1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon…
4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Exile is a recurring theme - from Abraham to the present day - in the story of God’s people.
The Israelites established themselves in the Promised Land and made themselves at home in the capital city of Jerusalem for a short time under the rule of king David. It wasn’t long, however, before Nebuchadnezzar's conquest began the cycle of exile again. His army took the Israelites from their homes in Jerusalem and marched them into Babylon, where they would live as exiles for seventy years [Jer. 25:11, 12; 29:10].
This exilic identity also extends to Christians. At his death, Jesus was effectively exiled to suffer “outside the gate” [Hebrews 13:12]. His followers are not of the world, Jesus says [John 15:19], even though we live in it. This makes us dual citizens of earth and heaven [Phil. 3:20] as well as “sojourners and exiles” [1 Pet. 2:11].
How then are we to live, as exiles with dual citizenship? Should we favor heaven over earth? Earth over heaven? No. That’s not what the Bible teaches.
Jeremiah's “Letter to the Exiles” explains that our duty as exiles and people of faith is to seek the welfare of the city! Yes, even the fallen, corrupt city of Babylon, if that’s where we live. Why? Because that’s where God put us, and we are God's solution to bring prosperity to the city in which we live.
The word “welfare” used here is actually "shalom," meaning peace, prosperity, health, and wholeness. It’s the whole picture of what it takes for a city to thrive.
We are, therefore, instructed to invest in the city. Our investment is not for the sake of our own short-term gain, but for the sake of our children and grandchildren. We are to build, to plant, to grow families, and to thrive and see our neighbors prosper. In short, we are called to invest ourselves and our resources for the sake of the city.
My thesis is that this “investment advice to the exiles” offers wisdom for all spheres of Christian faith, including our roles in business and finance. I’ll continue to explore the wisdom of this advice in future Business Parables.
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014
10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
This is perhaps the most quoted verse about money in the Bible. Sadly, it is also probably most often misquoted. The misquoted, “money is the root of all evil” implies that money itself is evil. But that is not what the text says.
The focus of this passage is love, not money. What do we love? What do we pursue with passion? If we love and desire money so much that it drives us more powerfully than godly desires drive us, we are in trouble. And that is Paul's point. In this letter full of fatherly advice to his protégé Timothy, Paul is not writing to expound on the evil nature of money, but to inspire in Timothy (and his followers) a passion for godly virtues and rightly-ordered love.
Paul uses the word φιλαργυρία (philagyria), which occurs only once in the Bible, to describe the problem of misdirected love. It means “money-loving” or “love of money.” He warns against the dangers of money-loving, and exhorts Timothy (and us) to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness,” and to “fight the good fight.”
Businesspeople get to live out this call every day. Every big or small decision offers an opportunity to “fight the good fight,” and our choices reveal the love of our hearts. The “good fight” is not mainly about monetary outcomes; it is about the desire to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness.
So how do we cultivate this desire? How do we keep these virtues in the forefront of our decision-making behavior when monetary outcomes demand daily attention, and when money wins so many arguments in the marketplace and the halls of power?
The key to “fighting the good fight” is to become better lovers. To love what God loves. To love righteousness, mercy, and justice. To love the peace of mind that comes from honoring a contract or commitment. To love the customer. To love the employee who benefits from our steadfastness and gentleness. In short, we are to love God’s purpose for our business more than the money it makes.
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014
10 ...when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Every noble deed stares failure in the face.
Artists risk criticism - or worse, apathy. Athletes risk loss and injury. Salespeople risk rejection. Missionaries risk despair and spiritual darkness. Business people risk reputation and financial loss. In every walk of life, people pour themselves into their work without any guarantee of success or profit.
And yet, in spite of these unavoidable risks, every good endeavor attains a certain glory. Our initiatives are songs of hope, prayerful offerings lifted heavenward. His pleasure alone is the criterion for everlasting value. By his power every good work is (and will be) fulfilled.
Here is the church's job: pray for all good endeavors. In prayer, we face suffering, loss, and disappointment head on, and know they will not prevail over us. Every decision made in faith bears witness to the glory we share with Christ. May the church pray for all God’s faithful followers in business, trades, professions, arts, and education—everywhere people endeavor to do work that pleases God!
