Eschatological Judgment and New Testament Ethics: Canonical Perspectives when the Johannine School Defines the Issues

It appears from a broader reading of the New Testament that believers remain under judgment.  The good news of Jesus’ ministry is that we gain access to a freedom and a knowledge that inspires us to pursue the good that is unknown by those outside the Christian community.  Even so, the believer can turn away, with potentially disastrous consequences, and therefore must work diligently to keep our hearts and minds focused on God.

The methodology of this paper flows from some deeply-held convictions about the use of the biblical witness.  These flow from a central belief, that the God is the ultimate author of the New Testament canon through the agency of the Holy Spirit using humans, with all of their inherent flaws as instruments of communication.  The following principles flow from this foundation of belief.  First, the entire New Testament canon should be consulted on issues of general concern to the Church.  Second, when done in the context of the Christian community and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, interpretation from the surface of the text can provide access to the Word of God for God’s people.[1]  Third, specialized study of the context of the New Testament authors can provide insight into the meaning of the biblical text, but must be understood as provisional, as is all human scholarship.[2]

In this paper, I will pose the following questions to the various authors of the New Testament:  What does God require of believers and what are the penalties for falling short of the mark?  In what way are Christian believers under judgment?  These questions will be put to a conference table of the New Testament authors as identified by G.B. Caird.[3]  The evaluation of all the books of the New Testament, and the treatment of nearly all of them in the body of this paper meets the objective of attempting a full canonical evaluation.

Caird also suggests that the conference have a presider and that ground rules for interaction be adopted.  For this exercise the presider will be a member of the Johannine school.  The method for enforcing that the Johannine point of view is borrowed from popular culture: the “completion backward principle”[4]  It seems that a natural error that occurs in a typical exercise of biblical analysis is beginning with the Gospels, working through Acts, Romans, the Corinthians and Galatians and then running out of time.  By starting with Revelation and working backwards through the canon, the work of John and his followers achieve prominence.  That which is first will be last; and last, first.  In this way, the Pauline letters, Acts, and the Gospels will be made to respond to the views developed by the Johannine school, and the authors of the Petrine letters, James, Hebrews, and Colossians (as example of a letter that may not have Pauline origin).

This approach puts the pastoral theology of Galatians, the Corinthians and especially Romans in a new light.  The “back” of the Bible, in concert with the Synoptics, paints a picture of a God of both grace and judgment.  Those who believe the testimony of Christ’s saving action have access to new life.  Those who apostatize, who sin in full knowledge of God’s graciousness, or who lead to the downfall of others face the wrath of God.  In the words of a charismatic preacher, one must beware of “sloppy agape.”  The righteousness and wrath of God did not cease with the coming of a new covenant.  God still requires God’s people to reflect the love of God in heart and mind and action.  The innovation of the life, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that we, humanity, now have a Way, that is access to the very heart of God.  If we can humble ourselves utterly and open our hearts to the terrible and glorious truth of the death of Jesus at Calvary, we can participate in the life of God by the indwelling of the Spirit.  This access is permanent, but it is not, pardon the expression, a card to get out of jail free.


The book of Revelation is the starting point on the journey to evaluate how God may judge individuals in the community of believers.  The majority of the book of Revelation describes an eschatological chronology of judgment conveyed in terms of elaborate imagery.  The author, ostensibly John, ascribes the messages collected in the book of Revelation to the lips of an apocalyptic Jesus.  It is the Jesus figure that speaks in the first three chapters to seven early Christian churches.  The message of condemnation and praise is much more literal than the material that follows it.

The clearest instances of condemnation directed at specific Christians can be found in the book of Revelation.  In the early chapters of Revelation, the author, who is identified as John, reports a vision of the apocalyptic Jesus.  These chapters recount the approval and judgment of seven early churches.  Two of the seven churches receive a substantial degree of condemnation.  The selection from Revelation 3.1-6 reports the condemnation of the church of Sardis.  The fact that a community identified with the early Christian church is under judgment creates a strong impression that all face eschatological judgment.  The text of Revelation recalls that the church of Sardis had previously received the Word of God (Rev., 3.3), but has fallen away.  Judgment comes on the basis of works.  Although a part of the body of Christ, the behavior of the church members in Sardis lead to the conclusion that they were Christian in name only and that they were not doing works worthy of that name. (Rev., 3.1)  This failure of action leads to a call for repentance: “Wake up and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.” (Rev., 3.2)  The threat of punishment for this failure to act in accord with Christ’s standards is clear.

Accountability will come with the return of Jesus:  “‘Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent.  If you do not wake up I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.’” (Rev., 3.3)  Though Jesus appears prepared to discipline even believers, Jesus is also prepared to forgive those who turn back to Him and to treat them the same as those who have not fallen away:  “‘If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot out your name in the book of life….’” (Rev. 3.5)  Even with this offer of forgiveness comes a restatement of the penalty for turning away from God:  to be condemned to eternal death.

What are the crimes that imperil the lives of the congregation at Sardis?  Three other churches are reproved in this section.  The nature of their shortcomings may illustrate the types of behavior that demand judgment.  Some members of the church of Pergamum stand under judgment for putting a “‘stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.’” (Rev 2.14)  An otherwise faithful church in Thyatira is criticized for tolerating a false prophet who “‘is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.’” (Rev 2.20)  Although the innocent are cleared of guilt, “‘those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings.…’” (Rev 2.22)  The voice of Jesus makes clear to these churches that is it both heart and works that form the basis for judgment:  “‘And all the churches know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.’” (Rev. 2.23)  Like the church at Sardis, the church of Laodicea is under condemnation, they are condemned for indifference.  The voice of judgment states: “‘I know your works; you are neither hot nor cold.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.’” (Rev 3.15-16)  The membership of several of the churches, many of whom profess faith or at least have received the Gospel, are under judgment for acts of turning away not only physically but also in terms of heart and mind. (Note similar judgment in Mark 7.20-23)

In the book of Revelation the oracle of John shares a vision of the Jesus who is to return, and issues a warning to the early Christian churches.  John’s revelation carries the unmistakable message that believers and unbelievers alike will stand with their works before the judgment of Jesus during the end times:  “‘Let the evildoer still do evil, and let the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.  See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.’” (Rev. 22.11-12)  The promise of judgment for sinners is vivid and absolute.  Those who fall short will suffer in the torment of the lake of fire:  “‘But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’” (Rev. 21.8)  This passage of condemnation directly follows a passage (Rev. 21 1-7) describing how “those who conquer” immorality will drink from the “water of life” in a new earth where “death will be no more.”  The impact of this juxtaposition is amplified if we reflect back to the fate of those in the seven churches mentioned early in the book of Revelation.  Although the members of these churches have been believers, they have fallen away and have put themselves under judgment.  Thus the threat of the lake of fire extends even to those Christians who have turned their backs to God and are engaging in the acts of apostasy and sinful recidivism, especially those that cause others to fall.

Johannine Letters

The letters of John convey an understanding that the actions of the believer must reflect the content of belief.  Those who fail to follow God in their works lack true belief.  The failure to obey calls into question the fundamental relationship between God and human.  Those who profess faith and yet are disobedient are so inconsistent that they are called liars. (1 John 2.3-4)  For example, if a person claims to have faith but still hates another, that person is considered to be outside the circle of light. (1 John 2.9)  Further, the betrayal of those who have left the community calls into question whether these former members were ever a part of the community enjoying the promises of Christ. (1 John 2.19)  Those that deny that Jesus is Christ are liars.  From Revelation and the Synoptics, we know the torment that awaits liars and those who fail to bear witness to the glory of God.

The First letter of John captures an important temporal element in the economy of salvation.  The relationship with Jesus is dynamic and requires human response.  Belief and action consistent with God’s righteous instructions permits a continuing relationship with the living God.  But humans can turn from God, fail to follow God’s instructions, fail to bear witness and perhaps speak against God’s purposes.  It is not actions but rather a fundamental orientation of the heart that is in question.  The text indicates that those who sin have never known God:  “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness…. No one who abides in him sins, no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3.4-6)  What of the fallen, those who have had faith but have fallen away from God?  John seems to be saying that those who sin after professing never knew Jesus.  At a minimum those who fall away have lost the primary orientation toward God and therefore find themselves under judgment.  In this sense, these temporal actions bring judgment.  It is difficult to conceive that a person who has God in their heart could sin.  Therefore, the fallen are conceived of as being without God.  This is consistent with the Gospel of John because a God of love (1 John 4.8) and the commandment to love demand human response.

Second Peter

The opening of the Second letter of Peter reflects concern for how believers might prevail over the corruption of the world and how to ensure entry into an eternal kingdom.   The promises of Jesus Christ offer the believer as a means of “becoming participants in the divine nature” thus overcoming the “corruption that is in the world because of lust….” (2 Peter 1.4)  It is through a process of sanctification, of concerted human action that can keep one from stumbling.  It is this stumbling that is seen as a potential threat to gaining entrance to the “eternal kingdom.” (2 Peter 1.5-11)  Indeed, a believer who falls away faces heavier penalty:  “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.” (2 Peter 2.21)  Although Second Peter reflects the hope for universal salvation, the author acknowledges that no one knows when the day of judgment will come. (2 Peter 3.9-10)  This promised judgment is described using the familiar “come like a thief” which also appears in Revelation and the Synoptics.

First Peter

First Peter balances the threat of judgment with the positive responsibilities of the Christian community.  The trials of the world are a means of demonstrating genuine faith.  What is important is how this faith is found to be praiseworthy when Jesus returns.  Salvation of souls, the outcome of faith, is thus conditioned on how faith holds up in response to adversity. (1 Peter 1.7-9)  The focus is on discipline.  The hope of eschatological grace should motivate an orientation of the mind away from worldly desires and toward childlike obedience. (1 Peter 1.13-16)  But saving grace is not a benefit guaranteed by present faith.  Because God “judges all people impartially according to their deeds,” disciples are admonished to “live in reverential fear….” (1 Peter 1.17)  On the positive side, new life in Christ brings a purification that makes possible a selfless love. (1 Peter 1.22-23)  The responsibility of Christians is to live honorably as an attractive example to those outside the faith. (1 Peter 2.11-12)  The implication of First Peter is that faith ultimately will be judged by whether it engenders self-giving love that extends the promise of salvation to others.  A phrase closely following seems to challenge the Pauline view of Christian freedom:  “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” (1 Peter 2.16).  First Peter seems to be advising believers not to be a stumbling block and instead to provide a witness to believers and non-believers alike.


The Epistle of James exhorts the reader to concrete action for overcoming the temptations of this world.  Human actions, indeed the actions of Christian believers, are subject to judgment with death as the punishment. (James 5.19-20)  But in James, obedience is not an empty act of ritual.  Those who passively hear the Word of God without reflecting their faith in action are fundamentally in conflict with themselves. (James 1.22)  This conflict leads to a downward spiral ending in death.  Even those who have a claim on salvation can fall victim to the progression of desire, sin, and death. (James 1.12-16)  However, the net of judgment is cast beyond the condemnation of simple desire.  Those who confess belief with their mouths, but fail to live out the full implications of this faith in all facets of their lives are all condemned. (James 4.17)  The book of James points out that Christian praxis extends specifically to the care of the least fortunate in society.  The author says that faith and platitudes alone lead to death:  it is works of love that save. (James 2.14-17)  Such action is not a matter of accruing merit.  Instead, it flows from a transformed heart. (James 4.4-8)  As we shall see in the treatment of Romans, it is this transformation of the heart that makes possible the ethical achievement demanded by James in this letter.


The letter to the Hebrews reflects deep concern over those who fall away after having been sanctified by Jesus’ sacrifice.  The author of Hebrews states that because this sacrifice has cleared the sin of the sanctified for all time (Hebrews 10.14), “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened… and then have fallen away….” (Hebrews 6.4-6)  Continuing in sin despite knowledge of and sanctification from Jesus is an affront to God because it denies God’s saving sacrifice.  To do so is to invoke punishment for knowingly rejecting and therefore disparaging the sacrifice of Jesus and the grace of the Holy Spirit. (Hebrews 10.29)  Rejecting the agency of the Spirit receives such condemnation because doing so damages the faith of others and may lead them away from God.  In Hebrews, the punishment for such apostasy is even more serious than that of ordinary sinners.  By continuing to sin after coming to know God through Christ, the fallen Christian is once again subject to the “fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10.27)  For those who might consider denying God by living sinfully, the letter to the Hebrews sounds the warning:  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10.31)


The letter of Paul to the Colossians captures both sides of the equation in the economy of Christian life.  On the one hand, he exhorts those who are now Christians to abandon their former sinful life. (Col. 3.5)  The urgency of this message is the reminder that God will return to judge the disobedient. (Col. 3.6-7)  On the other hand, Paul encourages them to a higher form of Christian love. (Col. 3.12-17)  The believer has attained a new life by dying with Christ. (Col. 3.1-3)  It is in this transformation that we have the power and responsibility to overcome sin.  However, victory over sin is provisional.  The believer is reconciled with God “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith….” (Col. 1.23)

Pauline Letters

As we have seen, concern for the disposition of believers who might fall away motivates a whole literature of exhortation to behavior in keeping with Christ’s teachings.  This is also evident in the “authentic” writings of Paul.   A reading of the Pauline letters in the context of a broader evaluation of the New Testament canon suggests that salvation through Christ is not once and for all.  Access to the Spirit provides the means for living a sanctified life free from sin.  But sanctification requires not only justification and inspiration but also human effort.  All will face judgment with the return of Jesus, and though we cannot predict His return, we can certainly prepare.  This belief is evident reading backward through the Pauline material, and leads us finally to read Romans, for example, with the understanding that ultimate salvation requires not only faith but also diligent effort toward transformation.


The letter of Paul to the church of the Thessalonians strongly echoes Christ’s warnings in the Synoptic Gospels that one should be prepared to face God’s eschatological judgment.  Paul focuses this admonition not on condemned Jews nor on heathen Gentiles, but instead reminds that even believers must face the same standard and may be found wanting.  Paul calls for sanctification, living a holy life that avoids fornication, lust and the exploitation of others. (1 Thes. 4.3-6)  Paul indicates that God avenges lust and exploitation as rebellion against God’s authority. (1 Thes. 4.6-8)  Paul adopts the familiar image of God coming as a thief in the night and then uses the metaphor encouraging believers to stay awake, a phrasing familiar from the Synoptics. (1 Thes. 5.2)  Paul applies these two rhetorical devices in describing behavioral requirements for Christians.  This confirms that such words of warning and judgment in the Synoptic Gospels apply not only to both Jews who deny the Lordship of Jesus and to Gentiles, but also to the community of believers.  It must be noted that the letter to the Thessalonians contains references to how members of the Christian church are “destined” in some way.  The fact remains that Paul expresses concern about the destination of believers if they fail to live righteously.


