“Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” – Matthew 9:37-38.
If we think about it much at all, we soon realize Jesus used economic analogies throughout his ministry. One reason is rather obvious: we all understand economics even if we do not understand the high language of the study of economics. Jesus compares the fulfillment of the Great Commission and the purpose of the Five-fold Gifts (to grow the Church – Ephesians 4:11-13) to a workaday endeavor. We all understand what workers are: they are people who put forth productive effort. We all understand what harvest is: it is the gathered fruit of productive effort.
For centuries, the Church has missed the opportunity to gather the harvest in the most abundant field of all: the marketplace. That is not to say there have not been plenty of examples in history of Christians connecting lives and ministering through workplace relationships. But, it is generally accepted among those studying and working within God’s movements in the marketplace that there has been little intentionality in engaging the marketplace as 1) a created institution in God’s original design, 2) as an enormously good and therefore redemptive institution in human experience, and 3) as a particular field bursting in abundance, beyond ready for harvest.
Let’s work through those three points in reverse order. The first question we might ask is “how is the marketplace ‘bursting’ in evangelical potential”? There are several key factors that lead to that conclusion but the top one is the pervasiveness of the marketplace. There is simply no more pervasive institution in global society. Every person in every nation and town is connected through the global marketplace. It is a web of relationships and Christian witness, or any other kind of witness for that matter, occurs most poignantly through direct relationships. Not only do our human connections in the marketplace afford the opportunity to share the Gospel verbally but work performance in every ethical nuance demonstrates the underlying values and purposes of the worker. Our motivations, our words, and our actions do not always align and people perceive the difference between those who are only in it for themselves and those who serve higher purposes. And as we are all too often painfully aware, our actions nearly always speak with more authority than our words.
A particular example comes to mind from my own experience. My wife and I had a small retail business for several years. We started out in a side street, hole-in-the-wall location renting from a man many in the community warned us to stay away from. But he had the space we needed at a price we could afford and nothing in our initial dealings with him gave any indication that we would suffer from a relationship with him so long as we abided by the terms of our lease agreement. At one point, we experienced a clogged drain. The landlord reminded us that fixing it was our responsibility according to the lease. I was willing to unclog it myself but needed access to the building’s basement so he would, at the very least, have to come and let me in. I asked him if he also had a drain snake I could borrow to clear the drain.
When he came, he brought the tools and went into the basement with me. Before I could make a move to correct the problem, he ascended a small ladder, opened a drain connection, and ran the power snake to clear the drain. Unfortunately there was a fair amount of “nastiness” backed up in the drain that, when it cleared, gushed out of the open connector and fairly well covered him in sewage. When all was said and done, he turned to me and said, “I wasn’t going to do this for you but you’re such a [expletive deleted] nice guy.” What was it that made me “such a nice guy?” I was not contentious about the problem, I paid my rent on time, and I never questioned him about his reputation. How simple was that? To this day, if we see him on the street when we return for visits, he meets us as a friend and we know that our love for him has been received and felt simply in our appreciation of his dignity as one created in the image of God.
The relationships we establish via marketplace connections may range from casual encounters with baggers and cashiers at the grocery store to longstanding customer, vendor, boss, employee, landlord, etc. relations. In every case, we can make their worth to us known by simply appreciating them, being kind and generous, and, when God opens the door, sharing their value to God by telling them of the Truth of Jesus Christ and God’s grace extended to them.
The second item above is recognizing the function and good purposes the marketplace fulfills in human experience. The marketplace is often derided as a cutthroat environment of vicious competition but competition is only a superficial characteristic of the market. Even at that, competition helps keep innovation moving forward, prices in check (undermining monopolistic dominance and manipulation), and education forward-looking to stay apace with technological advancement. However, the fundamental nature of the marketplace is cooperative since it is the division of labor, which compels companies and workers toward specialization and collaboration, which creates the opportunities for exchange. Such division allows individuals and workers to excel in particular disciplines and increase efficiencies and sophistications within them as they know they can acquire ancillary goods and services from other entities.
Bakers need not raise cattle, harvest rawhide, and make shoes to protect their own feet if they can focus on bread making and trade some of their product to Florsheim or Nike. Their margins increase with the efficiencies gained by increasing output at decreasing margins of additional costs. All that said, the marketplace creates the opportunity for workers and their communities to flourish more abundantly the more complex and interconnected their economic societies become.
The marketplace also allows workers to pursue specialized fields of work in keeping with their particular gifts and talents. Few engineers want to teach English literature and medical doctors are little inclined to perform oil changes to make money. Gifts vary by degree and nature and each person is most fulfilled by pursuing the specialties of their highest interests and capacities. A complex, diverse marketplace allows much more opportunity for finding satisfying work than economies of less sophistication. Markets working well effectively help make societies both wealthier and happier.
