Themes /

From death to life

The economy of salvation

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters November 2010

For many people, the journey into exploring the connections between faith and economics begins with a concern for social justice. Coming to the realisation that poverty and injustice in the world is primarily a product of structures that direct a disproportionate amount of the world’s resources to some and not to others, and that we are largely beneficiaries of such structures, leads quite naturally to some soul searching for anyone who sees anything of value in the teaching of Jesus. This then leads to the discovery of how much of the Biblical text is also concerned about this, with particularly strong things to say to those of us at the top of the pyramid. This is as it should be.

However, the concern for justice is only part of the reason the Bible has so much to say about the material aspects of our lives. It is the proverbial tip of the ice berg: the part that lies beneath the surface of our immediate consideration is by far the larger part. The Biblical concern for the day to day economics (from the Greek oikonomia: the affairs of the household) of our lives is rooted in nothing less than the ultimate questions of life and death – it is a question of salvation.

Salvation is an awkward subject, and more than a little passé. The very idea of salvation – that we have some deep need or some great peril from which we need saving, and that we cannot do it on our own – is an insult to modern, secular culture (unless you are a Wall Street investment banker looking for a trillion-dollar government bail out). Within the church, the subject of salvation represents a dividing line. There are those for whom Christianity has been reduced almost solely to a concern for staying out of hell and getting to heaven – pie in the sky when you die. Then there are those who have rejected all of that superstitious fluff and come to understand the Christian gospel as merely a religious social justice manifesto. Many people do not fit these simplistic caricatures but sit uneasily in a tension between them – is salvation something I am concerned about or not? And then there is the bigger question, not usually asked – what is salvation anyway?

There is no way of getting around it, the Bible is a salvation story. Within its pages, the theme of salvation has enormous breadth: it is applied to immediate circumstances of peril and need, to communal deliverance from oppression, to the ultimate destination of human souls, and even to the cosmic renewal of all creation. This is clearly too big a subject to do justice to here, but it is still worthwhile pointing out some major themes.

Put most simply, salvation in the Bible is a movement from death to life. This certainly involves a message about what happens to us after we die and the affirmation is simple: death is not the end and life should be lived for life’s sake, not in the shadow of death. But the question about life after death is only part of the picture; the Biblical message is just as concerned about the experience of death before death.

All of us know, if we are honest, what it is like to be dying on the inside. Again and again throughout the Bible, God addresses himself to people who are living dead. In the prophetic vision of Ezekiel, the state of his people is represented by a valley of dry bones, to which God commands him to prophesy:

Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.  (Ezekiel 37:5)

The apostle Paul uses similarly stark imagery to remind the Ephesians of the state they had come from: ‘As for you, you were dead’ (Eph 2:1).

God’s intention throughout the Bible is for us to move from death to life now, to experience true life now. Often Paul talks about salvation in the present continuous tense, that is, as something that is happening now and ongoing: ‘we are being saved’ (eg. 1 Cor 1:18).

Most of us can relate at some level to the imagery of dying or death to describe our states of emotional or spiritual health. However, we often fail to see the connections between our interior lives and our exterior lives. The Bible contends that the way we live, especially in our behaviour around money and the things that it buys, can either be life-giving or it can take life away from us. Jesus warns, ‘what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?’ (Mark 8:36)

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses takes pains to explain this idea to the Israelites. The people are gathered on the cusp of entering the promised land; they have been liberated from their slavery in Egypt (both a spiritual and economic condition); they have wandered in the wilderness for forty years dependent on a manna economy and unlearning the mindset of Egypt (see Manna Matters June 09); over that time they have been given a whole new vision of what life could be like, what we have come to call ‘the law’ (see Manna Matters November 09). The beauty of the law is the breadth of its vision, addressing social, economic, political, ecological and religious matters. At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses sums up for the Israelites what it is all about, what God’s intention is for this new way of living:

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, then you shall live …today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life …  (Deut 30:16-19)

Similarly, the Apostle Paul is continually at pains in his letters to stress that part of the meaning of salvation is moving away from destructive habits of living into a way of life that is truly life-giving:

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by deceitful desire, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with a new self, created according to the likeness of God …   (Eph 4:22-24).

For Paul this necessarily means developing everyday non-conformity to ‘the patterns of this world’ (Romans 12:1-2).

