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Oikonomics: Building Relational Capital
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LUKE 16:1-13

Last week we looked at spiritual capital, the most valuable investment we can make. Jesus invited people to live the good life of God’s kingdom by changing their hearts and lives and believing in the good news that God’s reign and rule was breaking in on the earth. Hearing and doing the words of Jesus are the currency for building spiritual capital that lasts like a house (an oikos) built on bedrock—an eternal investment that withstands any storm.


Today we look at the second most important capital, which is closely related to spiritual capital—it’s the investment we make in relationships. In fact, for Jesus, the quality of our spiritual capital is directly proportional to the amount of relational capital we invest in it. Remember the greatest of the commandments according to Jesus? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The value of our spiritual capital, our love and obedience to God, is revealed in the way we invest in our relationships with others.


That shouldn’t surprise us because we were created for relationship. Indeed, Christians believe that God’s very nature is relational. The Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are one God but in three distinct persons. The God we worship is actually an intimate community. That’s a deep mystery, but also a deep truth. Wherever we see God at work, all three of the members of the Trinity are present, sharing the same purpose and love.


Given that that is the nature of God, it’s little wonder that when God creates humans they, too, are created for community. Genesis 1 tells us that humans were “made in the image of God” and “male and female he created them.” It’s not merely that we are individuals made in God’s image, the image of God is found in the community, a family where different people come together, like the Trinity, to share the same purpose and love—to build spiritual capital. Throughout the Scriptures, God is always working with humans in community—from the family of Abraham, to the nation of Israel, to the disciples of Jesus, to the church itself. We are wired to build relational capital as we build spiritual capital.


But there’s another side to this and that has to do with the effects of sin. When Adam and Eve sinned, the first thing that happened was that they realized they were naked and hid themselves. The intimacy for which they had been created had devolved into comparing themselves to one another. The equal but different nature of their relationship was broken by self-interest. Because they devalued their spiritual capital, choosing not to hear and do what God had told them, their relational capital also took a nosedive in value.


But the good news of the kingdom, the vision of the good life laid out by Jesus, calls us to reinvest in our relational capital as one of the ways we build more spiritual capital. The good life of the kingdom is not designed for us to live on our own but in community.


That’s why this is the second most important capital behind spiritual capital. Our physical capital might fail one day, as might our intellectual capital. We might run short of financial capital. When that happens, what will we do? We will rely on the relational capital we have built with our families and friends to see us through—our love for God and love for others is the only kind of capital that really lasts.


That seems to be Jesus’ point in the parable we read earlier. This is probably the weirdest of all of Jesus’ parables, because the “hero” is a sketchy individual. It’s little wonder that a lot of preachers skip this passage because there’s a lot of ‘splainin’ to do to get any kind of meaning out of it.


A rich man’s manager is about to be fired for wasting his boss’s estate, which means that the manager is about to lose all of his financial capital. The boss asks to see the books and the manager knows this isn’t going to go well. He will soon be out on the street.


But, to the manager’s credit, he does invest some intellectual capital in assessing the situation. He doesn’t have the financial capital to recoup the losses, nor does he have the physical capital to get another job requiring hard labor, so he thinks to himself, “I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses” (v. 4). In other words, he thins, “I’ll invest in relational capital so that when I’m fired, I will have those relationships to fall back on.”


So he goes to all of the people who owe his boss money and starts negotiating, but not from a position of strength. “How much do you owe?” he asks the first person. “900 gallons of olive oil,” he replies. That’s a princely sum, indicating that even the rich man’s debtors were pretty well-to-do themselves. “Take your bill and make it 450, cut it in half,” says the manager. Another wealthy tenant owes a thousand bushels of wheat. “Cut that down to 800,” says the manager.


This doesn’t seem like a good economic strategy, but it is a good oikonomic strategy for building an important capital. What the manager is doing is putting himself in the good graces of his boss’s debtors so that when he’s fired, these people might just give him a job or a place to stay. You’d feel pretty good about a person who forgave your debts, wouldn’t you? Like if the bank manager showed up at your house one day and said, “Yeah, that mortgage you owe $300k on? I’m cutting that down to $150k.” How would you feel about that guy? Would you invite him in for coffee, dinner?


But there’s another dimension to the story. Not only is this manager building relational capital by shrewdly dealing with financial capital, he is also enhancing the relational capital of his master. If the master fires the manager now, it would look to the rest of the community like the master was doing so because the manager was being benevolent. By being generous on the master’s behalf (while saving his own skin) the manager has not only gained favor with others, he’s also enhanced the reputation of his master as a generous person (even if the master really wasn’t!). He’s not only built his relational capital, but also the relational capital of his master among the rest of the community.


What’s the moral of the story? Jesus says, “Use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves so that when it’s gone you will be welcomed into the eternal homes” (v. 9). In other words, Jesus is making a value judgment on the capitals. Relational capital is more valuable than financial capital—indeed, you should use financial capital to build up your relational capital and, by extension, your spiritual capital.


That’s why Jesus ends this section in verse 13. “No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”


Sounds like Jesus is saying we should be using money to buy friends! Really? Well, yes, if by “buying” we mean investing our financial capital in ways that build our relational capital.


