Commodities and Covenants
Posted on: Jul 10, 2019
A few decades ago I knew a gentleman (I’ll call him Les) who earned his living as a commodities trader. He bought and sold agricultural products, i.e. commodities, on the Chicago Board of Trade.
Les lived somewhat modestly, which is to say one wouldn’t necessarily know his wealth by observing his lifestyle. When it came to giving, his local church was clearly his first priority. He also made significant gifts to several nonprofit organizations and institutions. Because of the size of his gifts, many considered Les a generous man.
Les straddled the boundary between commodities and covenants. On the one hand, he prospered financially in one of the most intense and competitive arenas of private enterprise — where “winning” counts. On the other, he acted on what he believed his Christian faith called him to do — he believed he expressed his covenantal promises to God through his giving. (I don’t know if Les felt any tension between his work and the rest of his life. I do know that he died suddenly one day from a massive heart attack.)
My friendship with Les came to mind when I encountered this quote recently: Commodity thinking says you share with your neighbor stuff you can afford. Convenantal thinking says you share first with your neighbor, and then you and your neighbor live on what you’ve got together.
This observation by Old Testament scholar (and United Church of Christ minister) Walter Bruggemann contrasts the values of our American culture with God’s call to us as people of faith.
Most of us, most of the time, share with the church and other causes important to us according to what we feel we can afford. We seldom alter our lifestyles in order to give more. When we read of mega-donations by technology entrepreneurs, it’s safe to assume they’re not altering how they live so they can give more either. This is what Bruggemann calls commodity thinking.
Covenantal thinking, in contrast, calls us to totally re-frame our lives. When we show our love for God by how we love our neighbor, we alter our priorities. When a need of a cause grabs us in a way that commands our response, we don’t stop to determine what we can afford. We simply act from the generosity of our hearts.
This is how we glimpse God’s love and graces is — when we don’t stop to calculate if we can afford the gift. We give selflessly, without counting the cost. God’s love so enfolds us that sharing with our neighbor, and then living with our neighbor on what we have together, becomes a way of life.
Our culture and our economy drive us to live according to commodity thinking. Our faith calls us to live according to convenantal thinking. When we live faithfully, our lives show the generosity of spirit through which we share God’s love for us — without considering the cost.