I realize that, in the last post, I used an expression in a context that might be unfamiliar for some, but very familiar for others. I wrote about the subversive “economy” of gift-giving. So, in this post I’ll clarify the use of the term and discuss exactly what kind of “economy” the NT envisions and what I mean when I speak of an “economy of giving”.
I spoke of an “economy”, not referring to what we usually reserve the term for when we speak of the economy of a city, state or country as its financial strength or weakness, and the particular sources of revenue and types of industries that make up the financial base of that city, state or country. Instead, I used the term in a way that theologians have, for some years now, appropriated the term. Here, it is used more philosophically and closer in meaning to the Greek work from which we derive the term (οικονομια or “oikonomia“).
In the New Testament, the term can be translated as “plan”, “order” or “administration” and often refers to God’s plan of salvation, his vision of administration for saving the world. Paul repeatedly describes himself as a steward entrusted with that “plan”, “administration” or “order” by God. Thus in Ephesians 3:2, Paul states, “Surely you have heard about the administration (οικονομια) of God’s grace that was given to me for you”. God shares with his apostles, prophets and people an “economy”, a way of ordering and administering life that is radically different from that of the world. First, it is salvific; it is, as Paul says, for us. God intends to save us from our faulty “economies”, our destructive ways of “administering” or “ordering”our individual and especially our collective lives. Second, this economy grounded in God’s grace, so that grace is its overarching principle. Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of God’s “economy”. He is the prophet of the new Jerusalem, the way of the salvation, or, the reign of God, in contrast to Babel (Babylon), the ways of destruction, or, the rule of the prince of this world.
The economy of scarcity
One of today’s great Bible scholars, Walter Brueggemann, has eloquently written on this topic, contrasting God’s economy of abundance to the world’s economy of scarcity (you can find one of his excellent articles here). In a nutshell, the prevailing economy of the world is an economy of scarcity. The fundamental belief is that there is not enough and no matter how much we have, we still need more. The words of the serpent in the garden of Eden illustrate well the economy of scarcity (Genesis 3):
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?“ The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “ “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
No matter how generously and abundantly God has blessed Adam & Eve, the serpent convinces them they need more. They’re missing out on one thing. And to not have it would be awful. The economy of scarcity tells us:
- There is not enough to go around so we should compete for what resources there are. No matter how much we have, if it is “pleasing to the eye” and “desirable”, then we need it.
- We should accumulate as much as we can as fast as we can because we might run out, which ironically increases the odds of running out (think of the great buffalo massacres of the 1870s where millions of American bisons were reduced to hundreds in just 2 decades).
- We should hoard and save our wealth for a rainy day (think the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:15-21)
- We should be guarded about generosity and hospitality, because our wealth, food and time are precious and rare commodities. We should also beware of trusting others who might hold out on us, just as Adam & Eve began to distrust God’s intentions.
- Our neighbor is primarily thought of as resource enriching or resource depleting. So, only reciprocal relationships are “safe” (think of Jesus’ warning, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.”)
The economy of abundance
In stark contrast to this economy of scarcity stands the economy of abundance that characterizes the Kingdom of God. To be sure, echoes of the Old Testament are everywhere (think of the manna in the desert, or the oil & flour of Elijah’s widow, or Solomon’s rich kingdom), but God’s over-the-top, unlimited, abundant giving is assuredly a central theme of the New Testament. Indeed, lavish generosity is a key feature of the reign of God, as proclaimed in Christ. This economy of abundance states that even when there appears to be little, in fact barely enough to get by, even then there will be plenty! Think of all the examples in the Gospels where the presence of God’s kingdom is affirmed in this way:
- The 5 loaves and 2 fish are multiplied so that there is more than enough for 5,000 to eat (Matt 14).
- When wine had actually run out, not only is more wine made from water, but it turns out to be the best wine of the evening! (John 2).
- When Zacchaeus repents, he vows to repay no less than four times those he cheated and to sell half his possessions for the poor (Luke 19).
- The sinful woman washes Jesus feet not with mere water, with a large quantity of expensive perfume (Matthew 26). It was so extravagant that observers thought it wasteful. But not Jesus!
- To describe the Kingdom, Jesus likes the metaphor of a great banquet to which all sorts of people are invited (Luke 14).
- After a night of unsuccessful fishing, Jesus miraculously provides “such a large number of fish that their nets began to break” (Luke 4).
- Ultimately, the very life and death of Jesus form a testament to God’s generosity. As Paul said, “For you know the grace of our LORD Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich“ (II Cor 8:9).
It’s no wonder, then, that coming from that “economy”, Jesus would admonish not “to worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear”. When he said, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap”, he was explaining that an economy of abundance is based not on fear, but on trust, on the belief that God is good and generous and that he can be trusted with our needs… even when resources seem to have run dry!
The Spirit of Christmas
So, I think it is with this backdrop in mind, as citizens submitted to God’s Reign, that we can begin to make sense of why we give and how we give. In this context, giving is not simply a nice, generous thing to do; it’s not just getting into the spirit of the season. It is nothing short of a radical and risky act of rebellion against the powers that be; it is a revolutionary stance against the prevailing economy of scarcity. It is a faithful proclamation that we have enough, that we are grateful for what God has given, that we will share whatever we have whether little or much with our neighbor, that we refuse to believe that there is not enough, in sum that we trust God’s generosity and choose to bear witness to it.
I don’t know about you, but I find this perspective on the Kingdom and on the subversive economy of giving to be one of the most inspiring things ever. No wonder Jesus spoke of money more than anything else; it gets right to the heart of whether we hold to his economy of abundance, or the evil one’s economy of scarcity. It tells of what kind of a people we will be, those who respect the earth, live within our means, share with the poor, care about what is happening around the globe, and so on. In becoming stewards of this economy of abundance, we join our forefathers in the faith whom Paul praised:
Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
II Corinthians 8:2
We’ll be exchanging gifts later this week. So as we shop, buy, give and hope for our own presents, I think letting ourselves be guided by God’s economy of abundance will serve us well. If you’re tempted to think that an economy of abundance means we should give to the point of going into debt, I’d suggest you reconsider and realize that our indebtedness is actually reflective of the impatience and the desire for more (i.e., nicer, bigger, better, newer things) that are characteristic of the economy of scarcity.