When Bubbles Burst
Our son Christopher is studying in Rome this fall. So far things are going very well for both Christopher and his wife, Katie. Nevertheless, Becky and I have planned a trip for November just to check up on things. Parents’ duties never end.
Back in July I booked our flights. The good news is that I was really smart and got them at a good price. The bad news is that the flights are on Alitalia, the Italian national airline. Alitalia is now on the brink of insolvency and may be belly up within a week. But there’s some good news for us. I was really smart and bought travel insurance when I booked the flights, and we should be able to get our money back and rebook on a more financially secure airline, if there is such a thing. The bad news is that the travel insurance is from AIG. AIG is now on the brink of insolvency and save for an $85 billion bailout by the government probably would be belly up already. Maybe I’m not as smart as I thought.
But as far as I know, we’re still going to Rome in November. Anyone have a canoe we can borrow?
The world financial markets are a mess. Beneath the headlines is the effect the mess is having on the lives of ordinary people. I don’t know what all this means to the Presbyterian Church’s pension fund, but they have a good record of weathering these storms and I’m trusting them help us get through this one, too. I do know that for some the impact will be real and severe. Long saved and planned for retirements may not be as comfortable as the careful savers once thought they would be. Jobs in market-sensitive industries are being lost and family lives disrupted.
We hear a lot about bubbles these days. There was the dot com bubble of the 90’s, then the housing bubble, now an oil bubble. It turns out that when the bubbles burst, they make a mess of the markets.
My degrees are in history and theology, not economics, so I’ve had to do a little research on this bubble business. When I googled “bubble” and “market,” I was taken to an article on Wikipedia, and we all know that if it’s on Wikipedia it must be right. I like what I learned.
I discovered that some of our woes may be blamed on the greater fools among us. By this definition, I’m spared the name, so it sounds like a good theory to me.
But I kept reading and found, right there on Wikipedia (so it must be right), that all this mess might be the result of greed. Greed I know something about and of greed I am always guilty. My greed is one the things Jesus knows about me.
In the old theology, greed was one of the seven deadly, or mortal, sins. Thomas Aquinas said that greed is "a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things." Reformed theology rejects the notion of mortal and venial (lesser) sins. We hold that all sin separates us from God, but that no sin is so grave that it cannot be placed at the foot of the cross in full confidence of Christ’s atoning love. (We talked about the Westminster Confession in our Presbyterian Predicament series. Westminster puts it this way: as there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.)
But mortal or not, greed is a serious sin with serious consequences – consequences that are more serious than rescheduling a trip or finding that your 401k has is not worth as much this month as it was last month. Jesus put it this way, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Another time Jesus told a parable about a great fool who got caught up in the irrational exuberance of a Bible times commodity bubble. Unfortunately, by this definition, I’m always in danger of being a great fool. In the parable, the bursting of the bubble has nothing to do with a sudden loss of market value. It has to do with my attitude to God. It has to do with condemning things eternal for the sake of temporal things.
For understandable reasons, many of us may be anxious about what is happening in the world economy. It’s serious stuff and as we go to polls in November one of the issues we must consider is the ways in which a new government will work for economic justice and well being.
But Jesus has something to say not only about greed, but about being anxious. He asked us to consider the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field and then he said, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Some of us have our houses on the market and investments that fund our retirements. Some of us have been saving for our kids’ college education or work in industries that are very sensitive to changes in the market. Bursting bubbles have made a mess of some of our lives. Our trip to visit Christopher doesn’t seem very important compared to what some of you face. Whatever our situation, however, Jesus reminds us that in the end we profit nothing by gaining the world if we lose our souls (and might we conclude that losing the world is not so bad if you gain your soul?). And to all of us prone to anxieties great and small he says, “Seek first the kingdom of God…”
When Bubbles Burst