We’re approaching the holidays and so it will soon be time for our annual viewings of It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic starring Jimmy Stewart. He plays George Bailey, a man who has a building and loan company, who is well known in the community for helping people. Like the manager in the parable, George would let people delay repayment of their home loans if they were struggling financially and would hold off foreclosure if someone was trying to pay back even a little of what they owed.


When one of his partners loses a large cash deposit, the building and loan is in danger of going bankrupt and George could go to jail for mismanaging the funds. He contemplates suicide by jumping off a bridge, believing that it would have been better for him and for everyone else if he had never been born. At the last second, however, is saved by an apprentice angel named Clarence, who takes him on a journey to see what life would have been like if George had never been born. George soon realizes that his life has actually made an impact on the people of Bedford Falls in ways he could not have imagined. He sees that he has invested richly in relational capital.


Thankful, he returns home to face the situation he finds himself in. In the final scene of the movie, the whole town turns up to donate money to cover George’s losses—the relational capital he had built over the course of years paid dividends that saved him. He realizes that relational capital is far more valuable than financial capital.


It’s a story of redemption, of seeing value in people. This was especially poignant for Jimmy Stewart himself. This film was made in 1946 after Stewart came back from the war, where he was a bomber pilot. He was suffering from PTSD, could hardly eat, and looked much older than his 38 years. The set was tense and the rage we see George Bailey have over his life comes from a deep place in Stewart’s own experience of war and destruction. Stewart even contemplated quitting acting, but It was a statement by Lionel Barrymore, who plays Old Man Potter, who turned things around. “So, are you saying it’s more worthwhile to drop bombs on people than to entertain them?” asked Barrymore. Stewart said to himself, “OK, I do have an important role here.” He became reconnected through the relational capital of another.


It’s amazing to me how close these stories are. Jesus could have easily ended his parable with a line from the movie: “No man is a failure who has friends.” George Bailey became the richest man in town—not in terms of financial capital, but relational capital. Jimmy Stewart started to heal when he became part of a story about relational capital.


When you read the Gospels, you see Jesus constantly investing in relational capital. It’s always been interesting to me that Jesus called twelve disciples around him—why would the second person of the Trinity need to do that? Could he not have done everything on his own? But he chose not to—he chose to invest in these men. And it wasn’t just them, there were others, including many women, who were in his circle. Jesus invested his life in them so that, even when he was gone, they would carry out the mission. He built an oikosthat was grounded in his teaching and example. He poured physical capital and intellectual capital into them, and taught them to see financial capital as a tool for investment in the lives of others. In fact, we learn that Jesus was supported with financial capital from others, all because he invested richly in building relational capital.


So, how do you invest in relational capital? Jesus says that we should “use worldly wealth to make friends,” to build the oikos, so that we will be welcome in the kingdom. To do that, we need to invest each of the capitals in building our relational capital. We might use our financial capital to invite people to coffee or to dinner, getting to know someone new or cultivating a deeper friendship. We might use financial capital to help a friend who is in need or to support them in a mission or ministry opportunity to which God is calling them. When we see money as a tool to build relational capital, we begin to use it in different ways—not for ourselves, but on behalf of others.


The financial capital you give to the church also builds relational capital. It gives us a building in which to meet together, welcoming people into our oikos. It provides food for fellowship, classrooms for learning in community, and staff that help connect people together. That’s really the church staff’s primary job—building relationships, connecting people to each other and to Christ, building relational and spiritual capital.


Investing our intellectual capital can also build relational capital when we share our expertise with someone else. Maybe you know someone who needs a skill or advice that you might have. Maybe there’s a course you can offer or the experience on which someone can draw. Who needs the intellectual capital you have to offer? Invest it and watch a relationship grow!


Spending time with people requires some physical capital as well. To have a relationship, you’ve got to show up! Attending church is one of the prime ways we use physical capital to build relational capital—we gather together, worship together, eat together, and learn together. It is always fun for me to watch what happens in the Great Room—which to me is the center hub of the church. This is where we meet new friends and greet old ones. It’s a place where significant conversations take place—but for that to happen, for us to grow relational capital, we need to be present! We have to be where people are in order to connect with them—be it in church, or in a small group, or a coffee shop.


And then there is spiritual capital. It’s the most important, but it is also something we invest if we want to build relational capital. Our love for God is expressed in our love for neighbor, so we need to invest in them. When we pray for someone, we’re investing spiritual capital in that relational capital. When we send someone a note of encouragement or let them know we care, it’s an investment. When we share Jesus with someone, we are building their spiritual capital. We see people as worth investing in because Jesus did, and because we want to bring them into the family, the oikos of God’s kingdom.


Investing in relational capital helps us to grow our capacity for loving others in the way of Jesus. In turn, we discover that we become rich in the relationships we have built.


I think of all the people in my life who invested relational capital in me. I wouldn’t be here without them. Few people come to Jesus on their own—most of us are here because someone invested in us.


I once heard someone say that when we are born, we cry and others smile. We should live our lives so that when we die, others cry and we smile—we smile because we are rich in relational capital.


It’s another key to the good life!



Breen, Mike and Ben Sternke. Oikonomics: How to Invest in Life’s Five Capitals the Way Jesus Did. 3DM Publishing, 2014. p. 51-53

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