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/.

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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