus says our dis-ease, material and relational, can be overcome by stopping the disease of serving Mammon and instead serving God, seeking first the kingdom of God, God’s justice. That’s quite an offer. Can it be taken seriously? How would it work?
Before continuing, let’s take this short sidebar:
Remember your elementary school, sometimes called grammar school? Where you learned words have specific meanings and usage that matter, as does the grammar that puts those words together? Our grammar school teachers were right, and good language skills are critical for careful thinking. In universities and seminaries the same principles hold; there are just more languages and in-depth grammar rules. Your authors, like any trustworthy theologians, draw on solid biblical language and grammar training to carefully interpret this part of the Sermon on the Mount. That said, let’s continue — even if it means diving into some grammar.
Image Credit: Kyle Glenn | Unsplash
We must highlight that Jesus says “all these things will be added to you” — the use of passive voice deliberately does not specify the agency by which all things are added. Also note that “you” — both in the imperative “[you] seek first the kingdom of God” and in “will be added to you” — are plural. Throughout the full Matthew 6:19–34 text, in fact, the vast majority of “you” usage is plural (as in “you all”), an important distinction to make for English readers who may read “you” only in an individual sense.
Jesus plainly does not say, “God will hand-deliver all these things to you individually.” After teaching about having resources and lacking them, and the perspectives of having enough and lacking, Jesus uses active voice to say that God knows all that you all need (6:32) and passive voice to say “all these things will be added to you all” (6:33).
Our scholarship of this block of the Sermon on the Mount unleashes the convicting and inescapable conclusion that the adding to us of all that we need (basic needs, wise investment, valuable relationship, peace rather than anxiety) happens via partnership with our fellow human beings (the use of the plural “you”). “All these things will be added to you all” when all of us from all across the from-above and from-below experiences come together with all our resources (material and relational) and all our needs (material and relational) to seek mutual benefit with each other. This is the enlightened mutuality of the kingdom of God. This is foundational to our Partnership Ethic for better relationships, better organizations, better capitalism, better societies, and a better world.
Are you willing to take to heart this portion of the Sermon on the Mount through the lens of Jesus as behavioral economist? Are you willing to apply it to your corner of influence? The next and final post in this series offers some further thinking and structure about how you can do that, and in doing so help create the better world you’re wishing for.
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