“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/.

Jesus’ “Family Values”

8 September 2012

Mark 3:31-38 is the startling account of Jesus’ mother and brothers made to cool their heels outside “the house” where Jesus was teaching to a crowd inside “seated around him.” In his apparent put-down of his family, Jesus, “looking around at those seated in the circle he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’”

But which family is “one’s own”? That is precisely Jesus’ point. If Jesus were a paterfamilias, the patriarch of a family, this statement essentially would disinherit all his natural heirs. He is not a patriarch, but Jesus’ statement still clearly disowns his family of origin in favor of his “fictive kinship” group. (Remember that Mark’s Jesus has no particular reason to trust his blood relatives, since just ten verses earlier they tried to lock him up for lunacy or demonic possession.) Jesus’ “true family” comprises all women and men who hear the word of Godand do it.

Notice that Jesus’ family is not all-inclusive. Jesus is not concerned with “political correctness”; he challenges the status quoin favor of obedience to the divine will.

Stained glass window, from St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, Northumberland, depicting a queen (possibly Margaret of Scotland) feeding the poor.

Those who hear God’s word but do not live it are not family: hypocrites, those who “talk the talk but do not walk the walk,” who offer Temple worship but do not care for “the least of these, my brothers and sisters,” are excluded from Jesus’ family. Notice also that Jesus is not concerned with whether or not these least “deserve” help; he doesn’t do background checks or make them fill out any application forms to receive aid. Jesus’ sole concern is that his disciples do in fact meet the needs of those who have “fallen through the cracks” of society’s support structures.

Nor are those who live without even attending to God’s word (e.g., pagans, atheists) part of Jesus’ family. Ayn Rand types who assert “No God; only man” are not included. The attitude is so inimical to Jesus’ worldview that it would be pointless even to attempt a conversation. Call it intolerant if you like, or just call it prioritizing: Jesus learned his economic policy from the Hebrew Bible.

Somewhat surprisingly to us, Jesus’ family includes mothers and siblings, but no fathers. The patriarch’s power and authority interferes with hearing and doing God’s word. No one can serve two masters; no one can be bound to obey both God and a paterfamilias, for the human patermight command what God forbids, or vice-versa. Yet the traditional paterfamilias does demand this kind of authority over “his” offspring, wife, extended family members, servants, slaves, and other clients for whom he is patron. Hence, to become part of Jesus’ family, the paterfamilias must relinquish patriarchal authority, humbling himself to the level of a brother.

Promise-keepers” in Jesus’ eyes are not those who take control of “their” families, demanding subordination and obedience, but those who recognize their wives, children, clients, and slaves as siblings, equal in dignity and respect, owing obedience to God alone—and responsible for their own decisions about precisely how they will live that obedience.

The Bible According to McGinn

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

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