Sunday, July 30, 2006

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
A Tale of Two Economies

Readings: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-11, 15-16, 17-18; Ephesians 4:1-6; John 6:1-15

Money makes the world go round… So goes an old song, the rest of which I don’t remember. Of course, scientifically, we know that the revolution of our globe has more to do with gravity than with dollars and cents. Still, there’s quite a bit of truth in the words of that song. Economic factors are indeed among the foremost considerations in the choices we make everyday – not just in our families, but especially on the national and international scene. And practically speaking, we can’t do otherwise, can we? Economics is a fact of life. We cannot but take it into consideration when we make decisions. Still, it’s important for us to reflect more deeply upon the kind of economy that we should aspire towards, especially in light of what the scriptures tell us today.

Our readings present us with two contrasting economies. The first is probably more familiar to us than the other. Let’s call it the economy of the world. What are its characteristics?

First consider its starting point. The economy of the world begins with a scarcity of material resources for human consumption, which gives rise to a problem of distribution. In both the first reading and the gospel, the question is how a very meager amount of food can be used to feed a huge multitude of people. In the first reading: twenty barley loaves and fresh grain for a hundred men. And in the gospel: five barley loaves and two fish for five thousand men, to say nothing of the women and children. Humanly speaking, it seems an impossible task.

It is this problem of scarcity that leads to a second characteristic of the economy of the world. Because there doesn’t seem enough to go around, the tendency is to keep what one has for oneself. As Elisha’s servant asks, How can I serve this to (so many)? The possible implication: better to keep it for ourselves. The economy of the world is thus often characterized by grasping and hoarding. We might symbolize it with the image of a clenched fist. Isn’t this, in effect, what the people in the gospel are trying to do when they wish to take (Jesus) by force and make him king? They are trying to keep for themselves this unbelievable discovery of theirs, this amazing bread-making machine named Jesus.

And we know that the clenched fist is used not only to grasp and hoard but also to fight to acquire and defend what one needs and wants. The result? Person is set against person, nation against nation. The economy of the world is thus an economy of violence and division. Again we are reminded of the people’s willingness to take Jesus by force.

Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? Indeed, this economy is to be found not just in the scriptures. We see it at work around us everyday. It determines much of how nations relate to one another. It also often determines the choices we ourselves make: what to do with our money, our time, our talents…

In contrast, our readings also present us with another radically different economy. Let’s call it the economy of God.

Again, we begin by considering its starting point. We notice how although it takes into consideration the reality of seemingly scarce material resources, this is not its true beginning. Rather, it goes behind this reality, as it were, and considers to whom these resources belong and from whom they come. Listen again to what the psalmist says: The eyes of all creatures look to you and you give them their food in due time. The starting point of this economy is God. It then follows that – despite all appearances to the contrary – this economy cannot but be an economy of abundance. For God will provide.

Notice how the psalmist not only acknowledges that all of this world’s goods ultimately come from God and belong to God, but also that God intends that they be used to feed all of creation. In the Church’s social teaching, this is called the principle of the universal destination of goods. In contrast then to the earlier economy of grasping, this is an economy of generosity. It is the same generosity that prompts the man in the first reading and the boy in the gospel to share their meager resources with others. And it is the same generosity that ultimately characterizes how God deals with creation. Again, notice what the psalmist says: You open wide your hand, grant the desires of all who live. In contrast to the earlier economy of the clenched fist, this is an economy of the open hand.

Notice also a crucial result of this economy of the open hand. No more violence and division. In their place is the unity and peace described in the second reading. It is in the spirit of this economy that the Ephesians are being encouraged to do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.

We live in a world held in thrall by the economy of the clenched fist, even as it yearns desperately for the economy of the open hand. As followers of Christ, the Open Hand of God, how are we being called to help mediate the transition – in our persons, in our families and communities, in our country and in our world?

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