Throughout this new term, we will be exploring different dimensions of Economics in the light of what Scripture has to say about it – and calling upon the insights of various members of the college over the next few weeks.
Economics is a word with Greek roots – very similar roots to the word for Ecology. Both refer to the word for ‘house’ or ‘household’. One refers to the logic of the Household, the other to the laws that govern a household. So it seems to me, that Economics – arises naturally from Ecology.
Ecology refers to the resources available to a household, and economics refers to how those resources are governed. So, strictly speaking, economists are eco-lawyers – ensuring that the resources at our disposal are governed well.
Six huge vats of water, used for ritual hand-washing, are the resources available at one household where a wedding is taking place. Jesus, it seems, manages those resources by presenting them to the guests as eight hundred bottles of Chateau Lafite. What is going on there?
It’s one of those miracles I’ve always wished was never in the gospels. What is the point? All we can see is the hosts getting nervous because Jesus, his mother, and the other guests have necked almost all the wine. You can picture Mary’s mischievous face: “Jesus – erm, all the wine has gone – so, er, hintety hintety.”
Jesus rolls his eyes – “Oh Mom! What’s it got to do with me, I haven’t started work yet!”
Mary just whispers to the servants, “Do everything he say… he’s got superpowers, you know.”
And, of course, we know the rest of the story. Up until this point, everyone’s been drinking Lambrusco from Morrisons, and now – the host wheels out approximately eight hundred thousand pounds-worth of fine wine. There it is – the economics of Jesus.
What happened there, who knows. If John’s report reflects events faithfully, then either water turned into wine, or there was a mass hallucination of the palate.
The natural reaction to such a story, is simply to say – well, there are laws of nature, and Jesus is not following them. Well, we say with moral superiority, in this community we obey the laws of chemical fusion. Here in the twentieth century, where the crudest forms of Enlightenment reasoning still govern the mind-set of so many, we draw the conclusion that so-called miracles like this one – simply cannot happen, because we do not believe in miracles…
Or do we? And it’s worth remembering here, the real basis of the word for belief. I believe it’s an Old English phrase – by life. Believing, is not the capacity to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to convince yourself of stuff you know isn’t really true. To believe in something, is to live as though it were true. Whatever it is your lifestyle is based upon, consciously or otherwise – that is what you believe.
So – in that light – it is worth asking again whether we believe in miracles. Whether the economic systems upon which we rely, arise naturally from ecological realities. Whether the planet can sustain the resources we enjoy, we aspire to, and work to achieve.
It srikes me as inconsistent, on the one hand to live as though we can draw limitless growth from the limited resources of the planet – and then, on the other – to scoff at reports that Jesus turns water into wine. It strikes me as inconsistent to ridicule the Genesis accounts of creation – in which God creates a world out of nothing – whilst believing in an economic system which conjures up something out of nothing.
Some of the core foundations of the economics that dominate our day, have their basis in crude, fairy-tale miracles.
For instance, several Guardian articles this year have argued that the more Libertarian one’s approach to land ownership, tax and government regulation – the more you are forced to deny ecological realities – realities which show how the actions you take with your property, can have a real and measurable effect on other people’s property – even if the only property those other people possess is their own body. If I benefit economically from a coal-burning power station, I don’t want the inconvenience of believing that what I do with my land can affect the property of other people. Because their property rights then impinge upon my right to do whatever I like with my land. It’s a crude example, but the economics in which we believe, will often lead us to believe in ecological fairy-tales where our actions don’t have consequences.
So – back to this miracle in the bible. In fact, there are no miracles in the Bible – because miracle is a Latin word and the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek. Here in John’s gospel, this event is described as a ‘sign’. But what does it point to? The fact that Jesus can do miracles? If we read this story as an economic statement – are we forced to conclude that, if God so wishes, he can suspend the laws of nature, wave a magic wand and make everything alright? Okay, you’ve run out of wine. Okay, you’ve used up all the planet’s resources. Never mind – God is here. Everything will be okay…
There is another way of reading this story: through the lens of a miracle well attested in the early church. When they celebrated Eucharist, their practice was a little different from ours. The offertory, for instance, was not the point of the service where you toss coins into a collection pot. In the offertory, the congregation brought their offering for communal celebration. So, for instance, orphans would bring water to pour into the common cup. Those with a little more income might bring a bottle of Jacob’s Creek and pour that into the common cup. And the aristocracy would bring their Chateau Lafite. All of it, poured into one huge vat – offered up to God – and then distributed among the congregation.
That way, when they said, “though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one cup,” it carried serious weight. And for poorest members of that congregation – they brought water and tasted wine. For a faith that transcended the social barriers and classes of the day, that was nothing short of a miracle. And if Jesus was pointing towards anything, I suspect it was that.
The sign he performed here at Cana, in Galilee, on the brink of his ministry – is the promise of a new age, a new order. A new way of being together – and as such a new politics – one that would bring with it, a new economics. In coming weeks, we’ll explore further how this new economics brought down the wrath of the Roman empire upon those early Christian communities – resulting in the widespread persecution of Christians.
But what we see here, with Jesus, is not simply a conjuring trick to save his friends from social embarrassment. For those Jewish people who knew their Scriptures, time after time after time – God’s promise of a new era of comfort for the people, freedom from oppression and a new era of economic prosperity, is expressed through the abundant provision of new wine. In fact, it is harder to find Prophets who do not speak in this way, than it is to find those who do. Joel and Amos and Hosea and Malachi, Haggai and Zephania and Micah, and Isaiah and Jeremiah. Time and time again – the state of Israel’s economy is expressed according to the availability of wine.
At the dawn of his ministry – this acted parable, this abundant overflow of wine, is simply to draw attention to the new age that dawns with the presence of this Jesus. That economic implications of this – will be the subject of this term’s Sunday evenings. At this stage, with this sign at Cana in Galilee, Jesus has simply made a promise.
If ecology is about the resources at our disposal, and economy is about how we manage those resources – then Jesus is an economist, and one whose economy breaks the rules. Nobody expects water to turn into wine. Nobody expected that kind of economic move. Now, at the risk of treading on thin ice, and present company excepted – it is not often that you meet an economist who, when faced with an alternative economic system – will not say, “Oh, that would never work.” I suppose there was a heavy-weight economist here in Cambridge in the 20th Century – who did propose a new, alternative economics: but what was the world’s response to Keynes? “It would never work.” So we venerate him, but don’t follow him.
Jesus didn’t just outline an alternative economic system: he embodied it, and according to John’s Gospel, it worked. The sign recounted by John, is an instance of micro-economics at work. As the gospels unfold, we will see more clearly how it works its way out in his life and ministry.