Jesus & The Government

Image courtesy of nirots at
Image courtesy of nirots at

I am delighted to have Kevin Linzey as my first guest blogger. Kevin is husband to Britt, dad to 3 awesome boys, and loves bromance movies. Oh yeah, he is also an Army Finance Officer who did his undergrad studies at West Point (The United States Military Academy) and his graduate work at Syracuse University. Take it away, Kev!

What is the role of government? What SHOULD BE the role of government? These questions are easy enough to ask — difficult to answer. Many people are bothered these days by the government shutdown. Even our national leaders cannot agree on what the role of government should be. Should the government force health insurance on people? Should the government pay for this or subsidize that? What about the debt ceiling?

My education (and personal interest) is in economics. There are many branches of economics from macro-economics (performance, structure, behavior, and decision-making of an economy as a whole) to international economics (market relationships among the nations) to micro economics (the study of individuals’ interactions in markets). The one thing that ties it all together is that economics is the study of choices and incentives. It is the study of behavior and trying to figure out why people, firms, or countries behave the way they do.

The basis for most of economics is that people want stuff. People are creative problem-solvers and generally find a way to provide stuff to each other. Over time people specialize based on skills, talents, and interests. One person might provide labor as a handyman. He sells his skills and time fixing people’s houses. Money is used as a common exchange system so we don’t have to barter and trade. The person needing the washing machine repaired doesn’t give the repairman dinner. The repairman gets money that he can then use to buy whatever he wants. Currency is a great system to enable specialization!

Ok so enough of the basics. Back to the question; What is the role of government?

All types of goods have markets. This is the exchange of goods and services where some people provide the goods and other people consume them. The meeting point between the people selling and the people buying? That is the price. Most people are familiar with the interaction of supply and demand. If something has a lot of supply but low demand, the price will be low. If demand goes up, the price will go up. Since we have currency as a medium of exchange, working in free markets where suppliers and consumers can come to an agreement on price it is a great system. Everyone gets a choice. Some people will line up outside the Apple store 3 days before the new iPhone comes out and pay $400 for a new phone. Others will wait a couple years until the supply has increased and overall demand has gone down and the price has dropped to $100 for the same phone. In cases like this, no government is needed (except maybe police to keep the Apple fanatics from fighting for a place in line!).

However, there are some markets that fail. Some goods or services are not provided in the right quantity for the good of society. These are generally called public goods. Public goods are defined as non-excludable (you can’t stop people from consuming it) and non-rivalrous (my consumption does not stop your consumption). The classic public good is defense/security. An Army provides defense to everyone. Just because I am safe doesn’t mean you are not safe. We all consume security. And if we live in a secure country, there is no way to stop someone from consuming that security.

So the problem with public goods is that there is little incentive for the individual to pay for that good. Everyone else will pay for it, so why should I? That’s how we get the free rider problem. The problem is that if everyone tries to get a free ride, NO ONE will pay and we won’t get the public good! Other examples of public goods are lighthouses, clean streets, flood control, etc.

Another type of market failure is when there are negative externalities. This is just a hoity-toity way to say some choices have bad consequences that affect other people. A company many save money by producing as much as it can and just ignoring pollution. However, the rest of the community has to deal with the pollution whether they want to or not!

A third type of market failure is information asymmetry. This means that not everyone shares information equally. Buyers may not know the bad things about what they are buying because the company doesn’t tell them. Or it could be individuals buying and selling a used car. How does the buyer know whether or not he is buying a lemon? How does he know the guy selling it is being honest? Unless he’s a mechanic and very knowledgeable about cars he may never know! So he offers a lowball price to cover the risk he faces that he might have to spend money to fix up the potential lemon.

Another information related problem is copyright/patent enforcement. In today’s information society, it is pretty easy to find out how something is made. If anyone could reproduce anything, what incentive is there to be creative and come up with new products? If you won’t get to profit off your invention, why bother inventing it?

There are still more market failures but you probably get the point. Individual incentives sometimes don’t lead to the best situations for the whole of society. This is where government comes in.  A legitimate government (i.e. all people recognize its authority) can effectively enforce solutions to the market failures. It will tax everyone to pay for public goods so there are no free riders. It will make sure people don’t make bad choices that affect their neighbors (pollution, etc.). It will protect consumers who might not otherwise have the right information to make good choices. It will enforce patents and copyrights so people can benefit from their ideas.  Addressing market failure is a commonly agreed to role of government among economists.

