GRATUITOUSNESS IN THE MARKET PLACE
It is a privilege and a joy again to participate in this Sant’ Egidio conference, and to be part of this panel with a theme that I find personally challenging. When I look back at my life, I discover how much I have received without being able to reciprocate – from family and friends, from church and society, in encounter with people of other cultures, from God. Life itself is a free gift, a gift of God’s grace, and so is salvation in Christ and living in community and friendship with others. Therefore I am challenged, do I – and do we – live out the same gratuitousness?
This morning it is about gratuitousness in the market place. In medieval Europe the market was the vibrant center of a community, reflecting its life, fate and activities, usually with a church on one side. Today “market” has taken on a different meaning as the place of finance and commerce, and old markets are moving into shopping centers, no longer expressions of community, but of consumerism and individualism. I am not a romantic with regard to the Middle Ages, but I am concerned with the effects of consumerism upon our lives and communities, also upon my own life.
Almsgiving is one of the pillars in Islam, it is a commandment in Jewish tradition, and the Bible has a distinct concern for the poor and the strangers, for orphans and widows. It is sad to observe how governments and politicians in many European countries today try to restrict and ban the presence of beggars and homeless people in public places, and we were saddened and provoked when a large group of Roma-people recently were expelled from France.
However, gratuitousness in the market place is not a matter concerning only one sector of society. In my North-European context consumerist culture has resulted in the fragmentation of society. It is not only making the rich richer and the poor more poor, but it makes us captive of an inhuman dictatorship that shoulders away values that bind people together and give deeper meaning to life. Gratuitousness in the market place is about the fabric of community, human dignity and the deeper horizon of human life and fellowship. But the poor and the homeless are the first to experience the absence of it.
There is a market place story in the New Testament, from the outer precincts of the Jerusalem Temple where Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Later a conversation took place between Jesus and the Scribes concerning tax to the Emperor. We remember how Jesus asked them to show him a coin with the imprint of the Emperor, upon which he said: “Give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor and to God what is God’s” (Lk 20,25). Now, the significance in Jesus’ answer lies in the tension that is brought forward between the image of the Emperor on the coin and to give to God what is his? Where is the image of God that should be given wholly and totally to him? Between the lines in this conversation emerges the sacred image of man, of every human being – indiscriminately created by God and belonging to Him.
In later years one basic insight has been significantly deepened in my life through my contact with Sant’ Egidio. It has to do with friendship with the poor, not from the conviction that the poor are a “burden”, but that every human being carries an imprint of dignity and has something to contribute. Therefore this emphasis is upon friendship – that we all belong to God, and that we share the dignity which he has set as an imprint on our lives, and what he has given to us in this world.
Early in 2008 I listened to professor Riccardi speaking about the joy of faith and the joy of community. “Joy is not an easy thing to attain in this world of ours,” he said and continued: “Consumerism makes us sad, because we are constantly in need of more to buy… Consumerism, like a hidden teacher, has shaped our societies with sadness.” Against this Riccardi spoke of a revolt of gratuitousness and the joy of giving, and he quoted Jesus: “There is more joy in giving than in receiving.” (Acts 20,35)
May I here add that the recognition of this joy is not something that comes easily to us, it is a joy that we constantly have to discover anew and to learn again and again. I presume that was the reason for Andrea Riccardi to call for such a countercultural revolt.
With this conference we express our desire to live together in a time of crisis. Someone has to break the illusion of happiness that is presented to us by a consumerist culture which fragments our societies and shapes us with sadness. It would be a significant contribution from Barcelona if we together could encourage our different religious communities to unite and together give voice and action to such a revolt of gratuitousness.
I strongly believe that as Christians, Muslims and Jews we share a common ground for this – in the double love commandment: to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. Does not this common ground invite us together to discover anew the joy of God and the sacred image of every human being, thus also the joy of giving and the joy of friendship?
I am not an expert on the market of commerce and finance, but it does not take much imagination to see the effects of the exploitation of the earth and of the poor sectors of the global society. If the goal of the UN to overcome global poverty is to be achieved, it demands a radical acknowledgement of our interdependence and a different revolt of gratuitousness. For us as people of faith it should involve an active protest against forces and politics that fragment our societies and exclude those who do not have money to buy. But more than that, it should practically demonstrate the joy of giving, the joy of faith and a community that gives room for both strong and weak and for sharing. It not only challenges us to cross the boundaries between our religious communities, but particularly that we together invite and include those whom others tend to exclude.
In reflecting upon our own lives I believe we all in earnest recognize how much we are dependent upon one another, despite the ideal and illusion of “self-made man”. This has implications for the macro- and micro-systems that shape the fabric of our societies, and it is a recognition that should shape our way of living. As people of faith we also have the deep consciousness of not living for ourselves, but for God and by his mercy. For me as a Christian this moral vision is rooted in the Gospel, in God’s overwhelming grace to us in Christ, implying a life liberated to love for every human being and all creature carrying the imprint of God. And we want together to discover again: “There is more joy in giving than in receiving.”