Paul’s letter to the Philippians suggests that Paul understands salvation to be contingent.  Even Paul, a man responsible for planting churches across Asia Minor, did not consider his own salvation to be certain. (Philippians 3.10-12)  Instead, he saw an ongoing obligation of activity. (Philippians 1.27-30)  Paul proposes an ethical standard of absolute selflessness. (Philippians 1.27-30)  In order to “live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1.27), one must “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2.3-4)  The abandoning of self-interest is central to Paul’s message.  Against those who would follow Christ selflessly are those whose “minds are set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3.18-19)  Those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ…. Their end is destruction.” (Philippians 3.18-19)  The letter to the Philippians does not focus on the theme of judgment but rather develops the positive responsibility of selfless life in service to Christ and humanity:  “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2.12-13)


In the letter to the Galatians, Paul argues against those who would replace faith with a return to the requirements of the law, specifically circumcision.  At this conclusion of this polemic, Paul calls for believers who might fall away to return.  Paul’s concern is quite specific:  “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5.21)  By contrast, using the analogy of sowing, Paul demonstrates that the Spirit-led life of serving the good of others leads to eternal life. (Galatians 6.7-10)  Living faith is pivotal:  “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5.6)

Second Corinthians

Second Corinthians describes a ministry aimed at breaking through the blindness of the world (2 Cor. 4.4) and testifying to the forgiveness and reconciliation with God offered by Christ. (2 Cor. 5.18)  Disciples find freedom in the Spirit and are transformed to meet the rigors of this ministry. (2 Cor. 3.17-4.2)  Rather than being measured in external behavior, this transformation is inscribed on the heart. (2 Cor. 3.3)  Yet all face judgment by Christ:  “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5.10)  Paul’s resolution of a dispute illustrates how even among the justified, a change of heart relates to salvation:  “your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief…. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret….” (2 Cor. 7.9-10)  Paul calls for all involved in the disagreement to open hearts wide to one another. (2 Cor. 6.11-12)  Others have fallen short in concrete ways and have failed to repent:  “I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.” (2 Cor. 12.21)  Paul is calling for an internal and perpetual cleansing of the heart and the mind in obedience:  “we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10.6)  The test is active and continuous:  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith.  Test yourselves.  Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13.5)  In his faith, Paul is living minute to minute, relying on God’s promises for assistance and reassurance, but not resting on the assurance of salvation.

First Corinthians

Paul addresses some of the ambiguity of judgment and salvation in the “First” letter to the Corinthians.  The hermeneutical context helps to explain how Paul seems to speak to both sides of the issue.  Paul defines himself and his audience as “among the mature” who attempt to get at God’s wisdom “though it is a wisdom not of this age…” (1 Cor. 2.6)   Rather Paul speaks of “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” that “God has revealed to us through the Spirit….” (1 Cor. 2.7-10)  As he drafts the letter, the distinction between worldly wisdom apparently remains a factor for Paul.  The warning against putting too much faith in human theologizing is repeated explicitly in the third chapter:  “Do not deceive yourselves.  If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor. 3.18-19)  This may condition how we are to read Paul’s theologizing as well.

Paul seems to take the stance that those who have faith do not stand under judgment.  A metaphor seems to suggest that even those whose work is judged negatively will be saved:  “If what is built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.  If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3.14-15)  This interpretation of the passage is less viable if the foundation is interpreted to be Paul’s Gospel, and the work of others is seen as ministry.  This alternative interpretation notwithstanding, another passage supports the idea that those with faith are not under judgment.  Paul states, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial.” (1 Cor. 6.12)  This view is provisional under the caveat of God’s wisdom invoked by Paul earlier.

The view that faith leads to inevitable salvation is contradicted by Paul within the very same letter.  Paul is very clear about how he assesses his own faith walk:  “I do not even judge myself.  I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted.  It is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (1 Cor. 4.3-5)  The basis for Paul’s earlier statement proclaiming all things legal derives from his understanding of God’s judgment.  God judges the heart.  Therefore Paul expresses the necessity to keep his heart on God’s purposes.  If one first assesses a set of possible actions through the filter of God’s loving purposes, all options that remain would certainly be legal or approved by God, and, oddly enough, that which is not beneficial would be rejected.

With language similar to the Synoptics, Paul provides a limited framework for evaluating the congruence of various categories of activities in terms of the divine will.  In these endeavors, we are to exercise self-control. (1 Cor. 9.24-27)  Overall, selflessness is a key measure of Godly behavior, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” (1 Cor. 10.24)  In this it is critical that the believer does not interfere with those coming to belief or struggling in their growing faith:  “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor. 8.9)  The ultimate standard is that all be done in love.  Paul calls the believers to vigilant discernment:  “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be in love.” (1 Cor. 16.13-14)  This focus on love can be contrasted with the doublemindedness of those who seek approval from both the world and from God:  “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.  You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.  Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy?  Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor. 10.21-22)  The God of Paul’s Gospel is a God of love and of judgment.  Paul is calling each of us to make a decision in each moment of our lives to reflect the love of God in all that we do.


Paul’s letter to the Romans shares a concern that the believers face serious consequences if they turn to a life of wickedness.  Although Paul reassures the reader that Christ gives us access to saving grace, the believer must be vigilant in order to remain true to the Christian calling.  Both the necessity for this effort and the means for effecting it are captured in the exhortation of Romans 12.1-2.

The letter to the Romans reflects a conviction that God has the power both to reject believers who fall into sinful ways and to return them to the body should they repent.  In Chapter 11, Paul uses the analogy of grafting onto an olive tree to demonstrate God’s freedom.  Paul cautions believers:  “So do not become proud, but stand in awe.  For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” (Romans 11.20-21)  The threat of judgment and punishment even for those already accepted is anything but subtle:  “Note then the kindness and severity of God:  severity to those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you will be cut off.” (Romans 11.22)  This judgment can be rescinded with a change in heart:  “And even those of Israel, if the you do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.” (Romans 11.23)  The orientation of God to an individual is very much a function of the state of that individual’s heart.  By turning from God we condemn ourselves.

The possibility that disobedient behavior could lead to being cut off from God leads to the urgent question:  how might a believer grow in faith, love and obedience to gain assurance that they might not stray?  To summarize:  justification provides the introduction or access to God’s love that “has been poured into our hearts.” (Romans 5.5)  It is God’s love that provides the endurance that builds character. (Romans 5.4-5)  With the access to God’s love in the heart of the believer, an ethical transformation is possible.  Believing in Jesus Christ causes a radical transformation in us.  By identifying with the death of Jesus, we die to the influence of sin.  In grace we have the choice to choose righteousness or wickedness, a choice previously denied in our captivity to sin. (6.2-4, 6, 11)  Therefore, we are called to present ourselves not to the service of sin but to the service of God. (6.12-14)

Paul exhorts the believer facing temptation and adversity to make full use of the new faculties that God provides.  In Romans 12.1-2,  Paul appeals directly to the believers in the Roman church. First, Paul encourages us to see the Christian walk as acceptance of rebirth in Jesus Christ that demands a rejection of the sinful standards of the world.  Second, with this powerful transformation of mind and body, the believer can then seek God’s good and perfect will.  Paul urges us to move from depravity to redemption, and then from redemption to right behavior as a natural response to liberation from the power of sin.[5]


It is shocking that one of the most urgent and graphic examples of God’s judgment of believers who fall short comes not in the canonical outpost of Revelation but rather in the book of Acts.  The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 4.32-5.11) stands as a stern warning of the rigor of God’s commandments to believers of the promises of the New Testament.

The passage suggests that this couple is included within the apostolic community.  Setting the boundaries of the passage is critical for highlighting the possible level of belief of the main figures, Ananias and Sapphira.  The passage is situated early in the book of Acts.  The Holy Spirit has already come.  There are healings in earlier passages.  Immediately preceding the selection, the embryonic church has completed a prayer seeking to speak God’s word with boldness.  In response to this prayer, they are “filled with the Holy Spirit….” (Acts 4.23-31)

The couple appear to be part of an utopian Christian community living out the commandment to love one another selflessly.  The passage describes an era in the apostolic church when property was held in common.  Believers sometimes sold property and brought the proceeds to benefit the community.  But the two conspire to deceive the community and therefore the Holy Spirit which instituted it.  The husband and wife sold a piece of property and withheld some of the revenue.  When the couple was held accountable by Peter, each in turn falls down dead.  The conviction and instantaneous death of the couple shocked the community of believers, and stands as an object lesson for us today.  The eschatological judgment promised by Christ came early for Ananias and Sapphira: they were unprepared.


After washing the disciples’ feet and issuing a new commandment, “‘that you love one another’” (John 13.34), Jesus addresses the inner circle and provides the analogy of the vine to describe His requirements.  Jesus is speaking not to a the crowd but to a group selected for their belief.  He reminds them, “‘I chose you.’” (John 15.16)  Even so, this chosen group remains under judgment.  In imagery similar to the olive tree of Romans 11, Jesus explains that “‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’” (John 15.6)  On the negative side, failure to stay with God meets with severe punishment.  However, the affirmative side of that requirement, that is to “‘love one another as I have loved you’” (John 15.10-12), is a light burden when read in the context of the spiritual transformation promised in Romans.

The theology of John shows the importance of behavior in the economy of salvation.  Unbelief is the source of condemnation, faith the source of life:  “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3.18)  But John takes a realistic view of human nature:  we believe in what we do.  Those who do evil believe in the rightness of their actions and therefore reject God:  “And this is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3.19)  Yet, Christ’s mission is optimistic:  “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)  Salvation comes from belief, and belief has outward signs in the form of works:  “‘Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works I do and, in fact, do greater works than these….’” (John 14.12)  These works are not merely keeping the dead letter of the law.  Rather, the ability to serve God in faith is supported by the Holy Spirit. (John 15-16)

Synoptic Gospels

Is the language of eschatological judgment an innovation in Revelation or can similar language be found elsewhere in the New Testament?  Revelation warns the those who fall away to repent because they cannot know when Jesus will return in judgment.  Where else does this appear?  The theme of eschatological judgment is widespread throughout the New Testament.  For example it appears in each of the Gospels.[6]  This leads to a reevaluation of the context of these passages.  Were they evangelical—that is, were they directed primarily outward toward the Jew who is bound up in the law?  Or was the warning of coming judgment directed at the growing community of believers surrounding Jesus?  The presence of such warnings in the book of Mark suggests that this language is directed to the believing community.  This is because Mark takes great pains to avoid giving outsiders the clues necessary to stumble into saving action.

We turn now to examining the Synoptic Gospels for an indication of how believers are to be judged.  In the Synoptics, it is sometimes difficult to sort out the intended impact of the words of Jesus because they are uttered in the context of a public ministry, a mixed audience of true believers and scheming enemies.  It is helpful to examine how Christ speaks of eschatological judgment to the inner circle of the apostles.[7]  Just prior to his arrest, Jesus is providing instructions intended to carry this group of believers through difficult times.  Even these hand-selected followers cannot be assured of their salvation:  “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13.13, Matthew 24.13, also Luke 21.19)  In describing the distress of the last days, exhorts the disciples to be diligent—to “‘Keep awake.’” (Mark 13.37)  Similarly, in Matthew, Jesus reminds the disciples “‘Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’” (Matthew 24.44)  Matthew extends this admonition into the parable of the wicked slave who will be “cut to pieces and put… with the other hypocrite where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 14.47-51)  Put in more positive terms, Jesus reminds us in the Lucan version that “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required….” (Luke 12.48)  What sort of behavior does Jesus have in mind with these stern warnings?

Some of the themes well developed in the Synoptic literature include warnings against apostasy and becoming a “stumbling block” to others.  Matthew, Mark and Luke each make clear that God will respond reciprocally to both confession and apostasy: “‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.’” (Matthew 10.32-33)  Jesus encourages sharing the Good News.  It is denying Jesus that draws condemnation.  This admonition to affirm the Gospel relates to an even more sharply worded warning against causing others to stumble that is present in each of the Synoptics:  “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!  It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17.1-2 also Matthew 18.6-7, Mark 9.42)  This is the destruction of souls wrought by the hypocrite.  Those outside the faith or weak in faith cannot but be pulled down by the apostate, the backslider, the hypocrite.  By creating conditions that lead others to fall, the offenders bring extraordinary judgment upon themselves.

Creating conditions for unbelief and the destruction of souls is the ultimate offense.  As Christ teaches about social requirements in Chapter 25, the responsibility not to cause another to stumble finds a dramatic context.  Jesus tells how our treatment of the least ones is indeed our treatment of Him:  “‘for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’” (Matthew 25.42-43)  Those under affliction may lack the strength, the ability to know the word of God.  By ignoring the needs of the powerless and weak, we may deny them the opportunity to know, or rather to experience through our giving, the love that God has for each of us.  It is no surprise that Jesus condemns in very specific terms those who would leave the hungry, sick and imprisoned in their misery:  “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’” (Matthew 25.41,46)


The New Testament canon is challenging.  It lacks the nuances of a modern systematic theology.  It tells a story that is demanding for the listener.  We are called to leave behind all that we are and follow Christ.  If we can make that step, in Christ we have the ability to overcome sin.  We are called to pray continuously for assistance in living up to the demand that we live lives worthy of the calling.  To use a mathematical analogy, the moment of salvation brings a clearing of sin that defines a point in time.  God calls for a continued righteousness of heart and mind.  Even one who believes can fall away—and return again.  However, the “thief in the night” motif reminds us that those who are caught without a chair when the music stops face the possibility of a severe penalty.

The fact that Paul must appeal to his brothers and sisters to present themselves to Jesus and not to be conformed to the world suggests that, even among the justified, some were choosing a worldly path.  Sanctification, the continuing walk with Christ, offers the believer an unending series of choices.  We can in each moment turn to the Spirit for guidance in moving continually toward a transformed existence living in realized and eschatological hope.  This is the Good News of Paul’s theology.  We are freed from the power of sin, and we can walk with God in victory over the temptation of a fallen humanity for the rest of our earthly lives.

[1] This point of view is well developed in Martin Kahler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964).

[2] See Kahler.

[3] G.B. Caird, New Testament Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 18-19.  These are “the four evangelists, Paul, the Pastor,  the authors of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter and Jude, and John the Seer.”  Caird also suggests the author of the author of the Johannine letters, and the author(s) of the disputed Pauline letters.  All of these will be treated except, for the sake of brevity, Jude and the Pastor will be omitted, the Synoptic Gospels will be treated as a group, and the Johannine letters will be combined for consideration.

[4] This term is from an album by the same name from the rock group, “The Tubes.”

[5] Portions of the third and fourth paragraphs in this section appeared in a term paper for NT 101.

[6]Matthew 24.42-51, 24.42, 25-1-15; Mark 13.33-37; Luke 12.35-48, 21.34-36; John 13.4-5.

[7] Depending on the Gospel author, the following is either: part of a private discussion with Peter, James, John and Andrew (Mark); with the disciples more generally (Matthew); or with “some” (Luke).

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The Social Ethics of Spiritual Transformation: Sanctification versus the Love of Money in the Sermons of John Wesley

John Wesley’s theology centers on the profound implications of the Christ event.  Wesley advocates a judicial view of justification:  that Christ died in substitution for our sins.  His view of linking justification and sanctification and identifying instantaneous and continuing strains of each creates a demanding personal ethic.  The goal of Christian perfection, of a personal walk that reflects the love of God, is a high bar, passable only by the continuing enlivening of the Holy Spirit.  An assessment of the role of free will in justification will not be critically assessed in this paper.  Rather, Wesley’s focus on the personal response in the continuing process of sanctification is pivotal.  According to Wesley, we are called to respond to God’s loving generosity of providing a Savior by reflecting that love to all of humanity.  In this context, Wesley’s social ethic is not derived from the reasoning of natural law.  Instead, Wesley may be described as a practitioner of biblical theology.  His method in preparing sermons and engaging in doctrinal dialogue is to work closely with the biblical witness of both the Old and the New Testaments.

The love of God and neighbor, key themes of both Old and New Testaments, is a powerful touchstone for Wesley.  This understanding is profoundly deepened by interpreting the call for such love in response to the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross.  This, according to Wesley, is how much God loves us, that God would condescend to incarnation and to die ignobly on the cross in order to bring us into relationship.  We love God in response to the love God has shown us, and we take the opportunity to love our neighbor as a tangible means of reflecting this love.

Wesley apparently includes the Johanine texts in his canon because there is a strong imagery in his writing that sin, salvation, and backsliding are to some degree related to proximity or orientation to God.  It is clear that Wesley has concluded that the souls of the lapsed fall into mortal peril through their actions.  Even the justified fall under judgment.  Justification is the ticket in the door, but there is a back exit for those who refuse to stay in relationship with the sovereign.  Wesley asserts that God does not turn from us but rather that we can turn from God.

