One of the more dubious pleasures of public transport is overhearing other peoples’ conversations whether these are in the vehicle or on the phone. Travellers can be divided into three groups: those who want you to hear; those who speak so loudly you can’t help hearing; and those who want to be private whom you have to overhear with great concentration.
The young woman talking to the older woman in the next seat on the bus had a loud voice. I gathered that she was travelling from Edinburgh to Aberdeen with her baby, to take refuge in her parent’s house because her benefits had been reduced and even with the use of food banks she could no longer afford to pay rent. Yes, her man had left her when she told him she was pregnant. She’d been away from home for five years and wasn’t sure she would get on with her parents.
The man on the phone wanted to be heard, as he contacted his subordinates in Tokyo, Berlin, London and Los Angeles, issuing instructions with great warmth and enthusiasm. He was, he told them, on his way to visit his daughter in Ireland but would be in the States next week to finalise some business. Finally he spoke with a friend offering to share an executive facility with him at the Chelsea- Man U game at the weekend. Life was obviously good for him.
The economy, the household management, of God’s house, would prevent the existence of these extremes where one has manifestly too much and the other too little for a fruitful life. I have written that the principle, “from each according to ability; to each according to need” expresses well the provision of creative work and a living wage for all, as suggested by the image of everyone living as one family in one household of God. The life and teaching of Jesus emphasise the inclusiveness of God’s house – neither the sick nor the foreigner is excluded- as well as the practical love that family members should have for each other. Of course, the world will refuse this mutual generosity, dismissing it as unrealistic, but those whom the world excludes as unimportant are those with whom the Lord especially identifies ( “if you have not done it for them …. you have not done it for me”).
Work is important because it is an outlet for the creativity of family members as well as a way of feeding mouths. The parable of the “talents” suggests that creative development of the household and its resources rather than mere maintenance is required; while the parable of the workers in the vineyard points to the provision of a living wage for everybody. The notion of “rewards” is not excluded from this household but rather redefined: those who give up possession for the sake of the household will find themselves more than recompensed by the abundant shared life of the family.
There is no downgrading of material things – “your heavenly father knows you have need of them”- but there is an emphasis on modesty, contentment and gratitude as elements of the family lifestyle. The splendour of wildflowers is preferred to the extravagance of Solomon. The habitual anxiety imposed by competitive economies is absent from this household where the welfare of everyone is precious and the wealth provided by the Father ( that is, the wealth of the world) is seen as sufficient for the needs of all.
This economy extends its influence by generosity. A capitalist economy may provide a new business with an advance of capital; this economy provides an advance of honour, recognising that those who have lived by wrong standards may be trapped in their sense of social and self – condemnation. God’s household offers an advance of honour to those who want to turn from wrong ways. They are immediately accepted and valued. The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 is an illustration of this. There is no hatred of those who refuse to be part of the household or to live by its customs, which in turn means that its economy spends nothing on armies, weapons or spies. It steadily desires the good of its enemies, not their destruction.
Although it is an economy of modest demand it is not an economy of scarcity: the Father has made ample provision in the creation of the world. If we learn how to share fairly there will be no scarcity. We do not need to deprive others in order to provide for ourselves. No, except here we have to admit that this economy exists nowhere in its fullness, but only in conflict with other economies in the world: here and in many places it co-exists with liberal capitalism; in China with state capitalism; in Cuba with socialism; in Scandinavia with welfare capitalism; in many parts of the world, with peasant agriculture. There is no separate enclave where the house of God economy prevails. At best, it is visible in the ways by which its adherents deny the legitimacy of the worldly ecomomy in which they live and find effective strategies to soften its cruelties and challenge its injustice.
It was visible within the imperial economy of Palestine in Jesus’ time, in the life of his community of disciples, and in his smaller and larger gospel meals: his appearance as a guest at the tables of social outcasts, and his hosting of meals, like the so-called last supper and the large gatherings of thousands. The sign of his own food economy is that he takes, blesses, breaks and shares, because that is also what he does with his own life. In that sense his food economy takes place under the signs of his suffering, death and resurrection. His opposition to the economy of the world is real and costly. This is also true of every attempt to introduce the economy of God’s household into the world. It always arouses opposition and brings suffering because it is always unpopular with the powers that be. This shows that God’s house (and its economy) is neither a fairy tale nor a pipe dream, but rather an eschatalogical reality which is present in the world now only under the sign of contradiction (the cross of Jesus) as the promise of God’s ultimate purpose in creation.
The secular ecomomy in which I grew up in Glasgow was that of the welfare state, where taxes were much higher than now, welfare provision more humane, public ownership of the major elements of the economy more extensive. It was in my view as near as a secular economy has come to the economy of God’s house. It had come about through the long labour of trades unions and other representatives of the working class; through the intellectual tradition of marxism as modified by socialist and liberal economists; through the organisation of the Labour Party; and through the sense of social cohesion fostered by the war against fascism.
The Church of Scotland was not untouched by this huge change in the life of society – its own inclusion of the working people it had long neglected dates from this time – butit had no consistent understanding of the vital connection between its gospel and the economy, and therefore no consistent support for the post-war reforms. So when Margaret Thatcher began to destroy so much of what had been achieved, the church offered only feeble opposition, not least because its theology of God’s house had no clear view of what its household management entailed. It had an opportunity to become a real church of the poor by sharing their struggles while communicating the good news of Jesus, but it failed to take it.
I was a minister in Aberdeen at that time, and although I expressed outrage at what the government was doing to the poor, and even led the local church in practical action to relieve poverty, it is significant that what we did was for the poor rather than with them, charity rather than justice. We were committed enough but our theology lacked the content that would have guided us more fruitfully.