Toorak Uniting Church

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Sacred Economics

Mark 12: 38 – 44
Pentecost 24
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
11 November 2012

John Maynard Keynes was a British economist whose macroeconomic theories dominated the western world for decades. His view was that the free market needed fiscal, monetary policies put in by governments that moderated the swings in society between recession and boom times. I will leave the finer points of economic theory to those who know what they are talking about. Suffice to say in 1974 I did do a theory of macroeconomics subject as part of my Arts degree at the University of Queensland. Other than the names of John Maynard Keynes and the Canadian/American economist John Galbraith, I really can’t remember anything that was taught in the course. Other than that when we project economics on to a world stage it is nothing like running a household budget. That was impressed on me…. But I also remember that there were some similarities between economics and theology. Both seemed to work only when there was faith in the system. Crush people’s faith that this economic system will provide them with a good life and the system collapses.

I read this week in the Age that university students are retreating from Economics degrees and enrolling in Commerce and Information Technology. Perhaps the last 20 years of our education system have moved the thinking of students toward practice and away from theory. Economics is about the ordering of society, the distribution of wealth and the effects of managed political systems on human behaviour and there are not so many jobs in that area. That article I read in the Age began with this quote of John Maynard Keynes. It said, "It’s not embracing new ideas that is so difficult, it’s letting go of the old ones." Now he has truly wandered into the field of religion. For the religious mind it is very difficult to let go of the old idea.

Jesus sits in the temple and watches
Mark’s story read this morning has nothing and yet everything to do with economics. It seems to me that this person Jesus sits and watches the crowd passing the temple entrance. He only has to observe them and how they are in the world to postulate about their inner motivations, which even Jesus doesn’t know.

I think he observes two types of religion; two ways of being faithful to tradition. And he wants his disciples to learn this distinction. He says this to them:

"Hey come here; watch those teachers of the law over there. See how they like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with deference in the marketplaces. They love sitting in the most important seats in the synagogues and to get the places of honour at the banquets. And yet they devour widows’ houses and spend most of their time making lengthy prayers."

Remember teaching is 10% hearing, 30% seeing and 70% doing. Jesus is teaching his followers a new way.

I want to argue a fine line here and that is I don’t believe there is a call to give up the symbols and rituals of faith and religion. As a Minister of Religion I need to hear these words directed to me and the leadership of our church. Someone said, "The minister is paid to be good, the rest of us are good for nothing!" It is painful because I kind of belong to the Pharisee class. My job is to keep the faith and to pass on that faith and belief system to others and in the process keep the institution going or if it is flagging, try to return it to its heyday.

The Widow’s Mite
Stumbling into this world of pomp and ceremony comes an elderly and poor widow whose house may have been devoured by one of these religious law-givers. And she unwittingly violates the tenets of 1st century economics. Instead of offering the prescribed tithe, ten per cent of her wealth, she gives all she has into the treasury, two mites. Again, as we have seen before in the gospel, it is the symbolism and metaphor of the story that is of most value. As I mentioned earlier, this is a teaching story for the disciples.

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."

We should be clear here that throughout history this passage has inspired people to give all they have and live a life of poverty and service. I often wonder as I read the story that in one sense she is giving up. The system, the economic system under which she lives will never allow her to get ahead. And so she drops her last coins into the treasury to rely totally on the God of the universe to love and sustain her. But in this moment of defeat there is a victory if someone who knows the injustice of her predicament sees how she with courage and dignity casts her small wealth into the coffers. Hers is a religion of the heart; a religion of letting go rather than one of grasping for more and more. It is what in more contemporary times we call a contemplative faith or religion. The danger in all institutional religion is that:

But I see this woman’s offering another way, which goes back to the heart of the tradition. First, do a bit of economic evaluation. Why did she have only two pennies? What type of society allows such poverty? She is the teacher this day, not the Doctors of the Law dressed in their fancy clothes.

Brian’s Generous Gift
In my previous church I had a man who first came to me looking for a hand-out. We have vouchers at the local Coles stores that could be used for food. So after a 10 minute conversation I gave him a voucher and he left. Over a period of a couple of years I got to know Brian (not his real name) and his life. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 24 in his 2nd year of an engineering degree at Melbourne University. His brother is a surgeon in Melbourne. Brian would occasionally drop in for a chat and tell me some of the complexities of his life. I would offer him a food voucher and he would say, "No, I’m OK, I don’t need one. I have 5 packets of noodles and some tomatoes in the fridge. And I get my money tomorrow." Brian’s family had set up a trust for him that paid his rent, utilities and medical expenses and gave him about $200 a week for food.

Two stories I recall about Brian. One day he comes into my study and sits down for a conversation and says, "Chris, I just don’t understand where the money goes. I buy 5 casks of wine for me and my friends, and 10 packets of cigarettes, and before the end of the week there is no money left!" "Brian," I say, "There is a very simple reason for that!" And I want to tell you one other story. It was about 3 years ago. Brian came in and I gave him a $25 food voucher, we had a conversation and he left. About 30 minutes later he came back and had a couple of bags full of groceries. That’s good, I thought, that should see him through for a few days. He put the groceries on my coffee table in the study and said, "These are for you. I used the food voucher you gave me to buy you a gift, so here’s some food you might like." I think I still have a couple of tins of spaghetti in tomato sauce in the pantry.

Is it possible that truth does not flow just one way? Justice, hope, compassion and love can flow from the least to the greatest and perhaps that is when it is most effective. I recently had a conversation with Quinn Pawson, the CEO of the Prahran Mission, and he spoke of the participants in the mission's programmes having a voice and being listened to:

Calling the disciples together, Jesus said: They gave out of their wealth, but this woman gave out of her poverty.

Does this story indicate that you should give all your money to the church; give until it hurts; be reckless with your finances? I don’t think so, although, for some, this is the way to wholeness and liberation.

I think there is a sacred and spiritual theory of economics here and I am not sure Keynes or Galbraith would concur with me, but it has to do with the heart. The Doctors of the Law were mean-spirited and ungenerous… Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole being. Life and poverty had brought this woman to be heart-ful, while the keepers of the institution were heart-less.

May the spirit of the widow’s two mites invade our souls and our community life.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2012

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.