by Kenneth Padley at St Mary’s Childwick
10th October 2021 based on Joel 2.21-27 and Matthew 6.25-33
Today’s Harvest Festival falls in the midst of another extraordinary period of consumer behaviour. After all that bog roll hoarding of early 2020, we have recently seen panic on the forecourts as the lack of supply to a few fuel stations has turned into a national crisis. Drivers have feared that they will run out of petrol and diesel. And so there has been a spike in demand as vehicles have flooded the filling stations, causing long tail-backs and pumps to run dry. A small problem has become a big problem because people have behaved in a self-centred way.
Living in an advanced society with robust supply chains, we are relatively immune to such economic shocks. Yet we are not many decades distant from that time when the failure of a harvest could mean dearth for whole regions and countries.
The prophet Joel was writing against just such a challenging agricultural backdrop. A combination of enemy forces and pestilence had devastated the land. Yet God through the prophet promises restoration:
In verse 25:
I will repay you for
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
And in verse 21:
Do not fear, O soil;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Do not fear, you animals of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit,
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
I wonder how the message of Joel was received in his own day? Did people moderate their behaviour because the common-sense observation of the prophet was that circumstances would improve? Or did they laugh in his face and continue to ringfence themselves and their families to the detriment of others?
Joel’s message of ‘do not fear’ chimes with Jesus words in today’s gospel when he says
do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
Do not fear, do not worry.
The twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr placed fear and worry at the heart of his understanding of original sin. Niebuhr knew that we live in a world of finite resources but infinite wants. And so our temptation is always to take more. We do this because we are driven by an ultimately illusory goal of security, of immortality no less. This tendency is universal to all humans – it is original to all of us. And it is a tendency not a compulsion, so when we choose to act on the temptation we are willful in our commission of sin.
In addition to urging people not to fear or worry, Joel and Jesus both offer an alternative to greedy hoarding. Both of them encourage a redirection of focus, away from self-centredness and on to God.
Joel foresees a time when everyone will have enough and will know God in their midst.
You shall eat in
plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
Now I would not want us here to fall into the trap known as the prosperity gospel, to associate wealth with divine favour. We know that adversity besets everyone on their earthly pilgrimage, the good at least as much as the bad. However, if our focus is on God then we will have greater concern for the needs of others, and will be less susceptible to paranoid stockpiling.
Jesus is saying something similar at the end of the gospel when he says ‘seek ye first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ I’m not looking for a miracle to fill my fridge every week. But if we set the love of God above everything else, we will also look out for other people, we will stop being so self-centred and we will find that there is enough to go around.
Jesus didn’t just talk about this. He acted it out. There is an explanation of the feeding of the five thousand which says that the ‘miracle’ lies in the way that the sharing of two fish and five loaves by the young boy inspires or embarrasses everyone else to follow suite. In the past I have tended to dismiss this explanation as too liberal and, frankly, too unmiraculous. Having witnessed the stockpiling of recent months, I’m no longer so sure. The boy with the fish and loaves realised what the hoarders do not, namely that there’s plenty to go round but we need people to look out for others and we need a system for sharing fairly.
System is really important. There are all sorts of strengths to the capitalism which undergirds western society. However, one of its weaknesses is that, in its unregulated form, capitalism is ill-equipped to cushion against the effects of economic shock. It does not come with safety barriers included as standard. Government and society need to envision and implement these barriers for the common good. They might take the form of emergency limits on how much we can buy (you only really need one pack of bog roll this week, don’t you?) Or, they might see the quicker use of army drivers to get resources where they are urgently needed.
If we can improve our system in a way that removes the worst effects of greed and worry, then we will be helping those who need their share of the harvest and we might just catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in the process.