“Then he said to the crowd, ‘Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15)

Many Americans in the last decade or so have spoken of “Biblical values,” and have encouraged a return to “family values,” but somehow the values they have had in mind focus almost exclusively around sexuality and gender roles. One of the more remarkable aspects of Jesus’ preaching is that, if you read the gospels to try to find where he supports the “family values” promoted by these critics of popular American culture, you will hunt in vain. The “family values” Jesus promotes have nothing to do with specified gender roles, and only rarely does Jesus speak of matters pertaining to sexual morality.

James Salt’s papier mâché model of the golden calf, designed to resemble the Wall Street Bull, carried in protest by an interfaith group of supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

On the other hand, hardly a page of the gospels goes by without a comment from Jesus having to do with what one might call “financial morality” (or, in more Biblical language, economic justice). Even Jesus’ remarks on what we think of as sexual morality (e.g., divorce, remarriage, adultery) are bound up with questions of the economic status of women and children who, in ancient societies, often had to rely exclusively upon the support of a male householder (a husband or father). For example, a man who divorces his wife “forces her to commit adultery” (Matt 5:32) because, to find a means of support for herself and any children who might remain with her, she would be forced either to remarry or to turn to prostitution. Jesus’ “family values” are those of the prophets: protecting widows and orphans, sustaining those who have no other means of support. Unlike many Americans today, Jesus does not consider greed a virtue.

“One’s life does not consist of possessions.” Watch the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Is it true that such lives do not revolve around possessions? Why are lottery tickets so popular? Do people buy them because they want to support public education (which is the sales pitch that many state politicians have used to get public lotteries accepted by the voters)?
Do they want the funds for some other philanthropic purpose? Or do they buy lottery tickets because they want to enjoy “the good life,” where every amenity is within their grasp and the needs of the world are entirely obscured from view? Some people are forced to work long hours, ignoring the strain on their physical health and the needs of their spirits, simply to make ends meet. Is this because their employers are on guard against greed when they set wages, or because they are concerned only about “the bottom line”? Jesus does not say, “take care to guard against all want.” The poor have no difficulty recognizing their dependence upon God. It is the rich who prefer dependence upon wealth, forgetting Jesus’ “family values” because they do not recognize Jesus’ “family.”

How does one “guard against all greed”? Torah enjoins the tithe, the annual giving of 10% of one’s net worth in support of the poor and dispossessed (e.g., Deut. 14:22–23, 28–29). The tithe, in other words, causes a dramatic redistribution of wealth, not only liquid assets but other material resources as well. Jesus encourages giving one’s life in service with the poor, even “giving all one’s possessions” to do so. The dramatic effects of such a move on the economic system perhaps is less obvious, but it nevertheless remains a potent protest against the culture of greed and acquisitiveness that has strangled every now-dead culture in human history.

Regardless of what pop-economists and politicians may say, greed is not good—nor does true laissez-faire economic policy (as envisioned by the early theorists) give free rein to the kind of greed that has marked the fatal, classist economic policies of the Reagan and Bush eras.

Christians against Greed 30A protest at Forbes Global CEO Conference, 30 August 2005
(Photo by David Macdonald)

Some people appear to have forgotten that the USSR collapsed because of failed economic policies that illustrated the philosophy of Ayn Rand more than that which Karl Marx borrowed from the New Testament and from the example of Jesus. Jesus may not have won the Nobel Prize for economics, but John Nash did, and for proving that Jesus’ focus on the common good, not personal greed, is what makes an economic system strong.

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Blaming the Hungry

23 October 2012

“Jesus was going through a field of grain on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.” (Matt. 12:1)

Matthew’s version of this story has one key difference from the other Synoptic Gospels, and that is this remark that the ones picking the grain “were hungry….” Picking grain—harvesting a field—certainly counts as “work,” which is forbidden on the Sabbath. Matthew is playing to a “loophole” in interpreting the Law when he speaks of the disciples’ hunger. As Jesus says elsewhere, the Law is made for human beings, not vice-versa. Preservation of human life is the chief value of the Law so, if the disciples are hungry, they need to eat to preserve their lives.

