The common bowl

Creating a budget can be great fun. Every household knows the process of assessing needs, projecting revenues and expenses, and allocating resources accordingly. First things, of course, always come first:

  • We all need food.
  • We all need a roof over our head.
  • We all need clothes.
  • We all need medical care.
  • We all need transportation to get from here to there.

Our basic needs are very similar. We make a list of all the essentials, we see what’s left for non-essentials, and we make a plan that allows us to live within our means. Living with a budget can be great fun, when you get to watch your savings grow over time, savings that will help you build a cushion for emergencies or allow you to do something special like a trip to the beach.

However, creating a budget is a painful process when your income cannot keep up with your expenses anymore. First you make adjustments: you don’t have to eat out as much; those clothes you got last year aren’t in style anymore, but they still look nice; you hope that the old heat pump will make it another year. For thousands of households in this country, though – families, businesses, and entire communities – these adjustments have become painful cuts.

There are many kids that didn’t go back to college last year or the year before because their families could no longer afford it. There are plenty of businesses that no longer offer their employees health insurance but only a small monthly benefit stipend. Cities and towns across the nation have closed libraries and even fire stations.

Last week, the President sent his budget proposal to congress. I don’t want to get into the politics of taxes and subsidies, the size of government, or the reform of Medicare and Medicaid. We all know that just about everybody agrees that we need to reduce government spending—just not the programs that bring money and jobs to our state, or that provide services we consider crucial.

I want to talk briefly about this budget proposal because my heart sank when I heard that it contains a 50% cut in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. This federal program assists households that pay a high portion of income on heating and cooling bills, and roughly 8.3 million people benefitted from it last year. Its target population is the elderly and the disabled. White House officials explained that the cuts aren’t real cuts because home energy prices have come down from unusually high levels over the last three years, and therefore less funding would be needed. I hope they are right.

My heart sank because our faith has taught me to pay attention to how a community, a city, a nation, treats its most vulnerable members. The law of Moses, in the passage from Leviticus read today, is beautiful in its simplicity,

You shall not reap to the very edges of the field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.

The disabled, the day laborer, the poor and the alien, they are the people that often are overlooked, forgotten, or ignored. They have little power, and God calls our attention to their needs and the demands of justice and mercy.

Economists are not known for being particularly imaginative; they are the people who do the numbers. But Jan Pen, a Dutch economist who died last year, may be the exception. He looked at the numbers that reflect the shrinking of the middle class in the United States and some European countries, and he came up with a striking way to picture inequality.

Imagine people’s height being proportional to their income. If your income is just about average, so is your height. Now imagine that the entire adult population of the United States is walking past you in a single hour, in ascending order of income. One hour, the entire U. S. adult population.

The first passers-by are invisible: their heads are below ground; they are the owners of loss-making businesses. Then come the jobless and the working poor, who are midgets. After half an hour the people walking by you are still only waist-high, since America’s median income is only half the mean. It takes nearly 45 minutes before normal-sized people appear. And then, suddenly, in the final minutes, it’s starting to look like the NBA. With six minutes to go they are 12 feet tall giants. And right at the end, when the 400 highest earners walk by, each is more than two miles tall.

The biggest challenge is not that there are short people and really, REALLY tall people – the challenge is that it takes so long before normal-sized people appear in the line.

What does all this have to do with the gospel? The world God envisions in creating abundance, liberating slaves, spelling out covenant commandments, calling prophets, and sending Jesus Christ is not a world where everybody has a chance to grow taller than the trees and the hills. The world God envisions is one where every human being knows life in fullness, a fullness that reflects the character of God, and not some vision of insatiable appetite and growth without limits.

When God says to Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy,” it is not a call to a competition where some spiritual over-achievers grow into giants whose heads touch the stars while the spiritually short stay underground. The call to holiness is a call to be the covenant community whose life together reflects the generosity and grace of God. I love how the passage from Leviticus talks about holiness in quite quotidian ways of paying attention to the poor and the disabled, not being partial in court, not defrauding others, and not telling lies. The commandments connect our everyday activities as family members and friends, as producers and consumers and citizens with the very nature and purposes of God. Daily human interaction is not left to the tricky rules of politics or the invisible hand of perfect markets or the laws of nature – daily human interaction is marked as sacred ground where God’s holiness is either honored or insulted.

I love how the many do’s and don’t’s all seem to arrive at that beautiful line at the end of the passage, a line that captures the essence of holiness like a bowl: You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. In that bowl we find God’s answer to questions that become particularly urgent in tough economic times:

Why should we care about other human beings? Why should we put aside the drive for self-preservation in order to act in a selfless way on behalf of another? What keeps us from perpetually elevating our own self-interest above that of others? What, if anything, draws us together and holds us together as a community? We find God’s answer in that bowl.

I imagine that several of you cringed when you heard Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” You couldn’t help but think about your mother who always found something to criticize, no matter how hard you tried to please her. Or perhaps it was your Dad who excelled in academics as well as in sports, who built his own business and did everything right, everything – and you have spent most of your life trying to prove that you can be just like him, perfect. I have a friend who after many years of theological reflection and prayer has determined that the original sin is not pride, but the desire to be perfect. There is truth in that. Why then would Jesus say such a thing? Be perfect as God in heaven is perfect. Isn’t he commanding the impossible? Isn’t he sowing the destructive seeds of self-doubt, frustration, guilt and utter failure? You may have heard him that way, but it wasn’t Jesus you heard.

The word translated as ‘perfect’ does not mean flawless. It is a word that speaks of being complete and mature, of being at one with one’s purpose and fulfilled. Moreover, the command to be perfect is not a call to isolated, individual achievement, but again a call to life in a community that reflects the character of God. It is no coincidence that it sounds much like the ancient commandment to be holy because God is holy. Jesus picks up the bowl that holds the essence of holiness, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and he says,

Now you may think that it is the neighbor who defines the reach of love. You may think that you can limit your love to the circle of those whom you recognize as neighbors, and hate those outside that circle. But it is the other way round: love’s reach defines who is neighbor. When you look at my life and my way of the cross, you will see love’s embrace of all, even the enemy. Heaven’s love is like the rain: it doesn’t discriminate between the righteous and the unrighteous, it showers them all.

Likewise, the life God desires for you is not determined by lines drawn between friend and foe, but by love continually crossing those lines for the sake of reconciliation and relationships restored in righteousness.

What I command you is not to let circumstances determine your actions, but to find ways for love to open and transform every circumstance. Be perfect, therefore, in God’s perfect love. Find fulfilment by living fully in God’s economy of abundance and enough for all. Be at one with who you are meant to be by letting God’s love bear you like a river that flows to the kingdom.

I thirst for words like that in times of tight budgets. Thank you Jesus.