The Bible talks about the role of government many times. In the time of Samuel, Israel decided they wanted a king. Prior to Saul, the nation had no king. Judges and priests were the social leaders. They helped resolve disputes and enforce justice. They were recognized as legitimate by the people because the people acknowledged the authority God placed on those judges and priests.

But then God set the precedent for peaceful voting when he allowed the people to (in effect) revolt against his social order. The people thought they knew better and demanded a king. God gave them a king but warned them about all the bad that would come of it. When the people again demanded a king God allowed it.

Unfortunately we focus so much on our earthly incentives, the economic gain from exchanging goods and services. We focus on getting more money and getting more stuff. We think and ponder about the forms of government and even God’s people complain just as we have been doing since the Israelites complained to Samuel. We argue and fight but don’t take heed of the warning God gave about earthly governments.

Jesus took a different approach to teaching priorities. He said multiple times that his Kingdom was not of this world. He was not concerned with politics. The fighting among people for power has nothing to do with God’s kingdom. When he was asked about money he said, “Give to the government what belongs to the government. And give to God what belongs to God.”

We need rules. We need enforceable processes to protect people during disputes. While a free market is the most beneficial system for exchanging goods and services, in a fallen world greed, pride, deception, and all the bad things will surely be present. Even when God’s people had no king, God still gave them judges to help resolve problems.

Letting people make their own choices for their own best interests rather than being told what to do by an oppressive government is usually the best way. But markets do fail. Greed and power spur people to take advantage of one another. But in all the wrangling over political power and crashing markets let’s remember some of the benefits of God’s kingdom not being of this world.

God will never fail.

You can’t shut down God.

And he has paid our debts in full.

Related Posts:
– Thus Spake Jesus: It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Thus Spake Jesus: It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Would anyone deny that our country is in a bit of an economic mess? Just turn on the news or open a newspaper and one of the hot topics is the state of the economy. In the political world, you see accusation flying back and forth: the Democrats are to blame. The Republicans are to blame. This isn’t a partisan issue. This is a people issue because shutdown affects real people.

Everyone is concerned with the economy, even God. The word economy is even in the Bible! Many translations use the word manager or stewardship, but the literal words are economist and economy. When we are called to be good stewards or managers, God is calling us to be good economists. And since we are called to be good economists, and we KNOW God cares about what we’re going through, I think it’s safe to say that God is watching over this economic mess that America is in. And if God DOES care about you and the economy, we need to ask the questions: 1) How would Jesus respond to the economic crisis? and 2) How does Jesus view money and spending? Believe it or not, the Bible does address these two questions! How would Jesus respond to the current economic crisis? Jesus once told a story:

Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions….” Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? “Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:15,22-34)

It’s almost as though Jesus is speaking to an audience in 21st century America instead of 1st century Israel! There is more to life than things, Jesus would tell us. So don’t worry about life. Don’t worry about food, or clothing, or drink. Worrying doesn’t accomplish anything. Jesus makes a difficult connection between worry and faith. It’s difficult because it is a natural tendency to worry when you’re not sure where your next paycheck is coming from. It’s a natural tendency to worry about paying your bills. It’s a natural tendency to worry about feeding your kids. And yet, Jesus says, “Who can change anything by worrying about it?” There are more important things in life than worrying about material things.

I don’t think Jesus is being naive. I think he understands the necessity of work, of pay, of food. Jesus was a skilled laborer who worked on construction and building projects around Capernaum. He’s not telling you to stop working. He’s not telling you to stop trying to earn a living. But what Jesus IS saying is that we don’t have our priorities straight. We too often get focused on the physical and material world and we forget that the things of this world have such a small significance in the big picture. I don’t think Jesus is being naïve. In ancient Israel, it was not uncommon to have feasting years and have famine years, times of plenty and times of scarcity. Our situation in this shutdown is not anything new to the world. Our own country has had it worse off than we are now. But we so often get caught up in the emotions of the moment. What am I going to do? We become economic chicken littles: “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

Hear the voice of Jesus: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” There are far greater things to focus on, things with eternal significance. Stop worrying about the physical world, have faith that God can, and will provide for your needs. Instead of focusing on your physical needs, focus on how you can serve God and his kingdom. The rest, Jesus says, should be left in God’s capable hands. This doesn’t sound very practical, does it? Jesus sounds a little crazy for our tastes.