Wesley’s public ethic flows from his doctrine of sanctification.  The response to God’s love is to reflect in our thoughts and deeds the perfect love of Jesus dying on the cross for us.  We are to respond in love. Love is manifested in acts of care and giving to others.  Love begets love, which begets works.

The danger of wealth is that it distracts the individual by focusing attention on worldly comforts and prestige.  This attention weakens the faith, drawing the believer out of relationship with God.  This withdrawal and separation can lead to the death of the soul.

Theological Basis:  Justification and Sanctification

Wesley’s formulation of a Christian social ethic is closely tied to the doctrine of sanctification.  Indeed, in the closing paragraphs of a sermon calling into account those who fail to live out their faith, Wesley relates a failure to respond to the needs of the poor with a failure to understand the personal implications of justification and sanctification. [1]  For Wesley these words are related to a personal reality of God’s profound saving gift through the life and death of Jesus Christ.  This atoning sacrifice must first be understood as a gift of salvation that then unleashes the life-giving force of love that enables the believer to work in love for the sake of others.  Wesley is very careful to communicate that justification does not flow from works.  However, he makes equally clear that the justified believer achieves the ability to fulfil the fundamental intent of the law, the love of God and of our neighbor.  Thus, justification by faith makes works possible. [2]

Christology and Loving Our Neighbor

Wesley equates the love of humanity evidenced by the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ with the sacrifice we are called to reflect through our love of our neighbor.  Our faith in this profound outpouring of love increases, our ability to respond increases.  As faith increases, so proportionally we are empowered to love of our neighbor and therefore of all humankind.  The commandment to love God and neighbor does not take on the legal character of an Old Testament text.  In the context of the New Testament witness, the believer is called to join in the powerful expression of love of God that the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ embodies:

And as our faith both in God the Father and the Son, receives an unspeakable increase, if not its very being, from this grand event, as does also our love both of the Father and the Son; so does the love of our neighbor also, our benevolence to all mankind, which cannot but increase in the same proportion with our faith and love of God….  Beloved, what manner of love is this wherewith God hath loved us; so as to give his only Son, in glory equal with the Father, in Majesty co-eternal? What manner of love is this wherewith the only-begotten Son of God hath loved us so as to empty himself; as far as possible, of his eternal Godhead; as to divest himself of that glory which he had with the Father before the world began; as to take upon him the form of a servant, being found in fashion as a man; and then, to humble himself still further, “being obedient unto death, even the death of the cross!” If God SO loved us, how ought we to love one another![3]

We are called to love our neighbor as God loves us.  This is not a requirement of process but rather a reflection of the fundamental freedom that faith, justification and adoption afford the believer.  We have been freed to love, and the outpouring of love for others should be a natural consequence.  Wesley’s discussions of wealth are largely a diagnosis and suggested cure for some of the sin-sickness that self-seeking behavior causes when we are distracted from the powerful truth of God’s love through Jesus Christ.

Commandments to Love at Core of Wesley’s Theology

The paired commandments to love God and to love our neighbors resonate at the core of Wesley’s theology.  A total commitment to love God in gratitude translates into a self-sacrificing love of each human being. [4]  This is both the origin and the method of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection:

This is the sum of Christian perfection: It is all comprised in that one word, Love. The first branch of it is the love of God: And as he that loves God loves his brother also, it is inseparably connected with the second: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself:” Thou shalt love every man as thy own soul, as Christ loved us. “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets:” These contain the whole of Christian perfection.[5]

Wesley asserts that the command to love God and to love thy neighbor is a promise of God’s quickening action.  Holiness, the perfect love of God and neighbor, is available through faith and submission to God’s agency.

Commandment to Love Thy neighbor

Wesley puts great emphasis on the commandment to love one’s neighbor.  This injunction calls the believer to reflect the love of God in our hearts in all of our actions.  Who is our neighbor?  Wesley responds “every child of man, every human creature, every soul which God hath made; not excepting him whom thou never hast seen in the flesh.”[6]  To all of humanity, the believer owes “unwearied care to screen him from whatever might grieve or hurt either his soul or body.”[7]  Wesley therefore places at the door of every Christian to care for the body and soul of all humanity.  Every thought and action, every expenditure or revenue must be directed to the well-being of the individuals, believers or other wise that we encounter each day.  Participation in the kingdom of God requires no less than a total commitment to expressing the love shed in the hearts of those who believe.


Wesley asserts that his hermeneutical key, the love of God, lies at the core of the biblical witness.  The outflowing of love has at its source the love of God, and develops into a response of loving our neighbor as we are loved.  Wesley explains that at the core of his faith is:

[N]o other than love, the love of God and of all mankind; the loving God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, as having first loved us, — as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made, every man on earth as our own soul. This love is the great medicine of life; the never failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world; for all the miseries and vices of men….It is the religion which is continually inculcated therein, which runs through both the old and new Testament, Moses and the Prophets, our blessed Lord and his Apostles, proclaim with one voice, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul, and thy neighbor as thyself.” The Bible declares, “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” “the end of the commandment,” — of all the commandments which are contained in the oracles of God. The inward and outward fruits of this love are also largely described by the inspired writers; so that whoever allows the Scripture to be the word of God, must allow this to be true religion.[8]

Wesley does not propose a negative religion, full of prohibitions, rather he preaches the Good News of life through relationship with abundant love.  Wesley describes how the individual can respond to faith through Christian growth and find joy in a relationship of piety and works which yields contentment infinitely greater than the world can afford.[9]

Acting in Love

At the core of Wesley’s pastoral theology is the understanding that faith is the bedrock foundation for transforming the human character.  Faith, justification, and sanctification, instantaneous and progressive, form the basis for a renewal of the human spirit:

The great question of all, then, still remains. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Can you cry out, “My God, and my All?” Do you desire nothing but him? Are you happy in God? Is he your glory, your delight, your crown of rejoicing? And is this commandment written in your heart, “That he who loveth God love his brother also?” Do you then love your neighbor as yourself? Do you love every man, even your enemies, even the enemies of God, as your own soul? as Christ loved you? Yea, dost thou believe that Christ loved thee, and gave himself for thee? Hast thou faith in his blood? Believest thou the Lamb of God hath taken away thy sins, and cast them as a stone into the depth of the sea? that he hath blotted out the handwriting that was against thee, taking it out of the way, nailing it to his cross? Hast thou indeed redemption through his blood, even the remission of thy sins? And doth his Spirit bear witness with thy spirit, that thou art a child of God?[10]

Thus God’s law, love, is written on the human heart.  The believer experiences a change in orientation that is authored by God, but that comes into fruition by the persistent effort of the individual as directed by the precept and power of love.  Because God has loved us, out of gratitude we respond to the needs of our neighbor.  Because God has loved us, we are capable of reflecting the divine love in all our actions.

Building Faith and the Work of God

Wesley sees human action directed by God’s purposes as vital to the saving work of God.  Continuing faith is integral to keeping the believer focused on God.  Ongoing faith is central to holiness, to living out God’s will in love.  This faith is an acceptance of God’s love for us and the basis of our love of our neighbor:

For without this faith, without an abiding sense that Christ loved me, and gave himself’ for me, without a continuing conviction that God for Christ’s sake is merciful to me a sinner, it is impossible that I should love God: “We love him, because he first loved us;” and in proportion to the strength and clearness of our conviction that he hath loved us, and accepted us in his Son. And unless we love God, it is not possible that we should love our neighbor as ourselves; nor, consequently, that we should have any right affections, either toward God, or toward man. It evidently follows, that whatever weakens our faith, must, in the same degree, obstruct our holiness: And this is not only the most effectual, but also the most compendious, way of destroying all holiness; seeing it does not affect any one Christian temper, any single grace or fruit of the Spirit, but, so far as it succeeds, tears up the very root of the whole work of God.[11]

Thus continuing faith is a vital part of the believers sanctification and the love of neighbor is a vital result.  Love for one’s neighbor comes in proportion to ongoing faith.  Those who lose faith also lose their love of neighbor.[12]

Works the Highest Expression

Wesley sees the loving God and neighbor—that is all humanity—as the wellspring for Christian life.[13]  With the understanding that works are not operative in justification, Wesley actively endorses works as an expression of Christian love.  Works from the right principle, that is from the love that comes from faith in Jesus Christ, define the highest level of Christian perfection.[14]

Good works are so far from being hindrances of our salvation; they are so far from being insignificant, from being of no account in Christianity; that, supposing them to spring from a right principle, they are the perfection of religion. They are the highest part of that spiritual building whereof Jesus Christ is the foundation….  And to him who attentively considers the whole tenor both of the Old and New Testament, it will be equally plain, that works springing from this love are the highest part of the religion therein revealed. …. Is not the tree itself for the sake of the fruit? By bearing fruit, and by this alone, it attains the highest perfection it is capable of, and answers the end for which it was planted. Who, what is he then, that is called a Christian, and can speak lightly of good works?[15]

Wesley discounts works that emerge from a general desire to do good as ineffectual for justification.  Instead, Wesley affirms works that flow from a loving response to God’s saving love in the blood of Jesus Christ.  These works of the Christian seeking God’s will create the basis for a social ethic of personal transformation.

Acts as Basis for Christian Social Ethic

In his sermon, Scriptural Christianity, Wesley focuses on Christ’s acts of charity and the communitarian response in Acts to reveal the social responsibility implied by the commandment to love one’s neighbor.  Wesley describes the apostolic response to God’s love:

But it did not satisfy him, barely to abstain from doing evil. His soul was athirst to do good. The language of his heart continually was, “‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.’ My Lord went about doing good; and shall not I tread in his steps?” As he had opportunity, therefore, if he could do no good of a higher kind, he fed the hungry, clothed the naked, helped the fatherless or stranger, visited and assisted them that were sick; or in prison. He gave all his goods to feed the poor. He rejoiced to labor or to suffer for them; and whereinsoever he might profit another, there especially to “deny himself.” [16]

This zeal, this purity of motivation is the ideal that Wesley holds out for those who seek holiness.  Holiness is individual action in pursuit of the realization of the kingdom of God in the hearts of the believer and living out that conviction in all our affairs.  Collectively this outlook creates the motion for a public ethic of works, but works flowing from the love of God as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Hence, Wesley describes the kingdom of God as both an eschatological hope and the manifestation of true religion on earth.  Thus to participate in the Kingdom of God is to walk as Christ walked.  It is the temptation to sin that comes with wealth that threatens the rich and precludes such as these from truly being Christian. [17]

Definition of “Rich”

Wesley defines the term, “rich” much more broadly than we might expect.  Numbered among the rich is anyone who can provide for themselves the necessities of life and then has anything to spare.  This definition encompasses many of us.  For Wesley, any degree of disposable income constitutes wealth.  These are the idle resources that can either be given to provide relieve for the afflicted, or retained to fund soul-numbing comfort.[18],[19]  Wesley’s concern is that as wealth increases, so does the love of money, at the expense of our Christian faith.[20]

Money and Distance from God

Wesley maintains that love of money, that is the accumulation of wealth in excess of basic needs constitutes a separation from God, a potentially fatal stumbling block in the road to living out the love of God and neighbor.  The cost of worldly self-denial weighs more heavily on those with substantial accumulated wealth. [21]

The love of money is destructive to both body and soul.  By “desiring happiness out of God” those who seek wealth fall into “every foolish and hurtful desire” that is “[d]estructive of that faith which is the operation of God; of that hope which is full of immortality, of love to God and to our neighbor, and of every good word and work.” [22]  These desires compound themselves and ultimately overwhelm the soul: “And, in the end; “they drown” the body in pain, disease, “destruction,” and the soul in everlasting “perdition.” [23]

Wesley explains the corrosive operation of wealth on the soul.  At the core of the Christian religion is faith.  But distractions from the eternal grow proportionately with wealth.  Wesley makes the observation:

[H]ow natural a tendency have riches to darken this evidence, to prevent your attention to God and the things of God, and to things invisible and eternal! And if you take it in another sense, for a confidence; what a tendency have riches to destroy this; to make you trust, either for happiness or defense, in them, not “in the living God![24]

This forgetfulness of God translates to an idolatry of sensuality, and it is feeding these desires that is destructive to the soul.  Referring to the book of John, Wesley identifies three genres of idolatry that threaten those who seek riches:  “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life” [25],[26] or, alternatively stated: wonderful experiences, the love of novel and beautiful things, and the experience of personal power.

Love of Money and Fire

Wesley makes no secret in his belief that those who trust in riches put their souls in mortal peril.  Wesley echoes the words of the book of Revelation in observing that the spiraling destruction brought about by the love of money leads to damnation:

Might not this induce one to think, that in many cases it is a penal evil; that it is a sin-punishing evil; that when a man has, for many years, hid his precious talent in the earth, God delivers him up to Satan, to punish him by the inordinate love of it? …. “As money, so the love of money, grows; it increases in the same proportion.” As in a dropsy, the more you drink, the more you thirst; till that unquenchable thirst plunge you into the fire which never shall be quenched![27]

Stewardship: Gain, Save, and Give

Recognizing the corrosive effects of wealth upon the soul, Wesley strongly advocated a system of stewardship designed to avoid wealth accumulation and to maximize the loving treatment of the afflicted.  Wesley’s vision of stewardship involves three foci of responsible activity.[28]  First, the individual is to gain as much as possible subject to the injunction to do no harm.  Second, the steward is to use funds frugally to save expenses wherever possible.  Third, the good steward returns to God all that is not necessary for the basic maintenance of family.

Gain without Imposing Harm

Wesley encourages believers to gain all they can, subject to injunction not to harm self nor neighbor.  In the sermon, “The Uses of Money,” Wesley expands a discussion of the steward in Luke 16 to create a set of rules for a sanctified attitude toward of wealth.  Wesley explains that we are stewards of the life, health, and souls of both ourselves and our neighbors.  The exhortation to gain all you can is limited by the injunction to do no harm to any human creature, both physically and spiritually. [29]

Saving:  Expenditures Allowed

In directing believers to fiscal holiness, Wesley advocates a strict, but humane standard.  Wesley encourages a four tiered system for evaluating proper levels of expenditures:  the self; the household; the Christian community; and all of humanity.  Wesley acknowledges the need for an individual to take care of their own basic needs and the need of their family.  However, Wesley suggests that the believer pay out no more for their own maintenance that they would pay out to bring another out of poverty.  Material extravagance is discouraged with allusions to Ecclesiates.  Wealth begets greater appetite in a cycle that ultimately leads to the death of the soul.   If the believer can meet the needs of the family, it is then recommended that excess funds be directed to meeting the needs of the Church family, and finally the general needs of the poor and afflicted. [30]

God as Creator Is Owner of All, Give What is God’s

The theme of stewardship implicit in the Old Testament and carefully exposited in the New Testament provides a powerful biblical support for Wesley’s exhortations to give all you can.  Wesley relies heavily on a doctrine of creation that places God as ultimate owner of all creation and humanity as stewards.[31] Because God retains ownership, the fruit of all human labor belongs rightfully to the Creator.  All that we gain through our efforts comes from our God-given talents in a God-given world.  Therefore, all of our gain, all of our economic substance is rightfully God’s.  It is proper that we retain what we need to survive and to render to God all that is God’s.[32]  We have no right to our own earning or to any accumulation of wealth because all belongs to God.[33] The ministry of Jesus Christ communicates the purpose of this stewardship, as a sacrifice to God’s good pleasure.  The idea of God as Creator and owner of all, with ultimate ownership of the fruits of the Creation is repeated throughout Wesley’s works.  Wesley does not pull any punches on this subject.  To retain the fruits of one’s labors beyond providing for the basic needs of the family is stealing from God. [34]  Just beyond such an offense is the threat of damnation.

