“But just as you excel in everything, in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us, see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”
2 Corinthians 8: 7-15
From the files of things that I should have learned in college but didn’t: “What is “economics?”
If you were a business major, what comes to your mind are images of market share, flow charts, interest rates, stocks and bonds, and the like.
If you were a “liberal arts” major as I was, you were probably thinking of the class that you spent four years trying to avoid. As a history major, I was able to graduate from college without taking economics.
Truth is that economics is not one of your more popular subjects. We Americans love to talk about “the economy” but generally we have no idea what that means other than somehow the law of supply and demand causes us to pay more at the gas pump at certain times.
Not too long ago there was a New York Times best-selling book, which I read, that challenged our thinking about the whole idea of economics and how financial and social capital actually moves about in our culture.
The book was entitled: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Looks at the Hidden Side of Everything. The rogue economist is Steven Levitt who, along with co-author Stephen Dubner, looked at the real nature of economics as a web of interconnected relationships.
Their premise was, “if morality represents how we’d like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work.”
Looking at mountains of data, Levitt began to ask some basic questions and, in turn, challenged conventional wisdom about economics. While most economists simply look at are the numbers and them they make statements or predictions, Levitt asked, “Why?”
Some of the questions the book addresses:
What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?
Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?
Why did the crime rate in the United States drop in the 1990s? (He advanced the controversial theory that it was actually due to Roe v. Wade!)
These may seem like really “out there” examples, but the linchpin that holds all these seemingly unrelated things together is the real heart of economics: The concept of incentives.
“Economics is, at the root, the study of incentives: how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing … An incentive is a bullet, a lever, a key: an often tiny object with astonishing power to change a situation.”
If the incentive is great enough, with enough of a payoff in the end, people will go to great lengths to achieve it.
Levitt and Dubner looked at a variety of examples in different cultures and explained how incentives can cause people to do amazing things: for good or ill. “Freakonomics” is the hidden side of how incentives really work.
Take cheating, for example, which the book defines as “a primordial economic act: getting more for less.”
People will risk an awful lot if the incentive is great enough.
In 1987, for example, 7 million children in the United States suddenly disappeared on April 15. You might remember that before 1987 people were only required to put the names of their dependents on their tax forms. Beginning in 1987, both the names and the social security numbers were required for each child listed. Overnight seven million kids, who had never been kids at all, simply vanished. The risk of getting caught outweighed the incentive of the tax break.
Incentives can cause a person in sales to work harder, or it can cause them to fudge their numbers to look like they worked harder. Incentives can determine how a real estate agent lists your house for the quickest sale. The bottom line is that incentives are the glue that really runs our whole economy; we want the best for ourselves without having to do much for it.
In a world where conventional economic wisdom is all about acquiring enough money and things to live comfortably and secure, Paul’s letter to the Corinthian offers a completely different way of thinking economically and spiritually. To understand the economics at work in today’s passage, we have to understand a bit about the social economy in Corinth at the time of Paul’s letter. As a cosmopolitan culture where the economy, status and religion were all based on competition between individuals and groups (much like our own), the basic incentive that drove people was the desire for “excellence,” or one-upping others in any pursuit.
Much of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is devoted to his arguments against this kind of thinking in the church. Instead of climbing over one another to be the best or most worthy, Paul had urged the Corinthians to move toward equality and unity in things like worship (1 Corinthians 11) and in the use of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12). Thus, the letter is a pretty good pen-lashing and no doubt caused some hard feelings toward Paul in the church at Corinth and, in particular, hard feelings about the collection that Paul was asking for; a collection that he was asking from all the Gentile churches, to support the work of the Jerusalem church with the poor and needy.
It wasn’t that the Corinthian’s were unwilling, or that they didn’t understand why he was asking for their help; they simply lacked an incentive. Without an incentive to take up the offering, other than a perceived obligation, the Corinthians had lagged behind. A year earlier they had been all for it, but since their relationships with Paul had apparently been strained, they had become less enthusiastic about giving to his cause (2 Corinthians 8:10-12). Clearly, they needed a different kind of incentive in order to finish what they started.
Paul’s solution? Well, he might have referred them to Freakonomics 101. But this church was freaky enough already. What this church needed was a crash course in faith-onomics, or better, grace-onomics. But Paul starts with where they are. He knows what motivates these Corinthians, what incentive will work. What he had chided them about in the first letter, he now uses to bolster his argument in this second letter: If the Corinthian’s want to demonstrate “excellence,” here is the perfect chance to do so (8:7).
The Macedonian churches, particularly the church at Thessalonica and Philippi had already given sacrificially and enthusiastically to this offering, even though they were dealing with their own poor economic conditions (8:1-6). Despite their own poverty, these people gave “beyond their means” and begged for the privilege of doing more. The poor Macedonians have outdone themselves, writes Paul to the wealthy Corinthians. So, it’s your call. What are you going to do in response?
In the Greco-Roman world, most learning took place through imitation as people modeled their lives after someone, whether it was in a trade, a sport, philosophy, household management or whatever. Think of it as a positive form of peer pressure: an incentive to be like someone else or even surpass them in character and practice.
Paul not only encourages the Corinthians to follow the example of the Macedonians in their giving, but even more so to follow the example of Christ, who “became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (v. 9).
All that they have, materially and spiritually, is the result of the grace of God and that grace is, in fact, a form of wealth in itself. God has poured himself out for the Corinthians in Jesus Christ — how can they NOT do the same for others?
Understand that Paul is not talking actual dollar amounts here, like a corporation that offers matching gifts to charity and thereby using the incentive of good marketing and a tax write-off.
He’s talking about attitude and motivation, urging the Corinthians to give out of the abundance of what they have, not focusing on what they don’t have (v. 12).
Balance, fairness, and reciprocity are the economics of God, where we all share together in the model of Christ in whose eyes all of us are equal (v. 13). It’s not about tossing in our leftovers, but about seeking the higher value of excellence in our stewardship, living our lives with open hands as well as open hearts, rather than begrudging our giving.
Paul’s basic economic theory, different from that of Levitt and Dubner, is that everything belongs to God in the first place, but God has seen fit to share it with us, even to the point of sharing God’s own person in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:21b-23).
Even if we don’t have a penny to our names, we are rich because of God’s grace toward us. This kind of thinking runs counter to just about every economic theory.
So … for you who have not yet made your stewardship pledge this year, and even if you have, listen up: We give not to get, but because we have received. We love because we have been loved.
Our incentive to give of our time, our talents, and our treasure in God’s service has nothing to do with what we’ll get in return though there are some obvious benefits in terms of personal growth and freedom from our dependence upon things.
Instead our giving has everything to do with what God has already done for us.
On this Stephen Ministry Sunday we recognize and celebrate our Stephen ministers who provide a loving, caring, and listening ministry to members of our church. We are reminded as they model for us what it is that each one of us is called to give, that is, our gifts. We love because we are loved, we give not because of what we get in return, but because of what we have received, namely, God’s amazing grace.
God’s gifts always come to us on the way to someone or something else …
On the way to reaching out to someone else,
On the way to reaching out and serving a cause that is far greater than ourselves.
So this is not freaky at all. It is God’s grace. It’s Grace-onomics!
“Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.”
2 Corinthians 8:7-15 (New International Version)
But just as you excel in everything, in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us, see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”