In order to better understand our faith’s scriptures we need to appreciate the context in which they were written. We sometimes misunderstand or fail to comprehend verses because we are insufficiently aware of the intention of the original writer, usually writing in a totally different language, in a different culture, and at a different time.
One example is to be aware of the concept of ‘the limited good’, which was very real to poorer communities living in harsh or oppressive conditions across the world and still accepted in a number of tribal traditions. This suggests that ‘goodness’ is in limited supply and can only be gained at the expense of someone else. Someone may experience a rise in wealth but only if this is lost by another person or group.
If ‘goodness’ is felt not to be abundant, people are encouraged to share and cooperate for that which is available, and not to compete for it. Not surprisingly, in such communities there is a strong emphasis on common ownership with shared bonds and personal possessions are regarded disdainfully.
There is little doubt this kind of thinking was very influential in the nomadic Hebrew (and other) communities in the Middle East, especially where the experience of the desert wilderness remained constantly in people’s minds. ‘The limited good’ influenced the call to redistribute wealth and land, as expressed in the biblical principle of the Jubilee, and the writing off of wrongs or debts in the Lord’s Prayer. Setting captives free could refer to those incarcerated by crippling debt. The Early Church extolled the virtues of shared ownership with resources being held in common for about 500 years.
This same concept continues to exert influence in some of the poorer parts of the globe, even today.
However, for those of us who live in a post-industrial society where there appears to be no shortage of water, food, energy or money, this concept will seem totally unnecessary. We are continually being told we can expect infinite economic growth, plenty of jobs and instant rewards. We therefore need to share nothing. As individuals seeking happiness, we are to believe that contentment is to be found in gathering personal acquisitions – our own homes, cars, mobile phones, tablets, computers, etc. Rather than any limits to goodness, we can choose from an endless supply of goodies….
But now a different reality is dawning. As a species we have exhausted so much natural capital and totally contaminated our environment that the question of limits is very obviously becoming an essential consideration once more. We have been able to pretend that we live in a world of infinite material resources and we have burnt up the cheap fossil fuels at an alarming rate. Now all this looks extremely precarious and certainly not sustainable for future generations.
This can only push us back to explore again the concept of ‘the limited good’ and re-discover that indeed our greed can only be maintained at the cost of the poor or the future. We can only burn oil and coal if we take it away from our children’s children. But it need not be like this.
Instead, we will need to develop communities of sharing in what the Ecumenical Patriarch calls a “culture of solidarity”. Or in the words of Pope Francis, we will need to undergo an ‘ecological conversion’ to reject the short-term acquisitiveness of the present and to grow a more wholesome society based on ‘Simplicity, Subsidiarity and Sobriety’ (Laudato Si).
Only when social love becomes the norm for all human activity, will we realise fulfilment comes through a counter-culture of sharing, and that less is more when we engage in living for others tomorrow and not solely for ourselves today.
All best wishes – Martyn