Jesus has had a busy day. And those who cared about him suggested some ‘time out’. Take time to kick back, lie back, and relax. So, he went on a little boat trip on the lake with his gang of mates. There’s nothing like the soothing of the sea to recharge your soul.
They landed at a deserted place. But it didn’t stay deserted for long. The crowds had spotted him, and came flocking. Rather than being peeved that his ‘time out’ was now over Jesus felt compassion for the crowd, and began to teach them.
Well, time ticked on, and folk started to get hungry. Jesus’ ever practical disciples suggested him to meet this hunger need by using a strategy based on how the imperial economy worked [this is often called ‘common sense’]. In the Mark account the disciples told Jesus to send the people into the villages “to buy for themselves to eat something” [v.36].
Jesus however, and the Jesus’ communities that put together this story, followed an alternate economic strategy: that of hospitality and gift-giving. This strategy as the reading from 2 Kings[i] implied, had been around a while. Any prophets, like Elisha and Jesus, cared about economics.
The common sense of “to buy for themselves something to eat” is usurped by Jesus saying, “You [disciples] give them something to eat”. Philip, the common sense accountant, responds saying: ‘Not even 6 months wages would be enough to feed this lot!’
Anne Primevesi, an Irish theologian, describes the Jesus economic strategy as “a conscious acceptance of and commitment to the fact that our lives depend on indivisible benefits, on our being given what we need to sustain life whether or not we can or do pay for it.”
Primevesi is suggesting that our first reality is gift – the gift of connectedness. We have been given life. We are sustained in life by relationships and the environment. We are part of a network of dependency, blessedness, hospitality, generosity, and gratitude. This is our primary reality. The imperial economy is a secondary reality.
In the Mark account of the story the disciples have found five loaves and two fish. Jesus then asks the disciples to seat the crowd in groups, or what Elaine Wainwright calls ‘circles of hospitality’ in which food is to be shared. Wainwright says there is no language in the text of multiplication, only circles of cooperation, in which and among whom the bread and fish are distributed after being blessed and broken. The multitude is fed.
This is not a story about magic. It is not a story about Jesus saying some ‘hey presto’ words and making one loaf into a thousand. Rather it is a story about theology and economics. It is a story about our lives being blessed, broken open, and given in order that the hunger of the many will be met. It’s about an ethic of valuing everyone, regardless of wealth and status, and cooperating together to ensure all are catered for. It’s an alternative to the economics of the Empire - an alternative where the rich few do not receive the largest share and the impoverished go hungry.
In the John account of this story there is a fool. This fool - a young boy – is from the social class that J.D. Crossan calls ‘nuisances and nobodies’. He is not rich or has status. He is one of the vulnerable. He offers his material assets – assets that would have assuaged his own hunger. The disciple Andrew, in an act that deserved his elevation to Scottish sainthood, recognizes this foolish gesture as faith. Note faith is a risky act, not an intellectual understanding. In effect the John account is saying, ‘you don’t have to be rich, a ‘Bill Gates’, to make a difference. Even the vulnerable among you have the power within them, when motivated by generosity and compassion, to effect change.’
At St Luke’s we are familiar with the idea of those who are economically vulnerable having the power within them to effect change. This is one of the foundations of ADC – Aotearoa Development Cooperative. For those unfamiliar with ADC it is a NZ organization supporting microfinance, built in partnership with local people in Myanmar and Malawi, to provide short-term loans to those in poverty who wish to create their own business. As a subset of those who are economically vulnerable, ADC seeks to empower women in communities where gender imbalances predominate.
As a bystander, I see ADC promoting a number of beliefs. Like belief in the innovative and entrepreneurial capacity of the economically vulnerable. Like belief in building relationships of mutual understanding across the divides of culture and class. Like belief in mutual support and accountability among those receiving loans. Individual who receive loans are placed in small groups of recipients where they are mutually responsible for each other, and thus have a stake in the success of each other.
