Classical economic theory tells us that, if left to their own devices, markets will balance themselves out — supply meeting demand — because the humans in those markets are rational beings who will behave in their own self-interest by making decisions based on reason. It amazes me that anyone who has actually met another human being could espouse such a theory in good conscience and with a straight face, but somehow or other this idea has managed to hang on more or less up until the present age.
In my opinion, classical economic theory is more useful as a model you can hold up against actual economies to see just how far off the mark you are about people acting rationally. Personally, I’m much more interested in behavioural economics, as developed in the 60s and 70s by Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Tversky and Kahneman developed a number of concepts that describe the ways in which people make irrational choices. The availability heuristic, for example, says that people tend to believe things they’ve heard stories about are more common than they really are. Like if you hear a story about a shark attack, it sticks in your mind, and you think shark attacks must happen all the time. But you’re not stacking up the story you heard against the thousands of people who go into the ocean every day and aren’t attacked by sharks. We are much more moved by a good story than by data.
Jesus in Luke chapter 6 is giving us his speech as the chief economist of the Kingdom of God. If rationality states that when someone punches you in the eye, the fair thing is for them to stand still while you return the favour, the economy Jesus is describing here is based on a principle of abundance, not balanced ledgers. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn to them the other also.” I ask you, is this rational? Is this an example of supply balancing with demand?
It is not that Jesus is unaware of how the world generally works. It’s just that he describes it as the level of good any sinner is capable of doing — the most-common denominator. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.” In other words, acting rationally is something everyone is capable of. It’s not the highest good, but the lowest. That we don’t, on our own, even meet this lowest standard is what makes us sinners, in Jesus’ argument. For sinners, the best they can do is to be rational. In God’s economy, Jesus says, we are called to do better.
If the Human is your model, rationality is perhaps the best you can expect. But in God’s economy, God himself is our model. “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
God’s economy is not a zero-sum game, in which for one person to win, another must lose, and resources are finite. In God’s economy, the baseline is abundance. Love spent on enemies does not mean you don’t have enough left over for your children. Rather, love spent multiplies. You can lend without reserve or expectation, because your returns come from God, who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, who is merciful to all.
I love the image Jesus employs to describe the abundance of God poured into our lives: “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into our laps.” Have you ever filled a container partway, then banged on the sides to get the contents to settle so you can fill it as full as possible? This is how Jesus describes God filling us up with every good thing, plus overflowing into our laps. What better picture of abundance?
The part of this passage that talks about how abundant God is strikes the ear kindly. The part where we have to let people smack us twice, or abscond with our things and not demur, is less easy to swallow. Thanks for the eternal rewards, Lord, but in the meantime I look like an idiot! How are we to act on these words of Jesus?
Nadia Bolz-Weber, who pastors a Lutheran church in Denver, talks about the difference between trying to tape the fruits of the Spirit onto the trees of our lives as opposed to letting God grow them there. Jesus is not describing here how we must earn our way into God’s economy. We need not go looking for enemies to throw ourselves in front of, asking to be kicked, and kicked again. We’re not earning merit badges here. But a spirituality that grows out of a recognition of how great your own sin is; the number of times you’ve been the thief or the kicker, and then faith that you are also profoundly forgiven all of that; that God sees you through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and is thereby totally pleased with you — that is a spirituality that can produce the fruit of loving your enemy; of doing good to those who hate you.
Spirituality is not screwing yourself up to “feel” love for enemies and persecutors. Instead, it is approaching your daily life looking for generosity. Looking for abundance. It’s asking someone how their day was, and then listening to the answer. It’s doing the dishes without being asked. It’s reading your kid another bedtime story. You needn’t go looking for the impossible tasks to do. They’ll come your way regardless. When they do, approach them with God’s abundance economy in mind. Pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing. Then the fruit of your life, your words and actions, will come freely and joyfully out of that place of abundance.