It was my sister-in-law who first pointed out to me that there is free food going to waste all over our neighbourhood.
Every growing season, fruit trees hang over the fences of yards and spill into streets and alleyways. The neighbour who owns one of these trees tells me that the fruit is free for the picking. She shows me her frozen jams, jellies and chutneys made from neighbourhood apricots, mulberries and raspberries that didn’t cost her a dime. These perennial fruit-bearing plants offer nutritious food that arrives year after year without labour or money.
The knowledge that there is abundant, fresh food that we can receive apart from the market economy causes me profound cognitive dissonance when I walk down the grocery aisles. Food prices are sky-rocketing, and the number of neighbours accessing soup kitchens and food pantries are increasing month-to-month. There is not enough for everyone to eat their fill in the economy we’ve created, while fruit trees point to a Better Way for those with eyes to see.
The Sabbath Economy
What is this Better Way, and how do we get there?
This is one of the central questions of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, and some Christian scholars call the biblical answer the “Sabbath Economy.” According to this concept, God created enough in this world for everyone and everything to access what they need. This vision forms the foundation for a lifestyle where instead of hustling in a world of scarcity, one is able to trust and wait patiently for the Creator’s enoughness to arrive by his strength and the strong intelligent design of the land he’s created.
This way of life has its origins all the way back in Exodus 16, where God’s people were hungry as they travelled through the Middle Eastern desert. Their leader, Moses, instead of trying to manufacture a man-made abundance, prayed to their Creator God. The story goes that God rained down heavenly bread from the sky each day. Everyone in the community was able to take and eat one portion of this bread and this satiated them for the day.
In this story, God did not ask the Israelites to pay nor to invest their energy in intensive labour before they could feast; they were simply called to go out and receive from the God who provides. For those of us who grew up in a capitalist world, this is a radical vision. Out in the desert with their praying leader, the Creator provided for his people only by grace, not by works, so no hustlers may boast.
Preach, birds, preach
Jesus picked up on this theme right near the chiastic central point of his most prolific sermon. In Matthew 6, he says “see the birds of the sky – that they neither sow nor reap nor gather into granaries; and your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matt. 6:26, 28).
Birds don’t need to be taught about the Sabbath Economy; they knew all along what my sister-in-law taught me this spring. I noticed it when I had a serviceberry tree planted in my front yard this year. The sparrows in my neighbourhood didn’t need me to show them; they knew exactly when the berries ripened in July. Every day, dozens of them flocked to the tree, plucking little red spheres from the branches in leisure, like daily manna.
They didn’t need to earn the berries; they didn’t need to work a nine-to-five to pay for them; they didn’t need to sow nor reap. Like the Israelites, the sparrows in my yard just needed to go out each day and receive from the Creator who gives them enough.
My neighbourhood sparrows are the best preachers I know.
But of course, the lessons of the Sabbath Economy are often more complicated than just going out and praying for God to provide, and him simply doing so for you. If it were that simple, the soup kitchens and food pantries would be empty.
No, the birds and fruit trees preach to me not about a life hack for prosperity, but rather about a Whole New World. When I look at the birds, I remember that they only have enough to eat because of the tree, who only has enough because of the healthy soil, which is only healthy because I give it compost, which is only available because of the worms in my garden, who are only there because they eat the scraps of veggies from my yard.
This New World is in fact an Old World; it’s the world God created in Genesis 1, where humans, plants and animals lived in harmonious reciprocity and because of that, everyone had enough. This is the world Yahweh sought to maintain through the Jewish law, requiring the Israelite nation to enact radical wealth redistribution every 49th year. It is the world Jesus ushered in through his ministry, preaching about seeds and soil in his parables and multiplying food for thousands of people. This is the world Jesus will one day reinstate when he comes again, calling the thirsty to come to the New City where he “will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life” (Rev. 21:6).
The New World is at Hand
I turn to the sparrows to preach to me, and they remind me of the oh-so hopeful reality that this New World is at hand; the world where no one is hungry and everyone has enough can still be spotted when we have eyes to see.
What are your neighbourhood birds and trees preaching to you? Maybe they are inspiring you to think about creative ways to practice wealth redistribution so this Whole New World can be felt by all. Maybe they are calling you to plant a raspberry bush, so that in a few years you can receive fruit at no cost. Maybe they are counselling you to try a weekly Sabbath day, trusting there is enough time to do so.
Hear the good news: this other, more abundant, grace-filled way the birds and trees preach about is at hand if we have the courage to notice, find and share it. And in due time, we will hear the trumpet call, and “you who have no money” will “come, buy and eat at no cost” (Is. 55:1).