The Two Economies (sermon)
1 Kings 17:8-16
Last week I preached about the Good Samaritan and the Good Centurion. Finding God at work in ‘The Enemy’. Today it turns out to be the Good Zarephathite. The widow of Zarephath is another gentile outsider. You might remember that this is the story that Jesus mentioned in his first Sermon at Nazareth that nearly got him killed, when he was making the point that the Day of Jubilee would be good news not just for Israel but also for the gentiles.
Today I want to take a closer look at this remarkable story.
There is a great famine in the land and Elijah is told by God to head away from Israel, to go out into ‘outer darkness’, to Gentile territory in Sidon. God says, go to THOSE people … and not just to a strange place, but go to a widow… a woman on her own (powerless), the lowest of the low, a woman with a dependent son. God says, ‘There’s a widow there who will feed you. I’ve told her to.’
So Elijah turns up at Zarephath he goes up to the first woman me meets and it turns out she hasn’t got the message from God. So Elijah the great prophet is reduced to begging! When he asks her for bread she protests. “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am now going to gather a couple of sticks so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son that we may eat it and die.”
Of course she protests! This is her last supper… I wonder how Elijah felt seeing her destitution. God had called him to be a beggar amongst the poorest of the poor.
Elijah responds with a very famous line. It is the standard pick-up line of angels – ‘Don’t be afraid’ (In the language of Christmas: Fear Not)
Go ahead make your cake and share it with me. And God will provide enough… until the rains come again.
Her life is teetering on the brink of death. And yet even here she is invited to risk her life, to share her remaining resources with another person on the mere assurance that God is good, that God will provide, that she need not be afraid.
What an incredible decision to make? She is afraid to begin with. She resists his first approach. But in the end she believes. And God provides enough. Not just enough for her family. Enough to share. And so we have this beautiful enacted parable of the kingdom of God, the economy of God arrives. Because people are no longer afraid. They have enough. Not enough for the future. Just for today. Give us this day our daily bread. And not just enough for today, but enough to share. How much is enough in the economy of God? Enough is defined as ‘enough to share’. Property here is gift from God. As gift from God it is given to be given again i.e. to be shared. Property in this enacted parable is not private property – to dispose of as you wish. Property creates community.
As I read this story this week I was reminded that the Capuchin Franciscans in the 17th and 18th centuries chose deliberately to be beggars. I can’t recall where I read it, but I remember that they did so not simply to follow Christ by living with the poor and making themselves available, but also because they wanted to encourage alms-giving. It had something to do with fostering mutual dependence and the virtues of giving. Perhaps begging was an ancient form of church fundraising. Except done by those who chose also to live in poverty with the poor.
Anyway this reminded me of a story told of the Capuchin Monk, St Ignatius of Sardinia (h/t Daniel M. Bell), who wandered the streets of Cagliari with his sack begging. There was a certain merchant, however, that he refused to take money from as this merchant had made is fortune by defrauding the poor. The merchant wasn’t happy about this. It didn’t look good in the town (bad marketing) so he complained to Ignatius’s Superior. The Superior then went and commanded Ignatius to receive money from the Merchant. Ignatius replied: “Very well. If you wish it Father, I will go, but I would not have the [monastery] dine on the blood of the poor.” When Ignatius turned up at the Merchants house he was welcomed with great fanfare and was given a generous donation and headed home with his full sack over his shoulder. On the way he noticed a dark stain on the bottom of the sack and blood had started oozing from it in big drops. There was a train of blood from the Merchant’s doorstep all the way to the Monastery. On arrival he laid his sack at the feet of his Superior who was horrified: “What is this?” “This,” said Ignatius, “is the blood of the poor”
If the Elijah story is a kind of enacted parable of the gift-economy of God, the story of Ignatius is a parable of what happens when the gift-economy of God clashes with the economy of the world.
The Merchant is not really giving alms he is paying for publicity. On the command of his Superior, Ignatius ends up providing him with a marketing opportunity. But the blood of the poor who have suffered and died as a result of this unjust merchant does not remain hidden.
It’s a precapitalist story… from a time when you could have a reasonable idea whether what you were purchasing was created on the blood of the poor or not. From a time when there was still some possibility of a connection between the producer and the consumer. And the consumer could treat the producer as a person. That’s why Fairtrade is such a good idea. It reminds us that with the modern global economy and division of labour there is blood on our coffee and our chocolate and more. And like the Monastery we are in danger of dining off the blood of the poor
Notice the fear in these stories. The Widow of Zarephath is afraid… The merchant who rips off the poor (in the Ignatius story) is also afraid. He’s afraid of Ignatius. He’s afraid of losing his status in the community and his income. The same human dynamic is at work in our time. Today’s multinationals are afraid that they will lose their economic edge if they do not get their labour as cheap as possible, and will end up disappointing the shareholders and thus and their company will drop out of the competition. Everyone is afraid.
Everyone fears that there is not enough. God says, don’t be afraid. Fear not! There may not be enough for your insatiable desires, formed in the consumerist society of late capitalism. But there is enough! Enough to share. Enough to create communion… enough to resist dining off the blood of the poor.
What am I saying? We are constantly connected to a capitalist economy that never has enough and makes us people who never have enough. As a church in mission to this world we cannot be separate from it. And yet in the middle of this fear God has an economy too. Not a separate system, with borders cutting it off. God creates human being who have enough to share… whose property creates community.
Like Ignatius’s monastery we may capitulate to the world around us.
Or like the widow of Zarephath we may believe the word of Elijah. Don’t be afraid! God is good! God gives God’s very self to us in Jesus Christ. God gives us the freedom to live in communion.