The Danger of Wealth

Wesley’s focus is not on a merit-based system of works.  Those who do not believe do not gain favor by good works alone.  The pivotal role of justification by faith alone is not questioned.  Rather, Wesley communicates that faith demands a response in the form of works.  The danger posed by wealth is not merely  that some might fail to distribute those riches to feed the poor.  The danger is that maintaining wealth leads to a hardening of the heart.  Hence, the rich Christian (perhaps a contradiction in terms for Wesley) fails to respond to human need as a symptom of a soul sickness brought on by the spiritual myopia of being focused on the treasures of the world.

To avoid the slippery slope of self-seeking wealth accumulation, Wesley proposes a simple, yet demanding program.  Wesley instructs:  gain; save; then give.  This formulation is somewhat different from Max Weber’s famous observation which also includes the idea of working diligently in one’s vocation.  This theme is familiar to Reformed thought, although proof of election is less at issue and the ethics of the Wisdom literature is more evident in Wesley.  The idea of saving is similar as well.  Here the advice is to restrict expenditures to necessary items, to count oneself as one of the poor and to allocate those funds required for ordinary conveniences such as food, clothing and shelter.  The innovation is in the strict exhortation to give any surplus in excess of basic needs.  Money itself is not an evil, Wesley observes, but wealth sings a seductive siren song that will bring down even the justified.

In his later years, Wesley apparently had become concerned with the corrosive effect of wealth accumulation among some in the Methodist circles.  He is concerned with the destructive effect of wealth upon the faith of those who possess an overabundance.  His strict prohibition against wealth and wealth accumulation is a reaction to his experience of those falling away due to the temptations of wealth.  At stake is not a social issue, such as feeding the poor, but rather the very souls of those experiencing good fortune:

But is there no way to prevent this? — to continue Christianity among a people? Allowing that diligence and frugality must produce riches, is there no means to hinder riches from destroying the religion of those that possess them? I can see only one possible way; find out another who can. Do you gain all you can, and save all you can? Then you must, in the nature of things, grow rich, then if you have any desire to escape the damnation of hell, give all you can; otherwise I can have no more hope of your salvation, than of that of Judas Iscariot.”[35]

[1] Vol. VII. SERMON CVII. — On God’s Vineyard, p. 242.

[2] Vol. V. SERMON V. — Justification by Faith, p. 120-146.

[3] Vol. VI. SERMON LIX. — God’s Love to Fallen Man, p. 265.

[4] Vol. VI. SERMON LXXXIV. —The Important Question, p. 551.

[5] Vol. VI. SERMON LXXVI. — On Perfection, p. 457.

[6] Vol. V. SERMON VII. — The Way to the Kingdom, p. 49.

[7] Vol. V. SERMON VII. — The Way to the Kingdom, p. 49.

[8] Vol. VII. SERMON CXXXI. — Some Account of the Late Work of God in North-America, p. 470-71.

[9] Vol. VII. SERMON CXIV. — The Unity of the Divine Being, p. 306.

[10] Vol. V. SERMON II. — The Almost Christian, p. 88-89.

[11] Vol. VI. SERMON XLII. — Satan’s Devices, p. 51.

[12] Vol. VI. SERMON XLVI. — The Wilderness State, p. 97.

[13] Vol. VII. SERMON CXIV. — The Unity of the Divine Being, p. 307.  “First, therefore, see that ye love God, next, your neighbor, — every child of man. From this fountain let every temper, every affection, every passion flow. So shall that ‘mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.’ Let all your thoughts, words, and action, spring from this! So shall you ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.’”

[14] Vol. VII. SERMON XCIX. — The Reward of the Righteous, p. 153-4.

[15] Vol. VII. SERMON XCIX. — The Reward of the Righteous, p. 153-4.

[16] Vol. V. SERMON IV. — Scriptural Christianity, p. 107-108.

[17] Vol. VII. SERMON CVIII. — On Riches, p. 245.  “By the kingdom of God, or of heaven, (exactly equivalent terms,) I believe is meant, not the kingdom of glory, (although that will, without question, follow,) But the kingdom of heaven, that is, true religion, upon earth. The meaning then of our Lord’s assertion is this, — that it is absolutely impossible, unless by that power to which all things are possible, that a rich man should be a Christian, to have the mind that was in Christ, and to walk as Christ walked: Such are the hindrances to holiness, as well as the temptations to sin, which surround him on every side.”

[18] Vol. VII. SERMON LXXXVII. — The Danger of Riches, p.15.

[19] Vol. VII. SERMON CVIII. — On Riches, p. 245.

[20] Vol. VI. SERMON LXI. — The Mystery of Iniquity, p. 298. “‘As money increases, so does the love of it;” and always will, without a miracle of grace. Although, therefore, other causes may concur; yet this has been, in all ages, the principal cause of the decay of true religion in every Christian community. As long as the Christians in any place were poor, they were devoted to God. While they had little of the world, they did not love the world; but the more they had of it, the more they loved it. This constrained the Lover of their souls, at various times, to unchain their persecutors; who, by reducing them to their former poverty, reduced them to their former purity. But still remember, riches have, in all ages, been the bane of genuine Christianity!”

[21] Vol. VI. SERMON XLVIII. — Self-denial, p.129-130.

[22] Vol. VII. SERMON LXXXVII. — The Danger of Riches, p. 18.

[23] Vol. VII. SERMON LXXXVII. — The Danger of Riches, p. 18-19.

[24] Vol. VII. SERMON CVIII. — On Riches, p. 246.

[25] Vol. VII. SERMON CVIII. — On Riches, p. 248-9.

[26] Vol. VII. SERMON CXXVI. — On the Danger of Increasing Riches, p. 401.  “All those the Apostle John includes under that general name, the world; and the desire of them, or to seek happiness in them under that form, “the love of the world.” This he divides into three branches, “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life.” Fairly examine yourselves with regard to these.”

[27] Vol. VII. SERMON CXXVI. — On the Danger of Increasing Riches, p. 403.

[28] Vol. VI. SERMON L. — The Use of Money, p. 152.

[29] Vol. VI. SERMON L. — The Use of Money, p. 149-152.

[30] Vol. VII. SERMON LXXXVII. — The Danger of Riches, p. 15-16.

[31] Vol. VII. SERMON CXXVI. — On the Danger of Increasing Riches, p. 404.

[32] Vol. VII. SERMON CXIX. — On Worldly Folly, p. 345-6.

[33] Vol. VI. SERMON L. — The Use of Money, p. 156.

[34] Vol. VII. SERMON CXXVI. — On the Danger of Increasing Riches, p. 402.

[35] Vol. VII. SERMON CXVI. — Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity, p. 322.

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Consumerism and Covetousness: The Decalogue in Dialogue with Economics

So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?  Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being…. Circumcise, then the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.  For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:12-19)


The record of the Old Testament testifies to the limitations of human individuals, both singly and in community.  From the Fall to the Golden Calf incident, we discern a story of human hubris pulling away from true communion with the One God.  This essay sketches an Old Testament theology of commercial relationships by linking creation theology to elements of the Decalogue.  In order to make this discussion more tangible, two interrelated failures of modern human community will be evaluated.  After presenting the methodological and biblical context, the paper will first illuminate the problem of unbridled consumer appetite from economic and biblical perspectives.  Key Old Testament passages will include commandments prohibiting idolatry and covetousness.  To the extent that sweatshops provide goods to satiate consumer demand, the exploitation of workers in sweatshops worldwide can be linked to consumerism.  The second major section will focus on the causes of exploitative working conditions such as sweatshops and the biblical injunctions against such practices.   Creation theology and the Sabbath commandment will constitute the primary Old Testament texts.  This paper will evaluate the relevance of the Decalogue to the plight of sweatshop workers, especially those in developing countries, who face the most dehumanizing working conditions.

This paper is intended to serve both ecumenical and apologetic purposes.   Some would argue that modern economics has eclipsed Christianity as the dominant paradigm ordering human activities.  It is vital that bishop and banker alike understand the tensions and the commonalities of these two world views.  The objective of this exercise is to frame issues of human community in both biblical and economic terms.  Two resources will prove useful in conveying the economic facets of this dialogue.  Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, provides an intriguing context for this conversation because his work links empirical economic theory to patterns in ethical thought.  For a perspective from evangelical Christian economists, I turn to the Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics.  The Oxford Declaration was developed in 1990 through the joint effort of more than one hundred economists, ethicists, theologians, businesspersons, clergy and laity.  The group labored to relate biblically-mediated faith to an understanding of economic processes.


The basic approach is to bring the bible into direct conversation with economic philosophy.  In this hermeneutic process, a dialogue develops.  The bible is prior.  If we begin with the numerous references to God’s care for the slaves in Egypt, the Bible speaks of an overriding concern for the conditions of those least able to care for themselves.  The question arises:  What is the origin of human processes that would deny justice for these least ones?  Genesis supplies a partial answer:  the fallenness of human nature.  Economics enters the dialogue at this second stage.  In many ways, economics is the naturalistic codification of the operation of human selfishness.

If these economic principles leave gaps for the self-seeking to distort society’s mechanisms, and if these distortions destroy the lives of those unable to advocate for themselves, how can this tendency be contained?  In the final motion, this dialogue of Bible and economics returns to interrogate the Bible.  As we look to the Old Testament what can be discerned of God’s program for limiting the abuses of a fallen people?  The answers lie in an evaluation of the Ten Commandments and their expansion in Deuteronomy, especially the commandments relating to idolatry, covetousness and the Sabbath.

In the organization of this paper, analyses of biblical passages will be interspersed with economic references.  This creates the sense of dialogue, and often unexpected continuity, between Bible and economic theory.  Immediately following is a quick review of economic concepts that will be used as the basis for dialogue with the Bible, and a description of the biblical context.  The economic categories will provide the basis for a focused application of key texts from the history of Israel’s theology of community.

Why Economics Needs Ethics

Ultimately this paper is designed to reach multiple audiences.  To some, it may seem obvious that economics and business processes operate in a religious context at some level.  Others may require a demonstration that business does not occur in a spiritual vacuum.  Given the apologetic and ecumenical objective of this paper, it is necessary to demonstrate briefly the limitations of the economic world view and the need to take in ethical considerations.  Discussion in a later section ultimately leads to an affirmation that faithful interaction with the biblical witness provides the spiritual and ethical dimensions.

At a fundamental level, greed or, in economic parlance, the individual acting in his or her own self-interest, provides the motivation for productivity in the dynamic engine of wealth creation we call capitalism.  At the core of this mechanism is the profit motive.  Individuals and groups, acting n their own self-interest, seek to fulfill the wants and needs of consumers, also acting rationally in their own self interest.  In this essay we will consider questions that Amartya Sen raises about the key assumptions that form the logical basis for relying on the beneficence of actual market economies.  Selected passages from the Deuteronomy will help focus this discussion.  Sen demonstrates that, although positive economics has greatly enhanced human productivity, the violation of well-known requirements for efficient markets can lead to outcomes that not only disproportionately harm the prospects of the poor but actually reduce the overall level of social well-being.

Sen’s work bridges the gap between welfare economics, a discipline focusing on analyzing the systemic and social implications of economic policy, and positive economics, the division of economics that adopts an “engineering” approach to understanding the functions of markets and economic actors.  Whereas, the engineering methodology focuses on quantifiable relationships typically denominated in terms of currency, the discipline of welfare economics must stretch to describe the aspirations as well as the material needs of a population.  Sen observes that, by ignoring normative or ethical considerations, positive economics is incomplete and thus may yield distorted analysis:

It is arguable that the importance of the ethical approach has rather substantially weakened as modern economics has evolved.  The methodology of so-called ‘positive economics’ has not only shunned normative analysis in economics, it has also had the effect of ignoring a variety of complex ethical considerations which affect actual human behavior…. I would argue that the nature of modern economics has been substantially impoverished by the distance that has grown between economics and ethics.[1]

Sen affirms the great value of the engineering approach for explaining economic behavior and enhancing productivity.  However, Sen argues forcefully that a reintegration of ethical considerations into mainstream economics is necessary for generating a more realistic model of human behavior.

In his essay, On Money and Value, Amartya Sen brings the vocabulary of the ethicist into dialogue with that of the economist.  Sen uses Aristotle’s voice to represent the classical challenge of self-seeking economic behavior.  Sen summarizes Aristotle’s critique of modern finance as follows:

While a modern assessment of finance can scarcely rely exclusively on Aristotelean ethical analysis, nor can it dismiss out of hand Aristotle’s concerns (1) about the moral legitimacy of effortless fortunes, or (2) about the consequential harms of (2.1) monopolistic gain-seeking, or (2.2) the accentuation of inequality, or (2.3) the exploitation of the vulnerability of the needy.[2]

The categories that Aristotle donates will prove useful in evaluating the relevance of legal material in Deuteronomy.  Sen divides Aristotle’s critique into two main categories:  moral legitimacy and consequential harms.  An assessment of these issues will proceed through the dual interpretive frameworks of economics and Old Testament theology.  This reflects the central concern in that the Mosaic material seeks to prevent:  that unreflective profit-seeking techniques may yield unfair gain and result in inequality.   Self-seeking entrepreneurs, in monomaniacally seeking wealth, may violate others and generate oppressive conditions.

Though positive economics supplies superb models for describing economic activity, the models themselves rest on finely tuned assumptions.  The general equilibrium theory–what is more commonly known of as the law of supply and demand–describes how goods and services are efficiently produced and distributed.  Subject to key caveats, the benefits of a well-functioning market economy are widely understood by the economic community.  Similarly, the model assumes certain conditions, and the violation of these assumptions throws into question the fairness and efficiency of the resulting system.  It is these systemic failures, arising from greed unconstrained by market forces, that provide substantial challenges for positive economics.  These market failures lead to human exploitation.  The Decalogue is God’s word of encouragement in the face of this oppression.

Biblical Context:  the Decalogue and Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy, and the Decalogue that defines its core, stands as a boundary document bracketed by God’s gracious act delivering the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt and the promise of entry into the land.  It is at the eve of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that Moses recounts the law delivered at Mount Horeb following the crossing of the Red Sea.  In this moment, Moses recalls to the people God’s good acts and reminds them of the commands that God has ordained for their own good.  Moses exhorts the Israelites to remember their bondage in Egypt and to keep this context as a permanent memory reinforcing an ethical obligation to care for those unable to care for themselves.  In the Decalogue, love of God relates to generous care of others in the community.

The Decalogue first appears in Exodus (Exodus 20:1-17) following God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.[3]  In Exodus, the Decalogue is ascribed directly to the voice of God speaking from Mount Sinai. (Exodus 19:18-19)  With some modifications the Decalogue appears again in the book of Deuteronomy as Moses recounts the story of Israel near the end of his life. (Deut. 5:6-21) As noted above, the retelling takes on special significance coming just before the movement of the people of Israel into Canaan.  In terms of literary form, each of the two versions of the Decalogue serves as the introduction of a treaty between sovereign and vassal.[4]  In both cases the Decalogue itself serves to communicate the defining principles of the covenantal agreement:  God’s relationship as sovereign; and the required human response.  The Decalogue is more typical of apodictic or absolute law.[5]  The ordinances that follow describe specific cases and may be more characteristic of casuistic or conditional law.  Therefore, within the treaty framework, the Decalogue uses a list of ten exhortations to convey the absolute principles that provide a foundation for the more specific law that follows.

The fact that all human action takes on a moral dimension becomes clear in the progression of language in the Decalogue from Exodus to Deuteronomy.  Though very little material changed in Moses’ retelling, the elaboration of the original Exodus version greatly deepens the meaning of the Deuteronomic retelling.  The admonition to remember the indignities of slavery coupled with a challenge to think about state of mind vastly increases the responsibility of those who submit to this covenant.  God will judge our heart, and God calls us to be compassionate and faithful.

