Thursday, August 23, 2007

Acts 19 on economic (in)security

[This is an article I wrote for that was posted a few months ago.]

Business as Usual?

“Whistle while you work,” the classic Disney song proclaims. But in financially uncertain times, it can be hard to whistle when our work doesn’t necessarily provide the economic returns we hope for. It can be a challenge to enjoy our daily work when market forces and competition threaten our job security or our industry’s future. What do we do when our jobs and finances are not secure?

Acts 19 serves as a case study of two contrasting attitudes toward work and pay. The setting is the city of Ephesus, which at the time was commercially and politically the most important city in the Roman province of Asia (what is now Turkey). It was a religious center for the Roman emperor cult as well as for worship of the goddess Artemis. The Ephesian temple to Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and much of the local economy depended on the worship of Artemis. In fact, the temple also functioned as a bank.

One person who worked in Ephesus was the silversmith Demetrius. He made silver shrines of Artemis and generated business for many local workers, and we can envision him as a local union leader, organizing his fellow workers and aligning with other related trades to advocate for their industry. Demetrius was loyal to his workers and his industry, and he fiercely defended the economic interests of his trade against any threat.

Along comes the apostle Paul, whose Christian ministry is a direct challenge to the Artemis cult. Imagine if an influential person came to Seattle and began preaching the evils of coffee, directly threatening Starbucks’ business. Or if religious groups decided to lobby against the use of computers, or professional sports, or fast food. Very powerful special interest lobbies would exercise their clout to combat such threats.

That’s exactly what Demetrius does. He arranges some inter-guild meetings and warns his cohorts that this Christianity is bad for business. “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business,” he says. “And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus.” His voice rises, his fists clench. “This Paul says that gods made by human hands—that’s our hands, folks, the work of your hands and mine—are no gods at all! There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited.” Appealing to fear, protectionism, and defensiveness, Demetrius ratchets up the rhetoric until an angry mob runs riot across town.

That’s one attitude we can have when our work isn’t going so well. Stock prices are falling, sales orders are decreasing, overseas competition is increasing—we panic. We fear for our jobs, our careers, our very lives.

Contrast this with another attitude we find a few paragraphs earlier in Acts 19. We read that “a number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas” (Acts 19:19). A drachma was a silver coin worth about a day’s wages.

Think about how much money you make in a day. Now multiply that by fifty thousand. Do the math. That’s a lot of money. This is not some symbolic gesture that the former sorcerers and religious leaders made—they very directly repudiated their industry, at great financial cost. They got rid of their assets, their investments, their 401(k)s. They gave up their livelihood, their economic security. Why? Because they heard a higher calling.

On the one hand, Demetrius and his cohorts, fearing economic disaster, retrenched and responded with fear and defensiveness. On the other hand, the former scroll owners saw that the kingdom of God was blowing a new wind through their city, and they needed to give up their old ways of doing business as usual.

We have no idea what these former sorcerers did after burning their scrolls. Did they find other careers, other jobs, other callings? We simply don’t know. But we do know this—they judged that some things were more important than economic security. Their line of work had become an idol to them, but they surrendered it to the Way of Jesus.

We don’t know what winds of fortune may blow through our business. But we can have an attitude more like the sorcerers than the silversmiths. We too can have an attitude of trust, faith and confidence in God’s leading and provision for the future.


Mark Goodyear said...

I loved this article, Al. Reading it again makes me wonder what little idols we manufacture in evangelical circles today.

Milton Stanley said...

I'd never noticed the connection in Acts so clearly. Thanks for shining the light.