What is your vision of the good life?
It’s a question that most of us have in the back of our minds at any given time. It’s the kind of life we dream about, the kind of life we work for, but the kind of life that often seems just out of arm’s reach.
It’s a life that, for many, would include financial security, good relationships, the ability to travel, a nice home, etc. It’s the kind of life we imagine that the wealthy or the celebrity might lead—after all, we’re always hearing about how much people make and imagine what their lives might be like.
When we lived in Park City, Utah—one of the wealthiest communities in the US—we got to see what a lot of people thought was the good life: large homes, granite counter tops, celebrity sightings, new cars, skiing every day, parties going on. But it was also a place with a deep underlying sense of despair. People seemed very happy surrounded by their possessions, but probing beneath the surface revealed some real cracks. The divorce rate was quite high, as was the incidence of drug abuse and alcoholism. Of the funerals I did in my seven years there, at least a third of them were for successful adults who committed suicide (none of them church goers). They seemingly had it all, but it turned out not to be enough. They had climbed the ladder of success only to realize that they had propped it against the wrong building.
I loved my time there and loved the church, but it was hard to get some people to see beyond the veneer of success. There was one lady who would come out of church every Sunday morning, particularly a fall Sunday like this one, who would spin around the look at the mountains in their fall colors and say to me, “Isn’t this just heaven?”
I think I startled her one week when I said, “Not yet.”
Our culture tells us that we can have it all; that the good life is just around the corner if we would just do this, or buy this, or own that thing. But is that really the ticket to the good life, the ticket to heaven on earth, or is there another way?
A rich ruler comes to Jesus with that very question on his mind. He has just about everything he could ever want. Like most rich people in the ancient world, he would have come into his money through inheritance and he would have had a mind to maintain it. In those days, people equated wealth with God’s blessing on an individual (and there are still a lot of people who think that way). By every standard, this man was living the good life and seemed to have it all.
But there was something missing—something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. A traveling rabbi was coming through town with a reputation for being pretty wise, so the rich man had his people reach out and schedule an appointment. He wanted to know if this rabbi, this Jesus from Nazareth, could fill in the gap to make his already good life even better and more sustainable for the long haul.
And so, when they were finally face to face, the rich ruler asked Jesus the question that is on the mind of many people even today: “Good Teacher (always good to start with a little flattery), what must I do to obtain eternal life?” We might think he was simply asking for immortality (not a bad thing to ask for) but the term “eternal life” meant much more than to a first century Jew. “Eternal life” wasn’t about the quantity of life but about it’s quality. It’s a question about the secret to the good life, the “abundant life” that Jesus spoke about in John 10:10. To put it another way, the question is about how to have a share in the life of the coming world, the coming kingdom of God.
Jesus sloughs off the complement and then says to the rich ruler, “Well, you know the commandments (the real standard of goodness to a Jew). Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder or steal, don’t lie and honor your parents”—all things a kid raised in a Jewish home would be expected to obey. “Sure,” says the ruler, “I’ve kept all of these since I was a boy.”
“Ah, but there’s one more thing if you really want to have it all,” Jesus says to him. “Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”
That’s a very different definition of “treasure” than the rich man would have conceived. Jesus’ answer doesn’t make any economic sense. The rich man was thinking in terms of trickle down economics, where the rich get richer and the poor get some of the benefit of that, at least in theory. Jesus was telling him to not give a trickle but to flood the market with all of his wealth by giving it away. It’s little wonder that a lot of people like to skip this passage or explain it away—who would make such a bonehead financial decision, and how could it possibly lead to the good life?
But Jesus isn’t interested in sound human economics here. Instead he’s after something we’re calling oikonomics. If economics is about how we invest, exchange, and grow the financial capital we invest to benefit ourselves, oikonomics is about how we invest, exchange, and grow the spiritual capital for God’s kingdom. The Greek word “oikos” gets at this difference. Though we associate it with yogurt today, it’s a word that actually means “household,” or a specific network of relationships that functions as an extended family with a purpose. Jesus redefined oikos when he moved from Nazareth to Capernaum, called his disciples, and told his mom and everyone within earshot, “Who is my family? Those who do the will of God.” Oikonomics thus refers to the way our households invest in the work of God’s kingdom, which is populated by God’s oikos—the whole family of God.
