One of the most jarring literary characters I’ve ever encountered is Prince Mishkin, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterful novel, The Idiot. The story follows the bumbling Mishkin, whom we meet in the first pages fresh out of a sanitarium in Switzerland, as he travels through the elegant parlors of 19th-century St. Petersburg’s aristocracy. To call Mishkin eccentric is an understatement. He’s a descendant of one of Russia’s most prominent noble families, but he doesn’t seem to care about his royal stock. He’s got some money, but he doesn’t care about that, either; he gives it away frivolously pretty much anytime someone asks him to. He’s reckless with his love and affection, too, continually risking abuse by offering himself to people who manipulate him. People are always mocking him — usually behind his back, but sometimes to his face — for his innocence and his naiveté.
Does that sound like anyone you know?
Years later, as Dostoyevsky recounted the origins of the novel in his own words, he said that he had hoped to create what he called a “positively good man.” He later admitted that Mishkin is intended to be read as a Christ figure. The Idiot is a thought experiment, an exercise in imagining what it would be like to encounter Jesus Christ in 19th-century St. Petersburg. I won’t spoil the story for you, but it goes about as well for Mishkin as it did for Jesus in 1st-century Palestine.
Have you ever noticed how strange Jesus is? As Christians, we’ve grown so familiar with him that we hardly notice anymore, but Jesus was constantly alienating his hearers with the bizarre things he said and did. For a start, Jesus seems utterly indifferent to things that we consider important; he doesn’t care whether people like him or not. His family? He can take them or leave them. He’s not particularly interested in a permanent place to live.
Even his own family began to think that he might have a screw loose. In Mark 3, as a crowd is assembling outside of Jesus’ childhood home, his family tries to gently pull him back into the house to keep him from making a scene. They were saying to themselves, Mark tells us, “he is out of his mind.” But perhaps the strangest thing about Jesus, especially when viewed from our cultural context, is his radical teaching on money.
You do not want Jesus as your financial planner. His portfolio isn’t diverse, and it’s especially weak when it comes to real estate holdings (Matthew 8:20). He makes reckless investments. What’s worse, he’s always advising us to make reckless investments which are guaranteed not to make a return; he told his followers to sink their time and energy and money specifically into those who can’t repay (Luke 14:12). He commends an old woman for dropping her whole social security check into the collection plate (Luke 21:1-4).
There are a couple of explanations for this mercurial behavior. Maybe Jesus is The Idiot. Or maybe Jesus knows something we don’t.
Who’s Serving Whom?
Jesus’ radical teachings on money are rooted in a central paradox: We tend to think of money as a servant, but Jesus thought of it as a master. In other words, we think we are using our money but, according to Jesus, it’s much more likely that our money is using us:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).
Jesus personifies money as Mammon — a pagan god of unquenchable consumption and the embodiment of what we might today call commercialism or materialism. While the origins of the Greek term are unclear, “Mammon” is probably related to the Aramaic for “that in which one trusts.” In other words, a god. Jesus doesn’t see money as “neutral,” as we so often do; he sees it as a slave-driver.
“Those who make idols become like them,” says David in Psalm 115. Like any false god, Mammon has incredible power to remake us in its image — to make us cruel and small and tightfisted and paranoid. Theologian Karl Barth once described Mammon as a “lordless power”: a product of human culture that has somehow gotten too powerful for us, escaped our control.1 To put it another way, Mammon is “enchanting.” It casts a spell over us.
Breaking the Spell
“A horrid enchantment” — that’s how British philosopher Thomas Carlyle described Mammon’s grip on England as he mused over the billowing smokestacks of the industrial revolution, which was making some very rich and many very poor. He warned that his nation was growing increasingly “spell-bound” by what he called “the Gospel of Mammon.”2 Jesus, if we have ears to hear, offers a way of breaking the spell, of trading what Eugene McCarraher has called the “misenchantment of Mammon”3 — a corrupted inversion of the good news, a sort of dys-angelion peddling false promises of salvation through accumulation — for a true enchantment with God’s good world. Unlike the false god Mammon, Jesus saw the world not as a place of scarcity but of abundance, teeming with life and beauty.
Jesus is carefree with money in a way that is inconceivable to those of us who scramble each month to pay our mortgage, stash money for retirement, and buy things we want but don’t need. He lives in an almost preposterous trust that the world is positively enchanted, absolutely suffused with the good gifts of the Creator God, whom he called his Father. And his Father isn’t in the business of giving us a serpent when we need a fish or a scorpion when we need an egg (Luke 11:11). “Look at the birds of the air,” says Jesus. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” And what about the lilies of the field? “They neither toil nor spin” (Matthew 6:26, 28).
In these words from the Sermon on the Mount, and in the entire shape of his ministry and mission, Jesus is not simply giving us some ideas for how to be nicer people. He is inviting us into the very life of God, whose nature it is to share himself with others. Jesus is offering a vision of something beyond the Gospel of Mammon, a way of radical freedom through radical sacrifice.
Now the hard part: the way to abundant life, according to Jesus, lies through generosity and gratitude — which require, in literal terms, learning to adopt practices that separate us from our money. “To displace Mammon and dethrone his power,” writes Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, “involves an agenda of hope and love, rejecting the idea that we only value what we measure, or that we hang on to what we have, keeping it from others.”4
“We must help the weak,” says the Apostle Paul in Acts 20:35. Why? Because of the words of the crucified and risen Lord: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” At the core of this saying is one of Jesus’ favorite words: blessed (makarios in Greek). It’s the very same word that Jesus uses in the beatitudes. To be makarios does not mean “blessed” as we’ve come to think of it: enjoying a comfortable life (which we often measure in monetary terms). It means something more interesting than that. It means “filled with the life of God.”
The practices of generosity and gratitude as envisioned by Jesus aren’t just nice things to do, although they are that. And they’re not simply an index of our discipleship, although they are that, too. Generosity and gratitude are ways that we enter into the very life of God. They are practices of divine “trickle-down” economics, where God’s ludicrous abundance showers onto us, overflows the bounds of our narrow self-interest, and cascades into our neighborhoods and communities. Above all, the practices and generosity are a glimpse into a future in which Mammon has been dethroned. It’s a future the prophet Isaiah foresaw long ago, where “everyone who thirsts can come to the waters; and he who has no money” can “come, buy, and eat.” Where all can “come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).
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This post was published November 11, 2020
Ryan serves as theologian-in-residence for Denver Institute for Faith & Work, where he writes and teaches on the integration of faith and work. Alongside his work with Denver Institute, Ryan is an instructor in the Division of Christian Thought at Denver Seminary, where he teaches theology and the history of Christianity, and associate pastor at Foothills Fellowship Church in Littleton. He holds a Th.M. in ecclesiastical history and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has published in the areas of inter-religious dialogue, historical theology, and Christian ethics. Ryan lives with his wife, Adrienne, and their daughter in Lakewood. Most importantly, Ryan is a diehard fan of the Denver Nuggets—and he liked them even when they were terrible.