Today’s post comes to us courtesy of one of our board member’s who spoke at our Christmas event. This is the text of his talk. Thanks, Michael.
When I think about the Christmas story in terms of economic discipleship, the part that stands out to me the most is the Wise Men. These pagan astrologers somehow recognize what the Jewish religious authorities missed – the birth of the Messiah – and they leave behind their homes, their jobs, their families, whatever positions of honor or privilege they occupied, and their lives become entirely focused on a single thing: this journey to seek out Jesus and honor him. Even the gifts they give are chosen not for their price, but their significance: gold, representing kingship; frankincense, representing divinity; myrrh, representing suffering and death. So, even the gifts they give are a prophetic witness, proclaiming that Jesus is King, and God, and sacrifice – the Gospel story in a nutshell.
For me, the central question of economic discipleship is: how can I ensure that my whole life is telling a single story, and that that story is the Gospel? How can the way I use my money become a prophetic witness to the world? The trouble is, all too often when I look at my life and ask, “What story is my life telling?”, it’s not the Gospel story, and instead it’s a false gospel I’ve absorbed from our culture. Like, when I was first out of college I bought myself a new Apple laptop, one of those boxy white and grey plastic ones. And then Apple came out with these new laptops that were carved out of a single block of aluminum, and they were so thin and light and sleek and elegant… and I really wanted one. There’s a false gospel that saturates our culture, especially at Christmas, that joy and fulfillment come from buying or receiving new things. If I throw out my old laptop not because it is broken but because there’s a new one that’s fancier, my life is proclaiming a gospel, but it’s not the Gospel of Christ, it’s that false gospel of materialism and consumerism. If we want our financial lives to proclaim Christ, we have to resist the rat race of always desiring the latest and greatest, a new phone or new new clothes or new car.
Another false gospel that I all too often fall prey to is the idea that money itself gives us safety or measures our success. Whether or not we have money, all of us are tempted at times to believe the voices that say that money, or lack of it, defines our worth. The first time I sat in a Lazarus group and let others see my budget, the actual dollar amounts of what I earn and how I spend it, I was literally sweating and shaking as I handed those papers out. Paul talks about the “principalities and powers” of this world – things that exert tremendous spiritual power over us. In our culture, money is one of those things. One way we can break that power is by giving our money away. Another is by doing what we do in the Lazarus groups: deciding to stop treating money as something so private or shameful that we can’t ask other Christians to hold us accountable in how we use it.
There’s another false gospel that shows up in the Christmas story itself: the Roman imperial myth, this warped and distorted shadow of the Gospel where Caesar is worshiped as a divine savior bringing peace to the world. I first got involved with BFJN back when we, as Americans, were all discovering that we, all of us, were complicit in torture, in the murder of civilians, in everything our country was doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. For years I struggled with the fact that here I am, serving the Prince of Peace, and yet when I pay taxes, somewhere between a quarter and half of that money is supporting a false gospel, the belief that violence saves us: keeps us safe and brings us peace. The only way I’ve found to resolve that dilemma, aside from not earning any income, or going to jail for tax evasion, is to give away enough money each year that the tax refund I get for charitable giving is at least equal to the proportion of my taxes that would otherwise have been spent on the military. So part of what I do now, every Christmas time, is to check my budget and see how much more money I need to give away by the end of the year to make sure my charitable giving is at least 40% of my income. For some Christians that’s not going far enough, because I’m still paying some taxes and some of that goes to the military, but for me it’s at least enough that I no longer feel like my taxes are telling a story that contradicts the Gospel.
If we want our whole lives to be brought into harmony with the Gospel, if we want every part of our lives to tell the same story and if we want that story to be the story of Christ, I don’t think most of us can get there just by making little adjustments, being a bit more generous, a bit less consumeristic. At some point, like the Wise Men, we need to take a big step, leave things behind, set out on a journey, seek Jesus, find out where he is incarnate in this world, find out how he is seeking to be born inside of us. That’s what the Christmas story calls us to: journeying on, seeking God’s presence until we become the place where God is present in this world.