When I was young, my father had this offhand joke that I never quite understood: “Jesus Saves; Moses Invests.” To understand my father is an exercise in itself – there is hardly a memory of him that does not involve money, a lecture about money, a sharp inhale of breath when any amount over $10 is being discussed, and of course money-in-general.
About a decade ago, with literally no food for the last week, I called him and asked him if I could “have” some money. The summer before, I had helped him paint during the summer, had helped someone he had hired to roof his house, and leveled sheetrock. “Light carpentry” he called it. At the end of the summer, he said he had given me a “bonus” which brought what he owed me to $200.
Two hundred = two, zero, zero, point, zero, zero.
$200 for roofing, painting, hanging sheetrock, and other odds and ends over the course of a hot and humid Louisiana summer. I did the math once, and it came out to such a small amount that there could be no confusion of how little worth I held in my father’s eyes.
That was when I gave up on him. At least where it concerned money. I vowed that I would never work for him again, and when he asked me that winter to help him with “some light carpentry” again, I declined. And we fought. And I still never worked for him again, to this day. So it was that, a year later when I called him and asked him to give me what I earned, I expected him to agree, since… after all… It was only $200. And I had earned it. And, as his son, surely he wouldn’t hesitate to give me what I had “earned” for a hard summer of work – especially when I had no food in the house.
Turns out, I was wrong. Instead of sympathizing, or saying (as he had before) “No son of mine will go hungry!”, he lectured me on how I needed to save money because “times are tough on everyone.”
I’m not sure where the rest of that lecture would have gone, but he never gave me the $200. I hung up. When he told his old joke about “Jesus Saves; Moses Invests” I had just had enough, and I hung up. I refused to beg, and instead I wound up selling some of my things since it was clear that he cared about his money and his things, his belongings, more than the relationships in his life. I vowed, in that moment, to always think about that moment and to navigate the rest of my life with a priority on people rather than money.
There is, of course, a sidenote to this. A few years later, my stepmother gave me a nice sum of money. My father “matched” her with 20%. He has talked about “the money we gave you” a few times, but I have always been quick to say, “The money Tricia gave me, and the 20% you contributed. Tricia gave me the money. And she had to shame you into giving a fifth of what she did.”
Put another way, money was a big deal to my father. And, I suppose, it is to me to. I studied business in undergrad and, while there have been a few instances of poor spending or giving my money away out of compassion, I’ve stayed relatively floating and thank God for this. Our economy has not been helpful to those of us who are trying to do good things in the world, but has instead taxed, burdened, and enslaved many who do not deserve such oppression. It is like my father, I suppose. When we are starving, we get lectures. When we work hard, we never see the fruits of our labor. And when we find ourselves desperately needing help, it never seems to come from the places we would expect.
Lately, I’ve been sorting through things in my mind. The “economy” of my life, as it were.
Friends, resources, talents, what I have to contribute, how I can help others, who I owe money to, who I owe a “get out of jail free card” to, and where I can draw for the next leg of my journey. In the process, my mind naturally turns to money and what my father meant by this thing about Jesus saving and Moses investing.
It’s no secret that my spiritual life is floating somewhere between Christianity and Judaism. I love the Church – or what the Church can be, rather – but it seems that the ideals I hold to are best embodied in Judaism. I find Jewish girls attractive. I feel a sense of family and familiarity with rabbinic teaching, as though the Talmud is filled with the voices of my grandfathers. Oh, and did I mention I find Jewish girls attractive? I’m not sure if I said that or not.
Jewish girls = Wow.
Anyway, as I said, I’ve been thinking about the way money is discussed in scripture and a few nights ago, over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten thought, I remembered this half-worked out idea I had a few years ago about Moses instituting a new economy and what that looked like for the Israelites as they left Egypt.
