Money is something of a mystery. Classical economics views money as a commodity that is selected as a medium of exchange and standard of value, which enables a society to grow from a barter system to a more complex and efficient economy. As Ole Bjerg points out in Making Money, a recent excursion into the philosophy of money, the classical theory leaves some puzzles in its wake. For starters, it doesn’t fit known historical facts. Anthropologists have yet to find a pure barter economy. Media of exchange always seem to be there already.

Then there’s the “aporetic” character of the theory. Suppose gold is the standard of value; how is gold’s value measured? We cannot measure gold’s value by the value of gold, but what’s the alternative? Some escape this dilemma by suggesting that gold has inherent value, but this only shifts the problem. By this theory, the medium of exchange alone has objective, non-economic value, while everything else has value relative to it. The commodity by which the economy runs must stand outside the economy to make it run. Gold is the “exception” chosen as the cornerstone of the whole edifice.

Marx thought that gold’s objective value was aesthetic. That may be correct, but it would be a surprise (though a charming one) to discover that our system of gigantic, global corporations, light-speed finance, commerce, production, and distribution of near-infinite complexity all emerged over the past several centuries out of our enchantment with shiny things.

New Testament writers thought little, I suppose, about the “theology of money” at this rarefied theoretical level, but the New Testament does offer an illuminating perspective on the use and social effect of money, especially gifts of money. For Paul and Luke, money is not a medium of exchange. It’s not the slightly polluted stuff that is unfortunately needed to keep church programs afloat. Money is an effective sign of communion. The early Christians organized a sacramental economy.

It starts with Pentecost. After the Spirit falls, the three thousand disciples begin to sell their possessions to provide for needy brothers. In Acts 6, the Church sets up a system of charity to care for widows. At the same time, the faithful break bread together, as Jew and Gentile, Parthian and Mede and Elamite, Cretan and Arab sit at a common table.

These two practices of the early Church are interwoven, and the same word group covers both. The well-known Greek word for “fellowship” or “communion” is koinonia, from koinon, which means “common.” In the space of a couple of verses, Luke speaks first of the believers’ devotion to koinonia expressed in common meals (Acts 2:42) and then of their determination to hold goods in common (koinon, 2:44). Fellowship is shared life, and the early Christians lived out of the conviction that each person belongs to others and not to himself, both at the table and in his generosity and hospitality.

Paul also links money with communion. Money binds together the two halves of humanity, Jew and Gentile. As he travels from Gentile church to Gentile church, Paul raises funds to carry back to Jerusalem as famine relief. Gentiles have become “partakers” (koinoneo) of the Jews’ spiritual goods, and should respond by sharing material goods (Romans 15). Like the table fellowship where Jew and Gentile share bread (see Galatians 2), money furthers Jesus’s work of breaking down the dividing wall and forming one new humanity.

Money forms a communion in mission. As an apostle, Paul “sows” spiritual goods among the churches (1 Corinthians 9), and he expects to reap a harvest when the Corinthians help him with donations. Out of this sowing and reaping, Paul’s communion with the churches deepens. The Philippians share (sugkoinoneo) both Paul’s affliction and his work, as they commune (koinoneo) with him in “giving and receiving” (Philippians 4). As Henri Nouwen expressed it, donors participate “in a new communion with others while becoming part of a much larger spiritual vision and fruitfulness.”

In the market, money often involves a break of fellowship. After we pay the clerk or waiter, we don’t have to have any further dealings with him. We don’t want to buy friendship, only goods and services. Perhaps we ought to think differently about market exchanges. Perhaps they too are signs and seals of personal communion.

At least in the Church, the hippies were right: Money is bread, Eucharistic bread that serves as an effective sign of the communion of giver and receiver in the mission of Jesus and in his Spirit.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things onTwitter.

More on: Economy, Sacraments

Show 0 comments