Sabbath economics | Lent 5| March 18

Texts: Deuteronomy 15:1-18; John 12:1-8

This is week five of Lent, and so the fifth angle we’re taking on Sabbath.  So far we’ve focused mostly on Sabbath as a personal practice.  To review: Sabbath is a sanctuary in time, a certain sort of space-time sacred architecture.  Sabbath is a way of practicing freedom by ceasing from all that tries to enslave us: to-do lists, consumerism, self-importance.  The invitation into Sabbath is not so much like an exasperated Voluntary Service worker ripping up the creations of a persistently active child with the words “this is what happens when we don’t follow the rules,” as it is a way of enjoying that which has been created.  And Sabbath is a way of remembering, remembering original blessing.  That we are blessed and beloved not because of what we do and what we produce, but because of who we inherently are, children of the Creative Spirit whose image we all bear.

If you’re just now joining us, that’s the last month in summary.

Sabbath is personal, but it’s not merely private.  Sabbath practices have broad implications on our collective life.  Sabbath shapes the economy of relationships between people, plants and animals, oxygen and carbon, soil and sun.

Sabbath very much has to do with one of the most under-reported themes of Scripture, and Jesus’ ministry: Economics.  Sabbath economics.

One of my go-to gurus on the topic of economics is an old farmer who lives down in Henry County, Kentucky.  His name is Wendell Berry.  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  It’s difficult to lift out just one thing he has to say on the matter, but this past week I thought of a collection of essays he published in 2010 titled What Matters?  Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth.  In one of the essays he makes an observation about our Anabaptist cousins, the Amish.

Berry’s observation is that the use of draft horses and mules on those farms is more than just “a choice of one kind of traction power over another.  It (is) instead a choice of one kind of farming, and one way of thinking about farming, over another.”  The work animals orient a farm away from specialization and toward diversity.  With the animals come the need for “pasture, forage crops, fenced fields, feed grains, and barns for stable room and feed storage.”  This opens up niches for having other animals.  Crop and animal diversity call for crop rotation, cover crops, and using manure as fertilizer.  The animals also affect scale, keeping the farms relatively small.  The local business community takes shape around these needs.  Harness makers, small equipment factories, and repair shops, serve the farms and circulate money in the community. (“Simple Solutions, Package Deals…, p. 56-57).

His point is not the demotion of the tractor and the promotion of horses, or the glorification of the Amish, who have their own challenges.  The point is to illustrate what he calls “Package deals.”  Many decisions we make about our economic lives are package deals.  Relationships and resources organize themselves around those foundational ways we shape this complex web of relationships we refer to as economy.  So the question whenever we adopt a new kind of technology or practice is What kind of package does this come with?  How does this change other relationships?  How does this impact the community and the neighborhood?

Economics contains the Greek word for household, oikos.  Economics basically means “household management.”  Anyone who has tried to manage a household quickly gains a sense of how even small decisions can become part of a larger package.  Like how where you live affects your monthly mortgage or rent payments, which you need a job to pay, which you may or may not need a car to drive to.  Where you live affects the people you do and don’t see on a daily basis.  It’s a package.

When four friends and I took a year off from college and lived together in Atlanta, we made the decision that even though our apartment had a dishwasher, we weren’t going to use it.  We figured washing and drying and putting away dishes together would give us more time to talk about our days.  We stuck with it the whole year, with varying lengths of time in how long it took for the dishes to actually get washed.  It was a good package for us.  Now Abbie and I use our dishwasher constantly because we’d much rather talk about our days while not doing dishes.

Sabbath economics, as presented in the Hebrew Scriptures, is its own kind of package deal.  One shaped around just a few foundational values.

Sabbath is set up as a cycle of seven days.  It’s also set up as a cycle of seven years.  Just as every seventh day was a day when the community was free to cease from production mode, shift from doing to being, so every seventh year was an entire year dedicated to Sabbath practice.  And in this year, all sorts of strange and wonderful things happened.

For starters, according to Leviticus 25, farmers got the year off.  Farmers stopped farming, which meant the land got to rest, the livestock got to rest, male and female indentured servants got to rest.  For one year, everyone reverted back to foraging, living off their pantries and whatever the land volunteered on its own.  One can quickly imagine how a year like this would be a package deal, with the other six years organized around the fact that year seven is a very different kind of year.

Deuteronomy 15 adds that in the Sabbath year all debts among fellow Israelites would be forgiven, and all Hebrew slaves would be freed.  These weren’t the kind of slaves that would have been bought and sold on a market, but people who had fallen into personal crisis through poor health or poor harvest, had already sold all their land to cover expenses, and needed to sell their remaining asset, their labor, in order to stay afloat.  Basically, they entered the household of their creditor.  But after seven years, they were released, along with a generous parting gift supplying all they would need to get back on their feet again, to re-form their own household.  Again, we can begin to imagine how this kind of arrangement would bring with it a whole package of how credit and indentured servanthood worked in the community, with the built in mechanism of debt being only temporary.

And if the Sabbath year wasn’t enough of a package arrangement, after every seven Sabbath years, seven sevens, on the fiftieth year, was a mega-Sabbath.  On this year, called the Jubilee, even land was to be returned to its ancestral owners, such that no Israelite family would be permanently landless – Land being the source of self-sufficiency, financial security, and wealth.

