March 6, 2014| 0

Integrity, Plain as Day (Mark 4:21-23)

21 And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22 For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Corruption grows by hiding in shadows. Faith grows by stepping into the light.

Scandals occur when people use personal power to conceal their deeds. Lance Armstrong hid his doping scheme for years. Steven Cohen of SAC has concealed his sources of insider information for years. Eventually, however, every deed comes to light. That’s why the “newspaper test” is a good test for ethical decision-making: would you like your deeds to be published on the front page of the paper?

This simple test could have saved many scandals from starting down the slippery slope of secrecy. Openness protects against corruption and the corrupting influences wrought by the temptation to manipulate personal power for illicit gain.

In God’s timing, every deed, both the honest and the corrupt, will eventually be exposed to the light of day. It’s just a matter of time.

There’s a tight link here between faith and obedience. The key to understanding this lesson (and also the “parable of the soils” [Mark 4:1-20] which immediately precedes it) is the double-meaning of the verb “to hear.” In biblical language, it also means “to obey.” To hear is to obey. This theme runs throughout the Bible, from the opening line of Ten Commandments, “Hear, O Israel!” [Deut. 5:1], to Jesus’ explanation here of all his parables. Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, sums it up neatly: “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”

This explains why faith is revealed in actions, that is, in the fruit it produces. Faith is not a secret to be kept hidden; rather, it is a living witness. Faith is an open display of obedience to the living Word. Like a lamp on a lampstand, so should our deeds reveal their source in Him. Faith should be revealed by our attitude, our walk, and our genuine concern for the people around us. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

February 26, 2014| 0

The End of Worship (Isaiah 58:4-8)

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Here is a challenging word from the prophet Isaiah. Although written to his contemporaries in Judah some 2,700 years ago, Isaiah's words hit home today and deliver a stinging indictment. Just like the people of Judah, we are called to account for our worship. The criteria are clear—loose the bonds of wickedness, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. The prophet’s summons stings because we do not pay enough attention to those concerns.

These hard words remind me that my participation in worship doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, and my personal devotions are not the end of worship. The end or "goal" of worship goes far beyond singing songs, putting money in the collection plate, and finding inspiration. The end of worship is to serve God and neighbor. Jesus taught the same thing when he answered the question, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” He answered, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” [Matt. 25:37-40]

This summons to care for “the least of these” applies to my business as much as to my so-called “church mission” activities. The glory of the Lord is promised to us in the act of serving “the least of these.” It’s a worthwhile act of worship, therefore, to ask: How does my business serve not just my customers, but the least of my customers? How does my business serve the least of my employees? How does my business serve the least of society’s members?  Then - and only then - our light shall break forth like the dawn.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

February 19, 2014| 0

Above Market Pricing (Psalm 49:5-9)

5 Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? 7 Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life; there is no price one can give to God for it. 8 For the ransom of life is costly, and can never suffice, 9 that one should live on forever and never see the grave.

The best things in life are free, so the saying goes. We don’t consider a human life “free” however. Life is “priceless” but it’s not “free.”

As the psalmist says, “there is no price one can give to God for it.” Life is a priceless gift of the Creator, and only he can redeem it. Indeed, he has redeemed it, and at the cost of his only son, Jesus of Nazareth.

To place a price tag on life is to commit a category mistake. Life does not belong in the set of price-able things. To presume a life can be priced is an extreme example of the “economistic fallacy” in which everything is subject to the power of the market to set prices.[1] In the infamous “Pinto fires” case, Lee Iaccoca and the Ford Motor Company calculated the cost of deaths due to Pinto fuel tank explosions, and decided that it was "less expensive" than the cost of installing fuel tank safety mechanisms. Ford claimed no malicious intent; but we must see this as the natural result of a thought process that places everything—even life—in the category of "price-able" things.

The priceless value of human life seems obvious to us, but modern civilizations still treat human beings as commodities to be bought and sold in the free market, and the economistic fallacy (also known as “commodity price fiction”) is perpetuated throughout our economy.

Public policy is generally the only practical approach to avoid the commodity price fiction with respect to public goods like water quality, climate change, kidney transplants, and endangered species. But that leaves countless unpriceable private values on the table for business to deal with every day. Human dignity is at stake in every transaction—employees, customers, and neighbors near and far are affected. There is no price tag on the trust earned by maintaining product quality against competitive pressures, or by nurturing the spiritual health of an employee.

