07 Oct 2012

A True Example of Christian Humility

Religious 65 Comments

For today’s post I just want to relay something that blew me away from the sermon one of the assistant pastors gave at my church today. He was talking about the following passages from Luke:

Chapter 20…
45 Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.”

Chapter 21
And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, 2 and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. 3 So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; 4 for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God,[a] but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

So if I’ve made it clear in the above, what happens is that there is a chapter break (from 20 to 21) where many New Testament scholars think that there shouldn’t be. Our pastor said something like the following:

Now what happens though is that some preachers will skip the whole context of Jesus arguing with the scribes in the Temple, and instead they’ll go right to Chapter 21 and the widow with her two mites. How many of you–show of hands–have heard a sermon just on the widow putting in her two mites? [Pause.] Yes, a lot of you. When you heard those sermons, what was the punchline? Ha ha, I see someone in the front row stuck his hand out–that’s right, they’re asking for money!

Now I went on google and pulled up lots of sermons doing just this. In fact, let me read from one of them. Now here I’m quoting the conclusion from this pastor who had derived ‘five Biblical principles of giving’ from this story. After listing the principles he concluded, ‘And so we all must have the attitude of the widow if we’re going to build this new facility.’

Now it wasn’t as if there was an audible gasp in the crowd or anything, but I personally–in the way this guy had built up to this part of his sermon today–was disappointed in the guy he was quoting. I had no problem with someone trying to derive lessons about giving from just the four verses in Chapter 21 (as opposed to tying it back to the widows being discussed at the tail end of Chapter 20), but I definitely thought it was a little gauche for the quoted preacher to tie it specifically to a facility that they were building and for which he was apparently raising funds that very day from his congregation.

So you can imagine my shock when my pastor today continued:

Now folks, I am not here to tell you that all of these other preachers were ‘wrong.’ I’m merely saying that where I stand today, that’s not what I believe Jesus was getting at in His remarks about the widow giving her two mites. I don’t agree with the interpretation given by the preacher I just quoted. And do you know who that preacher was? It was me, and I gave that sermon to all of you, back in December 1999 when we were building our new school. So do pastors ever have ulterior motives for what they preach on Sunday? Yes I guess we do.

I still can’t believe he said that.

65 Responses to “A True Example of Christian Humility”

  1. Gene Callahan says:

    Wonderful story!

  2. Ken B says:

    Darn it Bob what are you doing to me? First I have to agree with you over at Landsburg, and now I have to second Gene. That’s a good story.

    But isn’t Jesus comparing utility in a way Austrians reject?

    • Matt Tanous says:

      That’s a very… odd interpretation of what Jesus is saying there.

      • Ken B says:

        Not at all. Jesus is saying she gave *more* and we all understand the sense in which she did. But more is a comparative. I’m just teasing out an implication.

        • Matt Tanous says:

          “Jesus is saying she gave *more* and we all understand the sense in which she did”

          Not “subjective utility”. She gave more as in a greater percentage of what she had. All Jesus is saying here is that if you voluntarily choose to give a greater percentage than the strict tithe requirement, you are “giving more”. Not comparing utility.

          • Silas Barta says:

            She gave more as in a greater percentage of what she had.

            Right, and those of us who have argued with Austrians on the topic have suggested using exactly this metric wherever an intersubjective utility comparison would be need it, and the reject its validity for the exact same reason.

            Right, Bob?

            But Matt_Tanous, it’s good to hear you don’t think that way.

            • Matt Tanous says:

              I don’t know what you are getting at? It’s good to hear that I think one can compare percentages, or that I don’t think this is a metric of subjective utility in any sense?

              • Silas Barta says:

                I don’t think this is a metric of subjective utility in any sense?

                You just used it to make the comparison that people believe they need IUCs for. “Who made a bigger sacrifice?” To most people, that’s inherently an IUC, with all its attendant implications.

                Sure, you can claim it’s not really an IUC, just that you can treat it like one for all practical purposes, but then it’s just word games.

              • Matt Tanous says:

                That’s nonsense. One can make the same argument as to say that we can make IUCs based on weight, price, or temperature.

