Most of us in Australia we are surrounded by abundance. We take for granted that there will be food for the day and for tomorrow. We have clothing for every day of the week. Advertising bombards us and warps our appetites. We are even conditioned into thinking that shopping for things we don’t need will make us feel better; we call it ‘retail therapy’.
COVID-19 has reminded us that much of the world lives in scarcity. The World Bank estimates that 10% of the world’s population (734 million human beings) exist on less than $1.90 a day, and that number will rise because of the pandemic. They believe that ‘the COVID-19 crisis will have a disproportionate impact on the poor, through job loss, loss of remittances, rising prices, and disruptions in services such as education and health care.’
Jacob had an abundance of possessions, human and animal. Living with his uncle Laban, he had acquired ‘oxens, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves’ (Genesis 32:4). When he returned to his brother Esau, these possessions gave him no comfort. They simply made him afraid: afraid that Esau would attack and purloin all his wealth. His plan is to sweeten his brother with gifts. The numbers are fantastic: he offers Esau ‘two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys’ (Genesis 32:13-15), and that’s just the first tranche!
It is only when he has completely separated himself from these possessions, ‘when he was left alone’ (Genesis 32:24) that Jacob finds his true treasure, One who will bless him, One who re-names him Israel for a new purpose. Simply by himself, Jacob sees God face to face (Genesis 32:30).
How are we to find the way to undo the emotional attachment we have to our abundance? What could motivate you and me to learn how to do without the material things surrounding us?
In the Gospel reading, Matthew shows the crowds who came to Jesus in a deserted place with nothing: no food for the day, nothing extra except their desire to follow him. The five thousand men, plus women and children, have only five loaves and two fish to eat. Jesus distributes what he has, he gives and goes on giving, and it turns out to be abundance.
Our desire as Christians is to follow Jesus, a path which is difficult to tread with our abundance. Having possessions is itself a burden for us. Like Jacob, they make us fearful, because we know the security that they offer is a fiction.
But we find it so difficult to change. Our challenge is to detach ourselves from our emotional connection with possessions. We begin with the desire to do so, and then, like Jesus, we give and go on giving. In sharing everything with those who are without, we find a new kind of abundance, and a security that will last forever. Our new-found generosity will also be such ‘good news for the poor’ (Luke 4:18).
Forget your poverty for a moment,
let us think of the world’s hospitality –
the son of Mary will bring you prosperity,
and every guest will have their share.
Often what is given away comes back
to the generous hand,
and what is kept back disappears altogether.
O living God!
— St Columba
Paraphrased from Franciscans Day by Day December 17
[Franciscans Day by Day is a set of short readings for the year prepared by the JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) group of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis in the Province of the Americas.]
The most ferocious parable Jesus told was one about two debtors. The lord calls in the first of the debtors, who owed a colossal sum, and demands he pay up. He threatens to thrown the slave in prison and enslave his family. The slave begs for mercy, for time to pay. The lord has compassion on him, and gives him more than time to pay: he forgives the debt and released him.
This forgiven slave then leaves the lord’s presence and meets a fellow-slave who owes him a much smaller debt. He throttles him and demands immediate payment. The fellow-slave falls to his knees and begs for mercy. The first slave refuses to respond. When the lord finds out how the forgiven slave has behaved, he reverses his generosity and has him tortured until he repays everything he owed.
‘And so,’ concludes Jesus, ‘will my heavenly Father do to you if each of you does not forgive brother or sister from the heart.’ (Matthew 18:35)
Kenneth Bailey describes the economic back story. In each village in the Middle East a principal landowner controlled all the cropping and grazing in the village. This abu or sheikh was like a feudal lord. Every aspect of economic life in the village derived from the sheikh.
Jesus makes first a comparison between this village economy and the economy of God. The lord in the story demonstrates a generosity that goes far beyond justice when he ignores the request for time to pay, and instead releases his servant and forgives the debt. This lord is not behaving as a prudent sheikh would behave. A prudent sheikh would be generous by making a deal. This lord reveals instead the divine generosity, which gives total freedom to those who seek it.
The expectation is that those who are graced with freedom should reveal the same generosity in dealing with others. The forgiven slave in the parable acts in the opposite manner than the lord expects and so receives the worst punishment the lord can inflict on him.
But as in the challenging parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus foregrounds the absolute generosity of the lord, the sheikh of the village and not so much the behaviour of the servants. Can you imagine the sheikh of your village forgiving the debt absolutely? If so, can you imagine a little of the extraordinary generosity of the divine economy? Once you start to get this picture of God you can begin to participate in the generous economy.
Imagine if we treated our sister or brother not simply with justice, but by releasing everyone from all the claims we might make on them. Our village, our community, would be marked by a wonderful freedom and genuine intimacy one with another.
At its best, we can glimpse this divine economy at work in our church and even in other communities.
But this parable holds up a mirror to the messy world of commerce as well as God’s economy.
Jesus’ attention is caught by the differential between the first and second slaves. The first slave owed his lord ten thousand talents. My Bible notes that a talent was equal to 6,000 denarii. One talent is what a labourer could earn in 6,000 days. The debt, 10,000 times 6,000 denarii, is in the order of eight billion dollars in contemporary money. Let’s not forget that this is a parable, and there is an element of exaggeration, but even so, the money owed by this slave is tying up at least the economic operation of this village, or more. The Gross National Income of our neighbour East Timor is only 2½ billion dollars.
Jesus contrasts this figure with the debt of the other slave: 100 denarii. This is about $14,000. It is not a trifle for someone who might earn only 300 denarii a year, but it’s a possible debt. The sort of debt I know people have on the credit card or in car finance. If I owed $14,000 and was asked for immediate payment, I could make it, but with difficulty.
Note the contrast in the debt: billions to hundreds. The economy of a nation contrasted with the economy of a small household. The first slave owed six hundred thousand times what the second slave owed.
This differential rings bells: the Institute for Policy Studies says that CEO’s are paid 340 times the average worker in 2011, compared to 42-1 in 1980. (The Institute calls itself a ‘progressive think-tank’, which probably means that is to the left politically, but its figures are compelling.)
Jesus understands the economic system where the sheikh holds the life of every villager in his hands. Everything is the ultimately the sheikh’s gift, and villagers can suffer enormously under greedy or incompetent village management. But surprisingly, Jesus does not criticise the system. His fierce words are for those whose greed exploits the system whatever it is, for those who feel entitled to hundreds of thousands times more resources than his fellow-citizens.
The system, Jesus seems to say, may evolve and repair itself slowly. But whatever the system the urgent wrong to right is the exploitation by the rich of the poor.
The system itself will reward greed: what is asked of us is to express our moral outrage that people feel so entitled.
In the end, Jesus does suggest a subversion of the system: rather than make generous deals with debtors, debts should be forgiven so that no member of the community is beholden to another. The existence of power of one brother or sister over another especially through indebtedness threatens the free functioning of a just and loving community.
We are challenged to make sure that we do not have claims over other people’s lives. Are there debts we can forgive? If there are we should forgive them now. Do we hold a sense of entitlement to things that should belong to all? What does it mean that I can live modestly on $30,000 a year and over a billion of my brothers and sisters are struggling to live on less than $2 a day? How can I let go of that claim?
When the parable is held up as a mirror to the messy world of commerce, these are some of the questions that are revealed. The big question is: How do we parallel the generosity of God?