Succeeding in the Economy of God

Week of Sunday March 3 - Lent 3
Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

6Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” 8He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

There is an extraordinary love involved in being a full time carer. Carers in Australia save the economy 40 billion dollars a year.  Kids as young as eight help mum get out bed, get showered and fed, and then go off to school. If you don’t ‘tick all the right boxes’ for CentreLink, you may not qualify for a carer’s pension, despite this sort of sacrifice.  And even if you do receive this small pension, it has no superannuation.  Each act of compassion is a down payment on future poverty.

Elwyn is a carer, full time. There is no job to be had when you are on 24/7 call to keep your partner alive.

Elwyn’s father and I met at school sports matches, and years later, have an occasional coffee together. Last time, another parent from those days spotted us, and almost in the same breath as his greeting us, was telling us of the great success and career promotions of his twins.

“And how’s young Elwyn doing,” he asked. You could hear the challenge to beat the success of his own children.

“Elwyn’s partner is very ill, and so Elwyn is the full time carer for the family.... doing an amazing job, actually.”

“Oh.    What a pity!”

“Yes. No one deserves to be ill like that! Apparently the prognosis is quite good after a couple of years of treatment, though.”

My feeling that Elwyn’s dad was carefully misunderstanding the drift of this conversation was  verified, because the next statement was this:  “Oh, I meant for Elwyn. The kid had such promise at school. You must be so disappointed.”

“I think Elwyn is doing the best of all of us,” said Elwyn’s father. “Elwyn has understood that what really matters in the world, is compassion. Letting go of our own plans and ambitions is what heals us and makes us whole. Most of us haven’t got the courage to be as compassionate as that.”

The man snorted. “Well... where would the world be if everyone was compassionate like your Elwyn? Someone has to work and produce stuff.”

“I’m not sure. I haven’t had the courage to try—not like Elwyn. Perhaps we’d have produced less global warming, and be having less wars, if we were all like Elwyn.”

Elwyn has joined the economy of God. In a very real sense, Elwyn has repented. Not because of religious words and church affiliation, but by turning around in life and going another way; going the way humanity is designed.

Elwyn lives compassionately as few dare. In the stories of Jesus set for this week, Elwyn is the fig tree, bearing a full load of fruit. He is more productive, in the economy of God, than the visitor to our coffee table, even though he is a very successful business man.

The reading presents us with two economic claims about being human. In one, we suffer evil because of what we have done. We are paid for our misdeeds. My colleague Bill Loader outlines this.

Towers fall, buildings fall down, earthquakes shatter, storms hit, disease strikes - ... popular theology assumes that these are ... programmed by God, ‘acts of God’, as insurance policies may call them. It is a theology which reaches far and wide and takes many forms. ‘God is punishing me because I am sick’ ..... ‘They are always having problems; if only they would turn to the Lord.’ It is rarely so crude. It transfigures into prejudices: the unemployed just need to pull themselves together. People in poverty are there because there is something wrong with them.

I have one quibble. It is rarely so crude, Bill? You surely live in an enlightened part of the country!

“No, I tell you,” none of this theology is true, says Jesus. “But unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

We had a lemon tree that never bore fruit, and I gave it a royal talking to, worthy of Prince Charles, pointing out the consequences of further failure to produce. I dug in fertiliser, sprayed on the manganese, and from that year, it has produced an embarrassment of lemons.

What is the subtle, yet crucial difference between the judging of the fruit tree and the non-judging of the people who were standing under the tower, and yet all of them were cut down? Why is ‘They are always having problems; if only they would turn to the Lord,’ so wrong, and yet, so right?

Trying to nail down an answer to this always seems to me to fail. We are dealing with a reality that is almost beyond us to conceive. The place of our grace filled existence, which is so highly consequential in its nature, is also the place of our conversion. If I were more closely converted to and modelled upon the nature of God, I would not need to understand this problem; it would not be a problem. Our whole being has been formed in an economy of reward. It is difficult to think outside this paradigm.

The difference between our economy, and the economy of God, is that we think we work to be paid; to be rewarded. And constantly, we look at the people round us and do some kind of perverse arithmetic which correlates material and social success with God’s reward. Lack of material and social success implies God’s punishment or, at least, disapproval. If there is no God in our lives, then it still all implies we are a less excellent person.

But God says we live to care, not to be paid or rewarded. What counts in the great judgement parable of Matthew 25 is simply that people have cared for others, nothing else. This is an entirely different concept of economy. People like the visitor to our coffee table cannot imagine how a world without payment could even work. I have not much idea myself.

Jesus has slammed the idea of reward for good works and punishment for sin. But the tree will still be cut down if it does not bear fruit. While it’s true that I have the odd habit of talking to my fruit trees, I don’t cut them down to punish them. I cut barren trees down simply because they are not being what they were designed to be.

We perish not because of a judgment that hates us, but simply because we have not been what we could be.

Part of the problem, I think, is that anthropomorphising God simply does not work in this context. In a world without God, fig trees that don’t produce figs simply fail. They are cut down because there is no purpose for them.

What the Faith might be challenging us to do, is to look at a world, for a moment, without God.  What is the purpose of us? What makes us whole, and brings us to being all we can be? The current economy of the world, when we get rid of the niceties and equivocations we use to justify our selfishness, simply says that people who are rich and successful are the ones who have succeeded. And the ones who didn’t, didn’t try hard enough. And yes, that means that those who need a carer are less human, or otherwise we would pay them, and their carer, a decent pension.

The Faith says No. The successful are those who have been compassionate. This brings them to a whole new level of existence. It leads to all sorts of crucifixions, but the nature of what we are is that being compassionate, being merciful, being full of love, is what completes us and makes us whole. It is this which is fruitful.

Wanting more, and living to get more and more, leads only to war and global warming. All the fruit falls from the trees in a drought of compassion. People become a commodity.

Such a “god-less” philosophy immediately implies a God!  Purpose that is a given of our reality, and a given which is at such odds with our natural desire to acquire, and to ensure our survival, is a scandal of teleology that implies something higher than us.

We have evolved to survive above all other species. We have evolved by being greedy, self centred, and finally by being tribal. And like all other species which have been dominant, we are now at risk of wiping ourselves out.

Will we abandon the old idea of the punishing God, who rewards acquisition— eternal life in heaven is finally an acquisition in this model of God— and will we seize the opportunity of the new economy which is before us. One which is fruitful because it is compassionate rather than being right, or successful, or rich?

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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