                This is a difference in demonstrated preference (A prefers X, B prefers Y) – NOT a utility comparison.

              • Silas Barta says:

                But utility and revealed preference are the same thing to economists, while weight is not…

              • Matt Tanous says:

                Demonstrated preference is an example of utility through action. It is not utility itself, and cannot be used to reconstruct any such thing, much less make comparisons between individuals.

  3. Silas Barta says:

    Wait a second — wasn’t Jesus making in interpersonal utility comparison there?

      • marris says:

        Ken B, I agree with you that there’s something odd here. Jesus certainly *seems* to be comparing the utility that the poor woman would get from those mules to the money payments by the rich temple members and saying that what she made the bigger sacrifice, etc.

        After meditating on this for a bit, I found other weird things too:

        The standard argument for why a marginal dollar may not be worth less to the rich man than the poor man is that the rich man may *really* like his dollars. This may even be why he’s rich in the first place. He values the marginal dollar more than the bagels or whatever that he could buy with it. In contrast, the poor guy does not like dollars very much. Give him a dollar and he will trade it away for hard goods and services.

        Now why doesn’t this argument also apply to temple offerings? Why doesn’t Jesus say “Those rich guys over there *really* like their money. When they cough up 10 percent, I really appreciate it.”

        I think the key idea here is *allness*, not marginality. The woman is willing to trade *all* her stuff in exchange for salvation. I think that is what really impresses Jesus.

        For example, if the rich guys had been willing to give up all *their* wealth, then it would be hard to imagine Jesus criticizing them for doing less than the poor woman.

        So it’s like we have our value scales for everyday marginal units of stuff, but people like the woman have something on their scale which they value more than *everything else put together*. I’ve heard this structure referred to before, so I think it’s also referenced in other parts of the Bible.

        • Matt Tanous says:

          I think it is more of “going above and beyond”. Here we have individuals who, by Jewish religious law, is required to give up a certain percentage of what they have. The rich guys give up their required percentage, and no more. The poor woman gives up much more than is asked of her.

          It is not that the woman has a higher subjective valuation of the money – in fact, she clearly does not, as she gave it up voluntarily. (She clearly ranks giving to the Temple over other uses of the money, which the rich individuals do not.) It is that the woman is doing it out of a certain motivation – that of faith, etc. – instead of “because I have to give X%”.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      His audience wasn’t familiar with Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.

      • Ken B says:

        Snappy, but if I can quantify utility across persons so that we are no longer talking just ordinal preferences then AIT does not apply. Isn’t that correct? So you are still stuck for an answer here Bob.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Are you guys actually serious? Jesus also said, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” Did He just deny that preferences are subjective?

          Of course there is a commonsense meaning to “Bill Gates gets less happiness from a dollar than my bus driver does.” But you can’t directly use the law of diminishing marginal utility to derive it.

          • Ken B says:

            Pardon me Bob, but you are the one committed to the proposition that everything Jesus said (or is said to have said) is consistent. I certainly am not. One of the tales we have involves the woman and her two mites. Now like most people I think Jesus in this story is right, and it’s an important insight. But I’m no Austrian, so the utility comparsion implicit in it doesn’t bother me much.

            Now if you think the pharisee aphorism sheds light on this please explain how, but arguing “Oh Ken (and Silas?) cannot be right because that would contradict what Jesus said in this other hearsay tale and Jesus is always consistent” will not do.

            So then, on its own terms, how is Jesus’s comment about the woman NOT about comparing utility between persons?

            • Richard Moss says:

              Ken B.

              You wrote;

              “…how is Jesus’s comment about the woman NOT about comparing utility between persons?”

              Perhaps he is. But I don’t think Austrians say it’s impossible for God to make interpersonal utility comparisons (i.e. knowing a person’s heart).

              • Ken B says:

                Clever. But I think not quite enough as Jesus invites *us* to understand and hence mentally make the comparison. Jesus isn’t saying there’s some inaccessible account book in the sky he can read for this stuff, and in this one case she comes out ahead but don’t generalize. He’s teaching a moral lesson. One discomfitting to Austrians I submit.

