Seek Ye First

Matthew 6:

26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?

32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

34 Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

(King James Version)

The passage above bothers me greatly. A financially carefree today portends a broke tomorrow. True, our modern welfare state will work to ensure you do not freeze or starve, but are you a good person to make use of such services if you have the ability to do otherwise? Is it the job of pagans and atheists to support carefree Christians? The arrangement contradicts many other passages of scripture.

A financially carefree lifestyle did work for those following Jesus while he walked the earth. Jesus could heal with a touch and multiply foodstuffs with a command. (But note that even Jesus and his disciples took advantage of the welfare state of the day when they picked ears of grain that they did not plant.[Luke 6:1])

Such a lifestyle also works for a priesthood supported by believers with more mundane concerns. This parallels the role of the Levites under Old Testament Law, and Jesus is our high priest, so it was certainly appropriate for him and his followers. Maybe Jesus was aiming these words at future priests.

But the text doesn’t read that way. The admonition appears general, and I am thus troubled.

Another possibility is that Jesus was indulging in hyperbole in order to hammer in some points. (Either He was prone to hyperbole or most Christians are in deep trouble for not chopping off assorted body parts…)

Given that possibility, let us try turning the volume down a bit, and see if this passage points us to some practical action items we can take from this and related scriptures. There is always a danger in such watering down, of course, but there is more danger in giving up and discounting such scriptures altogether as many Christians have done.

Drop Everything and Follow Me NOW!

Exodus 12:

8 They will eat the meat the same night; they will eat it roasted over the fire with bread made without yeast and with bitter herbs.

9 Do not eat it raw or boiled in water, but roast it over the fire with its head, its legs, and its entrails.

10 You must leave nothing until morning, but you must burn with fire whatever remains of it until morning.

11 This is how you are to eat it — dressed to travel, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You are to eat it in haste. It is the LORD's Passover.

38 A mixed multitude also went up with them, and flocks and herds — a very large number of cattle.

39 They baked cakes of bread without yeast using the dough they had brought from Egypt, for it was made without yeast — because they were thrust out of Egypt and were not able to delay, they could not prepare food for themselves either.

(NET Bible®)

The first Passover was a rushed affair. The Israelites were given very little time to prepare for their exit from Egypt. After they left they had to rely utterly on divine intervention for food and water as they wondered in the desert.

But eventually, the ancient Israelites were allowed to enter the Holy Land and take up farming and other mundane activities. Most religious duties were delegated to the Levites, and the people in general were simply tasked to obey the Law, support the Levites, be nice to each other, and show up for festivals three times a year.

I see a parallel between Jesus’ calls to drop everything and follow him, and the rush of the first Passover. (And I’m not the only one.) If so, then maybe new converts should drop everything, give up wealth to the poor, and suspend economic activity – for a time, just as the ancient Israelites suspended their economic activities while in the wilderness. But after that time is done, it is time to resume mundane life (save perhaps for priests – if we are supposed to have priests). Note Jesus’ words to his disciples near the end of his ministry:

Luke 23:

Luk 22:35 Then Jesus said to them, "When I sent you out with no money bag, or traveler's bag, or sandals, you didn't lack anything, did you?" They replied, "Nothing."

Luk 22:36 He said to them, "But now, the one who has a money bag must take it, and likewise a traveler's bag too. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.

(NET Bible®)

And after the Crucifixion, Peter had gone back to fishing [John 21].

Here are my [speculative] reasons for such commands:

  1. Only the zealous should apply.
  2. True change requires intense effort.
  3. Zeal is transient; sunk costs live on.

Only the zealous should apply. Jesus preached widely. He did not recruit aggressively. Most of the people he healed, he sent away. He often told them to keep quiet about the matter. When people considered joining Him, He told them to “count the cost” [Luke 14:28] and required each disciple to “take up his cross” [Mark 8:34, Matthew 10:38, etc.]. He said you had to forsake your fortune and family to join his group [Luke 16:13].

Successful missionaries and televangelists, usually resort to a more positive invitation, and maybe they are correct to do so. Jesus’ ministry was special, and he said so repeatedly. Those who become Christians today are not in the same position as those who got to know Jesus in person, with miracles happening on a regular basis. Fairness would place lesser demands on modern Christians. (There is precedent: the demands on the Israelites during the Exodus were extremely strict compared to those on future Israelites. When the Creator is manifesting miracles on a regular basis, you need to be on your best behavior!)

