He Who Has Ears To Hear…3

Trinitarian Economics

Enoch Era

Several questions come up when we talk about an economic model for the people of God. Should they have separate or different economics? Can they not just live in the world and try to be as Christian as they can within the system rather than talk about different economics? All that it needs is that we demonstrate better integrity, honesty and accountability. Learn to be more generous. Live simple lives. Do not be greedy like the world and so on. But if it is just about integrity, simplicity, generosity and being good humans then there are many in the world who would put us to shame on these criteria. It is not just enough to have some social graces and being good humans by the standards of the world. On the other hand, who defines what being human is about?

The point is, it is not just enough to have a few social skills and live socially acceptable lives. This is not what constitutes our calling. I believe that the word of God and the life and teachings of Christ and his immediate followers, show us a totally different way of living. Totally counter to the cultures and systems of the world. We do not have to follow the world and pursue the middle class dream. We do not have to be career-driven or be upwardly mobile. I assert that if we do not learn to live differently and teach it to others, then we do not understand the call of Christ to follow him and we do not have a gospel.

Called to be different

The meaning of holiness in the Bible demands that we live differently from the rest of the world. Apostle Peter exhorts us in his first letter, ‘…as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (v 15, 16). I believe that in our teaching in the church, we have emphasised more on moral purity as holiness. Although we are told that it is not the only meaning of the word. For all practical purposes the average Christian understands holiness as in terms of morality. But we need to remember that moral purity is only one dimension of the meaning of the original word. The original meaning both in Hebrew and Greek is about being different or separate. We are called to be separate or different from the world. We cannot be doing and living the way the world does and expect to be known as followers of Christ and we cannot expect the world to be attracted to Christ. The call is to be like Christ. To attain unto him – surely, steadfastly and progressively.

The word of God teaches us that we are given all that we need in order to attain unto Christ. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world…”[1] He has given us His word to learn from, His Holy Spirit to teach us, the Church and its teachers and the power of His resurrection to empower us.  I believe that anyone who would ‘diligently seek Him’ will find Him. May the Lord help you and me to be such seekers!

It must be said that although our theological heritage is Trinitarian yet we have tended to lean more towards a rigid monotheism[2] sometimes bordering on the monistic[3]. Although Christians had accepted and affirmed the Trinitarian understanding of God from early centuries of the Christian era, to this day they tend to lean more heavily towards a rigid monotheism. From this single anomaly arise a host of unhealthy practices and deviations that have plagued the church and as a result our witness to the world. The tendency towards individualism to the neglect of the relational or family as we see in western societies is one such unhealthy trend. If as it is claimed, Capitalism was a result of Puritan thinking then I believe that it too falls under the category of unhealthy deviations. My suspicion is that the tendency towards individualism has its roots in Capitalism if its definition as ‘economic individualism’ is accepted. Capitalism and its basic premises, the pursuit of personal interest and right to ownership of private property have fostered radical individualism in those who followed it.

Some of the other unhealthy practices and deviations are in our understanding and treatment of nature; our approach to evangelism and missions; on issues of tolerance[4], our understanding and practise of governance both in the way we constitute and run our churches and organisations as well as government at large and in the way we do our economics. For the purpose of the present series of article I shall confine myself to the issues of economics and governance. I shall write how our Trinitarian understanding of God impinges on economics in the present article and on governance in the next article.

How does our understanding of God’s Trinity[5] affect our understanding of economics? According to The Concise Encyclopaedia of Economics[6] the term Capitalism is actually a misnomer, a derogatory term used by the socialists. But the original term was ‘economic individualism’. Its basic premises are the pursuit of self-interest, the right to own private property and investment commensurate with returns. We shall presently see how an understanding of God as Triune obviates any scope for economic individualism.

