The American trade unionist George Meany once said that economics was the one profession where a person could gain great eminence without ever being right. A more caustic observation is that capitalism is “survival of the fattest”. These wry observations may seem especially relevant right now, not only because of the havoc wreaked on millions of people around the world by the global economic crisis; but because the taxpayer-funded handouts to some of the corporations chiefly responsible for the crisis have been justified on the grounds that they were too big to be allowed to fail. No economist or financial expert predicted the crash; and it seems that, despite some notable casualties, the fattest have not merely been allowed to survive, but have largely escaped the consequences of their actions.
Much of the anger and frustration people experience in these circumstances stems from the fact that there just seems to be nothing that can be done to change the situation. We can call for tighter regulation or increased penalties for corporate misbehaviour; but at the end of the day, we seem to be stuck with this system that seemingly allows the rich and powerful to flourish, while the bulk of the population struggles along with economic uncertainty – where they are not actually living in downright poverty. We can’t go back to a simple farm-based economy of barter and trade; and the utopian society promised by both the left and right of politics only end in tyranny. So what are we to do? Where are we to find an alternative?
In recent years, many people have begun to look to the Bible for that alternative, and especially the Old Testament and the economic and political structures of ancient Israel. But the problem with doing this is that you can’t simplistically transpose the pre-technological economy of 7th Century BC Israel to the mass technological economy of the modern world. It just won’t work. So does the Bible actually have anything relevant to say about economics, and the basis on which we should be ordering modern society?
Many Christians are coming to the conclusion that the Bible does, indeed, have a great deal to say about economics – but not through a simplistic, literal reading of the text. Rather, the Bible speaks to us about the purpose of economics: which should not exist merely as a theory of exchange or production or labour, there to be manipulated by those with the resources to do so. Rather, economics properly understood, describes a system of relationships: between humans; between humans and the natural world; and between humans and God.
We catch a glimpse of this in today’s reading from the Book of Ruth. Or, rather, we catch this glimpse in the passages from Ruth we don’t hear today. Because between the passages we’ve heard today in which Naomi instructs Ruth in how to court Boaz, and Boaz and Ruth marry and parent a child, there is a long section in which Boaz acquires the land formerly held by Naomi’s now deceased husband; land which had passed to her sons, who have also died, and which she is now forced to sell as a matter of economic necessity.
The fact that Naomi is both widowed and without sons is important, because in ancient Israel, all property rights were vested in men; so a widowed and sonless woman was in a very precarious economic position. Without a husband or a son, Naomi cannot retain the land that has been held by her family and must sell it; but in order for the family not to lose the land, her nearest relative has the right of buying that land from her.
So here we see the first kind of economic relationship described by the Bible. Land is not a mere possession, to be exploited and used for whatever purpose is deemed most desirable. On the contrary, it is an inheritance, a legacy passed down the generations. So those who have current use of the land exist in a relationship to the land itself, to not exhaust the land and make it worthless; but they also exist in a relationship with the past and the future. With the past generations who nurtured the land and made it available to them; and with the future generations to whom they bear the responsibility of passing the land intact so that it may support those who come after.
So Ruth courts Boaz, who declares that he shall be her husband and protector. But Boaz is not the relative who has the right to buy the land which Naomi must sell; Boaz is only second in line. So he meets with the kinsman who holds that right, and before witnesses, tells him he must either buy the land and become Ruth and Naomi’s protector, or else forfeit the right of purchase to Boaz. And the relative says he cannot buy the land without damaging his own inheritance, therefore he agrees before the witnesses to give Boaz the right to buy the land.
And here we see a second kind of economic relationship, a relationship that says less is more. If the kinsman who had the right to buy Naomi’s land did so, he would also assume responsibility for Naomi and Ruth as well; but that would damage his own inheritance, because Naomi and Ruth would then be entitled to a share of what he had in the event of his death. In other words, the kinsman’s existing family would have their share diminished; they would receive less from the kinsman than the kinsman received from his ancestors. By declining to buy the land, the kinsman is not refusing to take responsibility for Naomi and Ruth; rather he is accepting his responsibility to his existing family. He is accepting that becoming wealthier in the short term would be an act of long term impoverishment for his family.
