I do not want what I haven't got
There is turbulence in the air these days. Rioting and flames in London. The US struggling to manage its finances. Famine in the Horn of Africa. And the ongoing situations of crisis and rebellion in the Middle East. What is going on with our world? Do all these things just happen to coincide in time, or is there, in fact, a common thread running through them all?
I think there is a common thread. A very basic common thread. And we don't have to go to an obscure Bible verse to get some idea about what God might think about it. It's right there in the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not covet. Or, as the Jerusalem translation has it:
“You shall not set your heart on your neighbour's house. You shall not set your heart on your neighbour's spouse, or servant, man or woman, or ox, or donkey, or any of your neighbour's possessions.”
We live in a world economy that actually requires us to covet. Our economy is based on growth, which is to say, to function it requires us to continue to want what we do not have, and to make it and buy it. To ensure this keeps happening, we have an advertising industry that invites, seduces and compels us to 'set our hearts on' our neighbour's house, spouse, vehicle and appliances, and to want them for ourselves. We have a cult of celebrity, which in effect, is a way of setting up certain lifestyles and appearances as desirable – lifestyles and appearances that are beyond the means of most ordinary people. And so we work harder to spend more so that our lives can look a little bit more like those people our system tells us to admire...despite the fact that issues of character and virtue don't come into the equation on the admiration front...it's all about the airbrushed exterior. Our governments, with their eye on the next election, formulate economic policy that is designed to make sure that individuals feel that they will be financially better off.
Everything is pandering to our greed. To our tendency to set our hearts on things other than what we already have.
The recession we're in now can be blamed to a significant degree on the whole mortgage and insurance fiasco in the United states a few years ago – a debacle caused entirely by the greed of the banking and insurance sectors pandering to the desires of a whole lot of people wanting to buy houses that they couldn't afford. The outcome? Even greater wealth disparity between the impossibly rich and the wretchedly poor. And it's not just in the US. Simon Peres recently commented that Israel's financial policy of the past many years created “6,000 millionaires and 6 million beggars.”
Some of those rioting in London might well have been thugs and bandwagon-jumpers, as the government and some commentators there would have us believe. But others are just angry at the loss of hope – hope that they will ever have a job, hope that things will be different, hope that their communities will be able to support them into a life where safety and belonging can be found outside a gang. The fact that they attacked shops is of course criminal, and of course devastating for those whose livelihoods went up in flames. But it tells us something about the symbols of the crisis – consumer goods. Goods that represent what we are all told we need and should want, or indeed 'set our hearts on', but that only some people are able to buy. Many of the looters are those for whom meaning has been defined in terms of what they are conditioned to want, but can't afford. They were stealing a vision of the good life.
I hope I don't sound too politically partisan here. Yes, I am someone who leans reasonably far to the left in my politics. But what I wish to draw out here is not that one political party has it right and another has it wrong. But that our entire system, whether we're rich or poor, whether we vote for Act or Labour, asks us, compels us, to do something that God has warned us not to do. And that's to shape our lives and our choices and our values around wanting what we do not have.
Not only is this creating crisis in our own Western countries, but the flow on effects for the resources of our earth, and survival of the poorest people of the world, are terrible. It is greed that is cutting down rainforests, that is causing once farm-able land to become desert – Western greed, and also the greed of governments that would see their own people suffer and die rather than give up a shred of their own wealth or power.
When Jesus came walking among us he chose a metaphor to describe the vision of a realm where people's hearts were governed by the loving presence of God rather than the basest of human instincts for power and security. He called it the 'kingdom of God.' Jesus and his followers lived and moved and breathed within a real political kingdom – an empire with an emperor – a system of hierarchy where there was wealth and success for some and oppression for others. Jesus' alternative vision subverted the language of empire by asserting a way of life that was not dictated to by any of the powers of empire – a way of freedom from inner chains as well as political assumptions about value.
If Jesus was walking among us today, I suspect he wouldn't choose the phrase 'kingdom of God' – it no longer resonates in the same way. When I think – 'what is the system that dominates our lives, outside of which most people cannot even think or imagine', I think of the economy. Not just the merry go round of earning and spending and borrowing and lending that dominates most of our waking lives. But the obedient service we give mentally and with our choices to a world where it seems everything is a commodity, even human beings. A world based on wanting more, wanting different, and making ourselves secure. A world where we see people through the lens of what they have and don't have, whether they have jobs or not, and whether they contribute to or detract from the great flow of financial wellbeing. Where people with mental health or addiction issues moving into our street are considered not only a threat to our personal safety but to our property values. I think that Jesus might talk about the 'economy of God' in articulating a life lived in God, rather than the human system that enthralls us.
For us to enter into the economy of God is to realise that the truth about the world is much larger and deeper and more delightful than our current existence – an existence that has been shaped largely by human covetousness. But to a large extent we have to realise that truth within the constraints of still being players in the world economy as it is. Jesus taught us to render unto God what is God's and render unto Caesar what is Caesar's...that is, complete opt-out of the system is not the only way forward. What are some ways that we might make a genuine shift into God's economy while still living within the existing processes? I want to notice three cornerstones of the divine economy. First, the principle of enoughness, second, the necessity of trust, and third, the attention of our heart.
