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Reflections: Spending

Economic spirituality
By Niala Boodhoo

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. – Matt. 14:19-20 NRSV

The story of Jesus feeding the crowd of five thousand is repeated in each of the gospels. I have always loved it for the glimpse I believe it provides of how Jesus approached the issue of distribution of resources. But I’m not sure we often see the spiritual nature of it. For example, it’s easy to pass over the blessing Jesus gave to the bread before it was distributed among the population.

That quiet act of spirituality is often missed in the broader story of this miracle. As Christians, we find spirituality in general just as easy to overlook. If we think of spirituality at all, we tend to think of it as expressed through prayer or mediation—those quiet, individual acts, like Jesus’ blessing, that help deepen our relationship with God. If we think of our spirituality as having a corporate or communal element, we also tend to see this as limited to religious settings, like how we relate to our Christian brothers and sisters in worship.

If anything, the only spiritual act involving money that we think of is tithing to our church—“holy” money that we have deliberately set aside for God.

Those in the Roman Catholic Church sometimes take part in a practice known as Ignatian spirituality, in which they spend a year in quiet reflection and study of the scriptures. A part of this process called “the daily examen” asks the participant to take stock of the day and ask: “Where did I encounter God today?” Even more important, one could ask the same question in a different manner: “Where was I most keenly unaware of God’s presence?” In practicing this regularly, one begins to see a pattern of his or her encounters with God throughout daily life, in all things.

During Lent one year, when I was engaged in the practice of Ignatian spirituality, I decided that, instead of giving something up, I would engage in a little financial exercise. I wrote down every single thing I spent money on—what it was for, why I spent it and who I was with when I spent the money. It made me realize that there were motives behind how and why I spent my money. In short, it helped me take stock of my financial life in a way similar to the stock I was taking of my encounters with God.

One of the principles I truly came to understand and believe during this time is that God is indeed in all things. If we believe that, then it certainly seems that we should consider how we encounter God in our daily financial life.

Writer Tom Beaudoin argues in his book Consuming Faith that there is, in fact, an “economic spirituality.” He defines economic spirituality as a recognition that our distribution of resources affects not just our relationships with other people, but that it also has a similarly positive or negative effect on our relationship with God.

In other words, we have always known that how we treat others is both a reflection and an understanding of our faith, an expression of how we live out the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The notion, then, that how and why we use our resources not only reflects but also impacts our faith—and our relationship with God—should automatically flow from these principles.

Put simply, if we aim to put our spirituality into practice, we need to integrate that faith into all aspects of our lives, including into what we buy. And in doing so, perhaps we can find that our use and distribution of our resources in daily life can become a spiritual act, just as I am sure it was for those among the crowd of five thousand who were fed that day.

Questions for reflection:

  • Other than the resurrection, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand from a few loaves and fishes is the only miracle to be included in each of the four gospels (Matt. 14:13–21, Mark 6:31-44, Luke 9:10-17 and John 6:5-15). What does this story say to you about God’s view of resources?
  • How much of an obligation do you, as a Christian, have to create spending habits that are compatible with God’s view of resources?
  • How does your relationship with money affect your relationship with God?

—Niala Boodhoo, Class of 1996, Journalist, Chicago Public Radio

Tom Beaudoin, Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are with What We Buy (Lanham, MD: Sheed and Ward, 2003).

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