Relevant Economic Concepts

The fallenness of human nature is a theological understanding that explains the pervasive and persisted threat of wicked human behavior.  Narrowly defined, the discipline of economics is not structured to restrain the potential for damage if human nature is not restrained by faithful submission to God’s commandments.  Rather, the discipline of economics can be viewed as a tool set that is conducive to productive activity.  Such coordinated work can produce both wealth and unintended side-effects.  It is this duality that is of concern.  We hear of jargon such as “efficient allocation of resources,” “efficient production,” and “equitable distribution.”  These concepts bear the promise of opportunity and the threat of oppression, depending on the values that one uses to evaluate the issues.  For example, the efficiency of productive processes promise more goods at a lower price, but there are major implications for the quality of life of the congregation.

Economics is typically defined as the study of the production and distribution of goods and services.[6]  This encompasses much of human endeavor.  Three useful questions in approaching the detail of this seemingly simple topic are:

  • What goods and services is society to produce?
  • How are these products to be produced?
  • How are these products to be distributed?

A simple way of thinking about these issues is to imagine a bakery.  This week we are allocated a set portion of ingredients.  From these inputs, we must decide what variety of baked goods will best satisfy our needs.  The term, resource allocation, is the decision of what to produce with limited resources.  We may decide to allocate all or part of our scarce ingredients to make a single large pie.  The issue of allocative efficiency raises the question of how well our decision-making processes reflect the actual needs of the affected community.  We would say that the choice of making a single large pie demonstrates allocative efficiency, if this output best meets the needs of the community the bake shop serves.

Once the resources have been allocated to producing a particular set of goods and services, the economic concern is to maximize output for each unit of input.  The goal of productive efficiency is to identify the process that minimizes waste and maximizes the desired output per unit of input.  In the case of the pie, achieving maximum productive efficiency means finding a way to make the pie that minimizes the use of scarce inputs and yields the largest pie possible.

To understand the implications of market decisions, we return to the analogy of the pie shop.  Once the pie has cooled, we must divide and distribute it.  Linked to questions of resource allocation and productive efficiency is the issue of how the output will be distributed to the members of the community.  It is important to bear in mind that allocation, production, and distribution are intimately linked.  For example, the decision to build 100 Rolls Royces rather than 10,000 Toyotas is certainly an issue of resource allocation, but it also has implications as to who will receive a new car this year.  Likewise, a market-based system for allocating resources implies that those with more income have more votes about what will be produced and more resources with which to purchase output.

Consumerism as Idolatry

Obsession with consumption leads some to seek material wealth at the expense of others.  In economic terms, both resources and output are allocated to serve the wants of some at the expense of the needs of others.  Thus, the continual efforts to boost demand for products leads to an idolatry that distorts human relationships.  The Oxford Declaration presents the fundamental flaw that distorts the market process:  “Neglect of the poor often flows from greed.  Furthermore, the obsessive or careless pursuit of material goods is one of the most destructive idolatries in human history (Ephesians 5:5).”[7]  The idolatry flowing from materialism means that the “market system can… cause people to think that ultimate meaning is found in the accumulation of more goods.”[8]  The market fails because individual purchases do not reflect the actual needs of the populace, but instead reflect demand pumped up by the economic process itself.  The condemnation of idolatry to which the Oxford Declaration refers has it roots in the first and second commandments.  The failure of both individuals and the community to honor humanity is captured powerfully in the commandments regarding God’s primacy and the prohibition on the worship of idols.

The first commandment of the Decalogue provides the theological bedrock for the entire covenant document by making clear the relationship between God and the people of Israel.  God recognizes a direct connection with the people of Israel as demonstrated by God’s delivery of Israel from Egypt. (Exodus 1-4, 20:2, Deut 5:6)  Because of this link, God requires the absolute loyalty of God’s people.  The people are to “have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, Deut. 5:7)  Israel is to serve only God and no other.  The first commandment thus names the sovereign, recalls the history of God’s generosity, and establishes God’s right to claim allegiance.

Closely related to the expression of absolute sovereignty in the first commandment is a set of proscriptions against idol worship in the second commandment. (Exodus 20:4-5, Deut. 5:8-9)  To Moses, and the Deuteronomic editor, the prohibition against idol worship was a critical commandment.  Between receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai and recounting them near the end of his life, Moses watched his congregation suffer the result of separation from God, a separation exemplified by the Golden Calf incident. (Exodus 32:1-35, 33:1-3)  The passage may also foreshadow the effects of later idolatry.  The splitting of the two kingdoms after the death of Solomon is related to the widespread worship of Canaanite idols. (I Kings 11:1-13)  The text of the Decalogue which refers to punishing the children for the iniquity of their parents (Exodus 20:5-6, Deut. 5:9-10) can be seen as either prescience or an editorial addition intended to explain later misfortunes.  The fact that Moses strengthens the prohibition against idol worship in the Deuteronomic retelling just prior to Israel’s entry into Canaan underscores the threat to right worship in the land of Canaan.  The presence of this second commandment prohibiting idol worship clearly underscores God’s primacy as deity for Israel and the danger of competing native religions.

God calls us to respond with the totality of our being to the gracious offer of steadfast love exemplified by the Exodus event.  The worship of idols was vilified because such activity represented less than total allegiance and obedience to the Almighty God.  The idols of Moses’ day were made of wood and represented the deities of Canaan and her neighbors.  Just as the Golden Calf seemed to be an attractive symbol of personal potential to the rebellious Israelites, citizens of a modern state face superficially attractive alternatives to God’s rule.  Worshipping at the altar of personal achievement and conspicuous consumption is no less idolatrous than bowing before the image of a bull.  Consumerism constitutes a pervasive form of secular worship.  By orienting one’s life toward obtaining the means to consume clearly distracts from contemplation of God and from service to one’s neighbor.

Consumerism as Covetousness

The final commandment, essentially a command to avoid desire for worldly things, adds an important dimension to the more defined prohibitions against specific human transgressions. (Exodus 20:17, Deut. 5:21)   This commandment issues a warning against covetousness as a state of mind that expands the commandments from merely prohibiting the acts of murder, adultery, stealing, or lying.  The prohibition against covetousness deepens the ethical demands of the Decalogue by including a dimension of expanded moral reasoning.  This focus is intensified in Moses’ final retelling of the law.  The Deuteronomic version puts additional emphasis on sexual restraint by separating out the ban on coveting the wife of another. (Deut 5:21)  Thus, the Decalogue sternly requires us to examine our motivations.  To maintain a right relationship with the sovereign, we must focus on serving God, not on the unrighteous pursuit of selfish objectives.

The idolatry of consumerism thus leads the adherent to even greater distance from God.  Those obsessed with material gain begin to desire the possessions of others.  This orientation toward acquisitiveness without regard for consequences to others marks the descent into covetousness.  The destructiveness of such a selfish orientation extends well beyond the immediate tragedy of Cain and Abel or the exploitation of African-Americans under slavery.  There is a more covert manifestation of this sociopathic greed.  As commercial processes reach across national boundaries, it is possible to separate systematically the consumption of products from the sometimes brutal condition in which they are created.  The Oxford Declaration notes that “In many parts of the world… millions of people—including children—are often overworked simply to meet their basic survival needs.  Meanwhile, especially in economically developed nations, many overwork to satisfy their desire for status.”[9]  Though hidden, this covetous taking of the dignity and even the life of workers in less economically developed countries is abomination against the ordinances of God set down in Deuteronomy.  In economic terms it is a question of inequitable distribution and resource allocation.  Production of luxury goods for consumption abroad at wages below the level required for survival highlights the consumption of one group of people at the expense of the other.

Productive Efficiency and Affliction

The search for more efficient methods of production has both benefits and drawbacks.  At the far extreme, treating humans as mere inputs can have disturbingly dehumanizing and destructive results.  One of the most powerful innovations of the Industrial Revolution is the differentiation of labor.  By breaking down productive processes into smaller repetitive tasks, management can maximize material throughput and thereby reduce labor costs.  Positive economics has raised the pursuit of productive efficiency to a science.  The gains to society from less costly goods and services has been enormous.  But such productivity gains do not always come without cost.  Microeconomics identifies human beings as productive inputs like coal or plastic or machinery.  This ordering draws the criticism of the Oxford Declaration.  The Declaration states, “capitalism encourages forces and attitudes that are decidedly non-Christian.  One such attitude is the treatment of workers as simply costs or productive inputs, without recognition of their humanity.”[10]  The document recognizes the unique position of the human race and the need to protect and nurture the members of the human community even in the face of the productive processes that deliver great bounty.

Creation, Work, and Human Value

Even though the rebellious nature of humanity can reduce work to meaningless toil, God’s plan intends a more satisfying lot.  The framers of the  Oxford Declaration build their understanding of human effort upon a creation theology that accords God the unique role of creator and sustainer of the physical universe.  This affirms both God’s transcendent power and the immanent care for creation:

In the freedom of God’s eternal love, by the word of God’s omnipotent power… God gave being to the world and to human being which live in it.  God pronounced the whole creation good.  For its continuing existence creation is dependent on God.  The same God who created it is present in it, and giving it bountiful life (Psalm 104:29)[11]

Moving between Genesis and the Psalmist, the Oxford Declaration extends the continuing activity of God to the agency of humankind:  “As Genesis 2:5 suggests, God and human beings are co-laborers in the task of preserving creation.”[12]  The human responsibility for management of creation falls within narrow limits.[13]  The purpose of creation is to glorify God:  “The greatness of creation—both human and non-human—exists to glorify its Creator.”[14]  God intends human beings for work, and work is intended to glorify God:

Work belongs to the very purpose for which God originally made human beings.  In Genesis 1:26-28, we read that God created human beings in his image “in order to have dominion over … all the earth.”  Similarly Genesis 2:15 tells us that God created Adam and placed him in the garden of Eden to work in it, to “till it and keep it.”  As human beings fulfil this mandate, they glorify God.  Though fallen, as human beings “go forth to their work” (Psalm 104:23) they fulfil an original purpose of the Creator for human existence.[15]

The creation of human beings in the image of God is even more poignant as we begin to consider the distortions of work in a fallen world.  Being created in the image of God affords every human being an elevated status and a higher responsibility:  “since human beings are created in the image of God for community and not simply as isolated individuals (Genesis 1:28), they are to exercise dominion in a way that is responsible to the need so of the total human family, including future generations.”[16]  Further, this status and responsibility has important implications for how human beings fit into productive structures.  The Oxford Declaration states broadly that “persons created in the image of God must not become mere accessories of machines.”[17]

The Fall and Work

This expression of God’s lovingkindness forms a bulwark against the distortion of sin.  This is in response to the fallen nature of humanity which transforms the nature of work.  Although human beings retain their mandate to work, their activity in a fallen world bears the stamp of the collective and personal distance from God’s purposes. [18]  Despite this distortion, dignity of humanity created in God’s image remains.  This has profound implications.  Our fallen natures should not interfere with acknowledging the full worth of every human being as a creation in the image of God:

People should never be treated in their work as mere means.  We must resist the tendency to treat workers merely as costs or labour inputs, a tendency evident in both rural and urban societies, but especially where industrial and post-industrial methods of production are applied. [19]

However, the reality for the majority of humankind falls short of this ideal.  Although an understanding of the worth of human beings as created in the image of God should preclude the worst forms of exploitation, such is not the case, both in ancient Israel, and in modern times.  The text of the Oxford Declaration decries the dehumanizing conditions that describe the typical sweatshop:

For most people work is an arduous good.  Many workers suffer greatly under the burden of work.  In some situations people work long hours for low pay, working conditions that are appalling, contracts are non-existent, sexual harassment occurs, trade union representation is not allowed, health and safety regulations are flouted.  These things occur throughout the world whatever the economic system.  The word “exploitation” has a strong and immediate meaning in such situations.  The God of the Bible condemns exploitation and oppression.  God’s liberation of the Israelites from their oppression served as a paradigm of how God’s people should behave toward workers in their midst (Leviticus 25:39-55).[20]

Clearly, the working conditions in sweatshops violate the principle that human beings are worthy of a level of dignity afforded by being created in the image of God.  Moving from a biblical theology of creation to the ethical requirements of the Decalogue strengthens the sense of God’s continuing care for humanity.  The Sabbath commandment reflects God’s response to the fallen nature of human beings.  By affirming the need for rest, God provides a hedge against the worst abuses of human servitude.

Sabbath and Employment  Relationships

At that pivotal moment in Israel’s history, with slavery in Egypt behind them and the fulfillment of God’s promise in Canaan, God speaks through Moses to offer a word of loving caution.  God knows the fallen, rebellious nature of God’s people.  The Decalogue and the ordinances that follow are intended to orient the heart of the Israelites to a way of living consonant with God’s best purposes.  The Sabbath commandment exemplifies the care that God has for God’s creation.

The fourth commandment calls all humanity to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest. (Exodus 20:8-10, Deut. 5:12-14)  Comparing the versions from Exodus and Deuteronomy reveals that substantial editing has occurred with important theological implications.  In both versions of the Decalogue, the Sabbath is to be observed by all:  old and young; male and female; native, slave and alien.  However, in the retelling, Moses abandons Genesis 1 (Exodus 20:11) as the justifying text for observing the Sabbath.  Instead, Moses calls upon God’s people to remember that “you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought you out from there….” (Deut. 5:15)  This passage juxtaposes Israel’s experience of slavery in Egypt with the requirement that Sabbath rest should extend to slaves and aliens.  This reminder deepens the ethos of egalitarianism and care for the disadvantaged.  The themes of charity and justice resonate in the chapters that follow.  For example, the Deuteronomic text describes the Lord as one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves strangers, providing them with food and clothing.” (Deut. 10:18)   Moses continues, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19)

With its origins in both the stories of creation and the Exodus, the Sabbath command rides on strong normative imagery.  By commanding all creation to rest, God makes an injunction against the worst practices of the human taskmaster:

The first parts of the Bible tells us that God rested after creating the universe (Genesis 2:2-3).  The sequence of work and rest that we see in God’s activity is a pattern of human beings. In that the Sabbath commandment interrupted work with regular periods of rest, it liberates human beings from enslavement to work.  The Sabbath erects a fence around human productive activity and serves to protect both human and non-human creation.  Human beings have, therefore, both a right and an obligation to rest.[21]

The economic community that framed the Oxford Declaration sees the Sabbath commandment as a guarantee of sustenance to all who will labor on their own behalf.  Simply put, God ordains that all who work should receive as living wage:  “Those who cannot meet their basic needs without having to forego leisure can be encouraged by the reality of their right to rest.  The right to rest implies the corresponding right to sustenance for all those who are willing to work “six days a week (Exodus 20:9)”[22]  In this observation, we see the full weight of the Pentateuch, from the story of creation to the giving of the law, as it speaks to economic processes.  Creation in the image of God, prohibitions against covetousness, the exhortation to a day of rest are poignantly relevant to the economics of labor, and the conditions of workers worldwide.


In the course of this paper, we are challenged first to accept the linkage between economics and ethical requirements.  In the second motion, we see that God’s interaction with humanity in the Exodus event and the Sinai covenant reflects the continuing care of the divine sovereign.  The restatement in Deuteronomy of these defining moments for Israel dramatizes how God anticipates human limitations and provides a means for a fallen humanity to overcome the separation that sin engenders.  We see that God’s program for human beings in the Decalogue is a way for humanity to return to the heritage of being created in the image of God.  Using economic modes of analysis deepens the impact of our understanding that God provides for us, even to overcome our fallen nature.  Though we are separated by centuries and cultural context from the Wilderness generation, this exercise shows the continuity of our shared human shortcomings and the commitment of a loving God to bridge the separation caused by our sinfulness.

[1] Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 7.

[2] Amartya Sen, “Money and Value,” Economics and Philosophy, 9 (1993), 212.

[3] To provide relevant background, previous analysis for OT 101 has been incorporated into this text.

[4]  Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1986),


[5] Anderson, 98.