Jesus was inviting the rich ruler to make a different investment—an eternal investment that would lead to abundant, eternal life not only for himself but for others. The commandments were designed to keep people from wrecking the oikos through infidelity, violence, and falsehood, but Jesus takes them a step further and invites the ruler to build up the oikos through investing everything he has and putting things into the proper priority.
This story reminds us that we all have something to invest. In fact, we might say that there are five types of capital we have the opportunity invest every day. There is financial capital, which often leaps to mind first, but we also have relational capital, physical capital, intellectual capital, and spiritual capital to invest. The question is, which of these will be our primary focus and how will the others increase that investment?
For example, most people would probably say that financial capital is their first priority. Our entire economy runs on that assumption. In order for us to have the good life, we need more money. If financial capital is first, however, that means that I will have to sacrifice the other capitals in order to get more. I might take a higher paying job, for example, which I think will lead to better conditions and more opportunities for my family—to the good life. But taking that job requires that I invest more hours in order to make more money, thus I have to sacrifice some of my relational capital by spending less time with my family. I also burn more physical capital because I’m working longer hours and have no time for exercise and I’m exhausted. My intellectual capital suffers because I have no time for creativity or to explore new ideas. And, finally, my spiritual capital becomes an afterthought because I’ve prioritized everything else over service to God’s kingdom.
The rich ruler put financial capital first, thinking that was what would secure the good life for himself. He recognized there was a hole in his life, but he couldn’t let that portfolio go. He became sad because he couldn’t take the step to reprioritize his life. It’s a story that is repeated over and over again in our world. Think of those who become famous and seem to have it all—have you noticed how miserable many of these people are? Their relationships are a mess, they struggle with addiction, they’re exhausted, and most have no relationship with God. Is that the good life? It looks good on the magazine cover, but not in real life. The same goes for lottery winners, who instantly have the capacity to have it all, but soon become miserable—something is still missing.
“It’s very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom,” Jesus tells his disciples. It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.” Sounds harsh, but it’s the reality when financial capital becomes first priority.
Jesus knew that the rich ruler’s primary investment was in financial capital and challenged him to change. It could have easily been a different capital that he had put first—maybe he had a relationship that he invested everything in, or maybe he was obsessed with having the perfect body; maybe he valued academic knowledge over everything else. Any of those capitals would have led Jesus to challenge him, just as he challenges us, to look at our investments.
See, for Jesus, the number one capital in which we are called to invest in spiritual capital—the kind of capital that really leads to eternal life and builds up the oikos. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” Jesus said, “and all these things will be added to you.” Put spiritual capital first, invest in God’s kingdom oikos, and all these other capitals will take their proper place. The good life is only found in God’s kingdom.
This is the capital in which the disciples of Jesus had already invested. Peter pipes up and says, “Look, we left everything we own and followed you.” Peter had gone all in—he left behind his fishing boat, his livelihood, his source of financial capital. He had left his family behind in Capernaum as he wandered around with Jesus. He invested physical capital in traveling on foot with Jesus and intellectual capital in absorbing the teaching of Jesus. He invested all of his other capitals in order to build up the spiritual capital of the kingdom Jesus was bringing in.
It was natural for him to wonder, then, “How will that investment pay off?”
Jesus’ response is the ultimate portfolio. I assure you that anyone who has left house, husband, wife, brothers, sisters, parents, or children because of God’s kingdom will receive many times more in this age and eternal life in the coming age” (v. 29-30). What will this investment in spiritual capital ultimately yield? A greater, stronger, and larger oikos!
Jesus may not call you to physically leave behind your family, but he is calling us to consider how we’re investing in the larger family, the oikos of God’s kingdom. Remember from the last series—this is what we pray for: that God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven, that the gospel would spread and bring more people into that kingdom oikos. In this series we’re going to talk about how we work for what we pray for by investing the capital we have and putting them in the proper order.
Over the next five weeks we will look at each of the capitals in detail, beginning with the most important—spiritual capital. We’ll talk about the benefits and pitfalls of each and how to align them with the work of God’s kingdom. And I’ll invite you to consider how you can invest each of these capitals to build the spiritual capital of the oikos we call Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church.
Breen, Mike and Ben Sternke. Oikonomics: How to Invest in Life’s Five Capitals The Way Jesus Did. 3DM Publishing, 2014.