There was a practical element as well: Jesus was setting up precedents that would affect future centuries, future millennia. He wanted high quality converts only. Exponential growth could (and did) take care of the quantity later. And yes, history has shown that attempts to go for quantity resulted in corruption. People became bishops to get the tax breaks. The Church adopted pagan ceremonies in order to count nominal conversions as new members. But the examples of the earliest Christians live on in the New Testament, and the Christian world has repeatedly undergone revivals and reformations to purge the cruft and corruptions that have accumulated in the interim.

So, should the Church purge itself down to its most zealous members? Or do we treat Jesus’ ministry as a special event, with extra requirements? If the latter, some of the restrictions on Christian capitalism should be toned down as well.

But not all.

True change requires intense effort. The Bible is a challenging read. Adopting new attitudes, lifestyle, and habits requires a great deal of time and attention. The executive functions of the brain are taxed to the max. Trying to launch a business or build up your career at the same time is a recipe for failure.

Perhaps we should treat religious conversion with the same seriousness as we treat getting a college education. Yes, it is possible to read the Great Books while holding a day job. It is possible to work your way through school. But it is hard: grades usually suffer and the time in college is oft extended. There is much to be said to putting one’s career on hold to focus on education and then apply that education to pay off the resulting loans. (Student loans are still a good financial strategy if you have the talent, get a degree which is in demand, and study hard while at school.)

And yes, it takes quite a bit of zeal to make these habit changes as well. You just might not need as much zeal as in Jesus’ day, because the Church is now well established.

Zeal comes and goes. This is well known. “Youthful idealism” is a common cliché. Few can maintain such zeal over extended periods of time. We have a word for the few who can: fanatics. This does not stop many a pastor from attempting to maintain unsustainable zeal. All too often professional pastors call for hours upon hours of Bible study – even for those who have finished the Book already. Likewise, they take a total quantity management approach to prayer, even though Jesus had some harsh words concerning vain repetition [Matthey 6:7]. Such pastors heap burdens upon their flocks so no one can have a career and a life.

Consider what Jesus had to say about the ancient Pharisees who extended the Law to heap undue burdens upon the Jews of the day. Note how Paul wrote to Timothy that leaders be temperate, self-controlled and not greedy, but also be married and good at managing their families [1 Timothy 3:1-7]. While he ruled out money-grubbing hedonists, he also thus ruled out monks and extreme ascetics.

It takes time and zeal to learn the Christian Way, but eventually habits do get established. There comes a time to actually live the Christian life. There comes a time to be an example to the world, and to do good works. You cannot raise a family and have anything to give to the poor if you use up all your hours in monkish contemplation. Maybe a healthy Church needs some monks and ascetics to set an example to those who produce in the world, but it needs producers too.

But the cares of the world can wash away all religious feelings if you are not careful. What is the solution? Periodic revivals? That was part of the Old Testament mandate. Three times a year all the Israelites were called to gather to national festivals. But there is another solution as well:

Zeal fades, but sunk costs live on. This too is well known. If you invest a great deal of time, sweat, and/or money in a cause you will feel stupid later if you give up on it. This holds for religions, charitable causes, businesses, investment and even college drinking clubs. College fraternities require pledges to make great sacrifices to ensure that full members have enough stake in the organization to keep it going. The financial press routinely writes both “buy” and “hold” recommendations, even though in theory there should be no difference for the small investor, given the cheapness of electronic trading. Economists call it the Sunk Cost Fallacy. People value that which they have already paid dearly.

If you have lost your fortune and your prior social connections upon becoming a Christian, you are likely to stay with the program, even if you get married, have a family, launch a business, and get involved in your community. That Treasure in Heaven investment is a “hold.”

But beware! Even if we do have a green light to get on with life once we establish Christian habits, there are still many restrictions on Christian capitalists, including a restriction voiced in a very similar passage in Luke’s account.

