I have learned that I don’t lend money to family or friends. Nor do I typically do other kinds of business with family or friends. I will give money to family or friends in need when I have it and they need it. I will offer and gladly accept help on projects and tasks from family and friends. I will share living space and vehicles with family or friends when such sharing is needed or beneficial. But I find that economic factors change the relationship. Family can easily become estranged. Friends are no longer friends.
Loving and taking are hard to fit into the same relationship. I think that’s a significant part of the Lukan Sermon on the Plain. When ownership, rent, repayment, and other financial obligations have become part of my close relationships, I find that those relationships suffer. Other people may well do better at this. I may be deficient in this regard. But I can’t fit loving and taking into the same relationship.
I wonder if the Lukan community was struggling with this reality as well. The economic dynamics of the community seem to be on full display, here in the Sermon on the Plain and elsewhere in the Lukan account. Matching love for love, good for good, and perhaps dollar for dollar does not reflect the character of God. And it likely results in tensions and fractures in the community. Lending to someone with the expectation of profit changes the debtor from a person into a profit center. The only credit in that transaction will be financial.
Loving and taking don’t fit into the same relationship. Loving regards others as an end in themselves, expecting nothing in return. Taking regards others as means to my ends, expecting something in return. Loving creates relationship rather than obligation. Taking creates obligation rather than relationship. We will see in Acts 4, for example, how a “taking” framework endangers the early Christian community. The offending members, Ananias and Sapphira, are rather forcibly removed (by God) from that community.
Recently, I watched once again the marvelous film, Sweetland. The film is set in Audubon, Minnesota, in the years immediately following World War I. It is a story of immigration and prejudice, of pride and love, of misunderstanding and deep connection. I’d recommend it for any and all.
The film matters here because of one of its subplots. Alvin Frandsen is the happy-go-lucky and hapless neighbor and friend of Olaf Torvik, one of the central characters. Frandsen has trouble keeping up with his mortgage payments, and the local banker threatens to foreclose. Torvik becomes part of the conversation and asserts that “banking and farming don’t mix.” Torvik means that the values upon which his understanding of farming are based are incommensurable with the values of a ruthless, for-profit system.
Frandsen’s situation does not improve, and the farm is put up for auction. Torvik happens upon the auction and is enraged by the callous inhumanity of a system that will put a husband, wife, and nine children out of their home for the sake of the mortgage. Again he tells Harmo, the moneylender in the community, that “banking and farming don’t mix.” Loving and taking are hard to fit into the same relationship.
Torvik outbids the wealthier residents in the county and ends up with a farm he cannot afford. The money is due in twenty-four hours. It appears that all hope is lost. However, at the auction, other members of the community were present and just as outraged at the proceedings. Many of these community members belonged to the same Lutheran church as Frandsen and Torvik.
Later that night, Torvik hears a knock at the door. He expects that this is the sheriff coming to evict him as well. Instead, it is the pastor of the congregation and the men from the auction. They have collected enough money to cover the cost of the farm and hand the pile of cash to Torvik. “We kept back enough for the winter and next year’s seed,” the leader of the group says. Both farms are saved.
The cash was not a loan or an investment. It was a gift that maintained the wholeness of the community. In that setting, banking and community didn’t mix. Loving and taking don’t fit into the same relationship. The members of the community chose Frandsen and his family over economic rules and necessities.
I wonder if something like the Sweetland narrative is at work in the Lukan community. I don’t think the Sermon on the Plain is a formula for running a western-style banking operation in the twenty-first century. But perhaps it is more of an economic model for healthy community than our modern, neoliberal, capitalist, self-interested assumptions are willing to allow. The sermon is an invitation to at least consider other ways of organizing our relationships with one another.
I participate quite happily in kiva.org. It’s a micro-lending program for small businesspeople in developing countries and economically marginalized communities in North America. Loan recipients repay the loans as they build their business. I’m always glad to receive notice that a loan has been repaid and the money can be circulated again. It takes so little in that system to continue to build capital resources for those who can make the best use of those resources.
It’s a system where it is possible to loan without expecting a return. While I’m not building relationships with the recipients personally, I can be confident that community is being built along with the small businesses. Microfinancing is an example of loving rather than taking. The result is that people’s lives (including mine) are improved.
The Habitat for Humanity system has a similar dynamic. Participants commit to hundreds of hours of sweat equity as they acquire their new homes. Volunteers provide additional human resources as well as donations of materials and other services. Donors help to increase the funding for such projects. The recipients often become volunteers themselves in other projects. The interest collected helps to sustain the system and fund more construction. And community grows.
I would commend Table Grace Café, one of the segments of Table Grace Ministries here in Omaha, Nebraska. It is one of a number of “pay as you can” cafes and restaurants around the country. Patrons pay what they can for excellent and nutritious food. Patrons can volunteer in the café in lieu of paying and/or as a way to gain valuable work experience and references for future employment. Other patrons may choose to volunteer and to pay more as another way to “pay it forward,” to love rather than take.
Loving and taking don’t mix. The economic dimension of Luke 6:32-38 is obvious. The language of lending for profit is contrasted to the command to love our enemies (verses 34-35). Instead of lending in order to receive as much again (which is what “sinners” do), love your enemies, do good, and lend with no expectation of making a profit. That’s what it looks like to be children of the Most High.
“And do not keep on judging, lest you also might be judged; and do not keep on condemning, lest you also might be condemned. Release [from an obligation] and you (all) shall also be released [from an obligation]” (Luke 6:27-28, my translation).
The NRSV translates “apoluo” as “forgive.” That’s not inaccurate, but it is not the primary lexical use of the word. That’s why I used the more generic translation of “release from an obligation.” The literal breakdown of the word is something like “to set loose from.” The word can be used to describe the release of a prisoner from captivity, such a Barabbas. It can be used to describe what happens when a husband divorces a wife – he “sends her away.”
The word can also be used to describe the cancellation of debts. The BAGD lexicon specifies this as the meaning to be assigned to the word in Luke 6:37 – “pardon (your debtors) and you will be pardoned” (page 96). It is interesting, perhaps, that when the Lukan author reports the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11, the author uses a different verb to pray for forgiveness of sins as we forgive those who sin against us. The cancellation of debts promised in the Jubilee Year reference in Luke 4 is here given concrete application in the community.
Loving and taking don’t mix. The purpose for which God created human love is to produce unity, not usefulness. When we love the way God loves, we don’t focus on what we can get. Nor do we focus on what we can give. When we love the way God loves, we focus on what we can become together. Martin Luther puts it this way: “Therefore sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”
This is not a model that will make shareholders happy. I don’t expect that this way of life together will become a reality short of the Kin(g)dom of God. But disciples are called to model this way of life together in a world that needs a new imagination. Just to stir the pot a bit more…what would happen if we just stopped printing church financial reports altogether?
I’m retired. I can afford to be crazy. But what if our church annual reports were 70 percent about ministry and 30 percent about money rather than the other way around?
References and Resources
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Butler, Octavia. https://legacy.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010830.octaviabutleressay.html. A Scott Simon interview with Butler related to this essay can be found at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1128335.
Carter, Warren. “Love your enemies.” Word and World 28.1 (2008): 13.
Kirk, Alan. “‘Love Your Enemies,’ the Golden Rule, and Ancient Reciprocity (Luke 6:27-35).” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 122, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2003, pp. 667–86, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268071.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.
Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Zondervan, 2005.