How Do We Deal in a Transactional World?

(Belonging to a Business Community)


          Whether we realize it or not we all live in a business community…a community of transactions, a community of consumers. We do business all day every day. We interact with others. We are patrons in the actual businesses around us…in local owned shops and big box stores, in restaurants and cafes, in banks and other institutions. We shop, browse, and borrow online, too. We hope to work to earn money so that we might have enough to support ourselves and our loved ones. We work in small businesses and large, in non-profits and for-profits, in governmental institutions and the private sector, in schools and service industries. We hope to work to make our homes a place of safety, of nurture and health, rest and well-being. Just about everything is commodified. We buy. We borrow. We sell. We trade. And we make choices about where we will spend our time, our energy, and our money. We choose with whom we will deal and how we will deal. Ours is a consumer culture which we know all too well. And it’s a system in which we all participate whether we like it or not. It is the way of our world. So, how do we, as people of faith, as followers of Christ, deal in a transactional world?

          For now, we turn to the gospel according to Matthew, to the latter part of the Sermon on the Mount. Listen now for the Word of the Lord from Matthew 7.

{Read Matthew 7:7-20}

          The Sermon on the Mount is Matthew’s first and longest collection of Jesus’ teachings and we can read it, in its entirety from Matthew 5:1-7:29. It’s long. We’ve just heard some of its concluding verses. Now when I hear Sermon on the Mount, my mind automatically goes to the Beatitudes, perhaps to salt and light, and then perhaps to the list of dos and donts.  My mind doesn’t usually take me to these concluding verses where we find the wrap up, the final instructions, and the idea that Jesus‘ teachings should be taken seriously.  

          The Sermon on the Mount is beautiful; we quote it often; we hold it up and when we really take it in, we realize what a challenge it is to be a disciple of Christ. The core of the message is to love God and neighbor, to even love our enemies, to forgive those who have injured us, and to curb our inclination to criticize and judge others. Turns out as disciples of Christ, we don’t get to choose who to love and serve. We love and serve all. We don’t get to retaliate or exploit. We must instead be reconcilers and peacemakers. We don’t get to cheat or lie or steal. We must instead be honest and humble and honorable. We don’t get to vilify others. We must instead use our words to lift up rather than tear down. We don’t get to blast someone in the comments or engage in shady business practices. We instead must act with integrity and transparency. We don’t get to pollute and do irreparable damage to God’s good creation. We must instead be faithful stewards and caretakers of all that God has made. And we don’t get to look out for our own interest at the expense of everyone else. We must look out for others first and ourselves second.

          The summary of Jesus’ ethical teachings is right here in what we traditionally call the Golden Rule. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” We hear variations of this saying in other faith traditions and in secular contexts, as well. It isn’t unique to Christianity but what makes this golden rule golden is when we hear it alongside all of Christ’s teachings, when we look at it in the light of Christ. We are meant to deal with others in the way we wish to be dealt with…fairly, with respect, and kindness, with mercy and love. We are meant to prioritize people over transaction. We are meant to love others as Christ loves us. If you like to be noticed, considered, heard, and seen, then we are to notice, consider, hear, and see those around us. Care for others as God cares for you. Be merciful as God is merciful. Extend grace to others as Christ has extended grace to you. With no exceptions and no limitations. In all of our dealings, this is how we ought to live. This is how we ought to treat others. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount tells us that we are to live in such a way that we imitate the magnanimity and the boundless grace of God.

          It’s all about relationship, it’s all about intention, it’s all about seeking good not just for yourself but for all of God’s children and for all that God created.  According to Jesus, there is no room for self-interest here. I read two blog posts this week by Rev. Jan Edmiston. She’s the former co-moderator of the General Assembly and serves as general presbyter in Charlotte, NC. She wrote two back to back posts, each asking a question about what informs the choices we make. The first was entitled “How does kindness inform your choices?” and the second “How does fairness inform your choices?” You see, in this transactional world we make choices every day about with whom we will do business, where we will spend our time, money, and energy. In the post about kindness she tells a story about a simple act of kindness done for her. She ordered a drink at a local coffee shop and after the drink was made she realized she didn’t have her wallet. The barista gave her the drink anyway. This act was  small, nothing earth shattering, good fruit, in fact, that has guaranteed she’ll do business at that coffee shop again. We want to do business with people who are kind, who treat us well. She asks whether kindness informs our choices and whether kindness inspires us to pay it forward and do likewise. I hope so. What a world this would be if kindness was contagious.

