In lockdown some of us are appreciating the simple things and discovering, with the wisdom writer, that some choices are better than others. (Listen.)
If anything good came out of last year’s extended lockdown, it was this: My husband no longer lived in Melbourne part time; he was home every day of the week. I no longer had to operate as a single parent, ever. My daughters were always home, no shuttling to school or activities; and, being self-directed learners, they needed little supervision. No one came over; we didn’t go out. Free from the scramble of sole parenting, free from the drop-offs and pickups and workdays curtailed, free from commuting to Melbourne for work myself, free from activities and dinners and going away on holiday, with meetings cancelled and housework shared: I had time.
Time to think about the movement of the sun; time to rip out a long line of hedges; time to plant a vegetable garden. And as the first crops grew, time to pick off the caterpillars and feed them to the chooks. Time to sit out there with a cuppa, and pray, and watch, and wait. Time to weed; time to water; time to harvest. Time to cook dinners of vegetables, grown and served with love. And afterwards, time to play cards with the kids, then read or chat into the night.
It was a glimpse of the good life: the shalom we say we long for. But it didn’t happen in our normal economy; it happened in the wilderness and stillness of lockdown. And so I find myself wondering, ‘Why must God set the table in the wilderness? Why not in elegant restaurants, or in a busier way of life?’
I think two proverbs hold the answer: ‘Better a pittance in the awareness of God than great treasure and trouble with it. Better a meal of greens where there’s love than a fatted calf where there is strife.’ (Proverbs 15:16-17)
It’s not that steak can’t be served with love; nor is kale always free from virtue-signalling and hatred. Nor is it that poverty is intrinsically godly, and wealth intrinsically not. Instead, steak and kale, and all that lies behind them, are symbols of two economic systems, two ways of life.
The first is the way of wealth and striving. This way feels entitled to red meat any night of the week, with wine on an ordinary Tuesday. It’s private school fees and overseas holidays and ski trips. It’s the updated kitchen, the big extension, the newer car, the shopping for fun. It’s running kids to an endless roster of afterschool activities, and dinners gobbled separately, and everybody rushed; it’s shouting to hurry a slowpoke into the car. It’s the big tvs and paid streaming services; it’s smartphones for teenagers; it’s the designer cat and the oodle. It’s regularly going to restaurants or shows and being a bit disappointed: because things are never quite up to scratch.
To the Australian middle class, that is, most of us, this way seems normal. Who doesn’t want a nice dinner, a comfortable house, a new outfit, a big night out? But scratch the surface, and we find ugliness.
Behind regular steak dinners are imported workers who pick the broccoli and butcher the meat for extremely low pay, and who live in crowded substandard housing with no privacy, no safety, no medical care and no justice. Where meandering rivers once watered a gentle landscape, the vast fields of agribusiness are straightening the lines, compacting the soil, and removing cover for predators: we get mouse plagues and monocultures and toxic chemicals in the groundwater.
Behind recreational shopping and fast fashion sent to thrift stores lie crowded factories in Bangladesh, a collapsed textile industry in Ghana, and putrid mountains of rotting clothes. Behind the big renovations and holiday homes is a system which rewards those who already own property, but sends prices out of reach for everyone else—even as once arable land is turned into suburbs growing nothing much but lawn.
‘Steak and treasure’ is shorthand for trouble. It means working long hours to pay for it all, and tired adults, and harried kids. It means rushing around endlessly; pouring a wine to anesthetize stress; then collapsing in bed with the iPad. There’s little time or energy to pray or to play, or to join a grassroots movement; there’s little time to cultivate an awareness of God.
And this way of life is exhausting. It makes for stress and frayed relationships and strife. Despite all its glittering promises, it just doesn’t deliver; it doesn’t really feel like the good life. Which is why, according to the wisdom writer, there is a better way: ‘Better a pittance in the awareness of God than great treasure and trouble with it. Better a meal of greens where there’s love than a fatted calf where there is strife.’ (Proverbs 15:16-17).
But what do a pittance and greens look like for us?
Well, we all know it, and we all taste it from time to time—especially, for some of us, during lockdown. This is the way of local, unhurried, unfussed: slow living for its own sake, not as an Instagram commodity. It’s the way of love and justice and wellbeing and peace. It’s old clothes and old tech and small shabby homes which are cherished. It’s saying ‘no’ to some activities and some people, because we are making time for reading and music-making and prayer and naps. It’s everyone having just enough work, and also enough leisure. It’s reclaiming Sabbath and choosing not to shop or work or access the internet at this time. It’s turning our backs on the attention economy. A pittance and greens means having the spaciousness to listen or chat; it’s living in the awareness of God and others and following the spirit’s flow.
It’s eating silver beet more than anything else, because it grows freely in the garden; and it’s eating less overall because we’re attentive to both food and emotions: we’re no longer eating our feelings. At dinner time, we put our phones away. There’s no distractions and no dessert beyond a couple of homegrown figs; in place of ice cream we savour the sweetness of conversation; the cheerful lunacy of a game of Pig.
A pittance and greens: It encapsulates God’s economy of shalom, where everyone is invited to the table and all have just enough. But like the Israelites longing for the fleshpots of Egypt, we too are shaped by an economic system which drives us to want treasure and steak, and which makes trouble and strife seem unavoidable.
We might long to work fewer hours, or to not have to travel for work: but our expenses and our employer won’t allow it. We might yearn for the simple life, but we worry that our kids will miss out. Our friends like weekends away and theatre and champagne; we want to hang out with them, so we strive to keep up. And so we get steak and treasure, and all that comes with them.
And the systems and powers and inheritances which mean some eat steak while many go hungry are far bigger than individual choices. There are public choices, both current and historic, involving land grabs, genocide, international trade, fossil fuel subsidies, tax laws, zoning and more; and they’re all bound up in a national accounting system which doesn’t value unpaid domestic labour or clean air or biodiversity. Even before we choose lentils or lamb, we are enmeshed in policy and politics.
And so we hear these proverbs and feel tension: tension between what is and what could be; tension between how we live now and what God invites us to. We feel caught; we feel compromised; we feel justified in having steak and treasure because our work is important and we also grow silver beet and we put in double glazing and give money away.
Yet for those of us with the privilege of choice, the wisdom writer is clear: Better a pittance in the awareness of God … better a meal of greens with love. Every day we choose where to focus our time, money and attention: and some choices are better than others.
For example, if we truly believe that all are welcome at God’s table and that all should be fed, we know enough about land use to admit: we won’t be eating much steak. There’s not enough land or water to feed the world on meat. Sure, there might be lamb on high holy days, but mostly it’s gonna be spinach.
As the wisdom writer didn’t quite say: Better lentils with bread and justice than wagyu with wine and rivalry.
What else could we say? How else could we describe it? How about …
Better a community garden feeding the hungry than a café monetizing public space.
Better a free night at home with games and laughter than a big night out with stress and expense.
Better prayer and reflection and awareness of God than endless news and Netflix and anxiety.
Better a bedtime marked by stories and love than an iPad, no chat and no cuddle.
Better relationships than work. Better veggie gardens than big houses. Better simplicity, better shalom, better silver beet.
‘When many of the disciples heard this, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept this?” … and many turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked his closest friends, the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? Yours are the words of full and flourishing life.”’ (John 6:60, 66-68).
Some choices are better than others. Some choices lead to fullness and flourishing. Ω
Reflect: What is one thing in your life which feels like ‘steak and trouble’? Is there a better choice you could make? Pray about it, then act.
A reflection on Proverbs 15:16-17 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 22 August 2021 © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Gyan Shahane on Unsplash. Photograph taken in Dhule, Maharashta, India.
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