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Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Economics of Compassion

Texts: Jeremiah 2. 4-13; Psalm 81. 1, 10-16; Hebrews 13. 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14. 7-14

We hear a terrible lot about economics these days.  A terrible lot.  The daily output of our many media really is full, flowing over, indeed, with both the language and values of economics.  There’s the Stock Market with its All Ordinaries Index and its Futures Index.  There’s the National Economic Outlook, which tells us whether we ought to be happy or sad about life.  Then there’s Interest Rates - our own and those in the United States - the tightening or untightening of Monetary and/or Fiscal policies.  There’s the GDP, the GNP and the Current Account Deficit.  There’s frequent reports on how much we’re paying per refugee.  And all of this is reported to us, the citizens of Australia, on at least an hourly basis.  It’s almost as if our lives depended on this stuff; indeed, for an increasing number of Australians, life and economic prosperity have become practically synonymous.  The people most alive, we are told, the people most with it, the people who are really going somewhere in this life - they give their money to Colonial which, apparently, provides the fastest, the safest, the most responsibly managed ride to economic and financial nirvana.

It’s a curious thing, you know, how words change their meanings.  Because economics hasn’t always been about the accumulation of private wealth.  It hasn’t always been about getting rich off the back of someone else’s labour.  Once upon a time, economics was about the way we shared this planet of ours.  It was about the values of equilibrium and care:  care of one’s neighbour, and care of the land on which we all depend.  In fact, the word ‘economics’ is derived from a Greek word: ‘oikodome’, which means ‘household’.  In the ancient world, economics was about the way in which a household constructed its life not only for its own ends, but also for the good of the community in which it participated.  And in the hands of early Christian thinkers like Paul of Tarsus, oikodome because a potent symbol of the new life of peace and justice which Christ had come to build in the world.   Paul calls his apostolic ministry a service to the oikodome of Christ (2 Cor 13.10), and reminds believers that they ought to treat one another according to the spirit of that same oikodome (Rom 14.19).  Paul encourages each Christian to use their gifts, talents and personal resources to build one another up into the oikodome of Christ, a holy temple in which God is pleased to dwell (Eph 2.21, 22).

The values of Christ’s economy are spelled out for us in that wonderful passage we read from Hebrews earlier on.  And we would do well to re-read that passage now, listening for the way in which the economics of Christ confronts the economics of our age.  
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence,‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
For Christians, then, economics is certainly not about the accumulation of personal wealth.  And it is not about keeping ourselves safe from the misfortunes which befall others.  It is fundamentally about joining our fortunes to the fortunes of others.  It’s about counting ourselves rich because of the infinite gift of God to us in the mystery of Christ, and out of that irreducible gift, choosing to give our own selves, body and soul, for the sake of the common wealth which Christ is building.  

Of course, the economics of God’s commonwealth are seen most clearly in the career of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel we read of the time when he went to the house (oikos) of a local Jewish leader for a wedding party.  It was the Sabbath Day, the day when Jews commemorated and anticipated the Shalom of God, that final rest for all who are burdened and heavy laden.  For Jesus, the Sabbath provided the perfect symbolic backdrop for confronting the economics of his time, the details of which may be extracted from the story.  1st century Mediterranean economics operated according to what has been called a patron/ client system of relationships.  Which meant that everybody was born to a station in life, a spot in the pecking order if you like; and the only way that one could hang on to that station was to gain and keep the favour of someone who was a little bit higher up the ladder.  The more favours you did, the more likely you were to gain a stable and respectable patron.  And the more respectable your patronage, the more chance you had of surviving with your dignity intact. Now the important thing to remember here is that the economics of Jesus’ world was an economics of exchange between people who were certainly not equal.  The poorer person did his or her work in exchange for the favour of his or her betters.  Much like modern-day India, really.

Now, how did Jesus regard this economics of exchange?  Well, the answer is not so clear as we might think.  To our modern ears, Jesus does not come across as entirely consistent in this story.  You see, the first tip Jesus passes on to his fellow party-goers is how to make the most out of the patron/client system.  ‘Sit in the lowliest place at a banquet’, says Jesus, ‘so that when you are invited to step up higher, all will see that your patron is granting you his favour’.  In other words, don’t risk the disfavour of a patron by presuming too much!  Now this advice clearly approves of the economics of exchange, or is at least resigned to it.  There is nothing here which signifies a more radical economics.  Even Luke’s invocation of humility as a moral virtue does little to shift the compliance of the story with the usual economics.  It is a morality entirely consistent with patron/client exchange.

