Loaves and Fishes Economics
How does Christian faith tradition help us understand issues about money, economics and economic justice? We know that there are some basic understandings about fairness and kindness that are clear from any faith tradition or moral tradition. Beyond those basics, what does our faith tradition teach us? This outline looks at themes of incarnation, multiplication, abundance, creativity, fairness and justice, looking at unique perspectives from the Bible about economics.
Our best human instincts teach us some basics. Be kind, be generous, be honest. Treat others as you would want to be treated. Place a priority on helping those who are in need. These basic principles are clear from any faith tradition or moral tradition.
Beyond these basics, there are many more complex questions about social and economic justice, often with contrasting principles that need to be balanced. When is it right to enjoy plentiful resources and when is it right to embrace simplicity? When, why and how should individuals, churches and communities practice charity? When, why and how should we seek economic re-distribution to address differences in income and wealth? When, why and how should we seek economic reforms to address imbalances in access to opportunities, education, legal rights, land and resources? Looking at two millenia of Christian history, what teachings and practices have supported a love of charity and a pursuit of economic justice? What teachings and practices have led to economic injustice and economic harm?
I believe that Biblical narratives teach an approach that is hopeful, anchored in a vision of abundance rather than scarcity, that values courage, generosity and creative action. This vision is based on the theme of God's incarnation in the world -- our faith is one that is rooted in the day-to-day ordinary world, with ordinary things often transformed by God's presence.
The idea of incarnation -- God here with us -- is central to the Biblical story. God's presence as Creator, Savior and Spirit transforms ordinary things on earth to sacred. Water is more than water, bread is more than bread, a harvest is more than a harvest.
(2.) INCARNATION AND ORDINARINESS.
The theme of incarnation means that God appears in the ordinariness of life as well as in the divine. Unlike a faith tradition focused solely on spiritual enlightenment, the Biblical tradition is built around the messiness of human existence. God appears in stories of human struggle as well as in visions of spiritual connection. Sometimes God appears in the clouds, sometimes in a burning bush right in front of us, sometimes as an angel, sometimes as a prisoner or sick person or hungry person or stranger traveling through your city. One of the most consistent commands throughout the Bible is to welcome the stranger and alien. In Deuteronomy: welcome the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt. In the Letter to the Hebrews: Because by welcoming the stranger you may be welcoming angels. In Matthew: Whenever you showed kindness to the sick, the hungry, the prisoner or the stranger you did this for Jesus.
(3.) MIRACLES OF ABUNDANCE.
The logic and mathematics of ordinary economics is raised up to a higher level by God's presence. With God, ordinary miracles are only a beginning. Seeds, rain and sunlight produce food; a Sabbath rest rejuvenates the land to produce even greater harvests. Ordinary miracles are amplified in divine miracles. Water is effortlessly turned into wine; loaves and fishes multiply to feed five thousand; a word from Jesus results in a miraculous catch of fish. The many miracles of abundance in the Bible show a connection between the ordinary miracles of food and water and God's presence in the transformation of ordinary things. Starting with the miracles of manna in the desert and water from a rock, a sense of abundance suggests that we can approach the challenges of the world with faith and courage.
The concept of multiplication is central to the stories and parables of abundance. In the miracle of feeding the crowd of five thousand, a small supply of loaves of bread and fish miraculously multiplies to feed everyone. Some interpretations suggest this could have been an ordinary miracle of sharing: like in the folktale about stone soup, Jesus's boldness inspired people to share food they actually already had with them. Others view this as a divine miracle, with the food multiplying itself as it is passed from person to person in the large crowd.
The principle of multiplication is also portrayed very simply in the parable of the mustard seed, one of the shortest parables that Jesus told. In this parable, Jesus begins by saying that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. A tiny mustard seed, when planted, grows a tremendous large tree. The opposite is also implied. If a seed is hidden away, nothing is planted and nothing grows.
The parable of the mustard seed is expanded in the sometimes-confusing parable of the talents. Jesus tells this story of a master who goes on a journey and leaves three servants in charge of his affairs, leaving a sum of money with each. (In the parable, the money is referred to by the Greek unit of measurement called "talents.") Two of the servants invest the money and produce a good return. A third servant, feeling fearful, hides the money and does nothing with it. When the master returns he rewards the two who invested and is angry with the one who did nothing. At first the story is confusing. Why was the third servant wrong? Is Jesus saying that God favors the successful over the unsuccessful? But that is not at all the point of the story. We know that God favors those who are in need, and we see this confirmed in everything Jesus says and does. The point of the story is that the two servants understood the concept of multiplication. By stepping forward with courage they allowed the ordinary economics of multiplication to happen. In a letter to early Christian churches about generous giving to other churches in need, Paul articulates this concept: "those who sow bountifully will reap bountifully, and those who sow sparingly will reap sparingly."
The theme of faith and courage appears throughout the Biblical narrative. Moses leads the people into the desert as a step of faith, without knowing what will come next. Jesus sends out the twelve disciples on a first mission of teaching and healing without extra food or supplies, asking them to step out with faith in what the journey will bring. In the midst of a drought, a widow shares her last food and water with Elijah, not knowing what will happen next. Faith and courage may be shown in generosity, risk-taking and stepping forward with faith in the midst of uncertainty.
(6.) FAIRNESS/WINNERS AND LOSERS.