              • Christopher says:

                Jesus isn’t saying there’s some inaccessible account book in the sky he can read for this stuff, and in this one case she comes out ahead but don’t generalize

                Well, He isn’t telling us how to make that calculation. He is not giving us any tools to actually decide who is giving more utility. He is making the decision and that’s it.

                If you have a family with two children and a monthly income of 2000 dollars and you were to compare their situation to a single man with 1000 dollars per month, Jesus lesson isn’t going to help you if you want to know which household has a higher marginal utility per dollar. Maybe Jesus could tell us, but he didn’t tell us how to find out ourselves.

            • Christopher says:

              I don’t see your problem, Ken. If you are a Christian, the fact that we can’t do certain things doesn’t mean that Jesus can’t do. From a Christian POV Jesus would be a fantastic central planner. But that doesn’t mean Christians can’t be opposed to human central planners.

              • Ken B says:

                I’m not looking as far as central planning. Just utility. Jesus is asking US to make moral decisions like with woman and her two mites. He’s not giving us a list of the known cases and asking us to trust him. He’s teaching a lesson, one he thinks we should learn. He’s taling about moral decisons that are based on recognizing and comparing utilities. But don’t Austrians tell us that must not be done?

              • Christopher says:

                But don’t Austrians tell us that must not be done?

                I could be wrong, but I don’t think Austrian economics is telling us that you must not base your decisions on moral grounds. Yes, you can be charitable based on your intuition on who needs your help most! You are even encouraged to do that. But it’s not like we can base our economic calculation on your or mine intuition and we lack a general method of comparing interpersonal utilities. And Jesus didn’t give us one either.

              • Ken B says:

                “that” in “that must not be done” referred to basing decisions on inter-personal utility comparisons.

              • Christopher says:

                Well, to be honest, I am not really familiar with what Austrian writers would say to that questions but my impression is they would say that you can base your decisions on whatever you want. But again, I am not that much of an Austrian and neither am I as firm a believer as Dr. Murphy is, so maybe I should just back off and see what others will say to this
                But I find this very interesting.

              • Ken B says:

                ” neither am I as firm a believer as Dr. Murphy is”

                Ahhhh. That explains the pleasant and reasonable tone.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                Ken B., I already gave you my answer. You got distracted about my analogy with subjective preferences. OK ignore that then. I gave my answer on this narrow question.

          • Gene Callahan says:

            The key here is to differentiate between utility as a scientific concept, where we can’t compare utilities across persons) and the idea “My son John would get more out of this trip than my son Joe,” the kind of comparison we make everyday. It is theoria versus phronesis! (BTW, Kirzner agreed with me on this point at NYU.)

            • Matt Tanous says:

              ““My son John would get more out of this trip than my son Joe,” the kind of comparison we make everyday”

              This isn’t so much of a comparison as you would think. It is, in actuality, not a comparison at all.

              Rephrase it as “John would rank this trip highly, whereas Joe would rank other things a higher priority” and the comparison disappears. Just as there is no comparison in “My friend would rather play video games than watch movies”. It is a statement of knowledge of other’s preference scales – something that can only be borne of intimate connection and relative constancy of character. (I say relative because if my friend chooses one day to see a movie instead of play a game, I don’t view this as falsifying my statement in any sense, despite his changed preferences for that instance.)

              • Silas Barta says:

                Rephrase it as “John would rank this trip highly, whereas Joe would rank other things a higher priority” and the comparison disappears.

                Again, this has been presented to and rejected by Austrians. They still claim it can’t get you IUCs — in Bob’s case, with heavy sarcasm.

              • Matt Tanous says:

                Because, Silas, I have just explained that it is not an interpersonal comparison. It is two separate statements that do not compare their scales together.

                If I want to go to see the Hobbit at midnight release, and you would rather sleep, but seeing the Hobbit is the third thing on your preference scale, it still cannot be said that I have more utility from seeing the movie than you. It could be that you would actually enjoy it more, but would enjoy sleeping *even more than that*, whereas I am simply more content – more of my desires are already filled in my preference scale.

              • Silas Barta says:

                Like in the above thread, when you’re comparing between people by how a result or action would rank in the same set of choices, that is, for all intents and purposes, an IUC, even if you don’t call it one.

