Economics Anew

Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?’ Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’

—Luke 6.3-5


Here, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus concludes an encounter with the Pharisees via a tactic common to his conversations with those religious lawyers of his day.  Skilled in knowing and interpreting the law, Jesus confronts the Pharisees suspicion of his actions by citing the very law book they prided themselves in knowing.  He turns to a story from 1 Samuel where King David challenged the legal customs of his day by feeding his hungry men the bread reserved for the priests.  In that instance, David’s actions confirmed that real needs of a community outweigh the perceived religious necessities of the faith.   This citation furthers Jesus’ efforts to overturn the religious conventions of his day. 


Earlier in the gospel of Luke, Jesus ate with tax collectors, healed lepers, and questioned the validity of fasting.  The purity code of the faith has been shredded.  Having already dealt with the peripheral purity issues of the faith, Jesus in these verses turns his attention to the center of Jewish life, i.e., the Sabbath.  In this way, Jesus is challenging not just some of the practices but beginning to ask why some of the practices exist in the first place and providing an answer.  Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, too.


By moving his focus to the Sabbath and into a memory of an encounter in the “house of God” with the “bread of the Presence,” Jesus is positioning his challenge at the core of the faith, hoping to dislodge and re-imagine faith.   In other words, Jesus has come to question everything about the faith and to encourage his followers to do the same. This means that the practices and even the most sacred locus of the faith are re-presented in the person and actions of Jesus.  In this incarnation, faith is not about following certain (of the faith) practices for the sake of those certain practices.  Rather, certain practices exist to make us prepared to serve our God and others better.  Or as the gospels record elsewhere, we are not created for Sabbath but Sabbath for us.  This means that saving bread for the Sabbath is good but saving the hungry with the bread of the Sabbath is better.   


This idea that service, i.e., love of God and neighbor, is paramount shifts the interpretation of the laws and practices of the faith.  This is an alteration of imagination as much as it is an alteration of actions.  As practitioners of the faith, the faithful need to see the habits of the faith not so much as legal requirements to be mechanically followed but creative expressions to guide and propel us to a greater, more loving existence. 


Faith is a practice of (re)imagination. 


As we return to campus following a holiday birthed out of the Labor movement, that movement and its economic origins shift to the fore of our imaginations.  Briefly, I want to look at what economics is and how faith might help inform our understanding and concern for economics. 


Interestingly, the word “economics” comes from one of the same Greek words underlying the biblical text cited above.  In that text, mention is made of the “house” of God.  There, the word for “house” is “oikis/oikon.”  “Economics” is the combining of that term “oikos” with another Greek term “nomos,” meaning “rules” or “laws.”  In this case, the word economics emerges from the notion of those sets of practices that help in the managing and oversight of a household or estate. 


There is something interesting about this presentation of the term.  In this way, economics is not a solely private matter, i.e., about those things that happen just in my home, nor is economics a detached, statistical assessment and/or management of the resources and potential productivity of a people and place.  Managing a household or an estate has both a private and public character.  An intervening category seems necessary to help encompass the connotation of the term.  Essayist, farmer, and theologian Wendell Berry suggests in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community that just such an intervening notion exists in the form of community.  Community, for Berry, is both a personal place of meaning and belonging and, also, a public sphere for discourse and regulation.  And, community is sustained by very specific kinds of bonding practices called covenants.


Contrary to contracts that hold people together principally out of self-interest, covenants are those social arrangements that hold often disparate persons together for the sake of being together.   In other words, while persons usually form and remain in a contract to get out of that relationship something they want, persons enter and exist in a covenant for the sake of the covenant, i.e., the relationship, itself.  It is the relationship that matters not the perceived personal gain.  Such a basis for relating seems more appropriate when talking about a system emergent from a “household.”


Households are those places in our lives where messy, complicated social arrangements are far more common than systematic, calculated ones.  Furthermore, households cannot be sustained based on perceived personal gain.   Something stronger, more flexible, requiring more self-sacrifice than self-gain, and necessitating creative imagining is needed.  Covenants supply just such a binding, creative, imagination-forming practice. 


And, covenants are certainly practices central to faith. 


This means that as we turn to consider those economic practices of our lives we must name good those practices of our communities that sustain our covenantal bonds and help to shape us into the persons and communities we hope to become. This household underpinning reminds us that economics is more about people than profits and more about love than laws.  This means that economics, according to the faith, will be very messy and less than predictable.  But, as mirrors of our households (especially God’s household), our community’s economic practices might, also, be places where grace reigns, mercy intervenes, forgiveness under girds, and charity sustains.  Such a place with such economics might not be probable but it might provide an aspirational promise that will shape our imaginations and influence some of our practices, changing how we treat our neighbors and ourselves. 


In Jesus’ estimation, feeding the hungry was the best use of the economic, household resources available to the (religious) community regardless of how that feeding contravened social-religious norms.  Such an imaginative re-assessment of our own laws and practices within our communities seems necessary when so many around us struggle to choose between food and medicine or the mortgage and health care.  Like Jesus, we must seek to identify and correct those systemic failures that are legal yet self-interested.  Such a corrective effort seems only fitting for a covenant-king and that king’s kingdom.


Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


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