Sermon: Sabbath Economics

By Sheri Hostetler

This is the first sermon in a Lenten series called “Capitalism: A Bible Study.”

Luke 4:14-21

I’ve heard the saying, “We must read the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other” attributed to about five different people throughout my life. But no matter who said it or even how cliched it may seem due to excessive repetition, it’s still true. If we believe that the Bible contains wisdom that can offer illumination, critique and feedback to our world as we know it, then we have to be two-handed readers. We have to read the Bible and we have to let the Bible read us.

But how often do most First World Christians bring the wisdom of the Bible to bear on our economic system, other than, perhaps, what often amounts to platitudes about sharing with the needy or about being good stewards of our wealth? According to Biblical scholar Ched Myers — who has written extensively on the “Biblical economy” and whose thought forms much of my sermon for today — we can’t even understand the Bible if we don’t understand the standard of  “economic justice that is woven into its warp and weft. Pull this strand,” Myers says, “and the whole fabric (of the Bible) unravels.” (All quotations are from The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics.) Scripture actually becomes unintelligible to us if we can’t or won’t read it economically.

And yet, in the First World, he says, we’ve allowed the Bible to critique almost everything else but the economy. We have turned to the Bible for a critique of racism, sexism, of technological mastery of the environment — and, in fact, those themes have been the focus of past Lent series here. But we tend not to “read the Bible economically… or read the economy biblically” (Matthew Colwell, from Sabbath Economics: Household Practices). So, let’s dig in. Like I said, I will be using the insights of Myers, mostly because I respect his scholarship so much and because he is one of the main Biblical scholars writing about “Biblical economics” today.

At the heart of the Biblical witness as it pertains to economic justice is something he calls “Sabbath economics.” And it starts with our creation story.  This world as created by God is “good.” The Hebrew word for “good” is tov and it gets repeated over and over again to describe the world that the Creator is making. “And God saw everything that God had made and it was good… very good” (Genesis 1). However, “good” is sort of an anemic translation of the word tov, which Myers says really should be translated more like “delightful” or “fat” or “incredible.” This is a world brimming with abundance, a world that can be improved upon by no human work, a world with enough for everyone.

The Creator culminates Her good work by resting, and the Bible is very clear that human beings must imitate God in practicing Sabbath. Not only do humans need this rest, but their animals need it, the cultivated land needs it. This isn’t just so we can get up and do it again on Monday, so we can regain our strength for work. Sabbath is the culmination of creation, the thing for which we are made, a day in which we are invited — commanded —  to “enjoy the world forever.” Can you think of how challenging of a commandment this was for a group of hunter-gatherers or early farmers who lived with the ever-present threat of not having enough food to sustain them? For one day, they had to not anxiously farm or gather; instead, they were to trust in the principle of enough.

So, this world God created is abundant — tov — with enough for all, and self-limitation is the appropriate response. Self-limitation so that we do not hoard the goodness of creation all for ourselves and our kin, leaving others to have less than they need; self-limitation so that the land and the animals don’t get worn out from overuse; self-limitation so that we can enjoy and savor this abundance and remember from whose hand it comes.

The first test of whether or not the people can actually practice God’s Sabbath economics happens in the book of Exodus. The Israelites get sprung from bondage in Egypt, they head into the wilderness, and… they are hungry. In Egypt, they were enslaved, but they always had enough food in those “fleshpots” they are now salivating after. Now they must face the harsh realities of life outside of the economy of the “Egyptian imperial system.” In response to their hungry cries, God sends them the gift of quails and of manna. The gift of manna becomes a test for the Hebrew people as to whether or not they can follow instructions for how to live in God’s economy.  As Myers says, “The peoples’ first lessons outside of Egypt, then, is an economic one.”

First, every family is told to gather just enough manna for their needs. As Exodus says: “Those who gathered more had no surplus, and those who gathered less had no shortage” (16:18). “In God’s economy, there is such as thing as ‘too much’ and ‘too little.’”  Everyone has enough for their needs and no more. This is in contrast to Egypt, where some people are obscenely wealthy and some people have almost nothing.

Second, this manna can not be stored up. No one is allowed to hoard — in fact, when they do, the manna rots. As in our day, wealth and power in Egypt was “defined by surplus accumulation.” In fact, much of the forced labor that the Israelites did when they were slaves in Egypt was building “store cities” — storage for the surplus food and goods that the Egyptian empire was plundering from other societies and also exacting from their subjects in the form of taxes.  As Myers says, “The Bible understands that dominant civilizations exert centripetal force, drawing labor, resources, and wealth into greater and greater concentrations of… power…. So Israel is enjoined to keep wealth circulating through strategies of redistribution, not concentrating (wealth) through strategies of accumulation.” So, in the wilderness, every family just gathers what they needs, and no accumulation can occur.