As far as I can tell, there were two primary foundational ideas, or values, or organizing principles of the collective imagination on which Sabbath and Jubilee practices were based.  Both very simple.

One is that the land belongs to Yahweh, Leviticus 25:23.  The people are just tenants and immigrants on Yahweh’s land so they can’t own it and what it produces forever.  That’s number 1.

And number two, there shall be no poor among you.  Deuteronomy 15:4.

That pretty much covers it.  That’s the box that holds the package.  Hardships and crises are going to happen, but no one should be permanently poor, and it’s the responsibility of the community to see this is the case.  And, the land’s not yours anyway, you’re just renting it from Yahweh, so don’t be too upset if Yahweh reclaims and redistributes the leases every couple generations.

There is strong historical evidence that the Sabbath year was regularly practiced.  There is little to no evidence that the Jubilee year was ever practiced.  It was a complicated and maybe even impossible piece on legislation to implement, even though Leviticus 25 tries to get into how it might actually work.  When we dug into the nitty gritty details of this text in the Sunday school Bible study class last week the only person in the room whose eyes weren’t glazing over was the attorney whose neurons were firing in delight in comparing and contrasting ancient and contemporary property law.

Even if Jubilee was never operationalized, Sabbath economics remained a package deal for people who believed that 1) the land belonged to God and that 2) there ought not be any neighbor who was stuck in debt slavery.  That’s your horse and your mule.  Every other feature of the economy took shape around those two starting points, with the Sabbatical year being one of the key ways the package got delivered.

So we don’t have the Sabbatical year baked into our society.  Quite the contrary.

But we are a community that keeps alive a collective imagination that everything we have originates from and returns to the Source of All Being, in other words isn’t really ours, and that poverty is more a reflection of the health of the community than the person who is poor.

I was pleased to see in Friday’s Dispatch an article about how the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Columbus has set up a micro loan program.  It’s designed as an alternative to loans from payday lenders.  Ohio has the highest payday lending rates in the country.  And while these businesses are offering a needed service, they are profiting immensely off of people’s crises or just their struggles to get by with a low wage job or two or three.  Rather than people getting stuck in a cycle of ballooning debt, St. Vincent de Paul is working through a credit union to offer small loans at low rates.  This is accompanied with financial counseling for how they might pay it back over a reasonable amount of time.  That is Sabbath economics at work.

Three years ago we did a little experiment.  We acknowledged that many among us carry overwhelming debt, and we invited anyone who felt this way to submit their name anonymously while everyone else was invited to give generously toward what we called a Jubilee Fund.  After three weeks, just three weeks, we collected $25,285.  We then distributed this evenly to 28 folks, who were then able to pay down the principle on their debt by $903.03.  It wasn’t a full Jubiliee, by any means, but hopefully it was sign that we have not forgotten that we can be Jubilee people.  I’m aware of at least two congregations who heard about this and did the same thing.

Let’s end with another story.  It’s today’s lectionary gospel reading: the story of Mary anointing Jesus’s feet in her home at Bethany, just outside Jerusalem.

John doesn’t name this as a Sabbath story, but textual clues point toward Sabbath.  It begins by saying this was six days before Passover.  Passover was on a Friday.  Do the math six days prior to Friday and we’re on a Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the Sabbath.

So it’s the Sabbath.

Jesus is at the table in the home of his dear friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, who are all siblings.  Lazarus and Martha are playing their predictable roles – Lazarus sitting with Jesus at the table, and Martha serving.  But Mary does something entirely unpredictable.  In an act that is both extravagant and intimate, she takes a pound of very costly, imported perfume, a pound of it, and pours it out on Jesus’ feet.  And then she bends down and begins wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.  And whatever people were talking about before trails off into silence, and whatever smell from the meal had filled the room is overpowered by the fragrance of this perfume.

Judas is not impressed.  He calculates the worth of the perfume, almost a year’s wages for a laborer, let’s say, for us, $50,000, poured out, on someone’s feet, wasted, wafting out the windows.

Judas accuses and wonders out loud how many poor folks could have been fed with a year’s wages.

Jesus’s response is one that has been used against poor people ever since.  “The poor you will always have with you.”  So, like, Why do anything about it, right?  Jesus’ words are a direct reference back to Deuteronomy 15 which said, “there shall be no poor among you.”  Sabbath economics.  As if Jesus is admitting the failure of the community to live out the command that there shall be no poor among you.  As if Jesus is telling the disciples where they must position themselves in the calcified social hierarchy.  The poor you will always have with you and so you must always locate yourselves alongside the poor.  As if Jesus is pointing to his feet, motioning to Mary, breathing in the sweet fragrance of the perfume and saying Do you see this Judas?  This is what Sabbath economics looks like.  This is what Sabbath economics smells like.

We can’t count on Sabbath economics to just happen when everyone simply plays their predictable roles.  Sabbath economics is based in abundance, in extravagance, in the unpredictable pouring out of everything like a sweet offering.  On this Sabbath day, it is Mary who has demonstrated Sabbath economics, and it is for us to continue in her unpredictable path, so that a new kind of package might take shape among us, formed around the conviction that all we have is a holy gift ultimately not our own, and there shall be no poor among us.