[The audio for this sermon can be heard here, and the video of the whole service is available on YouTube.]
July 10, 2022: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Luke 10:25-37
Recently I got to spend most of the week between Sundays at Seattle Pacific University’s Center for Faithful Business. I had a research fellowship to spend time at their library, and they have a really unique collection of books on Faith and Business. And I’ll say more about what we did for that week in a moment.
But also there’s this longstanding gathering that’s been happening for years now at Christ Church called the Faith & Business lunch. And we’re on a break for the summer, and I don’t know what it will look like in the Fall exactly yet, but regardless, this has been an important part of my work as the Director of Vocation and of the Vocation Initiative these last three years.
And so the subject of Faith & Business and Faith & Work is especially on my mind, and the Deuteronomy passage for today begins by talking about God’s promise to bless the Israelites with abundant prosperity in all of their undertakings — in their farming and raising of livestock, and raising children, basically their whole economy life and livelihood — which you could call that their business. It’s not only their business, but it certainly includes business. At least by ancient Middle Eastern standards.
Like most churches, we have many members of our congregation working in the marketplace in various capacities. Business itself is the biggest area of employment in our society — and in the world — in terms of both the percentage of people in the labor force and just on the basis of overall economic value that is created by businesses.
And even if you don’t own a business or work for a company, or a corporation of some kind, you are part of the marketplace. As a consumer, at the very least, but often more than that. If you work in government, a non-profit, or even if you’re just the manager of a household budget — even an individual budget – you are a participant and agent of commerce and of exchange that is contributing to and being affected by business, by money, by the economy, by the marketplace.
And God cares about that. God cares about that a lot. God cares about all of it, and how we as the body of Christ, we as the church, as followers of Jesus, spend our money and interact with people in and through the marketplace – in and through business. Every purchase – every decision — can have spiritual and theological weight.
And we see this — this blessing of and concern for economic and commercial activity — in Deuteronomy chapter 30!
So that’s where we’re going to turn for a moment. Let’s pray.
30:9 and the LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors,
30:10 when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Now there may be something about this verse might make us feel a little uncomfortable. It has that sound of a touch of the health and wealth, or prosperity gospel, as though to say that if we just do what God asks, we’ll get what we want.
But the prospect of abundant prosperity is tempered significantly by verse 10. The promised blessing is for those who obey the voice of the Lord and keep the commandments. Verse 10 calls the people to continually return to the Lord with their heart and mind, a deliberate reference to the Shema prayer in Deuteronomy 6 that commands the people to love the Lord with all of one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Which implies as well the love of neighbor as oneself. Jesus ties this command inextricably to the the love of God when asked in Luke 10 what the greatest commandment is. And then we’re given the example in that same chapter of the Good Samaritan as a standard for what this means — someone who gives very sacrificially and at great risk to himself for the sake of a stranger.
And so, for someone who is trying to justify themselves, like this teacher of the law — right, he wants to know, am I off the hook since I’ve so obedient — Jesus provides no justification, does he, for anything conspicuous consumption, chasing after wealth in a world that experiences poverty and pain. You just don’t get any of that here.
And this parable is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all that Jesus has to say about wealth and prosperity:
E.g., Jesus in Luke 6:24-25
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.”
Or later in Luke 18, with the exchange between Jesus and the rich young ruler. When the man went away sad after Jesus instructed him to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor,
24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Ok, but this rich young ruler is a lot like the teacher of the law in Luke 10 who asks, who Is my neighbor? He’s not asking, “how do I seek the Lord with all of my heart?” No, he’s asking, something like, what is the minimum I need to do to get God off my back. To go on with my life the way I want.
So while there is great tension throughout the Bible between warnings about wealth and blessings in the form of wealth, there seems to also be consistency when it comes to God’s concern about our hearts. Just as in Deuteronomy 30, when God says, I will bless you as you seek me, and draw near to me, and love me, and obey me.
Just one more biblical reference that helps us here. With this whole subject of wealth and obedience, and how that relationship works, the story of Job comes to mind. Job had all of this prosperity in spades — livestock, agricultural produce, a large family, a big household business, essentially, with many people probably working for him. And God was pleased with Job in the story, in the midst of his abundance. God recognized that Job was a righteous man and he was wealthy.
And despite the counsel from his friends, nothing he did led to his later misfortune. It wasn’t tied to his deeds or to any unfaithfulness.
As part of our orientation into my research trip to the Center for Faithful Business, we spent about a month leading up to it having a weekly hour-long seminar in which we read and discussed several things, including a book that told the story of a particular company called Service Master.
