Mustard Seed Economics
Global economic turmoil has thrown millions of people and whole governments into confusion bordering on panic. And times such as this present an opportunity for powerful Christian witness. There are those in the church who will step up and lead us to dig more deeply than ever before to give and help those who are teetering on the brink of personal economic collapse. And they do so rightly. Christians have a powerful opportunity to demonstrate the generosity and genuine concern Christ has for every man, woman, and child living in dire straits.
But there is an even greater opportunity to change the world in a fundamental way. It requires faith that asks Christian, especially in the well-developed economies of the West, to reconsider how we invest our earthly treasures.
There are two basic problems with the way most currently invest. The first is that it tends to follow a fear-based investment strategy which flies in the face of the consistent “fear not” message of the Bible. Too often we put stock (pardon the pun) in what we can see. Investment strategies include diversifying to include holding blue chip stocks and precious metals as a hedge against the volatility of market fluctuations. These companies and commodities tend to hold their value and weather the storms of sudden and jerky market fluctuations.
On the other hand, the Gospel is a fearless strategy for living as it challenges us to trust in a God we cannot see: a God who challenges us to live a faith which “invests” in things unseen. This God warns us that we cannot know what tomorrow brings, that we are not to lay up treasures in the earth, that this life is very short, and fear-based living undermines our faith. We are called to a radical idea of hope and of the future that is bold. In that very boldness lies our strongest witness as it turns into real-world action.
Here is the crux of Mustard Seed Economics. The name is obviously borrowed from Jesus’ popular parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to the smallest of seeds but one that will grow up into a substantial plant. Small beginnings…great potential. The potential of the mustard seed is inherent within the seed itself. It will draw moisture and nutrition from the surrounding soil when planted but the kernel of the seed will develop and grow using those outside resources to become something far greater than its original state. But its original state, as a very tiny seed, is all about potential.
The difference between the world’s view of the market and that of the Mustard Seed Economics view is faith. The world has faith only in what it can see, understand, and attempt to control. It relies almost entirely on the knowledge and cunning of the individual or group of investors. Praise God that He sends rain on the just and the unjust and, given creative human intelligence created in the image of God, by our wits the human race has achieved great things. But the state of the world’s economy demonstrates how very limited we really are.
The Mustard Seed Economist understands that our wisdom comes from outside of us, not even from the collaborative intelligence of the church itself, but from the inspiration and leading of the Holy Spirit working in and through God’s people.
The problem arises when we invest in the world’s system by the world’s standards and we reap the fear we have sown. We exercise only a small amount of faith and, if our portfolio is well balanced, we reap eight, ten, or perhaps even fifteen percent annual returns (yields). How does that compare to the thirty, sixty, and hundredfold return of which Jesus spoke? It is sad but we consider this investment strategy as safe…a fear-based approach.
Faith grows as faith is practiced. Any Olympian can attest to the diligence and tireless efforts required to reach the podium and receive the coveted medal. Just like their daily routines of exercise and the discipline of dietary restrictions, faith is a choice and an effort. Choosing to believe God and the promises of the Bible is demanding and challenging and often mind-numbingly operating in the dark before we see the light at the end of the tunnel. But that is the very nature of faith, hoping for the yet unrealized.
The challenge of Mustard Seed Economics is to view the world through different eyes, eyes that spell faith R-I-S-K. But is it risk to invest in a God we profess to trust and obey? The upside of faith is beyond our imagination.
Economic and governmental policies have led us to where we are today. Socialism and communism tried to control markets from a top-down perspective, attempting to predict production needs. The predictive mathematic models were the least of the problems of central planning. The greater problem was that people were disallowed the opportunity to strive to be more than they were, to achieve toward their own potential, as their work was confined to predetermined vocations that fit into the formula. Those controlling the model formed an elitist oligarchy that controlled production and squelched human creativity.
Today open markets have resulted in inequitable wealth distribution that the majority do not find palatable. While we consider political freedom a positive thing, high concentrations of wealth have resulted in an economic oligarchy with extremely wealthy investors now dictating, not unlike their central planning counterparts, where funds should be invested, what products should be created, and how best to manipulate labor to glean the most from the system. Unfortunately, their mathematic predictive modeling is often little better than that of the central planners.