Are they really dying of starvation, or is Jesus pushing the boundary here? If you follow Mark or Luke, the latter is the case. Matthew “muddies the water” by presenting a legitimate reason for setting aside the prohibition of working on the Sabbath. He then has Jesus cite two precedents for his interpretation of the Law in this case: David and his army eating the offering-bread, and the priests working in the Temple (e.g., slaughtering sacrificial animals). Neither precedent is quite on target, but that is less important than the claim that there can be exceptions to this Sabbath prohibition. In his argument, it is implicit; Jesus makes it explicit in the “punch-line” when he claims that “the human person (or offspring of Adam) is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). Many Jews would agree with Jesus that it is permissible to pluck the grain if that is the only way one will be able to eat that day, but they would disagree with such a blanket statement that makes it sound like individual humans can decide which Sabbath Laws to observe and which not.

Johannes “Jan” Luyken (1649-1712) etching
from the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.
“Works of Mercy: Feeding the Hungry”

Readers tend to overlook the disciples’ hunger or, if they do notice, they “explain” it as I just did. But why are the disciples hungry? The “Pharisees” who object are not said to be hungry. Jesus and the disciples are itinerant; they have no permanent home, so neither do they have any stable means of income. They have been living off the generosity of those who listen to Jesus preach and who are recipients of his healing ministry. If the disciples are hungry, then those who have benefited from Jesus’ ministry are not responding with generosity (cf., Matt. 11:20–24). The well-fed “Pharisees” should be offering to share their tables with the disciples; instead, having no empathy for those are hungry, they castigate them.

How many times have you heard this same attitude toward the poor today? Many people who were born to privilege claim to have “made their own success,” as if none of the advantages of race and economic class play any role in whether one goes to good schools, eats healthy food, or has access to good health care. Those who are receiving unemployment benefits are castigated as “lazy” because they are out of work, when companies actually advertise the fact that they will not consider job applicants who are unemployed. The unemployment rate in NE Ohio has declined by 25% since President Obama took office, but it still hovers around 8%, and for Gulf War veterans the rate is closer to 13% (see http://www.bls.gov/cps/). American companies rarely are criticized for exporting jobs overseas, but the thousands of Americans they lay off work then are blamed as “loafers” because they have to make use of their unemployment benefits. If the hungry were to pick grain from fields today, they’d be arrested for theft.

A homeless family living in their car.

Homeless people are blamed for being drunks or drug addicts who “deserve” to be homeless; they should just get jobs and stop leeching off the public. In fact, most homeless adults actually are employed, but at minimum wage jobs where they earn too little to afford housing, and over a third of the homeless in American are families with children under the age of ten (http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Sections/NEWS/z-pdf-archive/homeless.pdf, 8).*

Some of my own (white, middle-class, suburban) students have shared with me their stories of family homelessness, when a parent lost his/her job and family finances nose-dived such that they lost their home. These kids were working long hours, while trying to go to college, so they could help their families afford an apartment. That is the face of homelessness in America. The fifty-year-old college-educated woman who has to work seventy hours a week just to barely scrape by, for whom a flat tire makes the difference between whether groceries are affordable or not—that’s the specter of near-homelessness in America today. Messrs. Romney and Ryan have never met the homeless or they would choke on the word “entitlement.” If anyone feels “entitled,” it’s the 1% who control the majority of American wealth and are trying to buy this election.

There is not a single county in the United States where someone working for minimum wage can earn enough to pay fair-market rent for a one-room apartment (Ibid., 5), yet we are expected to believe the economy will be utterly destroyed if the minimum wage were raised. CEOs have incomes over 2000 times that of their employees, and their marginal tax rates are less than those of the companies’ low-paid secretaries, yet we are supposed to believe that their taxes should be cut even more. Aside from being economic suicide, the budget plan proposed by Representative Ryan embodies this punitive approach to the poor in a way that would have been inconceivable to anyone, Republican or Democrat, just a generation ago. The dominant discourse in this country has become “me first” instead of “we together.” If Jesus were in his grave, he’d be rolling over in it.

But he is not in his grave. He is living among us today, in the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless. “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'” (Matt 25:40). Poor Americans matter. Which means that housing matters, economic policy matters, and jobs matter. When people need bread, will we give them stones instead?

*For more information on family homelessness, see http://www.familyhomelessness.org/.

Easter Sunday 2010 marked the last Mass at Historic Saint Peter Church in Cleveland, Ohio. After over 150 years of continuous use, the oaken doors of this sacred space on 17th and Superior were closed and locked. In rich irony, the building that once had been the womb of a vibrant inner-city Catholic community closed like a tomb on the very day when the Christian church around the world celebrated the feast of Christ breaking the bonds of death and rising triumphant from the grave. The official ecclesiastical act of “suppression” that closed the church building was intended likewise to roll the stone across the grave of the vibrant parish community that inhabited that domus ecclesiae. But Christians know that Resurrection happens. Easter cannot be stopped, not even by bishops.

The Pascal Candle led the recessional at the end of Easter Sunday Mass 2010,
the last before the suppression of the parish by Bishop Richard Lennon.

Almost before he set foot in the door of the Chancery in Cleveland, Bishop Richard Lennon announced his intention to close one-third of the 180+ parishes in the diocese. Sixty-three parishes were to be selected for elimination based on the criteria of declining membership and financial dependency. Not surprisingly, many of the faithful were quite disturbed at this announcement. The diocesan spokesman sought to reassure them: “We don’t close parishes; we close empty buildings.” “Alright,” I thought, “maybe this won’t be so bad as it sounds.” And at first, that looked to be the case.

As the “clustering” process progressed, however, the bishop’s actions gave the lie to this initial assertion. The case of Historic Saint Peter Church provides perhaps the most striking counterpoint to the claim: the parish was solvent; it was up-to-date on the diocesan assessments that help provide financial support to needy parishes and missions; the physical plant was in top condition due to the recent restoration work in honor of the parish’s 150th anniversary; and the parish was growing, gaining members steadily. Regardless, the bishop made it clear that the church was to be closed. An anonymous donor offered $2.5 million for an endowment fund if the bishop would keep the parish open; the chancery declined. In canonical terms, the parish was to be suppressed and its far-from-empty building closed.

The parish spent months in soul-searching, individually and corporately discerning how to respond to the bishop’s plan. Legally speaking, a bishop owns all the ecclesiastical properties in his diocese. If he wants to close the church building, the building will be closed. However, the bishop does not own the consciences of the faithful. Some parishioners shifted to other churches closer to their domiciles. Many parishioners decided to embody dissent and incarnate resurrection, creating a not-for-profit corporation named “The Community of Saint Peter” (CSP). From a church-law standpoint, the CSP is a schismatic community: it self-identifies as a Catholic community, uses the Catholic liturgy, and is pastored by a Catholic priest, but the community is not supposed to exist and the priest is no longer supposed to minister.

The Community of Saint Peter celebrates the Great Vigil of Easter (7 April 2012)
at their new “storefront” location, 7100 Euclid Avenue.

Although I have spent nearly my entire career studying heretical, schismatic, or otherwise dissenting movements in formative Judaism and early Christianity, it took this event for me to understand—on a personal and experiential level—the human dynamics of “schism.” In my research, I have discussed the significance of various theological debates and explored the various power dynamics involved. In the midst of this “thick description” of social, economic, gender, racial, political, and ideological disputes, still I did not grasp the acute disappointment with established ecclesiastical authority structures, nor the anguish involved in making the decision to dissent and resist cooptation, nor the tenacity of hope required to inaugurate and sustain a “schismatic” movement. Far from being an easy choice, schism is a community’s response to the challenge of annihilation. Like a bear gnawing off its own leg to escape an iron trap, schism arises when the only other available option is to capitulate in one’s own oppression.

