Economic Discipleship

Right after church, several groups of friends from a number of local churches converged at a small coffee shop called El Barista in East Harlem. They were all participating in a “Cash Mob” where local churches in our neighborhood regularly come together to intentionally bless a locally owned business. On this particular Sunday, the owner of El Barista, Emmanuel, was there to greet the group and share about his commitment to the local community and the joys of being able to hire through Exodus Transitional Community, a Christian ministry that works with the formerly incarcerated. (You can watch a video here, posted by our brother Pastor Jose Humphreys of Metro Hope Church.) In addition to blessing a locally owned business that in turn seeks to invest economically in the local community, these regular cash mobs also introduce a crucial perspective on the nature of Christian discipleship that often goes unaddressed: following Jesus in one's economic life.


Normally when Christians talk about the relationship between a Christian disciple and money, the emphasis is largely on generosity. This is, of course, a good and important starting point. Some will go further and begin to think about their economic lives through the biblical lens of stewardship. This is the idea that the wealth we have is not wealth owned by us, but is instead wealth owned by God that has been given to us as a trust to be invested and deployed according to the values and priorities of the owner. This view of economic discipleship begins to reach beyond just our charitable giving and begins to place far more of our economic life under the lordship of Christ.


What something like this cash mob we hosted that Sunday can do is begin to take our discipleship beyond just charitable giving or even just wealth stewardship and into a far more comprehensive vision of how we are called to follow Jesus with all of our economic lives – including areas like how we spend in a consumerist economy, or how we hire in a pragmatic economy, or how we invest in a profit-maximizing economy, etc.


In their book Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give, Michael Rhodes and Robby Holt explore a beautifully compelling vision for this kind of comprehensive economic discipleship. The premise of the book is that the Kingdom of God in the Bible is not a spiritual metaphor or an ethical dream; it is the actual reign of an alternate King in the here and now. And just like any earthly kingdom, it represents an entirely different way of being in the world that is immediately available to us now by faith. It is a kingdom that not only has its own social order and ethical priorities; it is a kingdom that also has its own economics. To be a Christian is to refuse to live according to the economics of this world and instead to live according to the radically liberating and humanizing economics of the King.


In their chapters on economic equity, Rhodes and Holt begin with Micah 4:4 (popularized for a new generation by the musical Hamilton) where the prophet states that in Zion: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.” They argue that this means in the economy of the King, everyone will “experience security in this world … through having an economic stake in the neighborhood” and that “when God’s kingdom is fully establish, each person will have an economic stake, an economic place to stand, an economic portion to steward.” (161) This notion of everyone having an economic stake to steward in the world is a crucial theme that runs through the entire economy of this kingdom. In their chapter on work and wages, they show how the gleaning laws in Deuteronomy 24 required “every Israelite landowner to create access to work for others by accepting lower profits for themselves” which “made each and every ‘family business’ the place where economic justice happened.” They explain further:

The working poor and the landed Israelite found themselves laboring in the same field. The landowner’s sacrifice for the marginalized in the gleaning laws wasn’t sent in the mail to a charity run by professionals; it was collected by the marginalized on the edges of the landowner’s property. This made every Israelite’s farm a place of personal encounter and economic transformation. And while elsewhere God did call Israel to tithe to a centralized system of charity to provide food aid for the poor, God also called for a work-based system that occurred on each and every Israelite farm … The gleaning laws served as reminders to the Israelites that they themselves had experienced deep economic oppression and that Yahweh had liberated them because of his love for them.


In Egypt, the slave state stole the fruits of Israel’s labor. In Israel, God called his people to leave some of the fruits of their labor in the field so that everyone might be able to work. The gleaning laws thus institutionalized the economic liberation of the exodus and enshrined that liberation in the law of the promised land … The gleaning laws allowed even Ruth – the childless, husbandless widow from the wrong ethnicity, gender, and religion – to provide for herself, have something to give for her family, and become a full member of the neighborhood in Israel. (136-8)


What does this ancient near eastern law mean for us in a modern western society? Rhodes and Holt answer that question quite succinctly by saying that the logic of the gleaning laws “requires all Christ followers to bend their economic lives toward the marginalized, creatively and sacrificially leaving some of our own profits in the field to create opportunities for struggling workers in our societies.” (143) This kind of vision for following Jesus in our economic lives begins to reach far deeper into our pockets and our credit card statements – perhaps uncomfortably so – than a simple call to generous giving or even biblical stewardship.


So does going out to lunch at a locally-owned establishment with your friends after church really accomplish all of this? Well, not exactly. But simple community practices like cash mobs can begin to expand our Christian imagination and open up the possibility that even our spending can be done according to the purposes of the Kingdom. And when a local business is captured by a vision to make their establishment an economic blessing to neighborhood and reinvest in the local community, like El Barist in East Harlem, we can get a foretaste of the economy of the King that bears witness to the day when everyone will sit under their own fig tree and not be made to feel afraid. And if more and more Christians would “bend their economic lives toward the marginalized” and begin to approach their entire economic life as those who are called to make visible the economy of the kingdom of God today, we might begin to see more and more under-resourced communities transformed not despite free enterprise, but through it.