It is generally accepted that different forms of Capitalism existed in earlier periods of time. It became a dominating form of economics in the west following the demise of feudalism in the middle ages. It is also believed that Capitalism was born as a result of Puritan thinking. Men like John Lilburne (1614 – 1657) had used the parable of talents taught by Jesus to teach free market economy a hundred years before Adam Smith (1723 – 1790). Adam Smith, considered to be the godfather of Capitalism, wrote his path breaking article on Capitalism, ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’.

Trinity and economics

As we begin to formulate an economic model for the people of God a few scriptures come to mind,

Genesis 1: 26, 27

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

2 Corinthians 8:9:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

Philippians 2: 4-8:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

1 Corinthians 6:19, 20:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Trinitarian economics is about agape economics. I call it Agapeconomics. We know that Agape[7] is the Greek word used in the New Testament to denote God’s love. Therefore agapeconomics is the economics of divine love expressed in the Godhead and expressed by Him towards humankind. It is the same divine love that we ought to demonstrate towards one another in Christ and towards the world.

What is this ‘divine love’ and how is it expressed? The essence of the divine being is described as LOVE – “God is love” says Apostle John. God’s love is selfless, self-giving and does not seek its own. Divine love loves, gives, shares, serves freely without expecting or demanding returns. The only expectation is the expectation of good for the recipients of love. He does not expect returns in terms of profits or gain to Him. He needs no profits or gains. He is complete in Himself and does not need anyone or anything to make Him complete.  Therefore He gives of himself unreservedly, without holding back. He gave away His One and Only begotten Son.

Love, in its very essence is ‘outgoing’. In this sense we can say that God is ‘other-centric’. This means He is not self-centred or inward looking. Within the Godhead there is a constant flow of life among the persons of the Trinity. God gives to the Son and the Son gives back to the Father through the Holy Spirit. (Refer John 5: 26, 27; 1 Cor 15:27, 28; John 17: 21, 22; and Col 2:9) It is the communion of love by which whatever God is, is shared equally, infinitely and eternally unhindered between the persons of the trinity. There is a constant sharing or flow of life such that none of them is more full or complete than the other. Just as each one gives so that the other maybe complete, He gives of Himself to make us complete too.

God suffers no insecurity or identity crisis. If He did then He would not be God. Since He suffers no such personality defects as we do. He is totally outgoing to the point of making Himself vulnerable without any fear of being taken advantage of or of losing anything. Therefore He incarnates not just as man but to the point of becoming a servant and dying on the cross. He has nothing to lose and He will never lose anything. He is totally unassailable, untouchable and unchanging in His deity. Therefore He loves freely, fully and eternally.

One of the most beautiful and breath-taking statements from scriptures which explains to us the economy of divine love (Agapeconomics) is, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9. (When I read these words in the context of writing this article and began to look at them from the perspective of economics, I needed to pause and bask in the richness of these words. I searched out different songs that I know both in the English and Telugu hymnals and enjoyed how these words have been captured in poetry and song. It took me several days to come out of that reverie.)

We are made rich in the sense of being given fullness in Christ. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” (Col 2:9, 10). Rich in order that we do for others what Christ has done for us. If we are created in the image of God, then we are to be as ‘other-centric’ as God is. ‘Other-centric’ not in the sense of fear of others or controlled by others opinions but in the sense of outgoing love for the good of others. Since we are secure in Him and are given a new identity in Him, we can serve with freedom and true love without any fear of being taken advantage of or of any insecurity. This is part of God’s image in us and is restored to us in redemption. As stated in an earlier article, it is from this vantage point of fullness, of security and identity in Him we will be willing to make ourselves vulnerable and expendable in the service of others.

Since the final outcome of victory is guaranteed through the resurrection of Christ, we serve others with no fear of losing anything. When every member in the context of the local church, the local expression of the body of Christ, lives and serves in this manner then all of us will be served. In such a group the rich will not get richer and the poor will not be poorer. This is what constitutes true fellowship, koinonia (Gk). Fellowship is not about conducting or attending meetings. It is about serving one another with true out flow of love such that the ‘fullness of God’ in us flows into one another. Thus meeting each other’s needs. Working for the good of others also means that we do not work with any self-interest or to build our securities and identities in the process of serving others. There is no middle class dream here. There is only the dream of making others rich in Christ.

