The spiritual side of economics
by Jonathan Cornford
As the first in what will be an ongoing series of reflections on economics in the Bible, it is appropriate that we start with the first concepts - the ideas that underpin everything else. And for a Christian reading of the Bible, that means starting with one small but cosmic verse: 'The Word became flesh ...' (John 1:14).
The first thing that we need to say about these startling four words in John's Gospel, is that matter matters. This seems a small thing to say, however the idea that God is only interested in 'the soul', and not the body, has been one of the most damaging distortions of the Christian gospel throughout the history of the Church. It was because of this misunderstanding that devout evangelical mill owners could force seven year-old orphans to work fifteen hour days in nineteenth century England, happy in the knowledge that a little religious instruction could assure them a better life in heaven.
But John's Gospel tells us that the most important event in human history was God taking on human flesh. The 'Word' that God had to say to us had to be 'spoken' in the form of a whole human life (including death), because it fundamentally concerned how we live.
Therefore, whatever we do in this world and in our bodies, matters in some way to God. In fact, the whole current of the Bible tells us that there is no such thing as a 'spiritual life', or 'spirituality', that is disconnected from our bodily and material life.
Thus the prophets continually have to remind the people of Israel that all their prayers, fasting and worship are futile if they continue to practise economic injustice (see especially Isaiah 58 and Amos 5). The Apostle Paul informed the Christians in Rome that what they did in their bodies, in their day to day lives, was actually what constituted their 'spiritual worship' (Romans 12:1).
This means that everything we do with money has a 'spiritual' side to it. Most people can relate to the idea that our attitude to money and possessions has spiritual implications - an all consuming desire for these things will obviously compete with our openness to a higher reality. However the Bible goes further than this - it claims that it is not just our attitude to money and possessions that is important, it is also the actual impact of our dealings upon other people (see, for example Isaiah 1:12-17 or Ezekiel 34).
It follows that if we are the beneficiaries of an economic system that systematically harms other people: (i) we are morally culpable; and (ii) that has a direct bearing on how God relates to us, and (even if we aren't aware of it) how we relate to God.
Why is this so? Because, as we find out a couple of chapters later in John's Gospel, the whole reason that God's Word became flesh was because 'God so loved the world' (John 3:16). What God really cares about is our relationships, and, our relationships to each other (including financial and economic relationships) cannot be separated from our relationship to God. Jesus made this abundantly clear when he summed up the whole Bible in two commandments:
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'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)