But, of course, it is in Jesus that all of these themes come together most strongly. In the middle of the Gospel of John, Jesus sums up his whole purpose and meaning with striking clarity and simplicity: ‘I came that they might have life, and have it in abundance’ (John 10:10). All four gospels positively ring with the call to enter into true life and to abandon the graves of the living dead, culminating with the cross and the empty tomb. Almost everything in the gospels can be read through this lens. Even the idea of eternal life in the gospels, properly understood, is one that spills over both sides of the death-divide: eternity doesn’t start after you die, it starts now!

Yet throughout the gospels Jesus makes it abundantly clear that the only way to enter into real life is to let go of second-rate life: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’ (Mark 8:35). Jesus also makes it clear that this requires a radical revision of our material lives: he tells cautionary stories about rich fools and wealthy Lazarus; he asks the rich young man to sell all of his possessions; he rejoices in Zacchaeus’ salvation when he re-orders his financial life;  he says that you cannot serve both God and money; he urges us to stop striving after material things and he observes that where our treasure is, there our heart is also. These teachings are often seen as too hard, and are either spiritualised into irrelevance or ignored altogether. But that is only because we are still ambivalent about the direction in which true life lies. Jesus is realistic about this:

… the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matt 7:13-14)

Jesus understands, and indeed the whole Bible demonstrates, that the myth of money and its power is one of the core temptations of humanity and one of the core forces that destroys life – both inner-life and outer-life – in the world. In particular, the Biblical story attests that economics is one of the primal powers that drives a wedge between human relationships, between humans and creation, and ultimately between humanity and God.

That is why Jesus’ teachings on money are so forcefully concerned to wake us up to the lies that destroy life and destroy love. Because, ultimately, the Biblical call to salvation – what we are saved to, both in this life and the next – is the invitation into the communion of love. For love is the only viable habitat for life.

God sent his only son into the world that we might live through him.  […] if we love one another, God lives in us […]  God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.  (1 John 4: 9, 12, 16)

Thus far we can summarise a few things about the idea of salvation in the Bible:

  1. the call from death into life is intended for us here and now, and not just after we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’;
  2. part of what we are saved from are the primal human lies about material things – money and stuff - which poison the wellsprings of life and love;
  3. part of what we are saved to is  a whole new world (‘a new creation’ – 2 Cor 5:17) of priorities and possibilities in relation to the material side of life, one that re-instates material things to a positive and life-giving place in our lives, and in particular, one that supports, rather than detracts from, the communion of love.

But here we need to be careful. The Bible makes clear that our material lives are intimately bound-up with the big questions of life and death, and our experience of them in both this life and the next. But this is not the whole picture. The experience of life, real life, cannot be reduced to our material state of being. This also is a core lie that Jesus himself, quoting Moses, has to reject in confrontation with Satan: ‘Man does not live by bread alone’ (Matt 4:4). No matter how much we work on reclaiming health and life-giving practices and attitudes to our material lives, this can never by itself, lead to life. We need more. We need God.

The necessary precondition to the story of salvation is therefore the story of need. Jesus makes this abundantly clear in the opening line of the Beatitudes – those eight awesome statements that hold the keys to the Kingdom. In this first Beatitude Jesus addresses the fundamental question of who the Kingdom of Heaven is opened up to, who gets to access its treasure of wonders. The answer is simple and profound, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matt 5:3). Or to put it another way, blessed are those who know their need of God. And here is the nub of the question for us: are we aware of our need?

One way of characterising my life story is to see it in terms of repeating cycles: at the beginning are phases in which everything seems to be going well and I forge ahead with life. Somewhere along the line I fall into an attitude that I have everything under control and that I am good at this life thing. But bit by bit things inevitably become harder; relationships fray, some parts of life start to unravel and others become a grind. Left unattended, such states can continue for a very long time; sometimes there is a crash. Either way, the cycle only ends when I somehow come to a recognition that my current state is intolerable – that it is not good, that bit by bit I am dying. Coming to such a place is always painful and always inconvenient (it requires changes), but always life-giving. It is the point of turning.

This last winter has been such a time for me; a time when physical, circumstantial and spiritual factors all combined and conspired to bring me (again) to the end of my self-sufficiency; to realise that in all sorts of ways, none of them explicit, I had been denying God and denying life. But you can’t hold back the river and sooner or later the dams we have constructed to hold back God and life will fail; when they do, all manner of things are washed away. If only we can let the water do what it needs to do. Thank God for such times. And thank God for spring.