Given Lives in a Given World

Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18

Matthew 5:38-48

In his essay, “Two Economies,” writer and farmer Wendell Berry recounts an exchange with his friend Wes Jackson.  The two were struggling to come up with an economy that would more appropriately value what is valuable since the money economy was clearly failing on that account.  Berry suggested that perhaps an economy based on energy rather than money would be more comprehensive, but Jackson rejected that measure as still too small.  Frustrated, Berry asked Jackson what economy would be large enough.  Jackson replied, “the Kingdom of God.”

As we work through the Sermon on the Mount we find Jesus in the role of the new Moses, on the new Sinai, teaching God’s people the renewed Law.  The instructions offered are how these people gathered as Jesus’s disciples should enter into the reality of heaven—the place where God’s will is done. 

In the passage for this Sunday Jesus engages us in the economy of God’s reign—an economy that restores gifts and moves beyond exchange.  Instead of tit for tat, an eye for an eye, we are invited into the free offering of ourselves.  We are able to do this because we are God’s children—we recognize that our lives are not of our own making or choosing, our values are always rooted in a value we did not create, but is rather in that Great Economy of God’s kingdom.  “We live,” as Berry has written elsewhere, “the given life and not the planned.”  The giver of our lives, we know as God’s children, offers goodness indiscriminately from an infinite storehouse.

It is when we have moved toward God, the one through whom we become holy and perfect, that we are able to live freely.  We can trust that manna will come, our daily bread will arrive.  In this recognition of our givenness we are able to subvert evil by turning a thief’s avarice into our free offering, a soldier’s coercion into our generosity, a violent attack into an invitation to relationship, a beggar’s plea into the means by which we keep the gift moving (an essential aspect of any true gift according to Lewis Hyde in The Gift).

Our reading from Leviticus is in agreement with all of this, showing again that Jesus came not to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it.  The call to an incomplete harvest is a reminder of the abundance of God’s gift.  The prohibition against falsehood is possible only in an economy in which we know self-preservation is fruitless.  The injunction against fraud is a sign of the absurdity of such injustice because God is the owner, giver, and sustainer of all things.

In the Kingdom of God, the place where God’s holiness is lived out, exchange is impossible.  What can we give God?  Instead our task, as Berry says, is to live “given lives in the given world.”  This means that we must resist the economy of exchange that seeks to make or extract all value from the world and offer retribution for any debt.  The way of love, instead, is to let the gift remain a gift.  We do this by accepting manna, our daily sustenance and not hoarding it; we do this by extending love and welcome even when it is risky to that which we are tempted to believe belongs to us (“Only in you, O Lord, can we live in safety” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it). We find peace not by seeking to get the upper hand in an exchange but by opening ourselves to God’s gifts.

“If we want to be at peace,” writes Berry, “we will have to waste less, spend less, use less, want less, need less.”  This is not guidance born of a sense of scarcity, but of givenness.  A world of grateful acceptance is more careful than one of earned recklessness.  It recognizes that God’s gifts are sufficient and that their flourishing can only happen once we’ve agreed to open ourselves to God’s offer.  So it is that we go the extra mile, give to those who ask, and do not resist an evil doer.  In each of these acts we are preserving the gift and beginning the unraveling of that economy of exchange that undermines God’s offer of breath, sustenance, and love in the world.

One Response to “Given Lives in a Given World”

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  1. Phil says:

    Wendell Berry wrote…

    “If we want to be at peace, we will have to waste less, spend less, use less, want less, need less.”

    We want to be at peace. We’re sincere about that, but…

    The problem is that we want other things more.

    I live in the American South, where there is a beautiful multi-million dollar Christian church building on every third corner, often placed upon many acres of expensive urban property.

    If we could add up all the money spent on Christian church buildings across America the total would likely be in the trillions. And the churches sit empty most of the time.

    It has somehow escaped our notice that Jesus was able to launch a major world religion in just three years without ever leading a church construction fund drive. Ok, so we’re not Jesus, but do Christians really need this massive real estate empire?

    It has somehow escaped our notice that the open sky above a church building is the church that God built, and that God’s church is far more majestic and beautiful than anything any human will ever be able to erect. But it seems, we prefer to worship our own creations.

    It has somehow escaped our notice that each of these expensive church buildings serve as a giant billboard proclaiming to the non-Christian community that Christians aren’t really all that serious about serving the needy. We don’t see that. But they do.

    We want peace, but we want other things more. And we try to wallpaper over the gap between the two with wonderful sounding words. A tiny step towards peace might be taken by at least admitting that out loud.

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