There is in ADC, philosophy of valuing of the dignity and worth of each person, regardless of wealth, status, or gender. There is a valuing of relationships. There is a valuing of empathy, mutuality, and cooperation. These values I would suggest resonate with the values of the early Jesus communities.
I mentioned a couple of Sundays back that I’ve been reading a book by Bruce Perry, a distinguish child psychiatrist who specializes in treating traumatized children. It’s called The Boy Who Was Raised by a Dog. In his final and concluding chapter Bruce talks about the ingredients needed to both raise healthy children and help repair traumatized children.
Perry emphasizes the importance of relationships to build or rebuild trust and confidence, and their importance in giving security and love. Those who experience ‘healing’ do so because of a strong social network. It is not surprising then to hear him say that what vulnerable children need the most is a healthy community which gives consistent, patient, repetitive loving care.
Our brains develop patterns or ‘grooves’ very early in life by repetition. He says, “The truth is you cannot love yourself unless you have been loved and are loved. The capacity to love cannot be built in isolation.”[ii] A brain becomes what it practices – whether that is trust or fear, love or hate. To experience empowerment, to develop resilience, requires a community who repeatedly exhibit and practice these qualities.
Perry also underlines the importance of developing empathy and the need for cooperation. He points out that for too long we’ve been influenced by a mistaken version of evolution – i.e. that animals who are the ‘winners’ are those whose selfish behaviour maximizes their chances of survival and reproduction. This view, sometimes called ‘social Darwinism’, focuses on the competition of the fittest for survival. But it ignores two vitality important points: empathy and cooperation. Researchers, according to Perry, found that especially in delicately balanced environments, those that learn how to empathize and cooperate are those who are more likely to survive.
Interestingly, many military strategists – those who make up the various high level think-tanks around the world – concur with Perry. But they see the whole planet Earth as a delicately balanced environment where empathy and cooperation are no longer nice ideas but essential for survival. As a species we humans need to learn how to empathize and cooperate in order to survive.
This wisdom though is increasingly under threat from those with a tribal rather than a global perspective. Such ‘tribes’ include the likes of ISIS and the Taliban – exercising religio-cultural exclusivity, as well as the very rich in Western economies – exercising wealth-class exclusivity.
For the last twenty six days I’ve been writing a daily reflection on the authentic works of Paul #30DaysofPaul. In Philippians Paul writes “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” [4:11b, 12a]
On our little planet that quote from Paul is a magnificent and frightening measure to hold up against our values and priorities. Just the other day I was having a discussion about economics and the Grecian/Eurozone crisis. ‘What if,’ I said, ‘the goal for an economy is to provide the conditions for the maximum number of people to be content. Not to be rich, but to be content.’
What economic strategies then would create maximum contentment for those with a little or a lot of money/resources? What would help create a happy future where all, like in the Gospel story, might be fed?
Based on what I’ve being saying, here are some beatitudes for our times:
Blessed are those who value each person regardless of their economic productivity or potential, for we are an inter-connected relational economic unit, not just a bunch of individuals or families.
Blessed are those who feel compassion, who practice empathy, and who forge – despite opposition - cooperation between those who are from different ‘tribes’ and perspectives. We not only need to build healthy communities but a healthy planet.
Blessed are those who recognize that work is at best about meaning and purpose. Some people’s work therefore will not generate income, and that work may be the most valuable [like caring for children in their early years].
Blessed are those who know that hospitality and gift-giving are fundamental to a successful society and economy. The earning and exchange of money is secondary. Hospitality is a way of publicly honouring relationships and their importance.
Blessed are those who know the value of mutuality, practice it, and create economic systems and systems of governance that reflect it.
Blessed are those who understand that for an economy to succeed people must have hope. And blessed are those who engender hope by enabling people to have the power to make decisions about their own lives and create/find meaningful work.
Blessed are those who are content; and who know that contentment is a spiritual value that needs careful cultivation. For it needs to be modelled by leaders, and taught by parents. Contentment is the value that will thwart greed.
[i] 2 Kings 4:42-44.
[ii] Bruce Perry, p.234.