By David A. Fiensy
“To the extent that you did (acts of charity) to one of these the least of my brothers (and sisters), you did them to me” (Matt 25:40). “Give to the one who begs you (for charity)” (Matt 5:42).
There was a time when, in certain circles of Protestantism, one could find a marked indifference toward the poor. After all, what they really need is to go to heaven after they die, not live in abundance in this life, right? If they are poor, they probably are lazy anyway and deserve their plight. For the Christian to concern him/herself with economic conditions, the thinking went, is getting away from the real task of the church: to evangelize the world. There may even be a sinister motive behind some of those who advocate for socio-economic consciousness. They might be trying to change the gospel and the commission of the church.
But those texts from Matthew’s Gospel (and others like them) kept showing up—sometimes surprisingly to people previously unfamiliar with them—in Bible studies. A younger generation, not properly indoctrinated on the evils of the “social gospel,” began to ask why Christians do not heed Jesus’ words about concern for the poor. These words are also in the Bible, are they not? Jesus said these words too, did he not? Maybe concern for a person’s physical welfare is also a Christian commission. Maybe we are not only called to rescue the lost from Hell but also to rescue children from starvation and disease.
And thus, we have a renewed emphasis, a revival really, on the Christian calling to minister to those in need, whether it is giving food, providing clean water, giving medical care, or just rescuing people from harm. Organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse and International Disaster Emergency Service, both evangelical agencies, engage primarily in economic ministries.
The awakened conscience has also had its effect on the academic world of religious studies. If the academy ultimately affects the church through a trickle down process, it is also true that the church sometimes affects the academy. Issues that become controversial or important to the church may eventually find their way into academic studies. The Christian and economics is one of those in which the influence seems to have gone both ways. Thus, there are books out that stress the early Christians’ care for the poor and the sick. There are studies about the social, economic, and hygienic conditions of the ancient people, the people who first embraced Christianity.
And, of course, there are more and more works on the relationship of economic conditions to the ministry of Jesus. After all, it is mostly the words of Jesus that drive this consciousness. Thus, it was to be expected that the economic conditions at the time of Jesus would become of huge interest.
It was in this environment that I began to pull together my thinking and research on this topic into the recently released monograph pictured above. Here is an excerpt from the book:
What does economics have to do with Christian origins? Why would a Christian study such a connection? First of all, the New Testament makes many direct references to economic issues. But, second, the economy affects every other aspect of life (family, religion, community, work, health, and politics). To understand what it was like to live in a society, one must understand what the economy was doing. The study of the economy includes not only the goods and services of a society but also human labor and its control. For one, it entails the size of the pie of goods. (How prosperous was first-century Galilee?) But the study of economy also takes account of the slice of the pie that each family obtained. (How fair was the economy to each family?) Those involved in the quest for the historical Jesus have discovered that the ancient economy is a major point of dispute among various interpreters. Was the early Jesus movement a socioeconomic protest? Or was it primarily a religious reform? These two approaches understand Jesus in remarkably different ways.
I like what Dr. Larry Chouinard writes in his pamphlet, The Kingdom Manifesto: “Jesus expects his followers to take seriously his words (Matt 7:24-27), and embody Kingdom values and priorities in the here and now. . . the modern church seems to have lost its earthly mission to embody and practice the way of the Kingdom as a concrete expression of God’s heavenly will.”
In the past, this description would have been true. We can only hope that the modern church is finding its earthly mission again.