But in the second part of the story, the ground shifts, the earth moves, and we find ourselves in an entirely different orbit.  Jesus now turns to the one who is giving the banquet, the one who functions as Jesus’ patron, and pulls the rug out from under his entire enterprise.  ‘You ought not invite people to banquets in order to seek their favour’, he says. One ought not invite one’s patrons.  ‘Indeed’, says Jesus, ‘you should not even invite potential clients, those from whom goods and services might be extracted in return for one’s own favour’.  ‘When you are preparing a banquet,’ he says to this fellow (and I can see his jaw drop even now), ‘invite only the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.’  In other words, invite only the ‘untouchables’, the very lowest echelon of society, those who are neither patrons nor clients, those for whom there is no economic status at all.  Why?  Because they could never repay you in a million years.  They could never repay you in a million years . . .  Can you feel the ground shift?  Can you see the tear in those old wineskins?  Here Jesus calls the whole system of patron and client into question.  He rejects, utterly, the morality of a system whereby people are valued only insofar as they have something to exchange.  Only insofar as they are willing to exploit and be exploited.  Only insofar as they are able to reduce themselves to relations of usefulness.  And he does so on the basis of what can only be called a vision of messianic justice: a strong belief in the patronage of God for all people, a radically different kind of patronage which is given freely and without condition of response.  A patronage which gives even the ‘untouchable’ ones a sacred status as children of the Most High God.

It is only in the light of this second story that the first one begins to make some sense.  Where the first story, on an initial reading at least, seems to cast Jesus as a simple supporter of the status quo, this second story forces us to read it otherwise.  For we can now see what kind of humility Christ is calling us to.  Not the humility which expects a return as part of the exchange of client and patron.  Not the humility which is motivated by self-interest.  We are called, rather, to a humility which takes the form of solidarity.  A humility which joins our fortunes to others simply because they are loved of God, and for no other reason.  Loved of God, and heirs of the gift which has no exchange-rate, and can never be repaid in a million years.  This is a humility which radically transforms the economics by which we operate, from an economics of exchange to an economics of compassion.

You can see where I am going with this, can’t you!  This year our Government again showed us that it is deeply committed to an economics of exchange, and knows almost nothing about the economics of compassion taught us by Christ.    I submit to you that the basic reason why asylum-seekers who arrive by boat are being refused entry to Australia is simply this.  That the rate of exchange is not deemed good enough; that, in the view of our government, these people are unlikely to return our investment in their livelihoods with a sufficiently high rate of interest.  I could talk all day about the wrongs and rights of Australia’s approach to asylum seekers.  I could rant and rave about the legality or illegality of what we do with regard to detention, for example.  But I will not.  Because at the heart of the controversy is this clear and decisive contradiction between the economics of exchange and the oikodome of compassion, a contradiction that we Christian’s are called to live out and draw attention to - to gossip, to preach, to work and to pray this contradiction with all the grace and compassion of Christ.  It is this vocation that the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Konrad Raiser, called us in an open letter a few years ago:
. . .  the Gospel tells us that Jesus made the love for strangers and enemies a hallmark of the inclusive community of the children of God. In this, he followed the Old Testament tradition of receiving the stranger . . .  “Christians are called to be with the oppressed, the persecuted, the marginalised and the excluded in their suffering, their struggles and their hopes. A ministry of accompaniment and advocacy with uprooted people upholds the principles of prophetic witness and service - diaconia. We cannot desert the 'needy', nor set boundaries to compassion.
In the economy of God, there are no boundaries to the welcome we, all of us, receive by the unconditional gift of God’s grace.  So let us not set boundaries and conditions ourselves.  Freely we have received.  Freely let us give.

This homily was first preached at South Yarra Baptist Church in September 2001. 


  1. Maybe we should talk about this area of work? I hope you have seen the Assembly statement, An Economy of Life... This is a great piece. Thank you.

  2. You're welcome Elenie.