              • Matt Tanous says:

                “when you’re comparing between people by how a result or action would rank in the same set of choices, that is, for all intents and purposes, an IUC”

                No, it isn’t. It is a preference comparison. There is no way to determine from this any comparison of subjective enjoyment or utility.

                Further, even this preference comparison is skewed. I have already pointed out that it could be lower on the preference scale of the individual who would prefer it over some alternative – their higher preferences being out of reach or already satisfied.

              • Silas Barta says:

                If it’s not a comparison of subjective enjoyment of utility, then why are you going around saying that one made a bigger sacrifice? Why isn’t the sacrifice size determined by, say, what percentage of puppies they gave to the church?

              • Matt Tanous says:

                Because there is no rule about how many puppies to give to the church as a percentage of “puppies earned”.

            • Bob Murphy says:

              Kirzner isn’t Christian, what are you talking about?!

            • Rob says:

              It may be your subjective judgement that John would get more out of the trip than Joe, but I don’t see how you could ever know for sure for the very reason that we can’t actually measure utility in an objective way.

              • George says:

                Rob, you missed the words “commonsense meaning”.

                That means there is no rigorous justification, only a “stylized fact” justification.

                We can’t judge Jesus, or rather, the author(s) of Luke, too harshly. After all, the bible is true, right? We have to adapt our minds to fit the bible, even if it requires us to contradict what people have learned since the bible was written. Mysticism, I mean commonsense meaning, trumps reason.

                If Krugman was the author of Luke, then we would probably be seeing a “Krugman Kontradiction” on our hands, rather than Kuehn-esque apologias.

                Murphy is to Jesus as Kuehn is to Krugman. Here I come to save the daaaaaay!!!!


            • Silas Barta says:

              This is still just an assertion of “don’t worry, our beliefs don’t contradict”. The fact is (as I spend a lot time arguing with you and Bob on ASC), Austrians do claim that “it’s *meaningless* — not just narrowly applicable — to that say Joe likes this more than John”.

              I brought up all the same arguments then that people are bringing up now: that you can’t go through like *but* to make IUCs. And until today, I never heard someone of this mindset say, “oh no, it’s totally cool, I meant you can’t like, derive economic principles from that”.

            • Silas Barta says:

              oops, that should be “you can’t go through LIFE but to …”. I’m harder on myself about those typos than most people — aw, crap, I did it again!

  4. joeftansey says:

    Of course it isn’t an interpersonal comparison of utility. He means more as a percentage of her wealth. Duh! Or else that he subjectively values contributions from the needy greater than those from the rich…

    Pfft. It’s like you guys expect the bible to be wrong or something.

    • Matt Tanous says:

      “It’s like you guys expect the bible to be wrong or something.”

      More than that, they look at it and say it *could* mean “Reasonable Statement X”, but I choose to interpret it in a way that makes it wrong, or at least difficult to explain.

      • Silas Barta says:

        But the *actual* Austrian position is that we can never base our decisions on an IUC, because they’re meaningless — and yet here, Jesus asks us to! So even if it’s referring to wealth, it’s that wealth’s relevance to *utility* that leads to our judgment that “hey, she did more so let’s regard her as better”.

        • Matt Tanous says:

          No, it isn’t. It is her willingingness to go above and beyond – and not the utility per se – that matters.

          Basically, it is a demonstrated preference claim – while the rich guys demonstrated a preference for following the rules to not get in trouble, the poor woman demonstrated a different preference for “doing what she can to help” (or some similar thing). The actual utility lost or given up is irrelevant, and there is no IUC.

          • Silas Barta says:

            You’re just going in circles now– what does “above and beyond” *mean* except by reference to how valuable an alternative you had to give up?

            • Matt Tanous says:

              More than the rule required. It is a comparison to an objective (or at least intersubjective) standard – not a utility comparison.

              I’m starting to get the picture that you don’t quite understand subjective ordinal utility.

              • Silas Barta says:

                Yeah, that’s it: someone uses a measurement of the price-weighted fraction of wealth some woman gave away as a judgment of how much a sacrifice she made made relative to others … and *I’m* the one who doesn’t understand subjective ordinal utility!

                Maybe, just maybe, the answer is that only from an ideologue’s perspective can you ever do away with comparing “the feeling of loss” between between people, and so any time (of the many) that an ideologue is forced to do so, they come up with a reason who it’s not *really* an intersubjective utility comparison, even though their inferences therefrom are *precisely the same* as the inferences everyone else makes therefrom.

              • Matt Tanous says:

                It’s not a subjective utility comparison. It’s voluntary giving vs. required giving.

              • Silas Barta says:

                Where the heck was the conversation every about voluntary vs coerced? Now you’re just changing topics because you’re lost.

  5. Paul says:

    Maybe I’m missing a lot of sarcasm in the comments, but it seems to me like Jesus isn’t making any sort of statement on utility, or subjective preferences, or anything else of that which can be calculated or otherwise derived from economic theory. As He does often, it appears to be a spiritual statement. Are we truly sacrificing (subjective) for the purpose of doing God’s will? It isn’t about a greater or lesser percentage of income. That would make the Bible cold and calculating (I understand that some believe it to be read that way, but I disagree with that interpretation).

    In the parable of the master who gave talents in the proportion of five, two, and one, there was clearly a description of some amount of money and even a rebuke because the one to which only one was given buried it instead of at least investing it. This was not a story about maximizing the returns, profits, or depreciation of the value of coinage. This was not a parable about monetary policy, fiscal policy, the morality of modern banking or anything tangible.

    Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world. We are on this world, and if we would one day like to end up in Jesus’ kingdom then we ought to heed his direction. However, it would be pointless for Jesus to try explaining how we should act in terms of a kingdom that we are not accustomed. Instead, he gives very tangible examples using things that we can directly relate to (tithing, investing, etc.) in order to convey a much deeper spiritual message about, not the specific things that we ought to do, but rather how we are living our lives. Are we loving in the true theological sense of the word? Are we sacrificing ourselves for our neighbors? Are we giving up our lives for the glory of God?

    This is not a economic statement. It is a spiritual one.

    • Gene Callahan says:

      “This is not a economic statement. It is a spiritual one.”

      Not a Misesian, hey?

      • Paul says:

        Again I may be missing out on some sarcasm, but if this statement is sincere then my response does apply.

        Did Mises theorize in his writings how one ought to act?

        I admit to never have read Mises, but I haven’t heard about any of his writings pertaining to objective individual morality.

        • skylien says:

          You are right, he did not do that in his economic writings. That is why he called it value free.

          He only said what means ought to be used to reach certain ends, but never said which ends (what Jesus is doing here) should be chosen.

      • Matt Tanous says:

        Neither was Kirzner, who you pointed to as agreeing with you about utility comparisons.

    • Ken B says:

      Paul, it IS a spiritual statement. But it has logical implications. One of those logical implications involves the ability to compre her utility to that of other givers, at least in some cases.

      “He that believeth in me though he die yet shall he live” is also a spiritual statement but it has implications that people tease out. Just calling a statement spiritual does not cut it off from logic.

      • Paul says:

        I am not attempting to seperate what is spiritual from what is logical, for I do not believe that they can be separated. I am merely trying to point out that utility (I guess) in the spiritual sense is not the same as utility in the physical sense. Jesus calls us to love which is to sacrifice ourselves for God. It may seem logical, then, that the greater sacrifice is made by the person who gave a larger percentage of their worth to God, but that isn’t the point.

        It is Jesus that calls us to love our neighbor and love God. It is this which is what we ought to do. Love, or sacrifice is not intended to be a calculable action, but rather is it based on what is in the heart. If we are sacrificing for heaven points then we are not sacrificing in the sense that was intended of us. Jesus does not want us to be in poverty because we gave all that we had. He wants us to give of ourselves in our entirety for our neighbors and for God. Only the lover truly knows if his actions are love, for only he knows his motives. Thus I don’t find the utility comparison to be the intention of this passage. It was merely used to convey the much deeper message about what love is and what it means.

  6. skylien says:

    I also don’t think this to be an economic statement. Jesus is making an absolute statement of what ends people should seek. They should focus less on earthly matters and more on spiritual matters. He wasn’t saying in a value free sense that despite giving all her wealth the old woman received less psychic profit than the rich guys. He is making a value judgment of ends and says that people should not be that materialistic and selfish.