[6] This line of analysis is a portion of my contribution to an unpublished group project, An Analysis of Contemporary Church Statements on Economics, for Dr. Jose Miguez-Bonino in his course, Theology and Economics:  The Ecumenical Debate at PTS in Fall of 1995.  I acknowledge gratefully of the editorial assistance of Mereides Delgado, Bruce T. Grady, R. Paul Lasley, Michael Nelson, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Reeves.

[7] Max Stackhouse (ed.), “The Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics,” in On Moral Business:  Classical and Contemporary Resources for Ethics in Economic Life (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1995), 477.

[8] Stackhouse, 481.

[9] Stackhouse, 477.

[10] Stackhouse, 481.

[11] Stackhouse, 473.

[12] Stackhouse, 475.

[13] Stackhouse, 473. “God the Creator and Redeemer is the ultimate owner.  “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1)  But God has entrusted the earth to human beings to be responsible for it on God’s behalf.  They should work as God’s stewards in the creative, faithful management of the world, recognizing that they are responsible to God for all they do with world and to the world.”

[14] Stackhouse, 473.

[15] Stackhouse, 475.

[16] Stackhouse, 474.

[17] Stackhouse, 474.

[18] Stackhouse, 476. “Sin makes work an ambiguous reality.  It is both a noble expression of human creation in the image of God, and because of the curse, a painful testimony to human estrangement from God.  Whether human beings are tilling the soil in agrarian societies, or operating high-tech machinery in information societies, they work under the shadow of death, and experience struggle and frustration in work (Genesis 3:17-19).”

[19] Stackhouse, 476.

[20] Stackhouse, 476.

[21] Stackhouse, 477.

[22] Stackhouse, 477.

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The Suffering God: The Feminist Hermeneutic of Elizabeth Johnson

In the book, She Who Is, Elizabeth Johnson challenges the idea of God separated from human suffering.  To do so Johnson frees us from the rational constructs foundational to classical theology.  Ideas of immutability, impassibility and classical theodicy fall to a relational model flowing from an understanding of God’s acts of solidarity with humanity in history.  Johnson bases this analysis on a feminist hermeneutic challenging patriarchal language.  Johnson rejects the idolatry of using exclusively masculine language to speak about God and proposes feminine alternatives.  The book reviews the classical and scholastic roots of masculine God language and recounts some of the social, psychological, and spiritual damage that flows from creating an idol of God by using solely male terms.  The book then builds a revised and inclusive language for describing God’s activity in the world.

Johnson presents an alternative to classical theological constructs that are unable to reconcile a God with a depth of pathos in connection with the suffering of humans in a fallen world.  Johnson presents a loving God that feels the suffering of humanity.  By contrast, classical theology operates from a center of neo-platonic ideals which are violated by such indignities as response or feeling.  According to this view, if human suffering has an impact on God, God is influenced by another and therefore not omnipotent and not God.

Johnson’s hermeneutic for interpreting both the Old and New Testament is a point of entry for understanding what is at stake theologically.  Johnson adopts the context of a faith community responding to a God whose liberating action throughout history affirms the struggle against sexism and oppression.  The God of the Exodus, in continuity with Jesus as God incarnate, provides the saving model of a God intimately related to God’s people.  The Bible in this context provides female metaphors for expanding this liberating project.

Johnson points to Wisdom literature as an important source of female God images.  Johnson goes to this tradition, especially Proverbs and Sirach to explore a feminine representation of God’s interaction with the world.  Sophia-Wisdom is an interactive agent conveying God’s concern for the weak and God’s compassion for those in distress.  Johnson develops this theme extensively and concludes: “The wisdom literature, then, celebrates God’s gracious goodness in creating and sustaining the world and in electing and saving Israel, and does so in imagery that presents the divine presence in the female gestalt of divine Sophia.”   Johnson’s analysis shows that the Sophia-Wisdom figure resonates with the full range of God’s activities in solidarity with humanity.

As Johnson builds toward the ethos of a suffering God, she connects Wisdom to the empathetic figure of Christ.  Johnson draws the parallels between the God of Wisdom and the Word or divine Logos as God in the Gospel of John.  Johnson presents the Christ of the Fourth Gospel as an embodiment of divine Wisdom.”   Johnson affirms the continuity of this tradition:

Christ crucified, the Sophia of God.  Here is the transvaluation of values so connected with the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus: divine Sophia is here manifest not in glorious deeds or esoteric doctrine, but in God’s solidarity with the one who suffers.  While seeming to be weak and defeated, the personal Wisdom of God is in fact the source of life.

Jesus Christ thus represents a tangible and powerful presence reflecting the empathy God has for us.  The power of Christ’s appearance is that he suffered with us.  God suffered in solidarity with humanity.

For Johnson, the three persons of the Trinity instead represent how God has chosen to become involved through creation and care, through incarnation and suffering alongside God’s people, and through an animate and pervasive interaction with those who might listen.  For Johnson, God is intensely involved with creation to the point of feeling pain with us and among us.

Throughout She Who Is, Johnson portrays Wisdom as the God of history, encouraging the good as well as comforting the victims.  God provides a model of empathy with humanity and struggling against dehumanizing situations.  As we move forward this model encourages us to feel in common with the oppressed and to work for their liberation:

Speaking about God’s suffering can also help by strengthening human responsibility in the face of suffering.  The impassible God models a dispassionate, apathic attitude that influences community ideals.  Conversely the suffering God reorders the human ideal toward compassionate solidarity.  The logic of the symbol disclosed that if God’s compassionate love struggles against destructive forces, then being in alliance with God calls for a similar praxis….  Especially in situations of massive suffering due to injustice, such a symbol makes clear that God is to be found on the side of those who are oppressed, as a challenge to oppressors be they individuals or structures.  The close correlation between divine pathos and prophetic act in the Bible indicates that responsible action for resistance, correction, and healing are among the truest expressions of living faith.

By liberating the language of God from the classical tradition, Johnson creates the space for an image of God consistent with prophetic denunciation of oppression, and suffering.  God imaged as Sophia shows in this way God’s concern, care, and love that endures to this day and forever.  In response we are called to hearken for this trumpet call, to be agents in solidarity with the suffering and against the instrumentalities.

Johnson’s feminist hermeneutic exemplifies the concerns of Preferential Option for the Poor. Johnson’s work reclaims a biblical witness that resonates with the plight of the oppressed.  Here biblical exegesis demonstrates that idea of God suffering in solidarity with humanity reflects a seamless interpretation of the Pentateuch, Prophetic, Wisdom and Gospel literature.  Clearly, God is involved in an ongoing historical project of relationship with humanity.

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Ecclesiastes and Economics: Creating Capabilities for Joy

Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9

(Seow translation)

 5             8If you see oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be surprised over the matter–for an arrogant one is above an arrogant one, (and) arrogant ones have watched over them all.  9 But the advantage of the land is in its provision, that is, if the field is cultivated for provision. 10 One who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor whoever loves abundance with yield.  This, too is vanity.  11 When bounty increases, those who consume it increase.  But what accomplishment do those who possess it have, except what their eyes see?  12 The sleep of the worker is pleasant, whether that one consumes little or much; but as for the surfeit of the rich, it does not allow them to sleep. 

13 There is a sickening tragedy that I have observed under the sun:  wealth was hoarded by one who possessed it, to his own hurt.  14 That is, that wealth disappeared in a terrible venture.  Then he sired a son, but there was nothing in his possession.  15 Just as he came forth from the womb of his mother, so he will return naked, going as he came.  And he will carry away nothing for his toil that he may bring in his hand.  16 Yes, this is a sickening tragedy; exactly as he came, so he will go.  But what advantage is there for him that he should toil for wind?  17 Indeed, all his days he consumes in darkness and much vexation, sickness and rage.

18 Here is what I have observed that is good: that it is appropriate (for people) to eat, drink, and enjoy good in all their toil which they toil under the sun, during the few days of their lives, which God has given them, for this is their portion.  19 Indeed to all people, God has given wealth and assets, and has authorized them to partake of them, to take their portion, and to have pleasure in their toil.  This is the gift of God. 

20 Indeed, they should not much call to mind the days of their lives, for God gives a preoccupation through the joy of their hearts!  6 1-2 This is the evil that I have observed under the sun–and it is great upon humanity–that there is a person to whom God gives wealth, assets, and plenty, so that there is nothing lacking of all that is desired.  Yet God does not authorize that one to partake of them, but rather, a stranger consumes it.  This is vanity, and it is a terrible sickness.

3 If a man sires a hundred and lives many years, but he complains that the days of his years will come to pass and his appetite is not satisfied with bounty, and also, (that) he has no burial site, I say the stillborn child is better than he.  4 For it came in vanity and in darkness it goes, an in darkness its name will be covered.  5 Even though it has not seen the sun, and has no awareness, it has more rest than he.  6 If he had lived a thousand years twice over, but good he does not see–does not everyone go to one place?

7 All the toil of people is for their mouths, and yet they are not filled.  8 Indeed, what advantage does the wise have over the fool?  What is there for the afflicted that they should know to go along with life.  9 What the eyes see is better than the passing of life.  This, too, is a vanity and pursuit of wind.


This essay is intended to exemplify the opportunities for scholarship at the frontier of ethics, economics, and biblical theology.  To frame the discussion, the paper will refer to a selection from the writings of Qohelet, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Jewish Tanak or Christian Old Testament.  These writings will be brought into dialogue with the provocative work of Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University.  To give voice to the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes, we will turn to Choon-Leong Seow, Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary who has recently completed a new commentary on Ecclesiastes for the Anchor Bible commentary series.  Though Qohelet and Amartya Sen are separated by more than two millennia of intellectual development, their core message is remarkably consonant:  both recognize that individual greed, and the economic and ethical systems that fail to control unbridled self-interest, condemn the poor to lives of unnecessary affliction.

Both Seow and Sen raise important questions about how those without wealth fare in capitalist economies.  A comparison of Ecclesiastes and Sen’s program for reintegrating ethics into mainline economic theory reveals surprisingly similar analyses of the problem.  Sen and Seow both argue a consequentialist position based on a nuanced reinterpretation of the base texts of their respective disciplines.  When comprehensively interpreted, the selected text in Ecclesiastes shows a concerned author, Qohelet, exhorting the middle classes of his day to consider the effect of their acquisitiveness.  Similarly, Sen adopts a focus on the poorest in society as the basis for a critical reevaluation of how modern market economies deploy their scarce resources.  In both cases, the central question is:  to what extent do the self-perceived needs of the upwardly mobile dominate the reduced expectations of the poorest of the poor?

At a fundamental level, greed or, in economic idiom, the individual acting in his or her own self-interest, provides the motivation for productivity in the dynamic engine of wealth creation we call capitalism.  At the core of this mechanism is the profit motive.  Individuals and groups, acting in their own self-interest, seek to fulfill the wants and needs of consumers, also acting rationally in their own self-interest.  This essay will show how Amartya Sen questions key assumptions that form part of the logical basis for relying on the coherence, and, more importantly, the beneficence of actual market economies.  A passage from Ecclesiastes will help focus this discussion.  We will reevaluate whether the assumption that rational decision-making is, of necessity, self-seeking.  The dialogue will point to the conclusion that:  not only is it illogical to assume that rational decisions must be self-seeking, those who persist in pursing a narrow course of utility maximization create barriers to their own fulfillment while harming others.  Sen proposes an alternative method of evaluating human need that eliminates the distortions of utility-based analysis.

The Cultural Context of Qohelet’s Israel

Seow combines a knowledge of ancient Near Eastern languages and cultures with a methodology for interpreting the biblical text in social, economic, and mythological terms.  From a biblical perspective this paper introduces multiple strains of scholarship to inform the interpretation.  Amartya Sen, an economist noted for his work in welfare economics and social choice theory, attempts to bridge the gap between empirical economics, normative economic analysis (welfare economics), and ethics.  By bringing the work of the two scholars to focus on the issue of biblical economic ethics, I mean to point to the manifold opportunities for interdisciplinary integration.

Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, addresses an ancient context similar in important ways to that of the middle class in a laissez faire capitalist economy.  In the introduction to his new translation and commentary of Ecclesiastes, Seow describes the flourishing commercial economy in Palestine during the fifth century BCE.  Economic pressures, such as a heavy tax burden and high interest rates, kept the middle classes on edge.[1]  Social mobility cut both ways.  For example, successful investments could raise even a slave to great wealth.  But the volatility of the economy could also dissipate whole fortunes, as well.  In the context of a commercial culture, Qohelet often adopts the language of business to communicate his truth to his audience.[2]  It is, therefore, not surprising that the wisdom he shares with his middle class audience resonates with the twentieth century scholarship of Amartya Sen whose work spans the frontiers of ethics and economics.  In this essay I will use Seow’s exegesis of Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9 as a touchstone to explore the application of Amartya Sen’s work in welfare economics.

The passage draws a sharp distinction between the simple God-given pleasure of work and existence and the gnawing hunger of selfish acquisition.  Seow describes how the issues of Qohelet’s day speak to citizens in any market economy.[3]  The answer to the suffering caused by such a preoccupation is simple to Qohelet.  God endorses the pleasure of working, of simple sustenance, and of a joyful experience of the heart.  Wealth becomes a burden because it engenders the appetite and the ambition for further acquisition that are insatiable.  The irony is that the poor peasant may be more satisfied than the wealthy social climber.  Seow’s commentary makes clear that the passage deals with the insatiable desires of humanity.  In response to the disappointment of desires unfulfilled, Qohelet encourages the reader to find joy in living in the present.[4]

Economics:  A House Divided

Sen’s work bridges the gap between welfare economics, a discipline focusing on analyzing the systemic and social implications of economic policy, and positive economics, the division of economics that adopts an “engineering” approach to understanding more mechanistic or technical aspects of market processes.  Whereas, the engineering methodology focuses on quantifiable relationships typically denominated in monetary terms, the discipline of welfare economics must stretch to describe the aspirations as well as the material needs of a population.  Sen observes that, by ignoring normative or ethical considerations, positive economics is incomplete and therefore may yield distorted analysis.  Sen affirms the great value of the engineering approach for explaining economic behavior and enhancing productivity.  However, Sen argues forcefully that a reintegration of ethical considerations into mainstream economics is necessary for generating a more realistic model of human behavior.

The doubt over the moral legitimacy of economic analysis raises the question of the reasonableness of a key assumption in modern economic thinking:  that individuals are assumed to be rational with rationality being defined as operating solely on the basis of self-interest.  Sen asserts that, while the profit motive does function as described in the economic literature, it is wrong to ascribe self-interest or greed as the sole motivating force for human activity.[5]  Sen demonstrates that economic actors need not be viewed as irrational if they look to factors beyond narrow economic self-interest to influence decisions:

Why should it be uniquely rational to pursue one’s own self-interest to the exclusion of everything else?  It may not, of course, be at all absurd to claim that maximization of self-interest is not irrational, at least not necessarily so, but to argue that anything other than maximizing self-interest must be rational seems extraordinary.[6]

By challenging the orthodox definition of a key assumption for economics, Sen points to a broader field of dialogue that requires positive economics to interact more realistically with the world it seeks to explain.  This expanded view of rationality opens the door for a two-way dialogue between modern economics and ethical systems of analysis.

In a number of his publications, one of Sen’s key themes is that normative or value-based analysis must play a role in determining the shape of economic and social structures.  Sen notes that the historical development of economics as a discipline is characterized by an ethical branch exemplified by Aristotle and an “engineering” branch more related to finance.  Sen rejects the tendency of positive economics to focus on empirical methodologies at the expense of properly evaluating important ethical considerations.[7]

Although Sen’s work is considerably broader than this single issue, I shall focus on the question of determining human ends as an illustration of the distorting effect that a strictly engineering focus brings to economic and political decision-making.  Both Sen and Qohelet argue against the assumption driving most modern economies, that well-being is measured solely by success at capturing and controlling material wealth.  Affirming such a preference is a decision that is beyond the narrow realm of economic calculation.  This is why Sen seeks to expand economic discourse to include ethical discussion.[8]   Sen seeks a broader process for determining the ends of society.  Only after properly assessing the goals is it proper to develop the rules of behavior:  teleology precedes deontology.[9]  In economic terms, what you want determines what you measure, and what you measure determines what you get.  Sen asks us to decide what we want, and suggests that we choose to provide opportunity to the truly destitute among us.  Ultimately, Sen’s approach supports the understanding that economics must be paired with normative considerations in order to address the full spectrum of human aspirations.

