What Does the Lord Require? The Economy of Grace and the Sacrifice of Tyre Nichols
There is usually lots in the news about the economy - inflation, employment, interest rates, stock exchange results and housing prices. We hardly find any of these terms in the Bible, but there is nevertheless plenty of economics in the pages of scripture too - and indeed today’s readings are full of it.
In Micah, the prophet castigates wealthy ancient Israelites who have had good results in their “stock” market - meaning animal stock, cattle and sheep - for their misunderstanding of the divine economy and their lack of concern for inequality and injustice. In the epistle, Paul ponders the modest wealth profile of his Christian proteges at Corinth, in calling them to humility and unity. And in the Gospel we hear the wonderful and mysterious description by Jesus of God’s economic and social policy in the Beatitudes.
Across many years’ difference - they were written centuries apart - these biblical texts speak with a strikingly common voice about God’s economy; what its goals are, its key indicators, its beneficiaries, and about the promises as well as demands that God places on, and offers, to all. And of course God’s economy isn’t just about what we call the economy; neither however does it exclude it.
But the news these last few days has been dominated not by economics in the usual sense, but by the terrible fact of Tyre Nichols’ death and by the horrifying images associated, which blend all too seamlessly into our culture of entertainment and distraction.
These things may seem as far apart as the centuries that separate us from them, but I want to suggest otherwise.
In the oldest of these passages, from around 700 BC, Micah’s message is offered in a time of national crisis, when the Assyrian empire has destroyed the northern part of the kingdom and threatens Jerusalem. Micah says this is not just about incidental geopolitics, but is God’s judgement on pervasive inequality and injustice. In that setting he imagines a would-be faithful Israelite asking about their religious duty in fundamentally economic terms, pondering what sort of spiritual investment would reap a rich reward:
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
The answer, or possible answers, are given as a series of potential sacrifices or gifts, a sort of of spiritual investment strategy:
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
Sacrifice was an economic activity, and God was an actor in the economy, as both provider of goods and recipient of them in sacrificial gifts like these. The hypothetical worshipper imagnes a set of bids on an ascending scale, from a fairly normal burnt offering, through a more lavish or even fantastic level of gift, to an unlikely height of the most precoius gift imaginable - a child.
This last possibility in Micah’s imagined auction for divine favor is indeed that of human sacrifice, shocking as that may be to us. While the prophets dismisses this offering, we know that in at least some instances the sacrifice of infants was practiced in the ancient world. The story of Abraham and Isaac - where of course Isaac is not sacrificed - relies on the same idea being known to the ancient readers.
Those Micah is criticizing take assumptions like those we apply in the human economy, transactions aimed at accumulation, and tries to make them work in the divine one. What gift, Micah’s addressees ask, what gift will be big enough to impress God or change his mind? What deal can I make? And last but not least, tellingly, whom can I sacrifice to ensure my credit is good?
It is worth asking whether this whole society does not work with a similar logic in offering the bodies of Tyre Nichols and so many other young black men in particular as sacrifices to its false gods - them and the bodies of a range of people who are dispensable, whose well-being does not matter except as the labor, and the market, needed by an economy which serves a few at the expense of the many. Tyre was not simply the victim of horrifying violence by a few, but a sacrifice offered by an economic and political system to the false gods of privilege and accumulation.
Micah makes this point, the link between such perverse gifts and injustice, too - why all these bids for divine favor, these pointless sacrifices, when God’s will has been clearly made known in a way that questions the very assumptions of such offerings:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
In all these passages today, we hear a consistently liberative divine vision of human life which is contrasted with the ways we use power and wealth as false gods to whom we sacrifice. And despite its reach into the realms of economy and politics, this a fundamentally spiritual question. We are called to give, but not to gain advantage, rather to celebrate with thanks what we have received.
Henri Nouwen, in his book In the Name of Jesus, says this:
The great message that we have to carry…as followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.
That choice between accepting the economy of grace, of gift, and bowing to the false economy by attempting to control the world ourselves, is a hard one to make from day to day. We sometimes falter. Yet when we come here week by week however we are reminded of, and incorporated into, an alternative order.
Our Eucharist is at the center of this divine economy. We offer to God not grand gifts, and no victim prepared by violence, but the simplest things, bread and wine which were food of daily life, not of luxury, produced with the peaceful tools of ploughshare and pruning hooks, not by weapons. We receive these gifts back transformed and infinitely enriched; we take them as Christ’s body and blood, signs of a gift we cannot repay, and in receiving them we are not so much enriched as transformed to become part of that gift ourselves. We witness going from here to a world where all lives have the value bestowed by God, not to be taken away cruelly or arbitrarily. To a world where gifts are freely given and needs fully met.
God needs nothing from us but invites everything. Giving all we have, we find we receive it back, whether or not with material prosperity then with thankfulness, and with praise. And we with the meek and the mourners too, all who know their dependence not on worldly power but on the infinite love of God, are blessed.
Based on a sermon given at St Paul’s, Cleveland Heights, January 29, 2023.