What are you hungry for? What are you craving? Food? Friendship? The dulling of the pain? An end to loneliness? The lighting up of the darkness? The warm embrace of love? To be hungry is to be human. To feed ourselves is to be human. And we live in a ravenous age. We are all barraged daily with advertising for things which promise to sate our hunger, to quench our thirst, to satisfy our desires, to heal the pain, to end the craving, to fill the emptiness within.
And so we become consumers. We eat, we drink, we shop, we spend, as we try to fill the hunger which threatens to devour us. Our whole system relies on endless consumption: new toys, new phones, new clothes, new cars, new information, new everything … and always just another coffee.
“I need a dress,” says my daughter. “But you have lots of dresses,” I say. “I only like the new ones,” she replies. In our society, even young children have learned to be model consumers, ever on the lookout for more and newer and better and best.
Of course, the new becomes old. The dress fades; the book bores; the gadget becomes tedious; the toys no longer enchant. And so, being good citizens, we are tempted to rush out and buy the next dress, the next book, the next gadget, the next shiny new toy, and to try to fill that gaping wound that yawns within.
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” asks the prophet Isaiah. And well might he ask. Perhaps the answer is quite simple: that we have not yet learned that things will never satisfy. We have not yet learned that all we have is a gift, and it’s given to us to be given away.
Instead, we clutch onto our gifts—our wealth, our comforts, our talents, our love; we ration them out; and we wonder why we are so ravenously hungry, so painfully empty inside.
The ancient Israelites faced similar problems. These words from the prophet Isaiah are addressed to the Israelite elite who had been deported to Babylon. There, they had made lives for themselves. Even as they sang sad songs for their homeland, they raised sons and daughters. They built houses and planted gardens; they worked in the local economy; they traded, bought and sold. Inevitably, their identity became compromised.
And so the prophet is calling them back to their roots. For they are people of God’s covenant. Their faithfulness should be expressed through acts of practical love and service for both neighbour and stranger; their economy should be based on the expectation of God’s abundance. People of God’s covenant don’t clutch onto things, because they have faith that God will always provide. They could rely on the daily provision of manna in the desert—food which can never be stored up. They know God will provide. And they are expected to enact jubilee justice, that wonderful year when the debts of the poor are forever cancelled.
So the prophet calls them back: to the way of shalom, of well-being, of neighbourly sharing. “You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” for this is the way of the God of your ancestors, the God who leads you out of captivity and into the ways of freedom and abundance. Come back, because your thoughts are not God’s thoughts: and your thinking is leading you into anxiety, restlessness, hunger, emptiness and despair. Come back, because your ways are not God’s ways: and your ways are leading you into miserliness, scarcity, ingratitude, injustice and poverty. Come back to the way of shalom.
This way of shalom, this alternative economy, still speaks to us today. For we are all living in Babylon: in an economy and a system which teaches us to get the most toys, to keep up with neighbours, and to fear anything which might threaten our security and wealth. And so, as individuals and households, we pour time and energy into things which does not satisfy; as a nation, we patrol our maritime borders and crucify those on welfare and lock up the poor and vulnerable so that we do not need to share. But when we participate in this economy of fear and scarcity, we become the ravenously hungry walking wounded, the flesh-eating undead.
Yet all the evidence in our wealthy nation points to a different reality, God’s reality: there is more than enough here for everyone. As people of faith, then, we have an alternative to a living death. Our alternative is to place our hope in God’s thoughts, God’s ways: God’s economy. In Isaiah 56, God tells the people to “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my healing will come, and my freedom will be revealed.” Because God’s ways of justice, generosity, forgiveness of debts and hospitality are economic practices which promise healing and freedom.
As modern Christians living in a rapacious economic system, it can be difficult to remember God’s ways; and it’s certainly countercultural to trust them. And so, each week, we gather here to remember and practice God’s ways, God’s economy. We hold up the body of Christ, and we give thanks as we remember that it is never ours: it is always a gift. We break it and we share it, because God’s gifts are always to be shared; gifts are given for the life of the world.
In the same way, as members of the body of Christ, we remind each other that our lives are a gift to be shared, a gift given for the life of the world. We give our lives away because we are learning that to hold onto them, to protect them, is a slow death; and we are confident that the eternal source of life, the wellspring of all life, will always replenish us.
So come! Do not spend your money for that which is not bread, or your labour for that which does not satisfy. Come, “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” Come, give thanks for life, the gift that is given to be shared. Come, turn your lives around again, and again, and again, and offer them up to God. For it is only in the giving and the sharing of all that you have and all that you are, that you will really, truly come alive. So come, offer everything back to God—your gifts, your wealth, your fears, and your dreaming—and you will receive your life back, in abundance. Ω
A reflection on Isaiah 55:1-9 given to Sanctuary, 24 March 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.
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