As the psalmist says, when it comes to the dignity bestowed by our commercial activities, “there is no price one can give to God for it.”


[1] Karl Polanyi diagnosed the “economistic fallacy” as a side-effect induced by the supreme power of capitalism. Polanyi, Livelihood of Man (New York: Academic, 1977) 5-6.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

 

February 12, 2014| 0

Got Salt? (Matthew 5:13)

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

Salt. It does a body good.

That’s one ad we’re not likely to hear! As good as salt is, it’s not food. It won’t sustain you. It’s a condiment that brings out the good taste in food and keeps it from spoiling.

Jesus calls us “salt of the earth” for similar reasons. We are called to preserve the creation and to make it "taste good." We are called to live in such a way that when the world takes a bite out of us, we leave a good taste in the mouth, so to speak.

To be salt means to make every encounter with others a good-tasting experience. We get an opportunity to do this with every person we meet. We get a chance to be salt and preserve what’s good in God’s creation. It doesn’t matter what the relationship is: we’re supposed to make it taste better. This applies to all relationships—customers, competitors, employees, friends, families, loved ones, and even enemies, Jesus says. We are called to be salt, period.

In this sense, business too is a form of salt when it preserves what’s good on earth. Business provides stewardship of the natural ecosystem, as well as the social infrastructures of trade, commerce, and industry which sustain a healthy prosperity in society. Good business ought to serve as tasty salt for human livelihood.

This is a good reminder of the true purpose of economics—to promote human well-being. It is not to maximize profit and market share—those are subservient to a higher purpose. Alfred Marshall set forth this higher aim on the first page of his classic 1890 text, which became a cornerstone for 20th-century microeconomics during capitalism's heyday. [1]

Political economy or economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and use of materials requisite for well-being. Thus it is on the one side a study of wealth and on the other (and more important) side, a part of the study of humanity.

The “ordinary business of life” calls us first to sustain and serve healthy relationships—in other words, to be salt. This is a good ethical test for any business practice: ask whether it’s good for a sound and healthy body, and whether it leaves a good taste in people’s mouths.

For reflection:

  1. How does the metaphor of salt help to redefine your mission statement?
  2. What are the “best-tasting” relationships you have? How might you redress any relationships which have gone sour?

[1] Marshall, A. (1945 [1890]), Principles of Economics, London: Macmillan, p.1.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014

February 5, 2014| 0

Having it All (John 10:7-10)

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."

Lionel Robbins gave the classic definition of economics: "Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses."[1] To define economics as a science is practical and well-meaning, and serves as the basis for quantitative analysis taught in business schools. There’s just one problem—it’s founded on the utterly unbiblical axiom that scarcity drives human behavior, and the corollary that humanity’s fundamental problem is a lack of material goods.

The biblical account of creation and our place in it teaches a very different story—the story of a gracious God who provides abundantly, who invites people to be fruitful and multiply, and whose commandments are designed to establish an economy wherein everyone has enough. This is the same God who rained down bread from heaven to feed a hungry people with “manna” in the desert [Ex. 16:15, 31], and the same Jesus who became himself the bread of life [John 6:35-59]. Jesus turns scarcity thinking on its head in the parable of the talents [Matt. 25:14-30], teaching that those who spread wealth are rewarded while those who hoard it are punished.

There is no “dismal science” in these economic ideas set forth in the Bible; rather, there is an overarching abundance of God’s grace to sustain all creatures great and small. Jesus revealed God’s intent when he said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” [v. 10]

So what does this have to do with business? It’s a fair question, because Jesus is not giving business advice per se; he speaks of the greater reality of the source and meaning of living a fulfilled life. However, this bigger issue matters immensely for business, because it pushes ethical considerations to the front of the line. Ethics in business should be based on a mentality of abundance which trusts God to show up and deliver what is needed. Our job is to make righteous decisions, in faith, and not be distracted by the sort of fear and greed that too often accompany scarcity thinking.

Think about it—business people typically get into trouble when they operate out of a scarcity mentality, trying to grab for more advantage or more profit than is necessary—or right. That path leads to cheating on taxes and financial scandals large and small.

Praying for God’s will to be done, and trusting in his economy of grace, is the righteous path and the road that leads to abundant life.


[1] Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (London: Macmillan, 1932), p. 16.

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© Bruce D. Baker, 2014