When the Israelites wandered in the desert, God fed them on 'manna'. Moses' instructions to the people the first time this manna descended were that they were to gather as much as they needed to eat for that day. They were to keep none of it for tomorrow. When they followed this principle, the manna arrived day by day, and there was enough to eat. Inevitably, human instinct for having more and self-preservation kicked in – some collected more than they needed to keep for the following day, but it bred maggots and smelt foul. Others ignored the instruction to collect twice as much on the sixth day so they could observe the sabbath, and went out looking for manna on the seventh day as well – essentially ignoring the assurance that God would provide for their rest.
Jesus picked up on this image in the prayer he taught his disciples: 'Give us this day our daily bread.' And also in the parable of the man who built new barns to house his large surplus. The economy of God says that we will have enough for our needs, as long as we acknowledge God as the source of provision, and don't let an obsessive desire for 'more' cause us to hoard up today what we feel we may want tomorrow. I'm not advocating that we don't work or save money. We live in the world that we live in, and for most of us 'God's provision' happens by way of earning and thoughtful money management. But where we feel unable to rest, or to give to others, or to make space for voluntary activity, because we're driven by a desire for more than we need, or when our definition of 'enough' is in excess of what we actually need, then we are products of our culture rather than citizens in God's economy. How do we go about being content with our daily bread, rather than always living with an eye on what we don't yet have? A practice of gratitude is a good start. Thanksgiving is at the heart of God's economy because it turns our attention to what God has already done, the (often non material) blessings that are already ours, the 'enoughness' that can be genuinely satisfying if we can learn to be grateful for it.
So much of entering into a different relationship with the 'way things are' economically is about what we do with our fear. Comparatively few of us sitting here have ever experienced, or will ever experience what it is to have no food, no roof over our head, and no prospect of that changing. And even if we do, we still have a welfare safety net that most of us have the capacity to be able to access. We will not die from lack of funds. And yet a great many of us relate to things like jobs, money, and housing with a fearful heart. I know I do. The economic anxiety I live with is way out of synch with the realities of my life. And I believe that it's anxiety bred not of a genuine fear of destitution, but of being unable to satisfy my wants and to drop below the standard of living that our culture and our peers dictate to us as normal and desirable. I fear that I will cease to be happy, worthwhile and approved of if I become poor.
Jesus addressed himself very particularly to this fear. Much of his teaching and his life was designed to cultivate an alternative spirit of trust for his disciples. Trust that beneath the currents of exchange and greed that dominate the world's economy and divide the world into haves and have nots, into financial winners and losers, there is a flow and an abundance that is God's provision for all. “Do not worry about tomorrow”, Jesus taught...”God knows what you need.” In feeding the 5,000 he demonstrated the overflowing baskets of left-overs that come from being thankful for small offerings and sharing what we have. He told us that he was the good shepherd, which reminds us of the opening of Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
The parable of the talents, I believe, is not about 'making good use of the gifts you have', but about entering into a world of risk, exchange, and abundance, rather than hoarding or burying what we have in fear of it being taken away. Throughout the Scriptures we are encouraged over and over again to trust in this alternative flow, the rhythms of grace, the economy of God. Where there is lack and devastation, this is where human actions have profoundly distorted and blocked that flow. It is the sin of the Western, developed world, and the greed and megalomania of political and tribal leaders that causes the tragedy of human want in places like Africa. Maybe if we in the West can learn to trust, we can be agents of health rather than devastation for other parts of the world. The question is, will we choose mentally to live in a human economy of scarcity, or a divine economy of abundance?
Finally, where are our hearts at? I really enjoy the New Jerusalem translation of the commandment not to covet: “You shall not set your heart... on your neighbour's house etc.” because it directly connects to Jesus' teaching about “where your treasure is, there is your heart.” Our economy teaches us to value 'stuff', and for many people, 'treasure' is defined in terms of wealth, or consumer items. That way lies covetousness. But God calls us again and again to re-define treasure in terms of love, most concretely expressed in relationships with people. The basic commandments are these – love God, love your neighbour. In the passage that our children are studying this term, the famous 'love' passage from 1 Corinthians 13, we hear that love is not jealous, and never seeks its own advantage. When our hearts are conditioned toward love as the most important thing, we become people who are more inclined to give, than to covet. To enter the economy of God, we need conversion of heart, a renewal of our definitions of treasure and desire, a deepening of our capacity to love.
Here's a bit of a song:
[play first half of Sinead O'Connor - 'I do not want what I haven't got.']
I am not frightened although it's hot.
I have water for my journey.
I have bread and I have wine.
When we have the living water and the bread of life, when we consume Christ in the bread and wine, rather than setting our hearts on consuming the 'goods' of this world's economy, then there is no need to be afraid. There will be enough. As we go deeper into Christ our hearts are changed, our ability to trust in an alternate flow is deepened. We begin to see the chains of fear and envy that bind us to the bankrupt definitions of a good life dictated to us by our culture. And we become able to see that our life is in God's hands...we don't have to keep taking it back and putting it in the hands of the economy instead. We can set our hearts on love, on God, and our neighbour's good, rather than on our neighbour's goods.
Pray with me:
Our God, teach us to be content with what we have,
and grateful for all that you have provided.
Take our fear and turn it into trust.
When we grasp hold of things,
and try to manufacture our own security,
come beside us to help us loosen our grip,
and to receive instead the bounty of an open hand.
May our lives be marked
not by what we want to buy,
but by who we love.
Let our hearts be single,
undivided by a conflict of loyalties
owed both to you and to the god of this earth, Money.
Forgive us our greed,
and lead us not into temptation.
breathe through the crises of our current age,
so that the economy of earth
may be transformed into the economy of God.