Qohelet:  Greed Distorts Existential Perception of Well-being

Seow’s work with the book of Ecclesiastes suggests how biblical text can supply pertinent ethical perspectives.  At the core of the passage from Ecclesiastes is the message that greed, or, more precisely, an unchecked and open-ended desire for wealth and consumption, causes painful distortions both personally and socially.  The existential pain experienced by the greedy results from their own uncontrolled appetite.  Qohelet speaks of the paradoxical situation in which every increase in wealth leads to an increase in appetite.  This is an unending cycle.  However, those who amass wealth have no real accomplishment because they cannot actually consume all that they have gained (Eccles. 5:11).  Qohelet’s words serve as a warning to those who might attempt to garner wealth.  Fortune alone cannot satisfy the inner needs of the human being.  Those who seek happiness in wealth are bound to remain unsatisfied.  Thus, acquiring wealth becomes an absurd goal.

The passage describes situations in which those obsessed with the acquisition and maintenance of wealth ultimately cause themselves to suffer.  Even those who seem to have everything can become unable to find joy in their existence.  For example, verse 6:3-6 describes a man who has it all —wealth, children, longevity—but still complains of dissatisfaction.[10]  These lines describe the deep irony of those who cannot enjoy what they already possess.  Just as the man described in verses 5:13-17 hoards wealth and loses it, the rich man who cannot enjoy life is no better off than a “stillborn child (Eccles. 6:3-6).” Like the stillborn child, the ungrateful rich man never experiences what life has to offer.  The living, those who can enjoy the simple pleasures of existence, may be better off than the wealthy who cannot.[11]  It is the egoistic pursuit of wealth that creates a destructive lifestyle.  Being driven to succeed ironically impoverishes the worker or executive, robbing the person of the ability to enjoy life.  The addiction to capturing wealth leaves the aspiring impoverished and afflicted.

The ultimate perspective comes in our finitude.  Each human is destined to die, and the material successes of this life have no meaning in the grave.  Qohelet’s language is vivid:

Just as he came forth from the womb of his mother, so he will return naked, going as he came.  And he will carry away nothing for his toil that he may bring in his hand.  Yes, this is a sickening tragedy; exactly as he came, so he will go.  But what advantage is there for him that he should toil for wind?  Indeed, all his days he consumes in darkness and much vexation, sickness and rage (Eccles. 5:15-17).

This quotation captures the full depth of emptiness facing the person caught up in seeking worldly wealth.  Even the wealthy are born naked, with nothing, and they will die with nothing, no matter what they might gain in their lifetimes.[12]  The tragedy is that we leave this world as we come and that our toiling for gain is futile.  So the struggle for material success ultimately guarantees nothing.  What a tragedy that an individual should labor their whole lives for no lasting purposes:  “The gist is the idea that these people, though they are alive, go through life as if they were already dead.  Despite all their wealth and other possessions, they live life in utter darkness.  Unable to enjoy life in the present, they make themselves exceedingly miserable all their lives.”[13]  Obsession with transitory gain leads those who are self-seeking to consume in disappointment, frustration, malediction, and rage.  By striving for wealth and power, the individual destroys the quality of his or her own daily existence.

Economic Dialogue:  Maximizers Unhappy

The pursuit of wealth has its consequences.  Amartya Sen characterizes the pathology of homo economicus:  “The cultivation of achievement-oriented motivation in the modern society can indeed produce psychological and social barriers to personal happiness.  Motivational uptightness can be a serious impediment to enjoying life.”[14]  The economic discipline has not fully contended with the question of appetite, that is, discerning the difference between wants and needs.  Sen highlights this oversight:  “The agony of the maximizer may be less known to the economist than the novelist, but it is no less important for that reason.  Indeed, the neglect of serious psychological issues in traditional economics is truly remarkable, and it is only recently that this lacuna has begun to get some response….”[15]  This phenomenon deserves greater attention not only because of the damage that the pathologically selfish inflict on themselves, but also because of the damage these behaviors cause to the larger community.

Qohelet:  Existential Pleasure

Qohelet offers an alternative to the self-destructive path of material obsession.  Ultimately, the basis for a satisfying existence is much simpler than the struggle to meet endless wants and needs.  A comparison between the quality of life for the rich man and the laborer provides an illustration of this distinction.  Qohelet compares the sleep of the worker with the insomnia brought on by super-abundance (Eccles. 5:12).  The worker sleeps well despite a low level of material achievement, but the super-abundance of the wealthy causes only physical discomfort from overeating, worry over investments, and lost sleep.[16]  Measured in basic human terms, the individual requires little.  That is to say that life’s true necessities and simple pleasures cost relatively little.  By contrast, in their striving for more wealth, the rich lose sight of these satisfactions and instead focus on the harried process of acquiring more wealth, an objective that cannot ultimately give satisfaction.  This is the tragedy:  those who pursue after wealth can never achieve the end to which they are striving.

If obsession with consumption and the acquisition of wealth is a sickening tragedy, what is the proper way of life?  According to Qohelet, there is a much simpler way to happiness.  Pleasure can be found in enjoying life, regardless of one’s position. What is good is to partake of simple creaturely pleasures.  During our lifetime, we are to eat, to drink, and to enjoy the good of our work (Eccles. 5:19).  These simple pleasures are God’s portion for each of us.  God grants the opportunity to work and to sustain oneself.  Qohelet would have his audience aspire to this simpler, sustaining existence.

The core of the overall passage from Ecclesiastes is verse 5:20 in which Qohelet reminds the reader that God is the author of joy in the heart of the individual.  This message has two-fold relevance.  First, it speaks to motivation.  Though we may try to gain satisfaction through material achievement, joy comes from God, not from material wealth.  Second, the phrase reflects Qohelet’s concern that people are obsessed with worrying about their futures.[17]  Thus, labor should not be undertaken in anxiety and concern for the future.  Instead, God provides an existential joyfulness that should be the focus of human activity.  God, the Creator, and author of love itself has given us a great gift.  This outpouring of life sustains us through the misfortunes of this life and creates its own reward.  In gratitude for even the simple gifts of this life, our debt is to focus not on the disappointments but to find the joy of everyday existence and to reflect it to others.  We are challenged to find the joy and freedom of living in the moment and partaking in the simple pleasures of life lived.

Economic Dialogue:  Utilities and Capabilities

The fact that an inability to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor produces an even greater appetite lies at the core of Sen’s criticism of using economic analysis without ethical content for social decision-making.  The is exemplified by Sen’s discussion of utilitarianism, an analytical framework that apportions social benefits according to the value or utility that individuals have for income.  Sen questions the underlying assumptions of utilitarianism which “lead to focusing on utilities as a standard of value, which is what traditional welfare economics tends to do.  But confining attention to utilities amounts to seeing people in a highly limited way.  Happiness or desire fulfillment represents only one aspect of human existence.”[18]  Such a focus on happiness can overstate the needs of the affluent and understate the needs of the poor.  The heightened appetites of the wealthy and the depressed aspirations of the poor distort any utility-based analysis.  The view that those who enjoy income more therefore deserve more income, leads to perverse outcomes.  Just as the wealthy are conditioned to desire more comfort,

The hopeless underdog loses the courage to desire a better deal and learns to take pleasure in small mercies.  The deprivations appear muffled and muted in the metric of utilities…. Since economic development has much to do with making structural changes to conquer the inequities and exploitations that characterize the world, the importance of questioning a utilitarian method of accounting cannot be overemphasized.[19]

Sen’s concerns appear to mirror those of Qohelet.  To the extent that the wealthy follow their insatiable appetites, there is an inappropriate investment of resources in support of the present and future consumption of the affluent.  Sen provides an example of how utility-based analysis might deprive those with limited capabilities:

[A]ll welfarist theories agree that if two persons have identical utility features then they must have the same claims to a share of a given total.  But suppose one of them is really much more deprived in terms of what he can do, e.g., he is blind or disabled in some way, and his utility features match that of the other only because he has a much more cheerful and resilient temperament…. A person, as we have argued before, is more than a location of utilities, and it does matter what kind of deal he is getting.[20]

Thus, Sen is highly critical of analytical systems that fail to distinguish between the artificial needs of wealthy aficionados and the frustrated aspirations of those bordering on starvation.  This is the failure of modern economics, that its use of utility, often dollar denominated, to measure personal well-being can lead to absurd allocations of wealth and income.[21]

In mediating the demands of the wealthy connoisseur and the struggling laborer, Qohelet uses the criteria of meeting basic needs rather than extravagant wishes as the metric for judging a good state of affairs.  In a self-proclaimed improvement on John Rawls’ Difference Principle, Sen proposes a way of measuring need that avoids the ironic outcome of lavishing income on the wealthy because they need more stimulation.  Moving away from utility models implicit in modern economics, Sen points to “the requirement that the goodness of any set of individual utilities must be judged entirely by the value of its least member, that is by the utility level of the worst-off individual….”[22]  The example of the physically handicapped demonstrates why a narrow requirement of fairness in distribution is not necessarily fair:  “The cripple’s entitlement to more income arises in this view not from his low utility level, nor from any lower availability of primary goods, but from the deprivation of the ability to move about unless he has more income or more specialized goods (for example, vehicles for the disabled) at his command.”[23]

By focusing on capabilities, Sen evaluates what goods and services the members of a population need in order to function at a minimal level.  Income transfer, and other programs, are therefore aimed at generating minimum capabilities for the individual.  Sen defines basic capabilities as the ability “to meet nutritional requirements, to escape avoidable disease, to be sheltered, to be clothed, to be able to travel, and to be educated.”[24]  A capabilities model, like the Rawlsian Difference Principle, avoids putting the self-perceived needs of the wealthy over the more modest needs of the least well-off in society.  Sen’s affirmation of basic abilities addresses the question of existential capabilities, a fundament basis for taking advantage of life’s opportunities and experiencing the good.  Sen’s criticism is systemic and points to economic systems of valuation, such as Gross National Product (GNP), that focus on aggregate measures of material well-being while diverting the focus from the needs of the most challenged in society.[25]  Qohelet’s position would challenge any analytical distortion that focuses on consumer output while neglecting such basic needs as meeting the minimal caloric requirements of the poor — that is helping humans avoid starvation.

Qohelet:  Condemnation and Hope

For Qohelet, the negative effects of greed are felt not only by the individual but also by the larger society.  Qohelet links the insatiability of the rising classes with the oppression of the poor.  The opening portion of the Ecclesiastes passage paints a picture of systemic oppression flowing from selfish action:  “If you see oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be surprised over the matter–for an arrogant one is above an arrogant one, (and) arrogant ones have watched over them all (Eccles. 5:8).” The arrogant ones likely derive their positions from ambitious use of wealth and power.  An unjust and oppressive society results from a social structure characterized by individuals who hold themselves above others.

Several aspects of Seow’s commentary support the conclusion that the source of oppression is the abuse of both economic and political power.  When Qohelet writes about of the arrogant or ambitious ones, he “probably refers to anyone who is of higher socio-economic or political status than the ordinary person, but not necessarily a bureaucrat.  They are arrogant in their wealth or power.”[26]  Further, Seow’s analysis of verse 5:8 describes the aggressive competition for advantage in a volatile socio-economic competition:

The point is that there are such haughty people everywhere trying to climb the socio-economic ladder, who have no regard for the poor and lowly.  No matter how high they get, however, there are always people who are higher than they, looking down at them.  And so they cannot be content till they get to the next rung of the ladder.[27]

Ambition and self-interest working in and through the economic and political systems lead to the oppression of much of the population, especially the poor.  Such a result is not a surprise as self-seeking people compete to achieve greater wealth.  In the pyramid of those struggling to best one another, the rules of the game reflect the ethical standard of greed exemplified by the “arrogant ones [who] have watched over them all (5.8).”  Like Sen, Qohelet questions this exaltation of egoistic greed.

The wisdom of Qohelet is no passive observation of an unfortunate status quo.  In his word choice, Qohelet dramatically and fundamentally condemns the destructiveness of those people whose ravenous appetites lead them to oppress others while in search of gain as described in verses 5:8-11 and 6:7-9.  It is in the analysis of the first and final sections of this passage that the Seow demonstrates the powerful implication of the language and metaphors adopted by the biblical author.

Seow’s method could be described as remythologizing.  This term should not be construed as meaning that Seow views the Old Testament as merely an accretion of ancient Near Eastern legend.  For Seow, the authors of the Old Testament often responded to divine inspiration by adopting and adapting the language and imagery of their cultural context to add depth to the telling of their sacred story.  Seow interprets the phrase, “All the toil of people is for their mouths, and yet they are not filled (Eccles 6:7)”, to refer to those who are never satisfied with their lot.[28]  The underlying Hebrew word, “gullet” that is translated into “mouth,” suggests the depth of the condemnation to come:

The larger literary context demands, therefore, that one interprets 6.7 as referring to the insatiability of people, specifically the rich.  The ‘gullet’ of these people is at issue.  Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to ignore the mythological background of the text.  In Canaanite mythology, deified Death is portrayed as an insatiable monster with an opened mouth, one lip reaching the netherworld, the other reaching the sky, and its tongue reaching the stars…. Death waits impatiently to take its victims into its gullet…. In short, the language of Death’s insatiability is not infrequently appropriated to describe the insatiability of human oppressors.  This is the background of Qohelet’s words.  The insatiable rich are that monstrous and deadly![29]

This deeper context reveals the cosmological battle at play.  The boundless appetite of those who aspire to wealth is a malevolent force threatening to victimize others.  Seow characterizes Qohelet’s concern as social in nature:

The implication is what Qohelet is saying is that the insatiability of the rich is not only self-destructive, it poses dangers to others who fall prey to their greed…. personal greed has social consequences.  The author is thinking of the oppressive rich, who will gobble up anything and anyone.  Qohelet elevates the issue to a higher plain so that discontentment is seen to have consequences not only for individuals, but for society at large, even for the cosmos.  Greed endangers the world.  It endangers life itself.[30]

Mindful of the danger of greed, Qohelet offers the same advice to all, rich and poor, wise and foolish:  enjoy what God has given you.  Of course, the application is different for rich and poor.  Qohelet exhorts the wealthy to find enjoyment in the simpler experiences and thereby leave behind the destructive exploitation of monomaniacal entrepreneurship.  For the poor, oppressed by these robber barons, Qohelet offers a word of encouragement that ultimately the rich have no advantage and that joy in life can be found in non-materialist, that is, existential pleasures.[31]


In this discussion, it is important to remember that Ecclesiastes is directed not only at the poor but also at the middle class.  It is a mistake, therefore, to assert that Qohelet is satisfied with a status quo that merely encourages the afflicted to enjoy their suffering.  To those who might choose to join the contest fighting for wealth at the expense of others, the message is to reevaluate what the value of wealth, indeed of life, truly is.  In the range from freely-given joy to bitter striving for material gain, we are faced with keeping an account of how individuals experience their lives.  How do we quantify or describe the value of a worker’s night of rest?  How does this compare with the dissatisfaction an executive feels with a new luxury car?  These questions suggest the need for non-utilitarian methods of comparing and evaluating individual preferences.