Here is what I believe they are missing. Because they live in fear, separated from faith in God, or anything else outside themselves, they try to invest safely, not to grow toward the greatest potential but to protect what they already have. They operate on increasingly narrow margins as economies tighten. If you own a billion dollars in stock perhaps a two or three percent annual return is tolerable. But when economies grow very slowly and wealth is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, those in the middle classes are squeezed and those at the bottom are choked off from any real hope and potential.
The question remains: how is all this turned around? Good question and the answer is that it will be turned by faith. The problem with central planning and with the economic oligarchy under which we now live is they are both top down approaches trying to pull people up from the bottom into the middle class. A growing middle class will always increase the power and stability of an economy. The more middle class, the more wealth that is created and all boats rise. But, as mentioned, the collective intelligence of those at the top is miniscule by comparison to the collaborative and creative intelligence of the entire human race.
The faith factor comes in when Christians stop relying on the world’s systems, release their fears, and follow God into a new economic model. When Jesus stated that the poor would always be with us, it was not a statement on how things were meant to be. Rather it was an indictment of the worldly hoarding their wealth as if that wealth would afford them any kind of real security. His statement was in direct contrast to God’s revelation that there would be no poor in Israel…so long as the Israelites followed God’s prescribed economic model. Jesus’ statement illustrates that Israel had not followed that model but that the wealthy and powerful had chosen to follow their own wisdom for their personal security.
The Mustard Seed Economic model rests on one simple principle: potential. To use another agricultural analogy, one does not grow watermelons by planting watermelons. The harvest of watermelons is already present in the potential of a watermelon seed. Planted, the seed grows into a vine which can produce many watermelons and, within them, numerous more watermelon seeds. The design of creation has potential built in but the greatest potential exists in the smallest packages…the seeds.
The Mustard Seed Economic model then is based on investing at the bottom. Rather than trying to formulate economic growth from the top down, the Mustard Seed Economist understands that by empowering the collaborative and creative power of the broadest spectrum of people the greatest potential will be realized.
As a serial entrepreneur, I am well aware that many small start-up businesses will fail in the first five or ten years, usually to the tune of eighty percent or more. But those that make it tend to grow astronomically and yield returns to the tune of the thirty, sixty and hundredfold. It does not take but the two out of ten that succeed to more than offset the funds invested in those that fail. But even then, the monies invested in the failures inject capital into the lowest levels of the economy that human creativity will eventually find a way to put to work more effectively. The key is that those at the bottom, hungry to succeed, will find creative ways to claw their way up the economic ladder if they have a little capital springboard from which to launch.
There are a multitude of economically-empowering initiatives being put into place around the world to allow the poor the opportunity to grow their own futures. And their success will trickle up to increase the wealth of those already higher up the ladder….all boats rise. The challenge to the church is stark: can we overcome our fear, which is a form of unbelief, of distrusting God for our provision, and invest in the risky business ventures of the poor?
In a previous essay, “A Brief Theology of Profit-Making,” I argued that profit is not the aim of the marketplace Christian. Rather, our first priority is righteousness as we follow and cling to Christ for our security and hope. Joseph, Daniel, and David were not seeking to become wealthy but their righteousness led them to success in Egypt, Babylon, and Israel. Profit follows righteousness more than it follows fear.
The church is standing at the precipice of an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God to the world in unprecedented ways. Given the current global economic turmoil, the wealthy of the church, those with invested retirement funds, those who own multiple homes, those purchasing new cars ever year or two, have an opportunity to drive an economic witness to the world that would have been all but impossible even one hundred years ago.
Globalization and electronic communications present opportunities to increasingly connect producers and markets, to shout from the house top of the glory of our God, to live in righteousness, investing in the least of these, to show the world that our God reigns. With or without our individual assent or participation, God is moving in the marketplace. He will glorify Himself and He is inviting us to take part. Jesus said, “They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” Love goes far beyond the utterance of “be warm and well fed” or prayers whispered in our closets. Love is active…just as active as Christ willingly sacrificing His own life on a Cross.
What are you investing in today? Worldly security or a challenging faith? Are you a Mustard Seed economist, willing to put faith to the test? Invest wisely, as one day all accounts will be reviewed.