Your Household May Be Larger Than You Thought
Most of us are fortunate to live in a place where we have the things we need to be comfortable. Look around your household for a moment. You’ll probably see things you use each day, and things that make your place feel like home. These material goods are an essential part of our daily life. They’re also part of our economy.
You’ve probably heard it said that the U.S. economy is a consumer-driven economy. That means most of the money spent in the U.S. is spent by people like you and me, buying goods and services. In addition to spending money, we spend time shopping for items, caring for and cleaning them, and finding storage space for stuff when we’re not using it. Since these material goods are so important to our economy and daily life, it’s worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on them.
By definition, a material good is any tangible item that can be transferred from one owner to another. The economy is the system we use to acquire and transfer material goods. It’s the way we provide for the well-being of our households, communities, and nation. This role of the economy is evident in its root word from Greek, which is oikos, meaning house.
In his book Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Larry Rasmussen says the word oikos is used in the Greek New Testament for both house and the entire household with its occupants. In the days of the New Testament books, the concept of household extended beyond what we think of as household today. It included all family members; plus servants, slaves, and their families; and the animals, shops and lands used to provide for the household. Nomos in Greek means law. So, oikos-nomos, or economics, are the laws by which the household functions and by which the household receives all that is needed for its well-being.
Oikos also is the root of the word ecology. It’s the science of relationships between living creatures and their physical surroundings. On a large scale, the physical surroundings of this planet, Earth, is our household. It provides for our well-being and the well-being of all living creatures who share the household with us.
Our economy is embedded within and dependent on the ecology of Earth, which people of faith call God’s creation. All the material goods we acquire through the economy come from the physical surroundings and natural systems of the planet. They are gifts of God’s creation. As much as we like to think the things we own are ours, scripture tells us otherwise. Psalm 24 begins by declaring:
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers” (Ps 24:1-2).
Scripture also has something to say about the way we are to use the gifts of creation. In the Exodus story of manna from God, we’re told to take only what need each day, so there will be enough for all, trusting God to provide what we’ll need tomorrow (Ex 16:13-21). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us to not “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and thieves break in and steal” (Mt 6:19-21). In Luke’s gospel, we hear the parable of the rich fool who built larger barns to store all his grain and goods, and then that night lost his life (Lk 12:16-21). The parable is preceded by Jesus saying, “be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk 12:15).
Jesus’ teaching is at the heart of the tenth commandment: we shall not covet anything that belongs to our neighbor. This living in right relationship is what Wendell Berry calls God’s Great Economy, in his essay “Two Economies.”
In God’s Great Economy, we love and honor God as the source and the creator of everything on Earth, taking from creation only what we need for our well-being. By not taking more, we ensure our neighbor has what they need for their well-being. In other words, we are loving our neighbor, including our non-human neighbors, who share the household of Earth with us. In God’s Great Economy, there is a balance between our consumption of material goods and the well-being of all life.
Unfortunately, many signs indicate we’re not living in balance. They include rivers going dry, habitat loss, species extinctions, and climate change. The imbalance also is seen in wealth disparities, crop failures, and the displacement of people, as the environment where they live no longer supports them. All these indicators point to the second economy in Berry’s essay, the Little Human Economy.
The Little Human Economy values creation primarily for the material goods we get from it and doesn't recognize the inherent value of creation. Unlike in God’s Great Economy, where material goods are for our well-being, they represent wealth, status, style, comfort, and pleasure in the Little Human Economy . Instead of a balance between our consumption and the well-being of all life, some people get more, while other people and creatures go without.
In the Little Human Economy, we fail to see the God’s-eye view of creation and the ways our desire for material goods affects others and all of creation. Living within God’s Great Economy means turning away from being consumers of creation and returning to the word oikos-nomos. In addition to being the source of the modern word economics, Rasmussen says oikos-nomos is used over 100 times in the Greek New Testament. It’s the word used when talking about the one who cares for the well-being of the household members. A literal translation would be economist, but the words most often used in New Testament translations are steward and trustee.
On this planet, we are one creature among many. At the same time, our technological ability allows us to consume all the planet’s resources, while denying them to others. It’s time for us to reclaim our unique role as stewards and manage our households for the well-being of all life within the entire household of God’s creation.
For more information on the problem of material goods and to learn how you can be part of the solution, register for one of my upcoming material goods workshops.