How would Jesus respond in this time of economic crisis? He wouldn’t worry about it and would focus on how he could serve the Father. As to the second question: How does Jesus view money and spending?

Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ ” ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’ “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ ” ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Luke 16:1-14)

How does Jesus view money? Use worldly wealth to gain friends so that you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. This parable is a little confusing, because the hero of Jesus’ story, the economist, seems to be shady! He was accused of being wasteful, so before he leaves his employment he calls his bosses debtors and tells them they can cancel the interest on their debts. There are several things to take into consideration here. First of all, the debtors do not know that the economist has been fired. For all they know, he still represents the boss man. The actions of the economist make the rich man seem very generous and benevolent. It’s as though the representative of your credit card company called you and said, “We’re only going to make you pay the principal, no more interest payments.” How would you react? You’d be jumping for joy!

When the rich man found out what his economist did he complimented his manager’s cleverness. The rich man won’t renege on the new deals because he doesn’t want to lose face. And now when the economist is out looking for another job, potential employers will remember him as the person who brought the good news about the reduction of their payment. The debtors see the economist very positively. When he leaves his employer, because of his actions he will be welcomed by other employers. The point Jesus is making is this: use your money in such a way that when you leave life you will be welcomed into eternity. That is to say, how you spend your money in this life can have consequences in the next life. Money may look to us like a simple thing for human economic interaction, but for Jesus its primary characteristic is its empire-building potential. Do you use your money to build your kingdom? Do you use your money to build God’s kingdom?

Jesus reminds us:

1. Money can fail ~ The economist thought about money like most people do; bills, debts, etc. When his world is about to collapse, he is forced to think differently. Obviously it makes a real difference for our way of acting and thinking if we see money as a never ending safe domain or as a domain which at any moment may fail to offer us life and protection. Money comes and goes. What will you do with it when you have it?

2. Money has no part in real wealth ~ There exist two worlds of economic living and acting. The “worldly wealth” Jesus talks about consists primarily of what you and others possess. But this virtual wealth is not equal to real wealth. While people of this world are inclined to look at their financial properties as real, and place faith and trust in God at the same time in the imaginary realm, Jesus turns these two around: it is the wealth of this world which is imaginary. Jesus tells us that wealth does not give life, just stuff. Are you concerned about wealth in this life or wealth in the next life?

3. Money can enslave ~ Usually the way we see money is that it serves us! In the words of Jesus, being a servant is inescapable. There is a service which sets you free and affirms you to serve God and your neighbor, and that service turns money into a little thing. Outside God’s kingdom, though, money sooner or later gets control over human lives and becomes a big power and set the rules. It gives its users the impression that they have the power of command or control, but the more they trust it, the easier they are deprived of their real freedom. For money has the inbuilt power to enslave.

Jesus does not condemn the role or use of money as such. He even recommends a specific kind of money-use, namely using money to build up God’s kingdom. But at the same time Jesus makes it crystal clear that money, because of its enormous potential to seduce people and nations, can also take the lead in the creation of an evil empire: the Kingdom of Money. It is a kingdom that functions as a kind of opposite to the Kingdom of God: in its view of life, of others, of wealth, of righteousness, of freedom, and of the reality of nature. You can never be a loyal citizen of both kingdoms. Jesus’ economic policy seems like madness in this market-driven world of ours.

Don’t stress about money and possessions, but have faith that God will provide for your needs. Don’t let money control you, because money and possessions aren’t important anyway. Instead, use your money to build up the kingdom of God. Use your money to serve other people. Jesus would not have been the most popular economic advisor. And in a country where one of our number one concerns in elections is who can take care of our country’s financial mess, Jesus probably wouldn’t have been elected president. But he’s not asking to be your president. He’s asking you to follow him and be his disciple. Can we make Jesus’ economic policy our own economic policy? Are you willing to trust God even when faced with economic difficulties?

Are you willing to use your money for God’s kingdom and other people rather than on stuff for yourself?

Related Posts:
Jesus & The Government