The third “economic lesson” given to the people in the wilderness is the observation of Sabbath: “Six days shall you gather; but not the seventh, which is a Sabbath, there will be none” (Exodus 16:26).  Even before the people of Israel are given the Covenant at Mt. Sinai, they are given this command to observe Sabbath, which is the “beginning and end of the Law.” If they don’t practice it, they will die, says Exodus 31. “This primal lesson is so fundamental that the people are instructed to keep a jarful of the manna in front of the Covenant,” once they receive it at Sinai. “Sabbath observation,” Myers says, “ means to remember every week this economy’s two principles: the goal of enough for everyone and the prohibition on accumulation.”

Observance of weekly Sabbath becomes the central rhythm in the life of the newly liberated people. But “Sabbath economics” didn’t stop with that observance. The social justice code of Exodus extends the Sabbath cycle to the seventh year. From Exodus 23: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so the the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.”  Wheat or olive trees or grapes often produce fruit even with no one tending them, and all of this “surplus” belongs to the poor and the wild animals during the sabbath year. What this does, says Myers, is “restore equilibrium by restraining the activity of productive members of the economy and freeing constraints upon those whom the economy has marginalized —  the poor and even the wild animals.”

The book of Deuteronomy goes ever further and interprets this Sabbath year to include debt release. If any member of their community owes another member, in the seventh year, they are released from that debt. And to top it off, people are not allowed to tighten credit — to not give loans — because they know the seventh year is coming! Says Deuteronomy: Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake” (Deut. 15: 9-11).

And, finally, there was to be a “Jubilee” year every 49th year. Every 49th year — which would have been a Sabbath year — community members were released from debt and the land had to lie fallow, as usual. In addition, all forfeited property had to return to its original owners or their heirs, and all indentured servants were released.

Because there were no banks at that time, poor peasants usually got credit from the large landowners — and when they couldn’t pay because of a bad harvest, say, the large landowners foreclosed on their land — thus, making their own landholdings even larger. This was how a lot of large landowners became large landowners. In addition, people in debt would sometimes have to sell themselves into servitude — or be sold into servitude — to pay off that debt.

What’s interesting is that Sabbath economics assumes that human economics are going to eventually become unequal. Myers said that this is a realism that the Bible shares with the worldview of modern capitalism; t’s not going to be fair, inequalities are going to happen, some are going to have more and some are going to have less.  The difference with Sabbath economics is that there are built-in mechanisms for the regular practice of redistribution so that these inequalities do not become calcified in the society. And the Jubilee year — or the “year of the Lord’s favor” — is the culmination of the practice of Sabbath economics.

Now, there is some debate as to whether or not Israel ever really fully practiced Sabbath economics, especially the Jubilee year.  But, just like the Sermon on the Mount, it is held out there as an ideal to which the community must aspire. It sets the standard for ethical living.

All of that is background for our passage for today — a passage in which Jesus gives us the “mission statement” for his ministry, which will be unintelligible to us if we don’t understand this concept of Sabbath economics and Jubilee. Jesus is in the synagogue and he gets up to read Scripture, and he’s handed the scroll for the book of Isaiah. And he chooses the first verses from Isaiah 61 to read:

““The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That should sound familiar? He’s talking about Sabbath economics. “The year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee year. The year when poor and oppressed people receive the good news. This good news isn’t abstract; it is startlingly concrete. It’s the year their family’s land gets returned to them. It’s the year people who sold themselves — or were sold — into indentured servitude were released.  It’s the year they would be released from any debts they had. (Kind of makes you wonder if the line from the Lord’s prayer “Forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others” is literal, right?) It’s the year when redistribution happens, to ensure that obscene inequalities don’t become entrenched in society.  This is the scripture Jesus reads to define and inaugurate his ministry. And he proclaims himself and his ministry to be the fulfillment of this Jubilee, the fulfillment of God’s “Sabbath economics.”

God created this world to abundant — tov — with enough for all. Self-limitation is the appropriate response to this gift — not taking more than we need,  not hoarding or accumulating but redistributing the gift. This is how the Bible reads. Now how does this Biblical vision read us? How does this vision of Sabbath economics offer illumination, critique and feedback to us? May the Giver of Life guide us as we explore this in the weeks to come. Amen.