Economics 101

Wrestling with the Troubling Transactions of Holy Week

Two Christian Economists Converse about Jesus Clearing the Temple, Judas's Betrayal, and More
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Easter brunch is one transaction we’ll all think about this week (hopefully, anyway – you’ve got to plan ahead if you want to get in anywhere!)

But there are several transactions in the gospels I never think about – the ones that take place during Holy Week. Some are thrilling: I can’t help but cheer a little on the inside when Jesus clears the Temple. Others are troubling. My heart sinks into my stomach when I read about Judas betraying Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.

How can Christians think about these and other Holy Week events? Given that these stories could be classified as transactions, what do Christian economists think about them? Anne Bradley, IFWE’s vice president of economic initiatives, and Joe Connors, an assistant professor of economics at St. Leo University, agreed to talk with me about this, so I got them in a room together and hit record.

Jesus Clears the Temple

Let’s start with Jesus clearing the Temple.

JC: When Jesus clears the temple, a lot of people equate that with commerce is evil, profit is dirty. This one gets misconstrued a lot. Some of it is legitimate. A lot of times they’re selling doves and doves are needed for the purification ceremony. They’re selling artifacts that are needed for the different things going on. But the issue that’s going on here and why it’s not a condemnation of commerce in general is that it’s more an example of taking advantage of these certain situations. A lot of times it is poor people who are coming up to do these ceremonies, and essentially it’s situational taking advantage of people. It’s not a condemnation of commerce and profit.

AB: It’s about where the practice is happening and why. Just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s bad.

An argument against abuse is not an argument against use.

AB: That’s the key idea. If you look at the life of Jesus, it’s impossible to say economic exchange is bad. He did it, and he was always perfect, the son of God. But he became fully human; becoming fully human means engaging in economic exchange. He had a business. It’s clear that was a significant portion of his life. We have some research here that suggests that maybe he spent twenty years of his life doing that. So it’s important and okay and valuable.

I think it’s the time and place…I think that’s Jesus trying to return the sanctity of that space and what it’s for.

“Give to Caesar What Is Caesar’s”

Whenever I think about this passage, I never think about it in the context of this week. It’s always an isolated incident in my mind, but in reality, it’s not. 

AB: I wrestle with this because I don’t know what it all means. A lot of people will say that it establishes the legitimacy of government to some extent. I think the Bible does establish the legitimacy of a governing authority, but I don’t think that that means all government is good. Basically, what Caesar does is tax people and put his face on a coin. How legitimate is that?

JC: I think theologians have approached it this way, and that is the idea that God is sovereign over all these things.

This passage is cited often when people talk about the relationship between religious authority and secular government authority. This kind of gets back to some of the other freedom research we’ve been doing. This idea of religious authority being different from governing authority, it’s largely not in other traditions. It comes out of Christianity. We eventually think of it as federalism and these different types of governmental authorities. So some people have looked at this and said, “There’s some of that in there. Secular authority, it has legitimacy, but be mindful of who’s above.”

AB: “I’m sovereign over it all.”

JC: “I’m sovereign over it all.” They were trying to trip Jesus up to say that Roman authority was not legitimate. That they were foreigners and invaders and they did not belong here. And he was like, “No, government does have authority. But remember who’s over it all.”

AB: So even if Caesar does do something illegitimate as the governing authority, which all governing authorities do at some point, God is still sovereign over it all. If we really believe that, then it radically transforms the way we view what’s going on in the world. Because if we know God is sovereign over everything, and we see things happen that are bad, we know that he can work them for good, but also that he’s bigger than those things. I think that’s important for people to think about.

JC: Especially these days when people are really worried about a lot of the stuff that’s going on. I think we need to just take a step back and be like, “Okay, we’ve got to trust God a bit more.”

Mary Pours Expensive Perfume on Jesus’s Feet and Judas Gets Upset

Mary pouring a bottle of perfume on Jesus. That’s symbolic. 

JC: They used the perfume to prepare bodies for burial.

John calls Judas out for being the one who gets upset over this. That’s interesting because to me it foreshadows Judas’s later betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. And here he’s getting upset over what he says is worth a year’s worth of wages. 