And this leads to a third kind of economic relationship, the relationship of responsibility. Acquiring land is not merely a matter of taking an asset off someone else’s hands; it is to ensure the other person is not left destitute as a result. In other words, the purchaser bears an ongoing responsibility to the seller, especially if the sale was made in circumstances of financial hardship. So if the kinsman had bought the land from Naomi, he could not then have made a will cutting Naomi and Ruth out of any share of his inheritance; the land, the inheritance, was not his to do with as he chose, to give to whom he chose. To acquire an asset was not merely to engage in an exchange of goods for money; it was to have entered into a relationship, a relationship that carried responsibilities and obligations.
So when the kinsman gives up his right to buy the land to Boaz, he enacts a fourth kind of economic relationship: the relationship of surrender, of giving up rights and assets instead of acquiring more. This is an economy that is not based on endless consumption and endless acquisition; it is an economy that possesses a principle of ownership, to be sure – but that principle is not an absolute one, it is a principle that says to give up, to let go of, to not consume or acquire is to be as economically productive and responsible as to buy and to own.
And so Boaz buys the land and marries Ruth, and they have a son who becomes the grandfather of David, whose House and line will eventually lead to Jesus of Nazareth.
And it is in Jesus of Nazareth that all the economic principles hinted at in today’s passage from the Book of Ruth come together and express themselves in the famous story of the widow in the temple.
At first glance, today’s passage from Mark looks quite straightforward: the rich people waltz into the temple, dump a load of surplus funds in the treasury, and bask in the admiration of those who observe them doing so. A poor widow comes in, places all she has into the treasury, and departs unnoticed; but because she has given everything, her reward will be in the life to come. It is a passage and an interpretation that has long been offered as a consolation for economic deprivation; we might miss out in this world, but we’ll get our proper reward in heaven. Moreover, it’s an interpretation that justifies our envy of the rich, that enables us to dismiss the philanthropic as show-offs and braggarts. In our conceit, we place ourselves in the position of the poor widow and imagine ourselves counted among the Blessed simply because of our economic standing relative to other people in society.
But this is not what Jesus was talking about at all; and to assume the message of this passage is “poor, good; rich, bad” is to make as grave an error as those who espouse so-called “prosperity theology” on the basis of Biblical passages in which the righteous are depicted as being blessed with wealth and power and privilege.
Because what Jesus is talking about in this passage is established by his condemnation of the scribes as those who “devour widows’ houses”. In saying this, Jesus is reaching back to ancient prophetic condemnations against those who acquire others’ land and then drive them off it in defiance of the kind of economic principles which the Book of Ruth exemplifies. Because ultimately, all those principles were grounded in covenant, in the covenant between God and the People of Israel in which they are gifted the land, not as possessors and overlords, but as tenants who owe an obligation of care and responsibility. The covenant between God and Israel is not a contract or a commercial arrangement; it is a relationship, one that means the peoples’ economic dealings with one another must reflect their relational covenant with God. So those who mangle economics, who make it about the acquisition of wealth at the expense of others, mangle the covenant with God; and it is when the relationship becomes mangled that things go wrong.
This is why Jesus condemns the scribes: not because they are wealthy, but because their means of becoming wealthy destroys the relationship of care and trust between the people. The unjust acquisition of land, by alienating people from one another, from our responsibility to past and future generations, and by our responsibility to the natural world, ultimately alienates us from God, from our covenantal relationship with God. When we mangle the economic relationship, so that it becomes soley about selfish consumption with no room for selfless giving, that is when disaster strikes, when financial systems collapse and the environment starts to decay.
And that is the meaning of the widow who gives the two copper pieces: not because she puts proportionally more in the collection plate than anyone else, but because her giving is an honouring of her covenant with God. For the widow, economics is not about money, nor about making offerings in the hope of receiving blessings: it’s about entering into relationship with God, of acknowledging that everything she is and has, her very being itself, springs from God. Her giving is the economics of surrender, not of consumption.
And this is why these passages are relevant to us today: not because they condemn the rich and eulogise the poor, but because they condemn our mangling of economics. We should be careful not to romanticise the economic principles contained in the Bible: Naomi and Ruth’s financial vulnerability shows that ancient Israel’s covenant did not mean they possessed the perfect economic system. But those principles do point the way to an alternative – to an economics based on covenantal principles of relationship, of constraint, of responsibility, and of surrender. Principles that do not require either a revolution by the working classes, or the privatisation of society in the interests of business: they are principles that require us to remember that we are not the authors of creation, that we exist in relationship with one another and with the natural world; and that if we forget these truths for too long, we will be the authors of one thing, and one thing only: we will be the authors of our own destruction.