Economy of Grace

The “bookends” of this week’s lectionary readings, from Exodus and Matthew, reintroduce us to the economy of grace characteristic of God’s now-but-not-yet reign of shalom. These texts also poke at our raw spots by challenging us to recognize ourselves in them, confronting some of our deepest anxieties, and exposing our bent toward greed, envy, and pride. In reading them, and allowing them to “read us,” we are reminded of the vastness of the expanse separating God’s kingdom from the kingdoms of this world; yet we are also given hope, that God remains at work, healing Creation and transforming us, its broken members.

In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann argues that the Exodus is not only the liberation of the descendants of Abraham as the definitive sign of God’s covenant loyalty; rather, it is “nothing less than an assault of the consciousness of the [Egyptian] empire, aimed at nothing less than the dismantling of the empire both in its social practices and in its mythic pretensions.” The story from Exodus 16 suggests that the Israelites had become deeply acculturated to the imperial consciousness and had in spite of their hardship settled into a fatalistic comfortability, traces of which seem to have remained even after crossing the Red Sea, surprisingly reluctant to believe God really was all he had promised. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread,” they complained to Moses and Aaron. “For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Brueggemann’s account of the Exodus warns us against allowing our familiarity with the story to lead us to overlook the radical nature of what God is up to, which in this instance means not moving too quickly from the Israelites’ complaints to the Psalmist’s celebration of the manna and quail God provides. The Israelites had no doubt come during their sojourn in Egypt to associate all aspects of their situation with the Egyptian gods, whom Brueggemann calls “the immovable lords of order” and who were evoked to justify the status quo. The Egyptians no doubt claimed it was these gods who at once willed the hard labor to which the Israelites were subjected and at the same time filled the fleshpots from which the Israelites ate. Most importantly, their primacy in the consciousness of Egyptians and Hebrews alike precluded imagining anything substantially different.

In this context, the God of the Exodus is especially startling, for not only does he create a theretofore unimagined reality, he does so on his own terms, as an absolutely free God who can neither be used or controlled—only trusted absolutely. As Brueggemann puts it, “the history of Israel begins on the day when its people no longer address the Egyptian gods who will not listen and cannot answer. The life of freedom and justice comes when they risk the freedom of the free God against the regime.”

But consciousness, it seems, changes gradually and often painfully, rather than suddenly. The story of the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness is one of their learning the radical otherness of the God of their ancestors and gradually embracing the economy of grace that God represents, an economy predicated not on scarcity, competition, and fear, but rather on plenitude, generosity, and love.

This contrast reappears in the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 20, with the workers who had labored the full day representing the old consciousness of the economy of scarcity and the generous landowner the economy of grace. The landowner’s question to the complaining laborers—“are you envious because I am generous?”—strikes me as especially relevant in our own time and place. Those among us who are accustomed to having more than enough, believing it to be hard-earned and well-deserved, show just how captive to the old consciousness and the economy of scarcity we are when we bristle at the suggestion that some or even much of the wealth and power we possess we hold, at least in part, by virtue of our racial and cultural inheritance and our privileged status in a broken world. Unsure of the adequacy of God’s generous grace, we feel our grip on the status quo tighten, even if just a bit. When we feel that bristling and tightening, we must name it as envy toward the possibilities afforded to others, using “our” resources, by an infinitely generous God. If we can turn even slightly in this direction, we will have begun to learn to live in the economy of grace.

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