Pay as You Live

Luke 12:

15 Then he said to them, "Watch out and guard yourself from all types of greed, because one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

16 He then told them a parable: "The land of a certain rich man produced an abundant crop,

17 so he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?'

18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.

19 And I will say to myself, "You have plenty of goods stored up for many years; relax, eat, drink, celebrate!" '

20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from you, but who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'

21 So it is with the one who stores up riches for himself, but is not rich toward God."

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.

23 For there is more to life than food, and more to the body than clothing.

(NET Bible®)

There is limited rest for the righteous. As I have written elsewhere, we who are Called are preparing to be priests and kings of a future utopia, not idle retirees floating in the clouds. Some of us may well get training as leaders – including political and economic leaders – here in this life.

Simply showing up for services and avoiding major sins probably doesn’t cut it if you are economically successful. Under Old Testament Law the rich were obligated to make zero interest loans to the needy. Jesus expounded further saying that you could earn forgiveness from sins by making such loans and forgiving them (that is, making outright gifts to the needy); it’s part of the Lord’s Prayer.

Tithing and other sacrifices are part of our personal spiritual development as well. Turning over your legacy to a charitable foundation is such a sacrifice, but it is not as powerful as making payments while you are still building wealth, while you still value additional money. Note what the Old Testament has to say on the subject:

Deuteronomy 14:

22 You must be certain to tithe all the produce of your seed that comes from the field year after year.

28 At the end of every three years you must bring all the tithe of your produce, in that very year, and you must store it up in your villages.

Deuteronomy 16:

16 Three times a year all your males must appear before the LORD your God in the place he chooses for the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Temporary Shelters; and they must not appear before him empty-handed.

17 Every one of you must give as you are able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you.

(NET Bible®)

Exactly how much you should give as you accumulate wealth is unclear to me. The tithes of old applied to farmers only – they were as much rent on the Holy Land as they were taxes. Non-farmers in ancient Israel had a temple tax to pay, along with assorted mandatory sacrifices. Perhaps for the wealthy business person of the day the “according to the blessing” obligation was perhaps the biggest. The key point is that there were annual gifts required. (And then there was the extra tithe at the end of three years. But once again, this was an ongoing obligation, not something you could put off for a lump sump payment later.)

As I argue elsewhere, Jesus said that to give to the poor was to give to him, and as he is our chief priest. I believe that this is the replacement for tithes to the Levites. But in our modern welfare state, some of our tax burden goes to the poor, so perhaps some of this duty is discharged via taxes. But have a care here. If you are middle class, you are/will be getting most of your tax money back as Social Security checks, Medicare, public schooling, roads, etc. And if you are rich, you are consuming more than the average person in protection service and infrastructure from the government.

So pay something as you prosper.

And let me add an important political note to this mandate: legacy foundations left by the rich often become tools of socialists. After all, what better job is there for a socialist ideologue than to be paid to give away other people’s money? Read Forbes magazine or the far right conspiracy literature for examples. (That said, I don’t believe that the Rockefeller Foundation or the House of Rothchild are behind most of the evils of this age!) There is a power to giving managed by the person who actually is making the gift. Bill Gates is doing some interesting things with his fortune. I don’t agree with everything he’s doing, but that’s the point. With multiple people giving their fortunes separately, you don’t keep getting the same mistakes. Some good things happen.

Are These Enough?

I have deconstructed some of the harshest anti-capitalist messages into several weaker admonitions:

  1. Make a big investment when you start; treat becoming a Christian as seriously as you would going to college.
  2. Downgrade your financial and social life as you master the teachings of the Bible and turn them into habits.
  3. If you do become a successful Christian capitalist, give as your fortune grows. Don’t wait until end of life/career.

I also rationalized the weakening noting that Jesus is not physically with us today. Church membership does not provide the level of faith healing that it once did, and I know of no one who claims to be able multiply foodstuffs on command.

I may have rationalized too much. Maybe the aspiring Christian capitalist should take employee profit sharing, and aspire for a smaller piece of a bigger pie.

Or maybe I have retained too much of the original hyperbole, levying too much burdens on modern Christian capitalists.

Meditate on the data and arguments presented and make your own choices. In chapters that follow I compile further restrictions on Christian capitalists as well as Biblical money making wisdom. Read on.