'I can hardly begin to imagine the amount of work which the members of the G8 countries have had to do to prepare for their meetings here in County Fermanagh over the next few days. I know that those preparations have been going on for a long time; probably since the end of last time that the G8 met.
There will have been hundreds of people involved - politicians, advisors, experts in every field of knowledge imaginable. They will have had to read many articles and policy documents and learned papers to prepare for the work they have to do in so short a time.
I wonder (and this is simply idle speculation) did any of them, by any chance, prepare by looking up the Revised Common Lectionary, and perusing the Bible readings as they are set out for this morning; passages which will be read in thousands of Churches around the world today?
Probably not, I suppose. And I can quite understand why. They already had quite enough stuff to read without bothering with interesting but rather exotic and remote material like the First Book of Kings or the Gospel of St. Luke.
After all what could the story of a Near Eastern, Iron Age king have to say to the era of the knowledge economy? Or what has a poignant story about a Jewish Messiah and an emotional woman to do with development economics?
“And Ahab said to Naboth - Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house. I will give you a better garden for it...or I will give you its value in money. But Naboth said to Ahab, the Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance”.
Naboth’s Vineyard is a story about greed, but a particular sort of greed. It is about greed which sincerely believes itself to be benevolence. And we are all prone to it; but the rich and the powerful are more prone to it than most.
When I say the rich and the powerful I mean you and me, and, of course those who make decisions on our behalf. But we can’t pass the buck onto them, because in a democracy every person is a politician in some sense.
It mightn’t be a bad idea if rich countries who have a genuine desire to help developing countries added the Naboth test into the economic algorithms which no doubt have to be made when aid or investment is being contemplated.
The Naboth test would require a healthy amount of self suspicion about our own motives. It might involve questions like - Who is really benefiting in the long term from this transaction?, and, are there any hidden motives that I am conveniently ignoring?
The Naboth test might also take into account some factors that have greater value than money; in fact may be something that money can’t buy. Something like the self respect of the receiving country and its real long term interests.
Naboth knew something that we in the West have forgotten (although it was pretty clearly articulated by a prophetic Irishman-Edmund Burke - nearly three hundred years ago). It is that any society can only thrive in the long term when it remembers it is based on a scared contract between the dead, the living and the unborn.
“The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance”. No country (whether one that gives aid or one that receives aid) has the right to barter with the riches it has received from a previous generation in whatever form, without first guaranteeing that an even better result can be handed on to another generation.
Today in most western countries there is a large group of people who are not quite the unborn generations but who have every possibility of becoming the forgotten dead without having the opportunity to become the fully living; the young unemployed.
The levels of youth unemployment in wealthy countries is not only an economic problem, it is also a moral tragedy. Useful work is a God given means to develop both the good of society and the capacity of the individual. Not to have useful paid work to do is to be deprived of one of the means of developing great virtues.
It is through the world of work that most of us learn the habits of regularity, team working, application, balanced judgement, reliability and toleration. For millions of young people to be deprived of the opportunity to acquire and deepen these virtues, which are as necessary for economic development as much as personal well being, is to store up enormous personal and societal problems for decades to come.
The pace of economic recovery has been slow but there are glimpses that may be changing. Perhaps if some measures to cater for this generation can now be made, they will avoid spending the most creative and productive years of their lives in a sterile no man’s land of economic inactivity.
It is hardly a coincidence that Jesus had his character formed through the normal routines of working life in preparation for his ministry. Work must have formed his character, and he was fully alive to the moral possibilities and the moral dangers of the ordinary commercial world.
And Jesus said “Simon, I have something to teach you….A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty”.
Perhaps the most important thing to say about the nameless woman who anointed his feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee, is that her generosity greatly moved Jesus.
No doubt there is such a thing as extravagant waste and there is no doubt a right time to keep every penny a prisoner. But there are also times in the lives of every man or woman living, and in the lives of nations too, when our true character shines out in acts of almost reckless generosity. Un-repayable debt demoralises people and crushes hope, and eventually destroys whole societies. Generosity gives hope and life.
There will always be those who it scandalises, just as Simon the Pharisee was scandalised. Those who carp at extravagant generosity would always claim to have reason on their side and they usually have love against them; and love is the greatest moral reality of all.
Generosity is at the core of the Gospel and we all can think of a hundred reasons why we shouldn’t be generous. But generosity is the very spirit of Jesus.
There was nothing sensible in his life. He gave without calculating the cost. The Pharisee would have looked at His life and His death and asked “ why this waste.” We all fear becoming poor. Jesus dreaded that any man should be rich; such was the danger of riches to the soul.
It is not a bad way to test what we are as individuals and as a nation. To ask when was the last time we did something generous or extravagant out of love. In the Scriptures eternal life, the life of God, does not belong to the sensible people. It doesn’t belong to those who hoard their lives, but to those who spill out their lives for the love of God and their neighbour.'
Bishop John McDowell