Service Master started as a janitorial service company that provided cleaning and home and commercial property maintenance services of all kinds. And then it grew over several decades, went public, and acquired a number of other brands and companies in the service sector that are still around and that you would recognize — lawn care, pest control companies, home warranty and appliance services, these kind of things.
But what’s so interesting about Service Master is really two things: It’s four values, and its growth and success over such a longer period of time. Very few public companies if any have had as long of a stretch as Service Master did in the latter half of the 20th Century of growth in profit year after year.
And here were their values:
- Honoring God in all we do (not used for the basis of exclusion! The opposite, in fact… never a test to see if someone was Christian. They also left this open to interpretation for folks who were not Christian. When they did business in Japan, for example, they changed the object to honor the truth, which was friendlier to that religious context)
- Developing people
- Growing profitably
- Pursuing excellence
One of the CEOs of Service Master, Bill Pollard, would give his employees, his managers and other executives — all those in leadership — a set of blocks and balance beam, like a seesaw almost. I tried to make an illustration of this in my powerpoint but then I just went with an image.
The honor God block is the only one that’s shaped differently, and it’s the fulcrum or pivot point on which the balance beam rests. The other three blocks are the other three objectives: develop people, pursue excellence, and grow profitably.
But what you find when you try to lay the three pieces out and balance them is that they constantly slide and move, and it’s very hard to keep the beam from tipping to one side or the other. And that was Pollard’s point — it takes constant work to assess and adjust and return to the values and objectives of the company to make sure that all four of these pieces are in the right place.
And the key to the four objectives for Service Master, according to Pollard, is that the first two objectives: Honor God and Develop People, were end objectives, end goals. In other words, they were the purpose and aim of the whole enterprise. To pursue excellence and grow profitably, those were still important components, but they were means to the end — not ends in themselves.
This essentially meant that the company was at least committed in principle to never treating people as means or objects. They were always to be treated as subjects. That is to say, they were seen as made in God’s image and loved by God, and treated as such. All people. Customers and clients, yes, but also employees at every level, suppliers, the broader community that’s affected by the business that’s done — all stakeholders, not just the shareholders, are considered in how the business is conducted. And profit is not the purpose. It’s just the tool.
In other words, people can never be your means to a profitable end. And to put a finer point on it: People shouldn’t be your means to a profitable end. Neither should they be your means to the end of some other good mission or purpose.
One of the most memorable things I ever heard in seminary was from an Old Testament professor who taught the course where we read the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, including of course Deuteronomy, and he said the most common problem he sees with young pastors going out into leadership of churches after finishing their divinity degrees is that can easily start caring more about preaching, programs, and growth than they care about actually loving their people.
Bill Pollard said something similar about his leadership of the Service Master company: He said when you give employees a higher purpose to work for than merely getting the job done or getting their paycheck, it’s very helpful and motivating. But if you’re only giving this a purpose or mission to work for so that they’ll help you achieve your goals more than theirs, then they can tell, and it’s not going to work.
So for Service Master, the objective for developing people was not merely to get them to be better at doing what you needed them to. It was actually to see them fulfilling and living into their God-given potential and uniqueness, even if that took them away from the company or led them somewhere you’d prefer them not to go.
Most of us probably know the name John D. Rockefeller, the very wealthy and successful oil business tycoon and founder of the Standard Oil Company in the 19th Century US, etc. He was the first multibillionaire, you could say, in today’s dollar value also a great philanthropist and did many good things with his money. I recently read, though, that when some of his workers was asked about all of this, and what they thought of him, they replied they wished he would have paid them a higher wage for their labor.
This lesson applies to all of us. How are we treating people? As a means or an end? You may not be trying to maximize shareholder value, but we all have different self-interested aims. How do others factor into this for you?
Households and even churches, as organizations, function in much the same way. There’s certain things we’re trying to accomplish. It’s so easy to slip into treating people as means, objects, instruments. Business or not.
And I take this to be a key takeaway lesson from the Good Samaritan too. The Priest and the Levi are going about their business. They didn’t want to be inconvenienced. Helping him would have gotten in the way of their plans. Or it might have also broken some kind of purity law — which of the commandments are the greatest?! That was the question that was being asked by this teacher of the law, and this parable answer him on several levels.
So this is the question we can ask ourselves: in your work, in your business, in all of your undertakings, how do you see people? Do you see them as God’s image bearers? Do you see their dignity and their unsurpassable worth? Because that’s how God sees them. And that’s how God sees you and me.
So in your work, and in your business — and in everything you do— may the Lord delight in abundantly prospering your every endeavor, as you seek the Lord and turn to him, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Amen.
Also published on Medium.
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