Imperial Economics and the Economy of God

Listen here.

Who is this God we worship? Is it the God of life, or the God of death? Does God promise abundance, or scarcity? In which economy do we put our faith? These may not seem like obvious questions in response to the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, but they go to the heart of tonight’s story. Let’s recap. Yet again, we have a story of favouritism: a parent prefers a youngest son, and spoils him. For Jacob preferred Joseph, and gave him a special coat. Meanwhile, Joseph dreams that his family bows down to him. This was all so hurtful that his brothers couldn’t speak a civil word to Joseph, and hated him. They first plot to kill him, then decide to sell him into slavery.

Why did his brothers react so? The answer is rooted in economics. In the world of ancient Israel, and in some societies today, ‘good’ is considered to be fixed, scarce, and finite. In other words, there is only a certain amount of wealth and power, which doesn’t grow, and is already distributed. And so if someone becomes wealthy and powerful, it means that other people must lose whatever power and wealth they have.

Now, Joseph is the youngest: the bottom of the ladder. He cannot stand above his brothers unless every one of them is stripped of their status. And so Joseph’s dreams seem to predict his brothers’ humiliation and ruin. No wonder they decide to destroy the dreamer, and remove the threat of disaster. So they throw him down a dry well, then sit down to eat together, united by the elimination of the insufferable little tattle-tale from their midst. And then, of course, Joseph is fished up, sold to Ishmaelite traders, and sent down to Egypt as a slave.

You see, the brothers couldn’t imagine that an increase in Joseph’s status could mean good things for them. But that’s exactly what happened. In Egypt, being an adept interpreter of dreams, Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s trusted advisor, and the second-in-command of the whole country. During years of plenty, he stockpiles crops; during years of famine, he doles them out. His work ensures the survival of both Egypt and Israel, for, during the famine, his family sought help and he provided for them. In other words, the dreams his brothers heard as oppressive turn out to be good news: Joseph’s rise in status does not diminish their status, but in fact ensures their very survival.

To people who believe that the world contains limited good, Joseph’s story is radical: for it suggests that good can increase. And if God is at the helm, as Joseph witnesses in Egypt, then God must be the source of infinite good—a well that will never run dry. God’s economy is abundant indeed. However, we twenty-first century Westerners must be careful how we understand this.

Unlike Joseph’s family, we live in an economy based not on limited good, but on limitless growth. This sounds like an economy of abundance, but it is not the same. God’s economy gathers up surplus and redistributes it to those in need. When Jesus picnics on a hillside, they gather up twelve baskets of leftovers, enough for the twelve tribes of Israel; the second time, it’s seven baskets, enough for the whole creation. There’s always plenty in God’s economy, but it’s always redistributed to those who need it.

A human economy, on the other hand, gathers up surplus, and uses it for gain. And this human way of doing things is so insidious and so powerful that even Joseph sells out. Although his work in Egypt saves nations from starvation, in Genesis 47 we learn that the years in the imperial household have changed him. The famine is enduring: and Joseph first takes all the people’s money, then their livestock, then their land, then their freedom, in return for grain. His actions feed the people, but they also gradually turn Egypt into an absolute monopoly: Pharaoh comes to own everything and everyone, and the people are enslaved. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “[Joseph] was not a bad man, not especially coerced, more likely seduced…”—but his capitulation to imperial economics leads to great suffering and oppression.

In the same way, our capitulation to an economy of limitless growth—the economy we live in—leads to great suffering and oppression, too. Whether its people, or animals, or land, they all suffer for our rapacious materialism. And it is leading to our own spiritual death. For we Australians are producing astronomical levels of waste, levelling vast tracts of rainforest, gouging out minerals from sacred ground, destroying the Great Barrier Reef for coal, pouring carbon into the atmosphere, filling our oceans with plastic, and reporting staggering rates of loneliness, isolation, and depression. This is hardly God’s vision of health and wholeness and abundance. So for those of us who are rich—that is, everyone in this room, and everyone who reads this—participating in God’s economy of abundance almost certainly means giving things up: wealth, status, possessions, convenience, habits, and the idol of self-sufficiency. We give these things up so that others may have enough: for in God’s economy, nothing is stockpiled for gain.

Jacob and his sons struggled to understand God’s economy. Jacob’s love for Joseph should have deepened his love for everyone, but it didn’t; instead, it led to a corrosive favouritism. Joseph’s brothers could have delighted in Joseph’s blessings and trusted it would lead to blessings for them, but instead they let envy consume them, and conspired to destroy their brother. And Joseph himself gave up on God’s economy, as he moved from saving the people to consolidating and extending Pharaoh’s imperial power.

Like Jacob, Joseph, and the rest, we too struggle against God’s economy, living as we do in the economy of limitless growth. And every day we make choices about which economy we live in. Every time we take more than we need, every time we buy too much, every time we throw good things away, we embody the dominant economy. As long as we hoard, waste, and destroy, others lose out—and it will be to our enduring shame. For an economy of abundance does not mean an economy of greed or an economy of waste: instead, it is an economy of enough. Enough food, enough clothes, enough housing, enough healthcare, enough education, for you and for me—and for everyone else, too.

Embodying God’s economy means learning to critique the economy we live in, and making different choices; it takes creativity and cooperation and courage. But we are here because we are drawn to it: this culture which leads to fullness of life. For in God’s economy, we do not need to worry about where we will live, or what we will eat or drink or wear: for God will take care of everything. In God’s economy, we will no longer be driven by envy, nor will we fear the envy of others, for we will know life’s great abundance and God’s deep and abiding love. In God’s economy, five loaves and two fishes feed a hillside of people, as long as we are willing to share.

To our independent and overconsuming selves, shaped by the economy we live in, a life like this—trusting God—may appear limiting. But as we learn to rely on God and others, and to share what we have, we will begin to experience true wealth: and our growth in faith and love will know no bounds. For this economy is about life, more life, lived fully in the life of God. It’s a life lived joyfully, and generously, and freely—and it’s an economy which benefits everyone. Amen. Ω

A reflection on Genesis 37:1-28 and beyond, given to Sanctuary, 13 August 2017 (AP14). Image shows a detail from here.

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