The fact that utility functions fail to describe human needs accurately is as true today in Amartya Sen’s formulation as it was more than 2000 years ago.  Ironically, those who pursue selfish ends condemn themselves to disappointing lives of insatiable desires.  The selfish individual creates his or her own punishment in the prison of their uncontrolled appetites.  The problem is the ripples of distortion that emanate from the selfish actions of such individuals.  Qohelet calls for those who might pursue this course of self-destruction and social piracy instead to seek joy in the moment.  Sen provides an alternative for assessing the true needs for the poorest members of a society.  Both suggest a means for achieving the same result:  creating the capability for all people, and especially the poorest among us, to enjoy life.


Sen, Amartya.  “The Profit Motive,” Lloyd Bank Annual Review: The Market on Trial, Vol. 2 (Christopher Johnson, ed.).  London: Pinter Publishers, 1989.

Sen, Amartya.  “Money and Value.” Economics and Philosophy, 9 (1993), 203-227.

Sen, Amartya.  On Ethics and Economics.  Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1987.

Sen, Amartya.  Resources, Values and Development.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1984.

Seow, Choon-Leong.  Ecclesiastes:  A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible Commentary Series).  New York:  Doubleday, 1997.

[1] Choon-Leong Seow, Ecclesiastes:  A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Commentary Series (New York:  Doubleday, 1997), 28.  “Qohelet’s audience does not seem secure with what they have.  Rather, they are constantly toiling to acquire more and more, and they are worried about the possibility of losing what they have.  The do not appear to be among the most wealthy of society.  They are paranoid about disparaging remarks that their subordinates may be making about them (7:21).  At the same time, themselves are making disparaging remarks about their bosses—the rich and powerful (10:20).  The have subordinates, but they themselves are subordinate to others.  The are people who are socially and economically in the middle.  Qohelet distinguishes them from the nobles, princes, and the rich (10:16-20), but he never implies they are poor.  The recipients of Qohelet’s instructions are commoners—smallholders, homesteaders, and people of the middle classes…. They are ordinary citizens facing the vagaries of a rapidly changing world.  They are people of the middle classes who are trying to scale the social-economic pyramid without sliding back into poverty.  They are people caught between the impulse to protect and conserve what they have (see 5:13-17 [Eng vv 12-16]; 11:1-2) and the desire to get rich (4:4-6)  They are a people caught between the opportunities and risks of a volatile economy.”

[2] Seow, 22.  “Indeed Qohelet sounds like a pragmatic entrepreneur ever concerned with the ‘bottom line.’  Here, again, he is borrowing from the vocabulary of his generation to make his point.”

[3] Seow, 22.  “Those greedy consumers cannot get rest, either because of their indigestion (overconsumption of food) or anxiety about their investments (overconsumption of wealth).  While Qohelet clearly draws on timeless wisdom teachings, he also addresses people facing a new world of money and finance.  Hence he uses the vocabulary of his day to subvert the preoccupations of his contemporaries….  The people whom Qohelet addressed were preoccupied with the acquisition of money; they believed in its power, thinking that ‘money answers everything’….”

[4] Seow, 222-224.

[5] Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1987), 19.  “It is worth commenting — at the risk of labouring in the obvious — that to deny that people always behave in an exclusively self-interested way is not the same as asserting that they always act selflessly….. The real issue is whether is a plurality of motivations, or whether self-interest alone drives human motivation.”

[6] Sen (1987), 15.

[7] Sen (1987), 3.  “It is, in fact, arguable that economics has two rather different origins, both related to politics, but related in rather different ways, concerned respectively with ‘ethics’, on the one hand, and with what may be called ‘engineering’, on the other.  The ethics-related tradition goes back at least to Aristotle.  At the very beginning of  the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle relates the subject of economics to human ends, relating to its concern with wealth…. ‘The life of money making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.’  Economics relates ultimately to the study of ethics and that of politics….”

[8] Sen (1987), 3-4.  “There is no scope in all of this for dissociating the study of economics from that of ethics and political philosophy.  In particular, it is worth noting here that in this approach there are two central issues that are particularly foundational for economics.  First there is the problem of human motivation related to the broadly ethical question ‘How should one live?’…. The second issue concerns the judgement of social achievement…. This ethics-related view of social achievement cannot stop short at some arbitrary point like satisfying ‘efficiency’.”

[9] Amartya Sen, “Money and Value.” Economics and Philosophy, 9 (1993), 206.  “In modern ethics, the distinction between ‘deontological’ and ‘consequentialist’ approaches is frequently made.  Deontological approaches give the concept of duty a primary and dominant position.  In contrast, consequentialist approaches derive duty and right actions on the basis of their respective consequences.  They start off by asking what our goals are, what makes outcomes good, and so on, and then go on to derive our duties from the goal-based evaluation of consequences.”

[10] Seow, 211. “It indicates the sheer ridiculousness of the fool’s endless quarrels and complaints… when he seems to have everything, including abundant wealth and progeny, as well as longevity, he complains about the days to come, he is not satisfied with all the good that he has, and he is already worried about a proper burial.”

[11] Seow, 226. “At the same time, however, the living are also capable of ‘seeing good,’ enjoying what is present.  The living have rest (see 4:6).  Thus the living may be better off, but they may be worse off depending how they see and know.  It’s all a matter of perspective, as it were…. For Qohelet, life consists of both good and bad.  It is inevitable that one will observe the evil that exists (4:1-3), but one can also ‘see good,” that is, enjoy what one has in the present.”

[12] Seow, 221.  Seow interprets: “It is a ‘sickening tragedy’ that people come and go, that human life span is limited.  People do not bring anything with them with them when they enter the world, nor can they take anything with them when they leave.  What is gained in a lifetime matters only in the lifetime.  So there is no advantage in trying to hold on to what one has, for the gain is as elusive and unpredictable as wind….”

[13] Seow, 222.

[14] Amartya Sen, “The Profit Motive,” Lloyd Bank Annual Review: The Market on Trial, Vol. 2, Christopher Johnson, ed.  (London: Pinter Publishers, 1989.), 113.

[15] Sen (1989), 113.

[16] Seow, 206.  “Some take it to mean surfeit of food (satiety), while others interpret it to refer to the surfeit of wealth (abundance).  Both meanings are possible and, indeed, probably intended by the author.  The rich have consumed so much food that they are not able to sleep, presumably because of their physical discomfort: that is, their fullness will not permit them to sleep.  At the same time, they have so much wealth invested that they cannot sleep because they worry too much.  Their material abundance will not permit them to sleep.”

[17] Seow, 225-26.

[18] Amartya Sen, Resources, Values and Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 511-12.

[19] Sen (1984), 512.

[20] Sen (1984), 318.

[21] Sen (1987), 45-46.  “To judge the well-being of a person exclusively in the metric of happiness and desire-fulfillment has some obvious limitations.  The limitations are particularly damaging in the context of interpersonal comparisons of well-being, since the extent of happiness reflects how the social ‘deal’ seems in comparison with that.  A person who has had a life of misfortune, with very little opportunities, and rather little hope, may be more easily reconciled to deprivations than others reared in more affluent circumstances.  The metric of happiness may, therefore, distort the extent of deprivation, in a specific and biased way.  The hopeless beggar, the precarious ladles labourer, the dominated housewife, the hardened unemployed or the over-exhausted coolie may all take pleasures in small mercies, and manage to suppress intense suffering for the necessity of survival, but it would be ethically deeply mistaken to attach a correspondingly small value to the loss of their well-being because of this survival strategy.”

[22] Sen (1984), 278.

[23] Sen (1984), 281.

[24] Sen (1984), 337.

[25] Sen (1984), 528.  “The generation of capabilities relates to entitlements, in the form of command over goods and services.  Economic analysis based on such gross variables as food availability per head, or GNP per head, can be very misleading in understanding starvation and hunger, and deprivation in general.”

[26] Seow, 202-3.

[27] Seow, 218.

[28] Seow, 226.

[29] Seow, 226-27.

[30] Seow, 227.

[31] Seow, 227-28.  “It is appropriate, therefore, that Qohelet mentions the afflicted in this context about the insatiability of the oppressive rich.  Qohelet’s dilemma here is ostensibly with the conduct of those who are oppressed: if the wise has no advantage over fools, why should the afflicted learn how to cope with life?  The answer is given… ‘what the eyes see is better than the passing of life.’  The meaning of the first half of the saying is clear enough from the usage of the idiom elsewhere; it has to do with enjoying the pleasures of the moment.  Ironically, Qohelet’s response to the poor here is the same as what he said to the rich in 5:11 (Heb v 10).  To the rich he intimates that there is no accomplishment, except in what is present and enjoyable.  To the poor he suggests that there is no advantage for anyone, although what is present and enjoyable is relatively good.”

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Strategy for the New Economy: Empathy, Collaboration and Diversity

People who have been following me since the pre-launch days of Google+ might remember the episode back in September when Robert Scoble brought a lot of heat on himself because of his interactions with Christa Laser over “Booberday.” My reaction to Scoble’s boorishness was motivated by the concern that the pre-launch community of Google+ must be welcoming to women. The whole episode got me thinking about the authenticity of my online persona. This post below is a crystallization of that self-understanding. In a profound way, the incident sparked me to commit to being myself online. Here is my original post:

Strategy for the New Economy: Empathy, Collaboration and Diversity

Insulting people to their face or in a post is not only bad manners, it also not in your rational self-interest. When Christa Laser or anyone expresses their discomfort, we need to pause and listen.

Dismissing the heartfelt concerns of others as invalid is not OK. That’s harassment. So is flaming people we have never met with messages and images that are known to be offensive. Such acts of thoughtlessness are destructive of the human fabric that sustains us on this spinning globe. This behavior is also bad business strategy.

It is time to climb to higher ground.

We need to be a welcoming community. Adolescent humor can be funny to some. It can seem innocent, but it is no less cutting. This is a tough one. Where do we draw the line? Do we ban sexual references in the public stream of Google+? Our values for personal freedom argue strongly against such a measure. Still, this is a community of human beings, and harassment is not acceptable.

Public discourse must regain the higher ground. Our value for tolerance, our moral imagination, and especially our shared humanity leads us to extend empathy for all we encounter. There is no outside. We are all in this together.

Sure, it is your constitutional right to behave thoughtlessly. But what has it earned you?

Collaboration is the dominant strategy.

Let’s step way back and look at the big picture. Playing nice is the best strategy. This is a great example of how we can do well by doing good. Empathy and respect cultivate trust. Trust enables collaboration. And collaboration drives the twin engines of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Empathy and trust drive value creation.

Empathy and dialogue reflect the best of what it is to be human. In an open forum, respect balances freedom. I may not agree with someone, but I owe everyone an empathetic hearing and a respectful dialogue. If anyone is offended, I need to take that seriously, and not dismiss these concerns. By listening and sharing empathetically, we gain mutual understanding and build trust.

Trust is the platform on which collaboration is built, and collaboration drives innovation and entrepreneurship in the new economy. The information age is about collaboratively sharing our capabilities with each other – our talent, knowledge, insight, know-how and can-do. Diversity is not a liability; it is strength. To succeed we need the best and broadest set of perspectives the world has to offer. In the new competition, the most capable and collaborative team wins.

Diversity is the secret sauce.

It is a massive strategic error to insult others because this repels talent and poisons cooperation. Creating a culture of collaboration is mission-critical. Developing a diverse, world-class talent pool is not just the right thing to do; maximizing human capital is the only way to achieve a durable competitive advantage.

We are building a new culture, and we are part of a global community. We are all human, and we share a planet. We need to learn to listen to each other. Insulting people is destructive. Even when we disagree, we need to be respectful. We need to feel each others’ pain.

We are all in this together.

I am a Hispanic male. My African-American friends use the word “pass” for people who look Caucasian but have African blood. I have European and Latino blood. You could say I pass for Caucasian. Because of the light color of my skin and my suburban accent, I have heard unguarded comments from people I would otherwise respect sharing how they really feel about Hispanics. Women experience this kind of demeaning talk much more often than I have, and to their faces, without shame.

Take comfort, our day has come.

So, to those of us who share a heritage on the underside of history: take comfort, our day has come. The leveling force of the internet has transformed the nature of opportunity itself. The quality of our minds and the force of our will to succeed now dominates well-born privilege and genetic chance.

We must support each other. We have the right to not to hire, not to do business with people who mean us harm. This is good business because in the long run such attitudes destroy value. But it would be wrong to characterize anyone by a lapse of judgment. Reach out a hand to those who have ridiculed you. If anyone can rise to the challenge of living in the equality of mutual respect, they too deserve the opportunity to participate in cooperative and collaborative communities.

We are not enablers.

But we are under no obligation to enable this behavior. We can pass over bigots, racists and misogynists in the hiring process and use performance reviews to weed them out. It may be painful, but we can afford to let go of great projects that include anti-social people on the team. Save your talent for people you respect and who respect you.

As far as I know, being Hispanic has never earned me any benefit from affirmative action. I have suspected that my full name has limited my prospects. Similarly, a recruiter once advised me to eliminate references to my faith on my resume because the secular world might see me as narrow-minded and pass me over in hiring decisions.

Will you join me?

No more. I will not hide. From this day forth, I am what I am. My name is Jason Hurtado Daniels. I am a Hispanic and a Christian. Will you join me in building a tolerant, collaborative community?

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2012 is the New 1984

NDAA and Homeland Security searching your internet posts is unconstitutional and a fundamental attack on your liberty.

There is no legal protection between you speaking out about the Federal government, and you spending the rest of your life in jail.

The software for implementing a totalitarian state in the US is already in place. Skynet has already been built and became self-aware in 2011. We did not lose our liberty due to invasion. We allowed Congress and the President to sign it away.

Federal law authorizes Homeland Security to track the internet posts of all American citizens, and this system has already been deployed. Sifting through every blog post or comment you make is the same as having an FBI assigned to every US citizen with the sole task of reading and evaluating everything you post on the internet. This is done without a warrant or any indication of illegal behavior and constitutes illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This application of technology represents the systematic implementation of a police state. This is troubling enough without the power now assigned to the US military under the NDAA to detain US citizens residing in the US without any charge or legal review.

The circle is now complete. An algorithmic system of textual analysis have been deployed by Homeland Security and tasked with reading everything you post on the internet. If this system flags you as a potential threat, the US military acting outside of all legal channels, has power under NDAA to capture you, jail you and keep you forever without providing any possibility of appeal to the civilian legal system. This is an absolute challenge to your first amendment liberties. You must now ask yourself, is it possible that what I am saying in any way might flag me for indefinite incarceration by the United States military. If you are risk-averse as an American citizen, even one who is innocent of any crime, you will never challenge any aspect of US government policy. The bedrock of the constitutional system of government in the United States is free speech exercised as a check on government tyranny. We have lost our way, and the Constitution has been completely circumvented. Today, we are not free.

Let me demonstrate just how dangerous the combination of comprehensive surveillance of internet posts and the authorization under NDAA for the US military to jail US citizens without legal review. Suppose Homeland Security incorrectly flags you as threat and an extralegal military chain of analysis goes around the courts and local police. You are picked up my military police and you are jailed. For you there is no Constitution; there are no courts. You will not be charged, tried, and convicted, so you cannot appeal the Constitutionality of the arrest. There will be no test of the legality of the NDAA or the validity of any so-called evidence. This is a clear violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the US Constitution. This is the Catch-22. We can’t challenge this law until someone is harmed by it, and we can’t challenge the law after someone is harmed by it.

Both Democrats and Republicans in the United States House and the Senate brought together majorities to approve the NDAA. President Obama signed into law. In so doing, they completed the circle and fitted in the last, crucial tool for denying Americans the right to speak without fear about the shortcomings of our government. The Executive Branch through the Department of Homeland Security and the military now has absolute power to suppress dissent. The mere existence of this mechanism — even if it has not yet been used – is corrosive to freedom. This is a violation of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. The effective threat of disappearing without a trace represents the end of liberty. We now live under martial law. The United States is a police state.

The only solution is the immediate repeal of all enabling legislation. Target all politicians who voted for these laws for recall and vote these fascists out of office.


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