It seems that the major parties are leading us into a time of turning our backs upon our global neighbours. We are witnessing a race to the bottom on asylum seekers, both parties are pulling back on their previous commitments to increasing aid, and there is fading resolve to lead on combating climate change. Given both major parties are led by committed Christians this is tragic.
In the Gospels Jesus calls us to building community on the foundation of a radical openness to the other.
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6)
Israel’s Law created a social, political and economic system designed to ensure nobody got trapped in poverty. At any given time some families were in danger of poverty. This was a nation of small scale subsistence agriculture. Sickness during harvest season, fire, theft, frost – all these could see a household with insufficient grain to feed themselves and their animals and to set aside enough seed to plant the next crop. The answer to this was community, a community in which there was astonishing generosity to one another.
The calendar was divided into seven year blocks, with the seventh or Sabbath year being a period of release. If anyone was in need they were to be given an interest free loan to tide them over, and when the Sabbath year fell due the loan was to be forgiven. In the seventh year not only were families released from the burden of debt, any person who had sold themselves into slavery was to be set free and sent out with ample provision to start a new life. So too was the land released from overuse. It was to lie unplowed for the year.
After seven lots of seven years had passed there was a super Sabbath called the Year of Jubilee, during which all land was returned to its original owners. In the meantime anyone who didn’t have land was invited to participate in the harvest. Landowners were to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and were permitted to make just one pass of the field. The landless harvested the edges and anything that was missed.
By the time of Jesus these provisions were routinely ignored. On top of the tithe, Rome demanded tribute and governors demanded taxes, leaving the peasantry with an impossible tax burden. This forced many into debt, but no-one was willing to provide interest free loans nor to forgive the debts in the Sabbath year. They were forced to sell to a wealthy elite who amassed large estates and wealth, and were deaf to the call to practice Jubilee.
Speaking into this context Jesus urges his hearers to invest themselves in the community vision of the Law. Despite things being extraordinarily difficult, Jesus called people to the open handed generosity of Deuteronomy. Give to those who ask; lend without expecting any return, ie interest free; meet insult with love; love your enemies. These were difficult words for a landless peasant living a hand-to-mouth existence day in day out. It was a call to believe that communities marked by an extraordinary generosity to one another rather than fearful hoarding was the way forward.
This was not simply an ethic for the religious minority. It was an ethic for nation building.
So what does it mean for us? We’re not a nation of subsistence farmers, so we won’t apply the values in the same way as Israel was called to, but we will own the values. It’s a call to build community based on generosity, love and openness, to see that communities like that are the solution to need. It is a call to put the interests of the other first, even when that was risky to my own interest. Shared interest trumps individual interest. It would be to fling open our gates to asylum seekers and refugees, to be willing to take the risk of love. It would be to run a generous aid program targeting need in our region. It would see us take the risk of leading the world on climate change.