We live in a society built on the ideology of scarcity. What, you might think, is he talking about? Never has there been so much available to us, never has there been so many choices for us to consume. According to Choices Magazine there are more than 80 different brands and types of milk, some 23+ washing powders and over 14 coffee brands on your supermarket shelf.
In terms of banks, mortgage providers and finance brokers the choice is now much more than the big 4. Buying a car is a mire of maker choice and then, if you happen to find the make you want, there are up to a dozen or more choices of model and style. And I haven’t even thought of nail polish and hair colour!
Yet we live wedded to the ideology of scarcity. Enough is never enough to satisfy us. The issue, according to theologian Walter Brueggemann, is whether there is enough to go around – enough food, water, shelter, space. An ideology of scarcity says no, there’s not enough, so hold on to what you have.
An ideology of abundance is just the opposite and is often the ideology of those deemed the poorest in our society. Appearances notwithstanding, there is enough to go around, so long as each of us only takes what we need.
It has always interested me that when I spend time with families who are indeed poor, the willingness to share what little they have, to turn what seems to be a meager supply of food into a banquet of exquisite quality and quantity is overwhelming. There is always enough.
And food and table play a great part in the abundant life. Having grown up in an extensive extended family with 21 aunts and uncles and their partners and their children meant that family get togethers were massive in terms of numbers and catering. In my childhood none of these families were wealthy but the women involved knew how to make a little go along way and how to produce monumental feasting tables. We would all grab a chair and sit around a long series of trestle tables and eat until we could eat no more.
Conversation and laughter filled the air and where there had been conflict or difficulties they seemed to disappear in the convivial atmosphere. Family remained family despite what may have happened. The covenant was repaired and life moved on.
Isaiah 55 takes the prominent place of food and meals in the Bible as a tool for bonding and belonging, of remembering who you are and whom you belong to:
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. 3Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.”
The prophet invited the Israelites, living in exile in Babylon, to come to a lavish meal and receive renewal of covenantal blessings. Isaiah is warning against the very real danger that they would become obligated to or assimilated into the culture of their captors and present benefactors, and adapt to the bread of Babylon. Being assimilated into a foreign way of life and forgetting their roots. Brueggemman again, “Whoever feeds, owns.” Food, he says, comes with a price. “Eat royal bread and think royal thoughts. Eat royal bread and embrace royal thoughts.”
Isaiah reminded the Israelites that who fed them and what they ate were no small matter. Why should they continue with food that did not nourish? The Israelites were a people of different bread, another way, a bread that came as a gift.
In our modern world there are many who offer to feed us; the people we associate with, the ideologies we are exposed to, the pervading culture of consumerism, the idea that God is dead and there are now no rules, that we are special and the centre of our world and more. It is almost inevitable, say the realists, for us to abandon the Greek, Roman and Christian heritage on which western civilization was founded and simply run with the ‘I am god’ pack.
Charles Taylor suggest we have moved from a time and a society in which “belief in God is unchallenged and,…unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”
Stanley Hauerwas agrees, ‘the situation we find ourselves in as Christians is at once a threat and an opportunity.’ He continues, and I agree, “For if you believe as I do that there is an inevitable tension between the church and world,then a world in which belief in God is unchallenged may be one in which Christians too readily assume that they can be at home in the world. So the world in which we find ourselves (today) may be one in which we recover the difference a Christian should make.”
The lack of concern for others, the lack of boundaries and moral assumptions in our children’s (and their parent) lives, the inappropriate behaviours of adults and children, the bullying which is rife across all ages and classes, and the simple mantra of ‘if I say it’s ok for me, it’s ok’, the personalism which rules thinking abroad; all challenge those who hold to the Christian ethos.
Thomas Merton, writing in the early-‘60’s, referred to that age as the post-christian age. I suspect we have moved deeper into this age for we are insatiate consumers of Babylon’s bread, even within those bodies and disciplines such as the church, education institutions, the body politic and the arts, previously critical commentators on Babylon and its ways.
In each Eucharistic service the invitation is given to come to a lavish meal, the well set table of Jesus’ body and blood where we renew the new covenant of love set in place by Jesus death and resurrection. We are reminded in this meal of our heritage, for it looks back to the Old Testament covenant God had with Israel, it takes us into the act of love which Jesus gave us in the New Testament covenant, and leads us forward into the eternal relationship we will share with all the saints who have gone before, in heaven.
At this table, just for a few moments we stand in the eternal space, touching the past present and future, and are reminded who feeds us. It is an ideology of abundance, not scarcity, there is sufficient for all our needs no matter how the circumstances and the voices of this world may suggest otherwise.
It is a theology of difference, for the body and blood of Jesus welcomes us into a new way of seeing the world and puts us firmly in the place of tension, the space-in-between this world and its appetites and the kingdom of God – there but not yet.
We are not fed by this world and we are called to remain true to the One who feeds us. That is the meaning of our dismissal from the table at the end of our service. We are reminded to ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’, not Babylon.
Isaiah challenges the Israelites to return to the covenant table and be fed. We are challenged to do the same.