For context, we need a short primer on what the Israelites were leaving. The economy of Egypt was thorough and industrious for thousands of years. We see the first inklings in Genesis of Abram visiting Egypt and finding abundance there. By the time Joseph becomes regent over the nation, Egypt has instituted an economy of investment in the food and resources that pays dividends when a drought (and subsequent famine) begins to change the landscape. People begin to willing enslave themselves for food, and Joseph – the “savior” of the Jewish people – begins insisting they enslave themselves. In four centuries, the Israelite people find themselves victims to the “salvation” Joseph offered them. The Book of Exodus reveals how far things had fallen. Where Genesis concludes with Joseph establishing an economy of shared investment with echoes of capitalism – Here, take this loan! Pay us back when you can, but in the meantime, we’ll take everything you own as collateral! – when we turn the page to Exodus, we find a macabre world.
The reader may have a hard time with this transition. Genesis ends on such a high note, and then a time of confusion.
Then Joseph died, and all his brothers—that whole generation. But the children of Israel kept on reproducing. They were very prolific—a population explosion in their own right—and the land was filled with them.
A new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. He spoke to his people in alarm, “There are way too many of these Israelites for us to handle. We’ve got to do something: Let’s devise a plan to contain them, lest if there’s a war they should join our enemies, or just walk off and leave us.”
So they organized them into work-gangs and put them to hard labor under gang-foremen. They built the storage cities Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. But the harder the Egyptians worked them the more children the Israelites had—children everywhere! The Egyptians got so they couldn’t stand the Israelites and treated them worse than ever, crushing them with slave labor. They made them miserable with hard labor—making bricks and mortar and back-breaking work in the fields. They piled on the work, crushing them under the cruel workload. (Ex. 1:6-14)
While I am no fan of the King James version, there is something worth noting. V. 11 says that “taskmasters” were appointed over the Jews to oppress them. V. 14 explains how they did this.
They made their lives “bitter” with “hard bondage” of exhaustive manual labor – so hard, in fact, that the goal wasn’t just to overwork (and kill) them, but to make them so tired that they would stop reproducing, for v.7-10 records the fear of the leadership was that their culture would spread and the Jews would begin to fight back.
There’s something to this, I think. There are numerous psychological studies that show a correlation between overworking someone and the worker’s obedience. If you can make them work hard, and work more, they will not have time to think about the fact that this isn’t work that they are doing. It’s slavery. It is indicative of a failed economic system.
A few years ago, when I was wrapping up my studies in business, I remember reading these verses and thinking, “Oh my gosh! This is exactly what’s happening right now!” I tried to discuss this with the pastor of the church I was attending at the time, and he dismissed the idea that these verses were being re-enacted by the American government, banks, and college education loans. “No, Brother Randall, this is all spiritual,” he said. “The taskmasters are spirits today, like demonic oppression. America is a good country, they wouldn’t do that.” Feeling he was too spiritual, I went to an economics professor of mine, Tanya Conlay, who I knew was a Sunday School teacher at another local church. She said something similar, “The American economy is doing so well. We’re not going to crash anytime soon, and I don’t think a parallel exists between this [Exodus] and the times we live in today. We would need another Moses for that,” she laughed.
Within a year, the first of the corporate bailouts, CEO parachutes, and restructuring of debt bonds began taking place. The American economy began a steep decline, and I began to realize that Christian, by and large, could not see the proverbial writing on the wall. If I, an amateur student, could figure it out, why couldn’t they?
That was a dark period for me, and I found a high degree of comfort studying Judaism at that time. Few people around me knew the details. Many had conjectures or correctives for my “odd” behavior but I somehow knew the conversations we were having in our churches about having a “personal, intimate relationship with Jesus”, how God wanted to “bless” us, and how “the Spirit of God” wanted us to know we, the Christians, “were going to receive the blessings of the unjust, for it is written, the wealth of the unjust is laid up for the just!” seemed wildly out of tune with the world around us.
So, yes. I began paying a high degree of attention to Moses and the Israelites to see how they made sense of the world. And out of that, I began noticing something really curious about the economy that Moses proposed in the Pentateuch.
Indeed, what my dad had said was true all along.