Christians can and do educate themselves and work to earn a living as others do but they do not do it for the sake of pursuing the middle-class lifestyles. They refuse to engage their lives to build personal securities and identities. They do not make material affluence and worldly success their goal in life. They do not make this their agenda. Their only objective is to grow in Christ and to ‘have the mind of Christ’ so that they can serve others for their good. This is the meaning of ‘seeking the kingdom of God’. This kingdom spreads not by building structures, chapels and cathedrals but unobtrusively, silently as the ‘leaven, leavens the whole dough’[8]. This is Agapeconomics, the economy of the Kingdom of God.

This is what we have been redeemed for and this is how the church is expected to live and demonstrate. Only then we would have lived the gospel and only then we would have a gospel to preach. Otherwise the world sees no difference in us except the difference of language, traditions and rituals – nothing but just another religion. Is this what our Master gave His life for – to create another religion?  Just as there is no comparison between Christ and any other gods and goddesses or even with any other founders of religions there has got to be no comparison between the followers of Christ and the rest of the world. We are called to be holy as He is holy. Holiness is about being separate and different with no comparison and peers in the world.

“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” sang Miriam of old. The church today sings, “There is none like you” about Lord Jesus Christ but hardly anyone looks at us and says there is none like the people of God! Balaam prophesied about the people of Israel, “Behold, a people dwelling alone, and not counting itself among the nations!” (Numbers 23: 9). Are we living as ‘people dwelling alone’? Are we ‘counted among the nations’?

The dynamic of sharing

Let me explain why economic individualism is not for the people of God. The offshoots of economic individualism are pursuit of personal interest and right to own private property. The other extreme people tend fall into is collectivism or economic socialism. In socialism, any rights the individual might have, are subsumed by the collective. For the people of God it is neither individualism nor collectivism. Colin Gunton writes, “Individualism is a non-relational creed, because it teaches that I do not need my neighbour in order to be myself.” While collectivism denies the individual the distinctness of identity and particularity but that only the collective exists.

To be created in the image of God means, we are created with individual distinctness but also to be relational. God is one yet three. The three persons of the Godhead are distinct as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet they are one God. They are one because of the communion. We talk about them as three because they are addressed as distinct in scripture yet as one. They give room or space to each other to be distinct.

Each one of us is created as individuals and possess a unique identity. This does not mean we become individualistic. Individualism is a result of the fall of man into sin. Though unique and distinct as individuals yet being relational is essential to be human. We are individuals meant to live in relationships with one another. We find our meaning, identity and joy in being related to God first then with one another and with nature around. The very nature of our being is to be relational. This is our true ontology.  No man can live by himself without any relationships either with other humans or even with nature and find meaning[9]. Even when we are incorporated into the body of Christ we do not lose our distinctness as individuals nor do we lose it in eternity[10]. So when we share, give and receive from each other the individual is never subsumed into the collective. Being created in the image of God means we retain our distinctness as individual persons just as the three person of the Trinity are distinct. But since his image in us is being relational, by willingness to accept, share, receive from and give to each other we acknowledge our need and dependence of others. In order to give and receive one has to be distinct and separate from the other we do not coalesce and merge into each other to the point of losing our distinctness. Neither do we affirm our distinctness to the point of independence from everyone else.

