September 18, 2011
It is very good for brothers and sisters to live together in peace – even if it doesn’t happen very often. Human life has been marked by conflict since Cain and Abel. Their conflict was about whose religious offering was better – sheep or crops. They were competing for God’s recognition.
Most conflict originates in scarcity – hunger, no land to call your own, no job to support a family, even a person’s reputation. Wars erupt when one nation thinks it needs something belonging to its neighbor – land or other resources, or more people to do its bidding. Think about the conflicts over land formerly occupied by native peoples, or the attitudes toward migration from one country to another. The United States is fighting two different wars, searching for greater security, both in terms of physical safety and enough oil. The conflict in the Middle East is about land and security, and has a lot of echoes of Cain and Abel’s struggle over whose religious practice is best.
Scarcity can be relative – not even noticed until there’s a comparison with somebody else. Kids and adults who decide they have to have the latest toy or fashion are living in relative scarcity, but so are those who want a higher status in their community.
Scarcity leads to conflict, whether the scarcity is objectively real or only relative. Scarcity also has something to do with judgment when we criticize others and search for an immediate resolution, forgetting that God’s opportunity for judgment is abundant and eternal.
The Israelites in the desert are complaining because they don’t like the food – either how much they’re getting or the kind of food they have to eat. They would rather go back and be slaves in Egypt than be free to find the land God has promised them. God hears their complaints, and sends them enough – both meat at night and bread in the morning. It is enough, but it’s not way more than enough. On the sixth day of the week they get enough for two days, so that they don’t even have to gather or prepare the food on the Sabbath. They get enough rest, too, along with their daily bread.
Jesus tells a story about scarcity and conflict as well, but it’s about relative scarcity. The landowner hires anybody who needs work, all day long, and he agrees to pay each one a day’s wage – enough to live on. But when he starts to pay them at the end of the day, those who were hired first get angry. They think they should get more than those who only worked the last part of the day. They feel cheated, even though they get what was promised.
Scarcity has something to do with what or who we worship. When the Israelites get their priorities right, they discover that God gives them enough. When they get their priorities mixed up, they build a golden calf and worship that. It doesn’t turn out so well. Those workers hired at the beginning of the day seem obsessed with their own effort – in comparison to those who came to work at the end of the day. Competition and conflict result.
Peace is more than an absence of conflict, but it comes through an awareness of true abundance – it’s the opposite of scarcity. The kingdom of God is about a feast where everybody has enough, and enough more to celebrate. That’s the promised land God first promised to the Israelites. Peace has a lot to do with the absence of anxiety about scarcity – I’m not afraid about where my next meal is coming from, or how to clothe my children. And I know that my neighbor isn’t going to come and take what I have, because he, too, has enough.
The surprising thing about all of this is that it is those who don’t have very much who are often most generous and least anxious. The guys in the vineyard who got a good job and had a productive day’s work surprisingly ended up having the greatest sense of scarcity. The ones who had been anxious all day until they were called to work were simply grateful.
The conflict in this diocese is mostly about relative scarcity – decision-making authority is the scarce commodity in most people’s eyes. It’s pretty clear that it isn’t distributed effectively enough for people to believe there is abundance. All the bishops here can tell you of similar conflicts in their own dioceses, but most of those conflicts haven’t risen to this level of intensity.
The answer to all conflicts over scarcity is remembering that God intends everyone to have enough – enough food and drink, adequate shelter and clothing, and enough security to be able to lay down weapons and live together in peace – that is the promised land. We can’t begin to live that vision until we’re ready to stop competing for resources. The answer is usually to share what we have. When we do, we discover the wealth we do have. To be able to say, mi casa es tu casa, is to know that abundance only comes when it’s shared. Hoarded resources will always seem scarce.
Are we the workers who came first in the day, or those who were hired last? Can we be grateful for what we have, and willing to share the blessing? That is the purpose of this table of thanksgiving. No one receives more than another, for all we have is a gift from God.
¡Aleluya – celebremos la fiesta!