The legendary opulence of Roman Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68) was such that he used golden thread to make fishing nets. In writing about economic practices in On Trade and Usury, Martin Luther took this image of luxury and linked it with the “perverted wisdom of the world.” He recognized that the values of the world conflict with our callings as Christians.
Ever ruled by golden thread, the world calls us to crave profit, self-interest and possessions as signs of worth. Christ, on the other hand, calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to see our value as grounded in being a child of God.
In thinking about income, Luther roots all of our economic activities within our relations to our neighbors. Our neighbors make the clothes, food and electronics that sustain our lifestyles. They drive the delivery trucks and update the websites that enable our consumption. They work at and own the stores where we shop.
Distorted by sin, the self-neighbor relation is imperfect, meaning buying and selling are inevitable. But Luther encourages us to see how consuming everything from food to church windows involves our neighbor. Economics is about relations between people, folks with homes, families and real concerns over livelihood, rather than maximizing profit.
As in Luther’s day, our buying and selling must be “practiced in a Christian manner.” Because our economic choices reflect our relation to our neighbors, as we consume we must respond through Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves. This requires seeing our needs as intertwined with those of our neighbors. We must relate what we earn to what our neighbors earn, recognizing that everyone deserves a just wage.
Luther even reminds business owners that one’s profit should reflect “the effort of a day laborer who works at some other occupation and seeing how much he earns in a day.”
Income is never about the solitary individual diligently striving to out-earn everyone else, but rather understood within our communities and task of loving the neighbor.
This points to Luther’s deeper theological critique: it’s easy to see wages as merely the consequence of our hard work and possessions as granting us worldly security. Yet by thinking we deserve such worldly goodies, we place our faith in our actions, rather than in God.
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© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers