“The Problem with Productivity”
Rev. Stephen Milton,
August 7th, 2022
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14; 2:18–26
Today’s reading is from Ecclesiastes, which is attributed to King Solomon, the wisest of all Israel’s kings. Most people know Ecclesiastes from the famous reading often heard at funerals: for everything there is a season, “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Pete Seeger turned it into a song which we just heard Josh perform.
Most of Ecclesiastes sounds like today’s reading – a meditation on whether there is any point to life. King Solomon has surveyed his kingdom and found that everyone has the same problem. We work hard all our lives, and then we die. We can’t take our wealth, our herds, or houses with us. What’s worse, we have little control over what happens to our riches when we die. Good businesses fall into the hands of sons who have no talent for it, and the business falls apart. Non-believers take over homes and estates. And in Solomon’s time, there is little belief in an afterlife, so, for Solomon, it’s what we do in this life that matters.
The words of Solomon pose a problem that Christianity sought to solve. What is the point of building up wealth and achievements, if your life’s work will just fade away soon after you die? Christianity’s answer: the afterlife solves the problem. Live righteously in this life, and you will be rewarded with the bounties of heaven, which will last for eternity. Now, Christianity did change the rules in one keyway. It was not how much wealth or fame you created in this life that gets you into heaven. Rather, it is a righteous life. Live a morally obedient life, true to God and Jesus. Sin little; ask for forgiveness often, and you may get into heaven. Catholicism through the Middle Ages and eventually Protestantism too, adopted this highly disciplinary, fear-based interpretation of the faith. This life is short, and full of moral perils. Live in fear now so you can enjoy the paradise of heaven later. The afterlife overshadows this life.
As we know, this version of Christianity has been rejected by most of society. Every year, fewer people attend church on Sundays, and fewer people identify as religious in public opinion polls. Few people read the Bible daily, even among the religious. More and more young people identify as non-religious. We can see the shift in how our cities look on Sundays. Before the 1950s, Toronto basically shut down on Sundays. Professional sports were not allowed on the Sabbath. The bars, restaurants and shops all shut on Saturday. The only thing to do was to attend church, so people did, often twice. In my family generations ago, music, dancing and card playing weren’t allowed on Sundays, either. Christianity defined the entire society; it was not just a matter of personal belief.
Today, our society is officially secular, and religious belief is a matter of personal choice. But this had led to a curious situation. Solomon’s question has become pertinent again. If there is no God, and no afterlife, then what is this life for? Society’s answer seems to be pretty clear – the point of life is to make money, spend money, and have a good time. We are surrounded by signs and advertisements which tell us that happiness will come from spending money on ourselves. “You deserve a break today,” (MacDonald’s), “Because You’re worth it,” (L’Oréal) “Have it Your way,” (Burger King) and one that worked really well for a major department store chain, “Save Money. Live Better”
Happiness comes from having money and spending it on stuff. But to have stuff, we need to make money, and it matters how you get that money.
There was a time when people who inherited money were society’s heroes – the aristocracy. Our old heroes had old money. No more.
Our modern heroes are the self-made billionaires who work their way to fame and fortune –Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Oprah, Jeff Bezos.
The faltering reputation of the British royals is in part because they represent the old kind of money, which is inherited, not earned. Today, we are all expected to work for our money.
King Solomon asked what the point of life is. Our society’s answer is work hard, party hard, and stay fit so you can keep working as long as possible. Be productive and spend money. That will buy you happiness.
But what if you can’t work hard, or earn money?
People who live on the streets are stigmatized by society. They appear to have rejected the whole premise of modern life. Most of them don’t have jobs, and they are not productive. Instead, they ask for money.
They are often told to get a job, to become productive, stop being a drain on the rest of society. In a society defined by money and productivity, jobless homeless people represent a threat to the whole system. They are seen as nomads who aren’t playing by the rules, in a society where productivity defines your worth. In this sense, they are like modern heretics, people whose identity and lifestyle is vilified by the rest of society. In society’s condemnation of the homeless, there is an assumption that if they had just made different choices, many of them could be productive. And for that reason, for that assumption, they are shunned and stigmatized.
The role of productivity in our society becomes most obvious in the lives of people who will never be able to work. Some people have bodies and minds which make holding down a job difficult or impossible. We don’t like to acknowledge this, but every year, babies are born with disabilities, or are born with susceptibilities to future illnesses which will make it hard or impossible for them to ever support themselves.
These people, through no fault of their own, may never find work. If our system is to be truly fair, it must be able to respect and help these people as they go through every stage of their lives. They have done nothing wrong; they have not made bad choices; they are simply who they are. They are as God made them.
Our society does recognize that this is a reality, and helps, but grudgingly. When it is clear that a person will not be able to support themselves financially as an adult, the province offers monthly payments through the ODSP program.
The most a single person can receive is $1,169 dollars a month. That is to cover food, clothing, and housing.
In Toronto, someone on ODSP can’t even afford a bachelor apartment.
The poverty line in Toronto is 1550 per month.
ODSP lands people 25% below the city’s poverty line.
Why has our society decided that these people should live in dire poverty? They have not refused work. Many were born unable to work in our economy. So, why are they being punished for being who they are? Their crime is that that are unproductive. Our society defines our humanity in terms of whether we can be productive. Those who cannot are pushed aside, even when they have done absolutely nothing wrong. Instead of rising to their defense and insisting that they get more money each month, our society lets them live in poverty.
It should not come as a surprise that people who cannot work due to disabilities often end up on the streets. One quarter of the city’s homeless people report receiving ODSP funds each month. Many have chronic health issues. Since ODSP is too little to survive on in Toronto, society assumes the disabled will be cared for by their families. But that is not possible, safe, or desirable for many people. Not everyone has a family who can support them. For those who do, that support will not last forever. The Roehampton shelter has a growing number of senior citizens in its rooms, some of whom come when their caregivers have died of old age.  These disabled people have no place to go, so they end up in the shelters, the only place they can afford to live on 1100 dollars a month.
If we define life based on money and productivity, then people who cannot be productive will suffer. Any system that claims to be ethical and fair must be able to take care of every possible kind of human being. This is why it matters so much how we define what it means to be human. Our definition will determine who gets support and who does not. Our definition will determine when we feel society’s support and love, and when we will feel cast out. But who should define who we are? Who can truly know every possible kind of human being?
For spiritual people, that question has an easy answer: God. God knows every kind of human being because all of us come from God, our creator. And within Christianity, we look to Jesus to act as the representative of God on Earth, the one who teaches us how to live. Jesus does this through his words and actions. Often, it is his actions which speak loudest, but which are also the most subtle. As Christians, the reason we believe in the afterlife is because Jesus showed us it was possible through his resurrection.
Jesus is God in human form. That means that he could have come back in any form he wanted, since he is God. And in the resurrection stories, we see this – sometimes he looks like himself, other times he looks like someone else, the disciples do not recognize him. Jesus had many options about what he could look like when he was resurrected. Among the Greeks and Romans, gods were beautiful.
When they came to Earth, they were imagined to have perfectly sculpted bodies. But when Christ comes back, in one instance, he comes back in the same body he was crucified in.
In the gospel of John, he appears to doubting Thomas and the others with holes in his hands where nails fixed him to the cross. Those nails would have broken bones, torn through ligaments, and hurt enormously. He presents himself with the hole in his side where the centurion sliced him open with a spear. Christ appears not as a perfect human being, but as a disabled person. Someone in a body that has been ravaged by the world. Broken and bruised, tortured, and spat on, so harmed, and hurt that it was fatal. That was the body Christ appeared in. That was the body God chose to endorse when he came back to life.
In that revelation of God’s self, we humans are being given a very clear message. God loves and wants to be with every single person, no matter how they look to others, feel about themselves, behave in the world, or contribute to the economy. As the resurrected Jesus, God chooses to take up residence in a body that is disabled. It is a message to all of us that we are expected to care for everyone, every kind of mind, every kind of body, no matter whether they are typical or not, productive, or not. Christ comes back in a harmed, unproductive body as a way of saying – everyone counts. Not just the winners, not just the able, not just the productive ones, not just the ones whose minds are clear and whose memories are intact. If God’s creation of humanity is to make any sense at all, then God must be happy to dwell with and in every kind of person. No one can be left out. Not the disabled, not those with dementia. God loves all of us, in every stage of body and mind we go through, from our birth as helpless infants to our deaths in a hospice. God’s vision of humanity finds value in everyone, including those who are not productive.
Solomon surveyed life and declared that all was meaningless. If you can’t take your wealth with you, and you can’t control what happens to it afterwards, then what is the point of doing anything. He concluded that the only thing that makes sense is that we should enjoy our work, and at the end of the day, have a good time with each other as we enjoy the fruits of our labours. Christ’s resurrection puts a different spin on that story. Christ suggests that God loves everyone, even those who cannot work. That everyone, regardless of physical and mental ability should be able to join that dinner each day to drink, eat and be merry. No one should feel like a second-class citizen based on whether they can work or not. Indeed, Christ’s resurrection suggests that God is with each one of us, throughout our lives, seeing the world through our eyes. God is with us as we see a beautiful sunset from the group home window, is with us as we enjoy a joke with the PSW in the nursing home. God is with us in every second of this life, in all our abilities. And if we can realize that we are never alone, that we are always loved, this life’s journey can be made easier. We, too, can feel like we belong and find joy in these days, which are never meaningless.
 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ecclesiastes-Old-Testament  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn!_Turn!_Turn!  https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/odsp-ford-increase-1.6481500  Average rent of a bachelor apartment in Toronto in 2022 is 1225/month. https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/community-partners/social-housing-providers/affordable-housing-operators/current-city-of-toronto-average-market-rents-and-utility-allowances/  https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2022/05/09/its-election-time-and-ontario-still-chooses-not-to-eliminate-poverty.html  2021 Toronto Street Needs Assessment Report, figure 43, p.45.  Helen Haziproudou mentioned this the time when we met at the shelter.  Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Smart, Introducing Body Theology, p. 93.