Luke 14:1, 7-14
The Real Economy
Has Miss Manners has invaded the gospels today? Why is Jesus so interested in seating arrangements anyway? It seems that he is trying to show how life will be lived for those who choose to follow him. And this life will look a little bit, or maybe as today’s reading shows us, a lot different, from the surrounding culture.
It’s a question that has plagued the church from the very beginning: “How then shall we live?” Every generation of Christians from those who originally heard Jesus’ words up to today have asked the same question, “How do we live in this culture, the one I was born into, the one I live in now, yet still respond in an authentic way to the call of Jesus?”
It’s a tough question, with a complex answer. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. Trust me on this, if the answer to the question of how do we live in response to Jesus? begins with the words, “Well, you just…” Walk away, because you are about to be handed a parcel of goods that are not so good.
This is complex because we have all, before we could talk, were enculturated, conditioned, and otherwise trained to think in the cultural language and economies of our society. And that society is not the one that Jesus is talking about.
Our modern, western society has its own values. We value hard work, perseverance, innovation, wealth, competitiveness, pursuit, and enjoyment. All these things are good, but our system, our economic system, does not have an inherent moral center, nor ought we to expect it to. The Invisible Hand is neutral and we have learned time and again that mutual self-interest for the collective betterment of society is fraught with problems, not the least of which is the crazy assumption that all people are equal in society and have the same access to the resources which build wealth.
More insidious than the obvious injustice of our system is the spiritual crisis that it perpetuates. All of us have a void within us; a void that we try to fill with things that satisfy us. And it just so happens that our economic system is tailor-made for finding more and more to satisfy us. Look, I’m not blaming capitalism. I’m a capitalist. I have a pension, never mind that I am paid by other capitalists who voluntarily give money into a community chest which we redistribute to various staff members, ministries, and outreach opportunities. Economies are complex, all economies. People living within a totalitarian socialistic state also suffer from this human void I am talking about. We have this hole in our lives and we are on a search to fill it, to satisfy this hunger. Economies are created to deal with, and capitalize on, that void.
Economy is an interesting word. It comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning household. When we talk about the economy we are talking about the household of a society, how it is managing its household. This is why budgets are called moral documents. Have you ever heard that: a budget is a moral document? If you want to know what someone thinks is important, look at their budget. This works for nations and people alike.
Today Jesus is teaching us about the economy, the household, of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is showing us how we are to live in this world, but his way. And it’s counter-cultural. Instead of the culture that teaches us to be better, faster, stronger; Jesus is urging us to take a back seat. He is telling us that the humble will be exalted, and also that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Not only that, but that we should be about the business of giving to those to whom we have no hope of getting paid back! Not getting paid back? That’s just bad business! No wonder Jesus stopped being a carpenter! I imagine Jesus would go bankrupt thinking like that, he probably made furniture and doors for poor folks who couldn’t pay him a dime!
But that’s the teaching, this is what he says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”
It’s interesting, many economic historians assume that economies were initially built on barter systems, and they generally are; but what we are finding out is a little more interesting. It seems that the straight barter doesn’t really work like that. For example, let’s say I have an ox and you have goats. You need the ox, but I don’t need the goats right now. So I give you the ox, and now you are in my debt, for, say, five goats. That debt, right there is the beginning of all economies. That debt gets moved around and re-symbolized and re-symbolized into currency and now into ones and zeros that the banks move around and invest.
But here, in the words of Jesus we learn about another economy, an economy that is almost unimaginable: an economy that is based on the gift with no hope, or expectation, of re-payment. This is the grace economy. This is the economy of the good news of God. Jesus is removing the debt, the debt, the void, the thing that we are all after to satisfy; Jesus is inviting us to leave it alone, don’t try to fill it.
This is the meaning of Christian freedom: whereas the culture endeavors to give us freedom to pursue our desires which we think will satisfy us, but Christ gives us the freedom from our need to always seek satisfaction. The economy of God usurps the normal ordering of our lives. And why shouldn’t it? People at Saint John’s are always asking me, “Why do you always have to talk about being counter-cultural?” My answer is because God is counter-cultural! If he were just like us, we wouldn’t worship him! God is different from you! And he aches in that difference. God says in the prophet Isaiah, “your thoughts are not like my thoughts,” and how he aches for our thoughts to be more and more similar.
My brothers and sisters. You will never be satisfied with getting more and more. There is always something more to be had, something more to be. The world will never ever ever ever say to you, “You’ve done enough. You are enough. Why not just rest awhile and enjoy your family, don’t buy anything you don’t need. Just…be.” The world will never say that, nor should we expect it to. But Jesus is calling us to imagine a gift economy, a grace-living where we stop trying to fill the void, we stop keeping track of debts and keeping score.
Let me close this with a story, [this is from Peter Rollins' Idolatry of God, used with permission]
It seems that there was a successful Texan. (all stories that feature Texans are automatically good, in my opinion) Well, he had done quite well for himself and had a sense that he wanted to find out more about where he came from, so he did some looking around in his family tree. Low and behold the Texan found out that he had a cousin in Ireland.
Well, the Texan flew out there and walked up to the door and met his long lost cousin Seamus. Seamus said, “Well, I suppose you’d like to see the family land.” “Yes I would indeed,” said the Texan. SO Seamus takes his cousin out in the back yard and says, “You see that old chicken coop over there? That’s the southern boundary of my land. You see that fence right there? That’s the eastern boundary of the land. You see that lawn mower? That the western boundary of the land.”
The Texan scoffed. “Well, let me tell you, I could drive all day south and never reach the southern boundary of my land. And I could drive all day east and never reach the eatern boundary of my land, and I could drive all day west and never reach the western boundary!”
“Yeah,” says Seamus, “I used to have a car like that.”
You see, Seamus is so outside the game of being in the seat of honor that he can’t even understand that his Texan cousin is trying to belittle him.
The gift economy!
Take the lower seat, invite those and give to those who cannot pay you back.
Give it a try.