    So I agree with Paul.

  7. Ken B says:

    Silas Barta: “But the *actual* Austrian position is that we can never base our decisions on an IUC, because they’re meaningless ”

    Yeah, I thought that was the Austrian position too. And it ain’t Jesus’s position. Which is why this is a problem for Bob Murphy. As far as I can tell Bob has not given a cogent reply on the point yet.
    But the entire thrust of gazillions of Bob’s posts is: christianity is rational, and Austrianism is a priori.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      As far as I can tell Bob has not given a cogent reply on the point yet.

      You can tell me, I’m the Captain.

      Let me repeat and elaborate my response, though Gene seemed to have no problem detecting its cogency when I answered you upfront, Ken B. If someone says, “Barack Obama would like an Obama election more than Mitt Romney would,” I don’t think that is a meaningless statement. There is a commonsense meaning to such a statement. If I’m at a bar and someone says this, I’m not going to roll my eyes and say, “Dude, you can’t make an IUC.”

      However, you can’t use the apparatus of economic theory to do anything with statements like this, and you certainly can’t use the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility to “prove” that a rich man gets less utility from an additional dollar than a poor man does.

      Let me try another approach: Neuroscientists are making advances in trying to quantify pleasure/pain etc., and as they do so their output will be cardinal. I have no problem with them doing that, but what they are working on has no effect one way or the other on Austrian discussions of cardinal utility. They are different theoretical constructs. It’s not, “If Mises is right, then these neuroscientists will necessarily fail.”

  8. Ken B says:

    OK Captain. The problem still remains. You say “you certainly can’t use the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility to “prove” that a rich man gets less utility from an additional dollar than a poor man does.” Yet that conclusion is exactly what Jesus asserts.

    This is not an analogue to your election result. Jesus was pretty clearly comparing the value to her of her money with the value to the others of their money. This suggests Jesus would find Austrian theory deficient.

    As for the neuro scientists. If they come up with their scale, most of us will use it, understanding that your ‘theoretical construct’ is an abstraction no longer particularly useful in the light of changed evidence.

    • Major_Freedom says:

      As for the neuro scientists. If they come up with their scale, most of us will use it, understanding that your ‘theoretical construct’ is an abstraction no longer particularly useful in the light of changed evidence.

      Most of us? Oh, big sophisticated prediction there. Most already reject it now!

      If neuro-scientists come up with a cardinal scale, then this doesn’t mean it must be blindly accepted. Even the most brilliant neuro-scientists depend on philosophy, of science and of knowledge, and their philosophy, conscious or not, can be found to be logically flawed, despite the fact that they claim to have found a pattern in historical brain data.

      For wouldn’t a fair question to ask is if neuro-scientists have found a pattern, then what about the scientists themselves? Obviously pattern finding presupposes an ability to LEARN of such patterns, which of course means the scientists themselves are changing in as of yet unpredictable ways (since if we could predict our future learning, we’d soon become demi-gods in the present), which would then mean there is no constancy after all, and the “patterns” observed ought to be treated as unique historical circumstances constrained to the knowledge at the time, rather than objective laws of the universe that extend indefinitely far into the future where knowledge accumulation is abstracted away.

      This logical constraint is unbridgeable. Empirical evidence simply cannot ever “refute” a logical necessity. It would be like claiming a plane right triangle may one day be observed to violate Pythagoras’ relation, it’s just that we haven’t observed any thus far.

      Whether or not cardinal scales are more “useful” than ordinal scales, is always constrained by subjective values. You may find that thinking “I like this hamburger 3.36453828634862 times more than a hot dog” more useful than my thinking “I like this hamburger more than that hot dog”. But that’s just me.

      • Ken B says:

        We all grok Bishop Berkely and solipsism MF. Just as we understand we cannot PROVE a baby cries because it doesn’t LIKE being hungry.

        • Major_Freedom says:

          Cool story bro.

          I wasn’t invoking Berkeley nor solipsism.

          I utilized what is called “Rationalism”, which I see you are having trouble grokking.

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