AB: There’s a trade-off.

JC: And an opportunity cost.

AB: An opportunity cost, yes. The bottle, if it’s expensive, it probably means that Mary had to work extra hard to get that. So it’s special, she had to forgo a lot to have this, and then just dumps it on Jesus’s feet, and it’s like, “What are you doing?” She’s honoring him by doing this. This gets to sovereignty and trust. She trusted, so she was willing to give and to separate from herself what was precious.

JC: Technically Judas is correct. They could have taken the bottle and sold it and given the money to the poor. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I also think there’s something else here. Is Judas using this to assuage his guilt? Is he using it to be accusatory? It’s interesting that he would use the poor in this fashion, right?

AB: Then right after Jesus says the poor will always be with you but I will not. That’s his response. How do you think of that as an economist? It’s interesting because there’s a double meaning here. It’s material – poverty, at some level, will always be with us. It certainly won’t be with us like it has been. But spiritual poverty – absolutely. It makes it much more interesting that Judas is in here. Is Judas not about to exemplify spiritual poverty by his betrayal? You have to wonder. I’m probably reading too much into it.

JC: There’s something in a modern context that matters here. Judas is saying, “We could have done this for the poor.” It’s like, “Oh really?” And I think about all the self-aggrandizing things people do today to say they’re “helping” people in need and they’re really not. But I’m not quite sure if it’s the same disingenuousness that Judas is displaying.

AB: I also think that whenever Jesus is involved, it’s not a zero-sum game. In real life, if I dump a bottle of expensive oil on the floor it’s gone. To replace that I have to give up something. But in the world of Jesus that oil can be poured on his feet and the poor can be helped because of who he is. There’s no zero-sum game. I just think maybe Jesus knows Judas is going to react that way because he doesn’t have enough faith to see that.

Editor’s note: John 12:6 (NIV) says that Judas “did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

Judas Betrays Jesus for Thirty Pieces of Silver

Anne, you said that in prepping for this interview that this transaction was hard to think about. Why is that?

AB: We all like to pretend that we wouldn’t be Judas. I look at this and think, how could you hang out with Jesus and be in his inner circle and then trade his life for thirty pieces of silver? It’s a ridiculous question because we all would’ve done it. That’s why this is a hard thing to answer.

JC: I’ve heard other theologians say they think Judas very much wanted the earthly king. When the disciples kind of figure out that Jesus is not going to be made into an earthly king, Judas is the one who is the most like, “This is not what I signed up for.”

In a way maybe it’s not so much about the thirty pieces of silver than Judas realizing Jesus doesn’t fit his mold of how the king is supposed to be. He is willing to go along with the authorities to get rid of him because it doesn’t fit into his paradigm. Maybe that’s something to bring out, speaking of us as Judas. We do this all the time.

We trade our souls for much less. All the time. Day in and day out. It’s God on our terms.

Anne, what popped into my head was our conversation the other day about how we’re all economists. We’re making hundreds if not thousands of choices every day without thinking about it. 

The way we begin to change that is by paying attention to all the different things we do when we’re making those choices. It seems that’s what we need to do here. To start paying attention to all the ways we’re like Judas, to all the ways we sell our soul.

AB: Totally. I think awareness is really important. An awareness of a God who is vastly more superior than I realized when I first said yes to Jesus. There’s a humility and awe that comes with that, and you just want to stop in that moment, and I think that’s how you build that awareness.

When I think about the fact that Jesus was on the cross and my name crossed his lips, it brings tears to my eyes because it’s so powerful. I think, okay, that is enough to get me to stop in my tracks. But you have to be intentional about that and say, wow, he died for me.

That right there is the ultimate transaction.

The Ultimate Transaction

It’s interesting we use the word “redeem” here: “He died to redeem us.” The only time I hear people using “redeem” today is when they’re redeeming a gift card. The way we use the word today versus this context is so cheapened. 

AB: I do think that Jesus knew what was going to be on the other side, and that made it worth doing. And it was worth doing because he loves us and wants us to be redeemed and one day restored. It was going to work. He was the only one who could make it work, which is tragic and beautiful at the same time.

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