Economy: Old and New
The Gospel Economy
Sunday, November 24, 2019
Jesus said to the host who had invited him, “When you hold a lunch or dinner . . . invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; and blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” —Luke 14:12-14
I’d like to begin this week’s meditations by contrasting two economies or worldviews. The first economy is capitalism, which is based on quid pro quo, reward and punishment thinking, and a retributive notion of justice. This much service or this much product requires this much payment or this much reward. It soon becomes the entire (and I do mean entire!) frame for all of life, our fundamental relationships (even marriage and children), basic self-image (“I deserve; you owe me; or I will be good and generous if it helps me, too”), and a faulty foundation for our relationship with God.
We’ve got to admit, this system of exchange seems reasonable to almost everybody today. And if we’re honest, it makes sense to us, too. It just seems fair. The only trouble is, Jesus doesn’t believe it at all, and he’s supposed to be our spiritual teacher. This might just be at the heart of what we mean by real conversion to the Gospel worldview, although few seem to have recognized this.
Let’s contrast this “meritocracy,” punishment/reward economy—basic capitalism which we in the United States all drink in with our mother’s milk—with what Jesus presents, which I’m going to call a gift economy.  In a gift economy, there is no equivalence between what we give and how much we get. Now I know we’re all squirming. We don’t like it, because we feel we’ve worked hard to get to our wonderful middle-class positions or wherever we are. We feel we have rights.
I admit that this position satisfies the logical mind. At the same time, if we call ourselves Christians, we have to deal with the actual Gospel. Now the only way we can do the great turnaround and understand this is if we’ve lived through at least one experience of being given to without earning. It’s called forgiveness, unconditional love, and mercy. If we’ve never experienced unearned, undeserved love, we will stay in the capitalist worldview where 2 + 2 = 4. I put in my 2, I get my 2 back. But we still remain very unsure, if not angry, about any free health care (physical, mental, or spiritual) or even free education, even though these benefits can be seen as natural human rights that support and sustain peoples’ humanity. All too often, we only want people like us to get free health care and education and bail outs.
Brothers and sisters, you and I don’t “deserve” anything, anything. It’s all a gift. But until we begin to live in the kingdom of God instead of the kingdoms of this world, we think, as most Christians do, exactly like the world. We like the world of seemingly logical equations. Basically, to understand the Gospel in its purity and in its transformative power, we have to stop counting, measuring, and weighing. We have to stop saying “I deserve” and deciding who does not deserve. None of us “deserve”! Can we do that? It’s pretty hard . . . unless we’ve experienced infinite mercy and realize that it’s all a gift.
 “A gift economy, gift culture, or gift exchange is a mode of exchange where valuables are not traded or sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards. This contrasts with a barter economy or a market economy, where goods and services are primarily exchanged for value received. Social norms and customs govern gift exchange.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gift_economy)
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Capitalist Economy and Gift Economy,” Homily (September 1, 2019), https://cac.org/podcasts/capitalist-economy-and-gift-economy/.