Not long ago, I learned that thirty-eight percent of my retirement account has vanished and that my house is suddenly worth less than the mortgage I am paying on it. I wasn’t wasteful or reckless. I didn’t vandalize my own home or spend my life’s savings on riotous living. But all of a sudden, through no particular fault of my own, a major part of my stash of money (small though it was) simply disappeared.
This did not just happen to me, of course, but to virtually all Americans and to virtually everyone else in the world. The economic downturn — or collapse, recession, crisis, call it what you will — took us all by surprise.
We were enjoying unprecedented wealth and prosperity. Then, unexpectedly, the stock market crashed, financial institutions folded, and ordinary Americans defaulted on their homes and lost their jobs.
Wealth had always seemed solid, tangible, and practical. We assumed we were storing our money in the bank, envisioning perhaps the old comic books of Scrooge McDuck with his Money Bin piled to the ceiling with dollar bills and quarters. A concern for money was “materialistic,” as if money were material. We spoke of “real estate,” as if our estate were real.
If we didn’t have enough of the so-called “hard” cash to buy what we wanted, we could borrow it. So we bought hard material objects by means of plastic, using illusory money as if we would never have to pay it back.
Well, pretty much the whole country did this, and now the house of cards has collapsed. Ironically, to fix the economy, to put us back where we were, our government is injecting money back into the system, doing so by borrowing it, indulging in deficit spending, and cranking out more illusory money.
I am not an economist or the son of an economist. I offer no opinion here about the gold standard or fiat money. We can learn, though, that treasures on earth are not substantial, permanent, or reliable. We should have known that from Jesus (Matt. 6:19).
So how are Christians to think of money? Jesus also informs us that we cannot serve God and money (v. 24). “Serving” money turns it upside down. Money has to do with serving our neighbors. This is to approach economics in terms of the Reformation doctrine of vocation.
According to that teaching, which is essential to any theology of culture, God in His providential governing of the world works through human beings. He gives us this day our daily bread by means of farmers, bakers, grocers, and the hands that prepared our meal. For all of this we thank God in our prayers because He blesses and serves us through all of these different vocations.
And God works through our vocations to bless and serve others. God did not design for us to be completely independent. His will is for human beings to be dependent on each other. We depend on others to grow our food, build our houses, and manufacture our clothing. And others depend on what we do for them.
One might say, “This is just the division of labor. It’s simple economics.” That is true. But it is God’s design for human community. It is the doctrine of vocation.
Money is the means of exchange. I exchange a portion of my labor for a portion of my neighbor’s labor. This is called buying and selling. Money symbolizes the value that we place on each other’s labor. Not that money is of God in the same way that vocation is of God. Money is a human convention. It reflects how we ourselves and our society value different work, not how God values it.
For example, we value great athletes and movie stars to an exorbitant degree. Because so many of us will contribute a fraction of the value of our labor, they get paid millions of dollars. The man who picks up our garbage gets paid much, much less. Arguably, though, the people who clean up after us provide a service that is much more important to our lives than the people who entertain us. Yet we look up to the entertainers and lavish them with our money, and we often look down on those who work harder and for less. God, though, honors all those who present their bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), thus exercising the holy priesthood in their vocations.
Those vocations go beyond the workplace. The word “economy” comes from the Latin word for “household.” The Reformers said that we have vocations in the three “estates” that God has founded: the church, the state, and the household, which refers primarily to the family and then to the workplace (thus, “economy”).
It is fitting, therefore, that part of our labor — our money — goes for our obligations in our other vocations in the state and in the church. We have a vocation to be a good citizen, so we pay our taxes (Rom. 13:6–7). We have a vocation in our congregations, so we bring our offerings (2 Cor. 9:5–7).
As we live out our faith in our vocation — loving and serving our neighbors in our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our country — we “lay up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19–20).