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/.

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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.”

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

The first chapter of the Gospel According to John narrates the enlistment of several of Jesus’ early disciples from the town of Bethsaida. Andrew and Philip, disciples of John the Baptist, joined Jesus’ group by means of the ancient version of LinkedIn: they were referred by John. Jesus’ networking system continued rolling and resulted in Andrew and Philip recruiting their brothers, Peter and Nathanael (respectively). In response to Philip’s urgent and credulous invitation to come and meet the messiah promised by Moses and the prophets, Nathaniel shows himself a true skeptic. His initial reaction, according to John, was to inquire “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As a rhetorical question, the unspoken but nevertheless predictable answer to this query should be “certainly not!” “Come and see,” his brother urges. So Nathaniel the skeptic, whether out of curiosity or a sense of fraternal duty, comes to meet Jesus and see for himself whether Philip’s enthusiasm is well-founded.

An artist’s sketch of Philip talking to his brother, Nathanael, urging him to come with him to meet Jesus.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47; NRSV)

But would honesty be a main virtue of a “true child of Israel”? For Jesus, yes. For his contemporaries, not really. And for us? How many lies have you heard so far in this presidential campaign, or from church officialsa concerned in the pedophilia and parish-closing scandals, or from rich corporate executives of the me-first-and-last-and-who-cares-about-anyone-else mindset? Thank God for groups like the Nuns-on-a-Bus, or one may have been inclined simply to crawl into a hole and hibernate until Christmas.

Nathanael (whose name means “gift of God”) is the kind of person who says exactly what he thinks, without hedging. His rhetorical question in response to Philip’s invitation (v. 46) makes clear his skepticism from the start: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If Nathanael were an American, he would be from Missouri, the “Show Me” State. Not so credulous to accept Philip’s testimony without evidence, yet he is willing to “come and see.”

Once Nathanael meets Jesus face-to-face, he does “see” and, totally contrary to cultural norms, changes his mind publicly. In Middle-Eastern culture, especially for men, “saving face” is paramount, and “scoring points” or gaining leverage over another man runs a close second. Men are expected to lie and dissemble to gain social advantage. (Have politicians like Messrs. Aikin and Ryan mentally moved to the Mediterranean Basin? Have some of our prelates done the same?)

If Nathanael had been wise in the ways of the world, he would have remained stubbornly skeptical, “hedged his bets” by attributing his assertion to others (cf. Matt 16:14), or at least waited until a private moment to declare his change of mind. Instead, he clearly and simply said what he meant, without duplicity or self-interest, testifying to the Truth he now recognized: that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel. An Israelite without guile? From the perspective of Jesus’ contemporaries, this would have been an insult, or at best a self-contradiction. From John’s perspective, however, it is high praise indeed.

Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus is epigrammatic of John’s model of true discipleship: hearing the gospel inspires Nathanael’s search; meeting Jesus reveals the identity both of the seeker and of Jesus himself; revelation gives rise to conversion and further testimony. Note that evangelist makes Nathanael, not Peter, the first one to witness to Jesus’ true identity. Even the guileless can be used to score points.

The Bible According to McGinn

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

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