          In her second post on fairness, she notes that our world is full of injustices that are multilayered and complex. She asks the following questions, “Would you give business to a bank that has different rates for different races?  Would you eat in a restaurant that refuses to serve certain people?  Would you invest in financial opportunities that take advantage of the poor, the native, the disabled?  Would you support organizations that do not treat their employees well?” These are good Sermon on the Mount, golden rule questions. We all have choices to make. We have choices about with whom we will do business and about how we will conduct our own business. We have choices about whom we will support and about our own dealings, our own transactions, and our own behavior. Jan notes that in order to answer her questions and in order to make faithful choices, we must pay attention. We must pay attention to the way others are treated. We must pay attention to the way we treat others. We must pay attention to the welfare and well being of those around us. At the very least we should try to know something about where we invest our money, our energy, and our time. It’s scary because sometimes in knowing those things we are called to make a different choice. It may be that we’d rather not know. We may not want to know that our favorite restaurant doesn’t pay its servers a living wage. We may not want to know that the convenient big box store exploits farmers and textile workers. We may not want to know about the environmental damage caused by our choices and our consuming. When we know these things, we may have to make different choices.

          It’s a narrow gate. It’s a difficult road. It’s a path not many choose. It takes intention that we’re not always willing to pursue and energy that we’re not always willing to spend. Paying attention to the world around us will often cause us to reconsider our behavior, our dealings, our choices. It’s a risk, you see. When we choose to live according to Christ’s teachings, we will likely be called foolish. Our ways won’t make sense. The choices we make will seem ill-advised or even absurd. It takes courage to take a faithful stand. It takes courage to deal fairly at the expense of your own success. It takes courage to make unpopular choices and to prioritize others over yourself. It takes courage to be the one saying ‘no’ when it seems everyone around you is saying ‘yes.’

          These things are a challenge because they’re not the way the world operates. Self-interest and greed are prized in our culture. Stepping over or on others to gain privilege or prominence or wealth is rewarded: more money, more things without a thought for others or for God’s good creation. That’s what makes Jesus’ teaching so revolutionary, so countercultural. It goes against everything our culture holds dear. The good news is, Jesus knows this. Jesus knows that it’s hard. Jesus knows that this gate is narrow and Jesus knows we’ll need help if we are to enter through the narrow gate and take the road that leads to life.

          Ask, seek, knock, Jesus says. These are not three separate actions or stages of spiritual experience rather they are three expressions for prayer. In order to live as we ought, in order to follow Christ’s commands, we must first recognize that we can’t do it on our own and acknowledge that we need help, that we are dependent on God. We cannot forgive others without help from God. We cannot deal fairly without help from God. We cannot be honorable or righteous without help from God. We cannot love our enemies or bear good fruit or make faithful choices without help from God. This encouragement to pray is not so that we might get our own way or even persuade God to see things the way we do. Rather,we persistently ask, seek, and knock so that we might receive the grace required to do what is impossible on our own. With God’s help we can deal graciously with others, we can genuinely love, sincerely forgive, conduct ourselves with humility and honor, transparency and integrity. We can make faithful choices and bear good fruit. We can notice what’s going on around us. We can recognize injustice and do something about it. We can lift others up rather than tear others down. We can live by the golden rule. We can, with God’s help. We can’t without it. The good, good news is that our Creator hears us when we pray and gives us grace time and again to choose the narrow way that leads to life. Ask, seek, knock, and the door will be opened for you.

Rev. Alexandra Rodgers
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Associate Pastor for Faith Formation and Congregational Care