Saturday, November 15, 2008

Economics 101

16 November 2008 * Matthew 25:14-30
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Sabbath Economics

Prologue: “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space. It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time. In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space. To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective. Yet, to have more does not mean to be more. The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.
“To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is to not to have, but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of the things of space, becomes our sole concern.” Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel (Shambala, Boston:2003) p.ix

All of a sudden we are all hearing all sorts of lessons and theories of Economics. Experts abound. Those of us old enough may recall such moments in modern economic theory as E.F. Shumacher’s Small Is Beautiful and President George Herbert Walker Bush’s declarations about the Voodoo Economics of his then adversary. And we hear about such things as macro and micro economics, supply side and free market economics, Keynesian economics and the like. Economics very well may be a far more mysterious discipline and field of study than Theology!

But rarely do we hear much about Biblical Economics, or what some might call Sabbath Economics. We pray that “all holy Scriptures” are written for our learning – and we need to “read, mark and inwardly digest” ALL holy scripture to begin to understand any small section of the Bible.

There are three cornerstone principals of Sabbath Economics outlined in Manna Season way back in Genesis on the left hand side of the Bible: 1)Everyone is to have enough, 2) No one is to store up or accumulate more than enough, and 3)On the Sabbath there will be none. The Sabbath is not a religious regulation, but an economic practice that is an alternative to life in Egypt which was an economy based on ruthless policies of surplus-extraction and militarism. The Bible’s Sabbath regulations represent God’s strategy for teaching Israel - and anyone else who is reading, marking and inwardly digesting this stuff – about our dependence upon the land as a gift to share, not as a possession to exploit.

Enter our Parable of the Talents as it is called. It ought to be called the Parable of the Hero of Sabbath Economics. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as Sabbath or Biblical Economics. Like everyone else in the world, God has an economic plan. And to understand this Parable we need to know that. Or else, as we learned at Vestry on Monday evening, this looks like a bad news story rather than a good news story. Who would want to serve a God as mercy-less and rapacious as the Master in the story? Obviously something is amiss in our understanding of this tale that has too often been made out to be an affirmation of modern day investment strategies at worse, or a tame affirmation that we all have “certain talents” at best.

Make no mistake, this is about money, and lots of it. A Talent weighed between 57 and 74 pounds of silver! Equal to 6,000 denarii – the average days wage for a day laborer – it represents more than 15 years wages –which some have said the amount given the slaves for investment is worth approximately two and a half million of our dollars. We are talking serious day-trading and venture capital here! Not the fact that someone might be an expert at needlepoint or macramé.

In traditional Mediterranean society, stability, not self-advancement, is the ideal. Earning anything more than 12% was and is considered rapacious. Anyone trying to accumulate inordinate wealth is understood to be dishonorable since it is always the result of extorting and defrauding other members of the community through trading, tax collecting and money lending.

Further, the primary instrument of investment is land or property. Large landowners, like the master in our story, made loans to peasants based on crop production. With high interest rates, lean years, draught and famine, these tenant farmers unable to make their payments faced foreclosure. The cycle of poverty begins when a family falls into debt, deepened when forced to sell its land to service the debt (anyone hearing the words “home equity lines”), and concludes when all they could sell is their labor thus becoming bond-slaves. Remember, this is how we became slaves in Egypt to begin with, through a series of credit arrangements and mortgage foreclosures – a quick review and digestion of Genesis chapter 47 details this regression into poverty and slavery.

Those listening to Jesus tell this story recognize all too quickly who the bad guys are and who the lone good guy is because this is the story of their lives. The bad guys are praised by the master for having foreclosed enough mortgages to double his earnings, land holdings and bond-slaves. The good guy is the one who mounts a non-violent protest and refuses to defraud his fellow peasants by burying the talent in the ground.

This becomes a kind of peasant insider joke, which we who are so far distanced from the land and how our food is really produced have no chance of getting. Those who work the land know that all true wealth comes from God, the source of rain, sunshine, seed and soil. This silver talent when sown can produce no fruit – reminiscent of the money cast as religion – idols – which also have no power to produce good. The Talent, like idols, is bad seed.

Here is a clash of economic world-views: the traditional agrarian stability model of enough for everyone “use-value”, and the elite’s currency-based system of accumulation and “exchange-value.”

One needs to recall that at the end of last Sunday’s parable about the bridesmaids we were cautioned to “stay awake” so as not to be caught unawares by the upcoming moment of truth in this story. Those listening no doubt “get it” because they have a firm grasp of the Bible’s teaching of Sabbath Economics. So what do we make of our activist hero being cast into the “outer darkness?”

We presume this to be hell, and perhaps it is hell – hell on earth where those who are marginalized by the dominant, elite economic culture end up living in the shadows, on the mean streets, in the outcast territories between towns, beyond the lights of the big cities and great households – life lived with the poor. To grasp our hero-slave’s banishment we must turn to next Sunday’s, and Matthew’s, next parable – The Last Judgment (MT 25: 31-46) where we learn that those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and prisoners and welcome strangers are where one is most likely to meet Christ. That is, the whistleblower’s punishment kicks him out of the rich man’s system but closer to the true Lord who dwells among the poor. It is the same Lord who teaches us to pray for daily bread (manna), and to forgive debts (n.b., sin and debt are the same word in Jesus’ native Aramaic) – that is, Jesus teaches us to pray for a return to Sabbath Economics.

As we heard last Sunday, what we call The Lord’s Prayer is really, says Bishop Sutton, The Disciples’ Prayer – a prayer for Sabbath Economics. Can we read, mark and inwardly digest this story seriously enough to “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life” Jesus offers in this challenging and clever critique of all systems of economics which compete with Sabbath Economics? It is difficult to imagine any more important time to do so than now! Amen.

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