In the body of Christ we live in submission to the head of the Body, Christ and in submission to one another. This is voluntary. There is no force or coercion to submit to anyone not even to Christ. Giving to and receiving from one another is voluntary as well. There is no compulsion or enforcement. So the body of Christ is a body of individuals who voluntarily live in submission to Christ and to one another. They live with the dynamic of constant sharing and receiving from each other such that no one is more full or complete than any other. We do care for our own interests but realise that our interest are served in serving others. When every member in the body of Christ lives with this understanding everybody’s needs are served. So any form of individualism nor pursuit of personal interest are out place among the people of God. It is with the fall we have developed feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. The redeemed people of God must be those who are in the process of being healed from such feelings. Those who are experiencing such healing must begin to live this way.

Furthermore 1 Corinthians 6: 19, 20 tells us that we are not our own, we are bought with a price and therefore belong to God. How can those who do not belong to themselves pursue self-interest or have any right to property? It is said about the early followers of Christ in Acts 4:32, “…no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” Whatever they are and whatever they have belongs to their Master and they can only hold it in trust (stewardship) for Him and dispense with it as He pleases.

Investing into other’s lives

Another major tenet of capitalism is investing and profit-making. It has been claimed that a meditation on the parable of talents has taught us about how to invest our resources as good stewards. Vishal Mangalwadi in his book ‘The Book That Made Your World – how the Bible created the soul of western civilization’ writes that the birth of modern industrial capitalism was celebrated in 1851 at the first World’s Fair at Hyde Park in London. He writes about Cyrus McCormick’s horse-drawn reaper as one of the chief American contributions at the Fair. He tells us that the inventor of the crop reaper, a precursor to mechanisation in agriculture, was influenced by the parable of talents taught by Jesus.  He writes how the parable was one of chief sources of McCormick’s understanding of stewardship as spirituality. He concludes, “For McCormick, turning five thousand dollars into ten thousand dollars was being a good steward, which, on Jesus’ own authority, was synonymous with being spiritual.” Does stewardship mean doubling our investment? Can the parable of the talents be used to justify profit making? Is this what Jesus is teaching in this parable?

I wonder if Jesus’ parable can be interpreted to draw lessons about spirituality and stewardship in terms of investment and returns. In fact not all parables are allegorical to draw several lessons from different points in the story. Jesus taught in parables to teach about the kingdom of God. Generally a parable communicates one and only one important aspect of the kingdom of God. Unless Jesus himself used the parable to teach more lessons we do not have the warrant to do so. The parable is given to us in Matthew 25: 14- 30. I believe that the emphasis of the parable is upon the man going away on a journey and returning to take account of what he has given to his servants. The parables in Matthew 25 must be read in the context of the previous chapter. Matthew 24 is about the signs of the end times. The disciples asked him questions regarding his coming back again and the signs of the times. So the parable of the talents is about Jesus going away on a journey like the man in the parable and coming back again to take account of what he has given to his servants. Drawing any other lesson from the parable causes injustice to the way parables are to be interpreted.

How must the servants use their talents then, so that the master is pleased with them? This, I believe, is taught in the verses following the parable from verses 31-46 and is implied in the words of the Lord at the final judgement, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (v. 40). Whether Capitalism is the result of Puritan thinking or not and whether it is based on the parable of the talents or not, the parable certainly is not about investment in order to double the returns. If we read the parable and the succeeding story about the final judgement together, we learn that it is about investing into the lives of others so that their needs are met.  This is how we can ‘lay-up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal’[11].

John Chrysostom (347-407 CE) talking about the true meaning of stewardship argues, “This is also theft not to share one’s possessions…Just as an official in the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead for his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor. He is directed to distribute it to his fellow servants who are in want. So if he spends more on himself than his needs require, he will pay the harshest penalty hereafter. For his own goods are not his own, but belongs to his own fellow servants…I beg you remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs.”

People of God cannot be hoarders. I believe no one who claims to be a follower of Christ can be richer than his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. If we are blessed with resources more than others, it is not for our profligacy nor for our indolence but in order that we share with those who do not have. Read about Job in chapter 31, how one of the richest men of the east lived. It is not just the early church but early man too lived by sharing what they had with those who did not.

A degenerate vine!