Sometimes fairness is complicated. Another challenging parable is the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Jesus tells the story of a farmer who hires workers early in the morning to work on the harvest, then brings in more workers throughout the day, with some hired so late that they only worked the last hour of the day. At the end of the day, the farmer pays them all the same amount, a full day's pay. Those who worked all day are angry. But the farmer assures them that it is fair. No one was cheated, and those who worked the full day received the full day's pay. This parable parallels the well-known story of the prodigal son, in which a brother who has worked faithfully all his life is jealous of his brother, the prodigal son, who had abandoned the farm and who is welcomed home with a feast. While these parables highlight the initial frustration of the responsible brother and the initial anger of the first workers; the stories allow time for reflection so that those involved can develop a sense of wider mercy. Life should not be viewed as a contest with winners and losers, because there is enough for everyone to have what they need.
(7.) BUILDING COMMUNITY.
The early church wrestled with challenges of building a sharing community, meeting the needs of all. In one of the descriptions of the earliest church, the first followers of Jesus lived together communally in Jerusalem after Jesus's death and resurrection. They are described as holding all things in common, selling their property and sharing all that they had. Later, as the church expands throughout the wider world, we read of churches sharing meals in common, taking care of members who are orphaned or widowed, and taking up collections to support other churches in need. This generosity is not always effortless, and in Paul's letters we see him wrestling with advice about what to do about conflicts, advising that all should contribute as well as receive the generosity of others. While the loaves and fishes story was a story of a miraculous day, and the communal early church was a tiny seed that would grow into a larger church, the letters and stories of the subsequent stages of the church focus on the ordinary work of building the wider network of a sharing and supportive worldwide church.
(8.) WEALTH AND SIMPLICITY.
Christian practice includes a monastic tradition of giving up possessions and living in a spiritual community; but it also includes a more ordinary model of living in cities and towns where rich and poor live side by side and where we have to work out the complicated issues of how to live with generosity and fairness.
Throughout the Bible, there are contrasting images of wealth. Sometimes Jesus told a rich person to give up his possessions; other times he simply welcomed the faith of a rich person who showed courage and generosity. Some narratives and poetry portray wealth as a reward for a faithful life; a sign of God's abundant love. Other passages show the value of simplicity, such as proverbs that contrast wealth and simplicity: "It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud." and "Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice." and "Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it." and "Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife." The prophets speak boldly against those who make themselves wealthy at the expense of others, such as Ezekiel's lament: "You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep." Two of the most famous songs in the Bible, Hannah's song and Mary's song, celebrate the idea that the poor will be lifted up and the rich will be brought down. Mary's words are echoed in Jesus's first reading in the temple, when he reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord`s favor."
The phrase "the year of the Lord`s favor" echoes the idea of the Sabbath year, a concept in the laws of Moses that is central to the Biblical view of wealth and creation care.
(9.) CREATION CARE/GREEN THEOLOGY.
The concept of creation care -- sometimes called "green theology" -- is directly linked to theology of economic justice. The sabbath laws made it clear that people should not try to squeeze every bit of productivity out of land, animals, and workers. People were commanded to leave the land fallow each Sabbath year, to forgive debts each Jubilee year, and to let people and animals rest each Sabbath day. They were told to leave a little bit of the harvest in the field for those in need; not to harvest every kernel of grain. The theme of creation care continues throughout the Bible. Prophets proclaimed that the sins of the nation are reflected in the barrenness of the land, and that living in harmony with God would lead to restoration of the land. The psalms and poetry of the Bible describe God's love for all of creation as extending to the wildness of nature as well as to people and domestic animals and farmland.
One of the tensions in Christian thought is the tension between seeing ourselves as rooted here in the world and seeing ourselves as focused on a more spiritual and heavenly realm. Themes of living in exile are woven throughout the Bible, along with calls to be engaged in life wherever we are, to live creatively and productively wherever we are. While Moses led the people in the desert, they built a tent for worship, weaving cloth and carving stones and wood for decoration, showing a creativity that didn't need to wait until they were settled in their future land. While the Jewish people were exiled in Babylon, Jeremiah wrote these famous lines: "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.'"
The appreciation of creativity -- beautiful craftsmanship, gardens, architecture, poetry and music -- is a universal human value celebrated throughout the Bible. God's love of human creativity is important in understanding the theology of money and economics. In the midst of struggles, we shouldn't be trapped in what seems to be a contest between winners and losers, but have confidence in God's creativity and human creativity that there can be enough abundance to satisfy the needs of all.
(12.) APPLICATIONS/GOING BEYOND ZERO SUM THINKING.
What are the contemporary applications for these principles? As a practical application, the concept of "multiplication" stands in contrast to the very-limiting concept of "zero sum thinking." The idea of zero sum is that if one person or one group gains something (jobs, education, housing, human rights) then someone else loses by the same amount ... the word "zero sum" suggests that the sum of all gains and losses adds to zero. The idea of "multiplication" is that things like jobs, education, housing and rights are not fixed commodities, and can multiply -- gains by each person and group lead to gains for other people and groups. In economics, this is known as a multiplier effect, the well-known principle that jobs and investment lead to more jobs and investment. In politics it is found in theories of civil rights and democratic participation -- everyone gains when all groups have full rights and participation. In religion, it is the loaves-and-fishes concept and the mustard-seed concept. If you have a seed and plant it, it produces lots more. If you hoard it, it produces nothing. As a philosophy, it is hopefulness and an openness to positive change and reconciliation, with confidence in the possibilities of the human spirit.
The applications for individuals, churches and communities are clear. Letting go of an economic worldview based on winning and losing. Recognizing that many of the most important things in life are multiplied in value when they are shared and used. Taking courageous and generous steps to invest in jobs, education and housing. Showing openness to a wider circle of people to care about. Valuing creativity and problem solving. Valuing the environment. Making decisions that reflect the sabbath concepts of care for people, animals and resources. Most of all, a hopefulness and willingness to work on issues of justice and fairness.
Jennifer Leonard, July 2018