Let this promise of glory carry you through this day and through every tough and dusty path of the journey. Someone is praying this prayer for you: that you would be worthy of God’s calling and fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you [v. 10].
Our ultimate calling is not a matter merely of choosing a profession, business, or trade. We can offer our gifts and do good work in any number of jobs, but our ultimate calling is to give our best effort as an offering of gratitude that will be fulfilled, as Paul says, “when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed” [v. 10].
The late, great John Coltrane put it this way:
During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD…
This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.
John Coltrane, liner notes to A Love Supreme
Every good endeavor is glorified when given as a humble offering to God. Our works are glorified not by our own strengths, but by the Lord who accepts us and brings us into his glory.
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014
7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
Today is Constitution Day, which got me thinking about the hope of our nation, as stated in the Preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Blessings of Liberty are the culmination of our hopes and dreams as a people, and Freedom is one of the concepts that defines America. Freedom is not free, however, as we all know. It comes at a cost in financial terms, and sometimes at the great cost of life.
When Paul speaks to the financial cost of freedom in his letter to the church at Thessalonika, he seems to make a big deal about not eating anyone’s bread without paying for it [v. 8]. Why? He toils “day and night,” as he says, so as “not to be a burden.” As much as the church has an appropriate responsibility to support its ministerial leaders [v. 9], Paul insists on “paying for his own bread,” as it were.
Paul wants to teach, by his own example, that there is no such thing as a “free lunch.” He insists on buying his own bread because he does not want to burden the church [v. 8]. Paul is intent on doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. This is the backbone of any society’s economic freedom. Moreover, honest work is a primary source of human dignity; after all, the desire to earn a living is fundamentally a desire for freedom.
This is not to say that capitalism itself is a biblical mandate (it’s not), or that the Constitution is a religious document (it’s not). However, the connection between these ideas is important: business thrives when individuals have liberty, and business bestows human dignity by creating meaningful jobs with which people can earn a living.
A virtuous circle is at work here. Liberty, business, and human dignity all increase and reinforce one another when each person has the freedom, opportunity, and passion to be a solid contributor to a society’s prosperity.
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014
For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.
Profit is the lifeblood of a business. It’s the sign of life in the corporate body and the breath that sustains the enterprise. That’s good. But according to the prophet Jeremiah, there is also a bad kind of profit: “unjust gain,” driven by greed.
When does profit cross the line? What separates good and just profit from the bad and unjust kind?
In a word, it’s violence. Unjust gains are gained by the unjust use of force. “Plunder” is a more literal translation of the word Jeremiah used here. In the Hebrew text, the phrase (botseah-botsah, בּוֹצֵ֣עַ בָּ֑צַע) could be translated as “to plunder plunder” or “to grab by force.” When a word is repeated like this in Hebrew, it amplifies the meaning. The key issue is profiting at the expense of another. This is a win-lose understanding of economics implying that the profit/gain is taken against another’s will. Of course that's the exact opposite of biblical justice. In God’s economy, grace abounds, righteous relationships benefit both parties, and exchange is inherently win-win. Covenant blessings are poured out, wealth and spiritual capital are built up, scarcities disappear, and accounts are reconciled. That’s a kingdom vision of economics and the context for justly-earned profits. In other words, justly-earned profits are received in grace and never taken by force.
It’s also interesting to note that there is no Hebrew word for “greed” in the text's original language. That is the translator’s attempt to convey the meaning of the sentence into English. The literal language in the Hebrew is not, “everyone is greedy,” but rather, “everyone plunders plunder.” It's a strong condemnation of gains taken by force, against the will and at the expense of the other.
Problems begin when business practices (“rent-taking”) ignore the best interests of the customer in order to increase profits through manipulation or extortion. We do well to honor God’s economics by not crossing that line.
This teaching may be applied to any business by examining the forces at work in a transaction. To the extent that force is used to coerce, manipulate, or perpetrate violence, the gains are unjust and ill-gotten. To the extent that market forces work to the benefit of both parties in a freely-given and wholesome exchange, the gains are just. Economic justice is realized in profitable trades which bestow grace on all parties. Just profits uphold human dignity and add to "shalom" in society.
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014