I learnt about agapeconomics about five years ago. Looking back I think Lord has been trying to teach this to me since a long time. But I guess I was dull headed and lost in the world, thinking about everything in the categories of the world. Since the time I learnt it I have changed the way I live and work. People ask me if I am doing ‘faith ministry’. My answer is, “It is not faith ministry but it is love ministry”. I serve others because of love. And true love serves freely without expecting anything nor demanding anything. True love does accept and receive service from others. I now make my services and my resources available to anyone who needs it – including my sermons both in audio and written form, free of cost. I have decided not to use my resources to generate capital from it. Lord has and is taking care of all my needs ‘according to His riches in glory’[12]. Although this has been my understanding and attitude since the beginning, I have begun to put it into practise much more consciously since last 5 years. I have begun to consciously avoid doing anything with security or identity concerns. A few of my friends have been influenced by this teaching and have started living and serving in the same way.

Agapeconomics can and must be practised at least among the people of God. Those who claim to follow Christ must live as he lived and do as he did. It is not possible for the people of the world. But it is possible within the context of the body of Christ.

For all practical purposes we know that Capitalism is on the decline. This is increasingly becoming true more than ever since the financial meltdown of 2008. In the name of development we are actually eating up into our future. The pace of development is so fast that we do not allow for the natural process of replenishment of earth’s resources. This has led to serious environmental imbalances globally brining in unprecedented climate changes everywhere. Today we are practically hurtling down the hill of development at break-neck speed as if the brakes have failed! We do not know how to stop. If anyone attempts to stop he or she is considered anti-development and anti-national. We are actually eating up into our future. Very few countries in the world today are without a debt and several in Europe, South America and Asia are on the brink of financial bankruptcy.

The Occupy Wall Street movement born in 2011, at the Wall Street in New York was about growing income and wealth inequality in the US between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. Their slogan was “We are the 99%”. Does the church have an answer to these question of inequality in the world? Could the church rise to the occasion and show a different way of living to the world? A different economic model? If there is anyone it has to be the people of God. But if the people of God themselves are lost in the pursuit of the world and its riches how can they be a model and what hope is there for the world?

Hence the divine dirge,

“I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21).

Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Note: If any of you is interested in exploring and learning more, I will be glad to be of any assistance. Please also look for my next and final article in the series, ‘Small is beautiful’ on incarnational model of institutions, structures and governance.

[1] 2 Peter 1: 3. 4.

[2] Christian Theology is monotheistic for sure but it is Trinitarian monotheism that is, One God yet Three Persons. So it is not a rigid monotheism where there is no plurality in the divine being as in the case of Judaism and Islam. Trinitarian Monotheism affirms unity and plurality in the divine being – this is unique to Christian theology and is a result of God’s revelation. Please look for my meditations on Trinity, to be released soon.

[3] Monism is the philosophical view that only one impersonal element constitutes all reality. In other words all reality is one. Everything in the universe comes from and goes back into one ultimate reality. All differences and distinctions are illusory. Most Eastern religions are monistic.

[4] Read my article ‘The Myth of Absolute Tolerance’ and related articles on my blog: https://rupanthar.wordpress.com/2009/12/10/the-myth-of-absolute-tolerance/

[5] Colin Gunton’s writings have been of great influence in my understanding of Trinity. Notable among them are ‘The Promise of Trinitarian Theology’ and ‘The One, The Three and the Many’.

[6] http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Capitalism.html

[7] It is not the English word ‘agape’ meaning wide open.

[8] Matthew 13:33.

[9] Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) tried but he lived with nature and made frequent forays into human habitations as well. You just cannot live alone!

[10] Unlike in Hinduism, where after a series of cycle of births the individual merges with the impersonal principle of life or soul called Brahman and loses his/her identity. To escape the cycle of births and merge with Brahman is moksha or salvation.

[11] Matthew 6:20.

[12] Philippians 4:19.

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