Gift Economy

Luke 19:1–10, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on November 06, 2022

In a recent essay, indigenous author, and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:

Gratitude is so much more than a polite “thank you.” It is the thread that connects us in a deep relationship, simultaneously physical and spiritual, as our bodies are fed and spirits nourished by the sense of belonging, which is the most vital of foods. . . . If our first response [to the world’s gifts] is gratitude, then our second is reciprocity: to give a gift in return.[1]

The story of Zacchaeus, it seems to me, invites us to move toward what Kimmerer calls a gift economy, with its essential currencies of gratitude and reciprocity. As a tax collector, in fact the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus was an outcast, an enemy among his own people. He was the face of a brutal occupying force. In addition to collecting for the empire, tax collectors generally took their own generous cut. They had a reputation for getting rich by stealing from the poor. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but he knew the crowd around Jesus would treat him with hostility. So he climbed a tree hoping to get a glimpse from a safe distance. Jesus, in turn, saw Zacchaeus, really saw him, and called him to come down, to come close. Jesus made it clear in front of everyone that he wanted to spend time with Zacchaeus in the intimate space of his home, and to share sacred table fellowship with him. Notice that Jesus declared this intention to accept and include Zacchaeus before Zacchaeus declared his intention to repent and repair. Friends, this is the gift economy at work. God’s gifts are free, abundant, and unchanging. And these gifts always come with an invitation to reciprocity, with a call to seek right relationship.

Zacchaeus responded to Jesus’ invitation right there in front of the grumbling crowd: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” The Greek verbs in this sentence are in the present tense, leaving open two possibilities for translation. This statement could be, as our version implies, a promise for the future. Or it could be a description of Zacchaeus’ current behavior. I am intrigued with the possibility that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus because he had already been trying to put into practice the Rabbi’s teachings on economic justice. In any case, Zacchaeus is a surprising exception in Luke’s Gospel. He is the opposite of countless other rich folks for whom wealth and possessions became an impenetrable barrier, keeping them from relationship with God and community. 

In her article Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts a researcher’s interaction with a community in the Brazilian rainforest. 

A hunter had brought home a sizable kill, far too much to be eaten by his family. The researcher asked how he would store the excess. . . . The hunter was puzzled by the question—store the meat? Why would he do that? Instead, he sent out an invitation to a feast. . . . This seemed like maladaptive behavior to the anthropologist, who asked again: given the uncertainty of meat in the forest, why didn’t he store the meat for himself . . . “Store my meat? I store my meat in the belly of my brother,” replied the hunter.

In a gift economy wealth is understood as having enough to share, and the practice for dealing with abundance is to give it away. In fact, status is determined not by how much one accumulates, but by how much one gives away. . . . Sharing engenders relationships of goodwill and bonds that ensure you will be invited to the feast when your neighbor is fortunate. Security is ensured by nurturing the bonds of reciprocity. You can store meat in your own pantry or in the belly of your brother. Both have the result of keeping hunger at bay but with very different consequences for the people and for the land which provided that sustenance.

Beth, I so appreciate your thoughtful wrestling with this morning’s passage. I can see how I pigeon-holed you as our money person. Oops! Sorry! Really and truly, though, I do have you pegged as a church leader with a heart for economic justice. Thank you for bringing up the question of Zacchaeus’ sincerity, for examining his possible motivations, and ours, and for wondering whether or not Jesus cared why he did what he did. And thank you for naming the fact that “even people who benefit materially from structural inequality can also be trapped by it.” Yes. For those of us who have inherited the identity of whiteness and the role of colonizer, shedding these habits of thinking and acting is the work of a lifetime. We are all harmed by our current economy of exploitation, driven by scarcity and inequity, built on theft of land, labor, and lives.This way of being together on the planet is quickly destroying everything we hold sacred. 

Robin Wall Kimmerer says:

I want to be part of a system in which wealth means having enough to share, and where the gratification of meeting your family needs is not poisoned by destroying that possibility for someone else. . . . I don’t think market capitalism is going to disappear anytime soon; the faceless institutions that benefit from it are too entrenched. But I don’t think it’s pie-in-the-sky to imagine that we can create incentives to nurture a gift economy that runs right alongside the market economy, where the good that is served is community.

Friends, this is what I believe we are doing here, as church, as followers of Jesus. Today, we dedicate our pledges for the coming year. We make pledges for reparations and pledges to sustain the community of our church, a community in which we choose to define wealth differently. Wealth is receiving gifts with gratitude and having enough to share. Wealth is relational and spiritual as well as financial. Wealth means returning what has been stolen and restoring right relationship. Wealth is food stored in the bellies of our siblings. The reparations funds we gather will again be dispersed to Indigenous and Black-led organizations to do with as they see fit. We will continue to do our best to listen to and learn from our partners—the Anishinabe Academy, Makoce Ikikcupi, and Black Men Teach. 

Our family shares about 10% of our income each year with our two churches and other community organizations. This year, we are increasing our pledges to First Church and to the church’s reparations work by about 4%. We’ve also begun to ponder what to do with inherited wealth; how to release what is not truly ours and return it to those to whom it belongs. Whatever your relationship with money, privilege, and power is like, know that Jesus sees you, and calls you to come close. Jesus is inviting each of us into the life-giving practices of gratitude and reciprocity into an economy of gifts that serves the good of community. Amen.