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The Christian Faith and the Financial Crisis
Part One: The Christian Faith (1)


"When buying or selling you can hardly avoid sin. So, in either case, be sure you lose a little in the transaction."

                                              Evagrius the Solitary: On asceticism and stillness

I want to begin with a story which I think illustrates an approach to economic questions that is faithful to the teachings of Jesus. It concerns one of the desert fathers, Abba Agathon. Like many of the hermits of the desert Agathon supported himself with a simple craft that would not distract his attention too much from the work of prayer and communion with God. He would then bring his wares to the market, a dangerous moment in the life of a hermit seeking freedom from the passions, when trade was done by bargaining and therefore was a competition of self interest between buyer and seller.

On this occasion as Agathon was bringing his wares to the market he met a crippled man, a man without the use of his legs. 'Take me to the town', the crippled man said. So Agathon loaded him on his back and carried him to town. When they arrived, the man asked Agathon to set him down where he was selling his wares. When he had made his first sale the man asked him how much he had received. Agathon told him. 'Buy me a cake', the man said. Which Agathon did. When he had sold the second the man again asked him how much he had received and again Agathon told him. 'Buy me this' he was told, and he did so and the third time it was 'Buy me that' and he did so, and so on through the day. Every time Agathon sold something the man asked him for something equivalent to the price he received and Agathon gave it to him. When the day was done the crippled man asked to be brought back to where Agathon had found him. So Agathon again took him on his back and carried him back. When he had set him down the man turned round and said 'Agathon, you are full of blessings' revealing himself to be an angel of God sent to test him. (1)

(1) The story can be found in Benedicta Ward (trans): The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p.25

In this story, Agathon does no more than what Jesus tells him to do: 'from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back.' (Luke 6.29)

Jesus is very consistent, and emphatic, on the subject of private property. He has nothing to say in its favour. Most notable is the story of the encounter with the rich young man, Matthew 19, 16-22:

16 And behold, one came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" 17 And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." 18 He said to him, "Which?" And Jesus said, "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 20 The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" 21 Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.

Even the Orthodox Study Bible gags at this in its notes and suggests this was a particular problem Jesus had discerned in this particular young man, not to be taken as a general rule. But that this is not the case can be seen in the reaction of the disciples, who were 'greatly astonished' - 'Who then can be saved?' they ask, a question that would be meaningless if they did not believe that Jesus was laying down a general principle. Jesus replies, giving us some grounds for hope: 'With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.' But Peter then blurts out in his typically impulsive manner, that the disciples have indeed 'left all and followed You.' And though Jesus commends the disciples He uses the occasion to make his already hard saying even harder: 'everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for my sake shall receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life.' (Matt 19.29)

These are among what might be called the commandments of Jesus - the things we have to do if we want to inherit eternal life.

What is the sense of these commandments? Christians believe that Jesus opened the doors to eternal life which had been closed because of Sin. He gave access to the Tree of Life in Paradise which we had lost through eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In order to profit from the gift of eternal life however we have to make a transition from the 'old man' - Adam - to the 'new man' - Christ. The commandments of Christ are the means by which that can be done. The old man, Adam, is dominated by the passions - anger, pride, lust etc - which have to be overcome if we are to fulfil the 'two greatest commandments': 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and all your mind.' ALL your heart, ALL your soul, ALL your strength, ALL your mind. And 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' (Matt 22.37-40, Luke 10.27). When asked to elaborate on who the neighbour is, He tells the story of the good Samaritan. One of the points of this story is that the 'neighbours' - the Samaritan and the man fallen among thieves - do not know each other. Indeed, as the story goes, they may never have exchanged any words between themselves. The 'neighbour' whom we are to love 'as ourselves', then, is not someone to whom we might owe any obligations of mutual affection - family members or friends: 'If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same' (Luke 6.32-3). And of course the Old Testament commandment to love one's neighbour as oneself is, famously, further extended to refer to loving one's enemies - 'those who hate you ... those who curse you ... those who abuse you' (Luke 6.27).