But this brings us back to point number one: the marketplace as an institution created by God. Oddly enough, as we pursue knowing God and his ways, many find the most profound truths are ultimately expressed simply. There is nothing more fundamental to sound theology than to understand the essential nature of God is love. Complications come into the conversation when we try to make how God’s love toward us works out complicated. (I am reminded of the management adage: K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid).
The abundance of the created order provides amply enough to feed, cloth, and house every man, woman, and child on the planet. The causes of poverty – economic oppression, bad politics, sloth – are all rooted in the selfishness of sin. It is rather simple math to figure out we could provide basic provision and protections for everyone if we would simply muster the political will to make it so. But we do not and so it is not so. But the fault does not lie at the feet of the market but rather at the feet of sinful market practitioners (including self-centric politicians leveraging economic relationships to maintain highly favorable lifestyles and social positions).
The marketplace is fundamentally good as it provides the opportunity for blessing all people. That it does not is not the fault of the mechanism anymore than it is the fault of the hammer if we strike our thumb instead of the nail’s head. The marketplace is merely a tool to serve much higher purposes. Only in recent history has the theology of the marketplace come into academic conversation. Some argue that its purposes are solely to provide work to accommodate the necessities of life and meaningful work (Van Duzer), relegating it to purely utilitarian status. I have argued, however, that, while it provides both those, its higher purposes are 1) to glorify God (as is the first purpose of all creation so therefore all subordinate functions and institutions within it), and 2) to bring many sons (and daughters) to glory (Hebrews 2:10) as a fundamental arena to learn and practice holiness through our economic relationships, given that the market is a core function of human experience.
The questions arise, then, 1) is the marketplace, as an institution, intended in creation, and 2) what evidence points toward it in Scripture? Genesis 2:15 – “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” – has been the launch point of many treatises on theologies of work and stewardship, both integral to the implementation of a market economy and the facilitation of market relationships. However, as those who through time have chosen to live “off the grid” have found, it is possible to work and to steward one’s resources in virtual seclusion. While there is an element of relationship with God, whether recognized or not, in such a lifestyle, humankind, created in the relationally-equal image of the Trinity, was not made to withdraw from its own kind. Rather, humankind was created to live in mutually-beneficial relationships.
Eve is introduced into the Garden narrative in a complementary role that serves the obvious purpose of procreation but is called co-worker before wife. In fact, God’s first assertion of her role is that of one who will help Adam prosper by the division of labor. But we tend to think even of that division of labor primarily in material terms, that Adam’s work could be subdivided making it more efficient and productive. However, the nature of relationship within the godhead is also bestowed upon the new race and the holiness of the divine relationships is implied. That is, the deference of humility and the practices of righteousness are to pervade human relationships just as they do between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The economic exchanges anticipated in creation, the core functionality of what I would venture to be the majority of our interconnections with the rest of humankind (beyond family, friendship, religious affiliation, and such) and our environment, were to be demonstrably infused with the defining characteristic of the divine personae: holiness.
If economic exchanges are of such significance, both in practice and in the design of creation, they offer untold opportunity for witness by the intentional practice of the Church. Informing those relationships for Christ-followers should be of utmost importance to spiritual leaders. Practicing righteousness, sacrificially in keeping with the humility of the Cross, for the benefit of the marginalized (the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant), should be recognized not just for the opportunity to “share” and reveal the glory of God, but also as the natural outcome of being transformed into the very image of Christ on the Cross.
Whole segments of the Church of late have largely abandoned the ideas of social, economic, and environmental justice, absurdly claiming that only by proclamation is the Word made known. That is utter nonsense in light of the Bible’s repeated claims that even nature reveals the glory of God. That is, trees, the stars and mountains, the cycles of life, death, and life in perpetuity, and tall grass waving in a summer breeze, all have something to say about God’s goodness. The love of God is manifest all around us but is most revealed in our serving others. We have not harvested as we should because we have resorted too often to “be warm and well fed” (James 2:16) without tangible consideration of the others’ material needs for survival and proliferation.
To reap the rich harvest of souls in our globalized world, one growing in wealth but plagued by disparity of distribution and access to opportunity, the Church must act according, not to principles or commands, but the nature and character of God. We must bend the back in service and, perhaps even more importantly, put our money where our mouth is, providing funds, information, guidance, and time to ensure the harvest is not lost, investing in helping provide a better life for the “other,” as tangible witness to the transforming power of Jesus Christ, in us individually and corporately and in human society at-large.