My work has been driven by the conviction that contemporary believers can learn a great deal from the “heretics” and “schismatics” of antiquity. The inauguration of the CSP has taught me there is much to learn from contemporary dissenters and schismatics as well. One does not have to enjoy conflict to recognize that significant and widespread dissent arises in an environment of serious power dysfunction. Schism, as one significant form of dissent, clearly points to a non-responsive, autocratic “authority” structure that permits the pervasive abuse of power. The CSP resulted from ecclesiastical minds closing, communications closing, and finally doors closing. Divested of walls, the CSP exemplifies the “Church in the City,” intentionally making its home among the poor of Cleveland. In this season celebrating the “tenting” of God amid the human race (John 1:14), and especially among the poor of this world, this “schismatic” group challenges observers to hold to this hope with just such tenacity.

The “Tenting” God and the Tenacity of Hope, cross-posted from the “Feminism and Religion” blog, 8 January 2012.

“Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matt 11:20–24)

Thus did Jesus criticize the Israelite towns of Chorazin (Khirbet Kerazeh) and Bethsaida (“House of Fish”) for their lack of response to his appeal to return to God with full hearts and ready hands. Capernaum, too, was included in this threat, even though the evangelists remember this as Jesus’ home town (Matt 4:13; Mark 9:1). Although “where most of [Jesus’] mighty deeds had been done” (Matt 11:20b) in these three towns at the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, and although they were home to many of Jesus’ earliest disciples, they certainly caught his ire at this point.

A view of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

The “mighty deeds” are Jesus’ works demonstrating that the power of God is active through him; usually we call them “miracles.” Chapters 8–9 of Matthew’s Gospel contain a series of healing miracles that are set in the environs of the Sea of Galilee, one of which explicitly is said to have occurred in Capernaum (the cure of the Roman Centurion’s servant, in Matt. 8:5–13). Perhaps we are to take the entire set as taking place in the three towns rebuked in this saying.

In the scene with the Roman Centurion, this Gentile is praised by Jesus while the Jews of Galilee are implicitly reprimanded—“Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:10). In this saying in Matt. 11, however, there is nothing implicit about the criticism. Matthew makes the shocking claim that even the infamous Gentile town of Sodom will fare better than these Israelite towns on Judgment Day. You see, the Gentiles are converting,

An artist’s rendering of the “House of the Fisher” in Bethsaida

coming to faith in the true God, because of Jesus and his “mighty deeds.” They recognize that these miraculous works are wrought by the power of God, not Satan, so they accept Jesus as God’s emissary and accept his teaching.

The Jews of Galilee, however, are not so willing as their pagan counterparts to recognize the power of God working through Jesus. Because of this, they end up in a sense changing places with the Gentiles, opposing God rather than turning toward God and welcoming this “new thing” God is doing through Jesus. If the Jewish towns continue in this way, they will end up under the kind of Divine judgment that led to the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16–19:29).

Many people misunderstand the Genesis story about Sodom and Gomorrah, linking it with homosexual practice rather than the death-dealing injustice and lack of hospitality that comprise the key complaints against these Gentile cities. However, in some ways this warning of Jesus does not depend upon a correct understanding of that Genesis story. All that is necessary to get Jesus’ point is to remember that Sodom was destroyed by heavenly fire, and Jesus is threatening that it will be much worse for these Israelite towns who refuse to recognize him as God’s chosen instrument.

Contemporary Christians who tend to point a finger at others, judging them to be less moral and threatening them with God’s wrath might take heed to Jesus’ warning. The “religious” people are not the ones Jesus is commending here, but the people others see as irreligious, idolatrous, “pagan.” A contemporary American “translation” might read, “But I tell you, it will be easier for Al Qaeda (or gays, or those who support the national health care plan, or whatever other group you most love to hate) on the Day of Judgment than for you.”

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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