The Son of Man as Thief

August 4, 2010

No one can enter a strongman’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first binds the strongman. Then he can rob his house. (Mark 3:27)

Jesus did not just rail against the rich with curses, prophetic oracles and forceful teachings about the dangers of going in through the wide gate of wealth. And he did not just promise the poor—with blessings, prophetic oracles and hopeful teachings about what lay beyond the narrow gate—that their fortunes would be reversed, that he had “good news” for them: he would cancel their debts, relieve their suffering and provide for their needs. He actually put cash in their hands—cash he had stolen from their rich and powerful oppressors. In at least one instance, Jesus stole from the rich and gave to the poor. The Son of Man was a thief.

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. so you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:42-44)

Jesus had already demonstrated in concrete terms what he meant by this cryptic warning about judgment. In this concrete instance, as in the more eschatological sayings about the ‘Son of Man’, the “strongman” was Satan, and also his minions—the priests, scribes and lawyers who ruled Judea as collaborators with Caesar. The “house” was the temple. The “theft” was the so-called ‘cleansing of the temple.’

After the triumphal royal procession into Jerusalem at the beginning of Passion Week, Jesus’ first royal act was to enter the temple complex, go to the foreign exchange office of the treasury, and stage a raid.

Going into the temple, he began to throw out those who were selling and buying in the temple; and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and he did not allow anyone to carry a container through the temple. And he was teaching and saying to them, “Has it not been written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of brigands.” (Mark 11:15-17)

Imagine the scene: The tables topple, the jars of coins crash to the pavement, the money spills in piles and rolls out into the court, some officials desperately seize what jars of money they can save and try to make it out of the court, but Jesus and his followers intercept them, people are scooping the money up from the floor into sacks, hauling off the jars they have captured. All the while Jesus is shouting above the cries, the bellows of the cattle, the mewing of the sheep, the flutter of wings, the laughing of his followers: you have made this a den of thieves! Ever the master of prophetic irony and sarcasm.

It is a small victory. The poor are very many and even this Robin Hood raid will not see to all their needs. But it is real money, after all. And its symbolic power is tremendous. The Son of Man delivers.

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. (Mark 11:18)

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Matthew 6:12.

When asked once what the most powerful force in the universe was, Albert Einstein is said to have answered: compound interest. Certainly, a modern, capitalist financial system could not exist without lending at interest. No interest, no credit. No credit, no productive economic activity.

The laws of ancient Greece, Rome and Israel, however, prohibited usury, or lending at interest, and so did those of medieval Europe. Eventually, though, the potential for creating wealth through investment rather than through land-based agriculture demanded the legalization of lending at interest, and capitalism and modernity itself were born. Nevertheless, throughout most of modern history, laws have set limits on the rates that could be charged.

The inflationary recession of the 1970s, however, began squeezing lenders (especially credit card lenders) against these limits, and they challenged these laws in court. Eventually, a 1978 Supreme Court decision pegged usury rates to the laws of a lender’s home state and states began competing for these companies; Delaware and South Dakota won. (See the excellent review article by Steven Mercatante in South Dakota Law Review for a history: “The deregulation of usury ceilings, rise of easy credit, and increasing consumer debt”.) The United States has been steadily deregulating the financial services industry ever since. There now exist virtually no limits on the interest rates a lender can charge, beyond those set by the market. The result of deregulation and of easy credit has been two banking crises (remember the savings and loans in the 1980s?), the last—well, you know.

Of course, high interest rates hurt the poor the most, and perversely, the people who most need the loan are those who pay the highest rates and are least able to pay them. A constellation of businesses exists to make money off of the poor’s desperate need for short-term cash—to keep the lights on, meet a rent payment, hold onto their car, keep their cable or phone. On Monday’s show (June 7, 2010), Terry Gross, host of NPR’s fine show Fresh Air, interviewed Gary Rivlin, author of Broke, USA, about these financial industries that make their profit from lending to the poor at very high interest rates. Oy.

I said above that the Bible prohibits usury (see this website for a list of the passages concerning interest rates on loans). The lending envisioned in the Bible differs from investment lending, but is exactly the kind of lending discussed by Rivlin: it is lending to the poor. Usually, that meant a free peasant subsistence farmer who’s experienced a productivity shortfall or some disaster (his ox dies) and needs either food to tide his family over or seed to plant next year’s crops, or both. The Bible defines who bears the responsibility for making such loans (family) and sets the terms, but predatory lending by bankers in the cities was a problem in ancient Israel as it is now. (See Isaiah 5:8)

As Congress revisits financial regulation in the aftermath of the catastrophes that deregulation have brought, we can expect ‘Christian’ Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) to fight it on behalf of the banks. They should remember that Jesus literally defined his mission as the Christ in terms of relief for the poor:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because he has anointed me (Christed me, messiah-ed me) to bring good news to the poor. Luke 4:18.

They should set very strict limits on the interest rates that these institutions can charge the poor. It would be better to eliminate the interest rates altogether, but that would probably eliminate the lending itself, the last option available to the poor to meet these pressing short-term needs. Instead, churches should get into the short-term loan business and use the very modest profits they might make from low interest rates to help fund other relief efforts, like soup kitchens, and put these predatory lenders out of business with competition.

Thank God we finally have healthcare reform in America. One had to wonder how the Republican party could have resisted this effort with so much hostility when, for decades, and certainly during the second Bush administration, it was close to being a party of Christian theocracy. Do the social conservatives in the conservative movement read their Bible? Have they thought at all about what Jesus’ healthcare policy was? For he certainly had one.

In his own time, Jesus was most known for his ability to heal. This isn’t true in our time; in fact, it’s often a source of embarrassment. This is because true spiritual healing and other ‘supernatural miracles’ are so rare in our time that we now doubt them. Charlatans and the theater of televangelism on the one hand, and the superficiality of New Age self-help culture, on the other, have so tainted the topic that we no longer really know how to talk about spiritual healing. And, by contrast, medical science is so good at healing that there doesn’t seem much point in braving the swamps of Jesus’ healing ‘miracles’, except maybe to present some scientific explanation for how they could have happened.

Whether these healings happened as described and how they might have happened are interesting questions and I intend to explore them at some point. There is much more to say about how Jesus healed than the usual discussion of psychosomatic medicine. But there are other questions to ask that speak more directly to our own concerns about healthcare and healthcare policy. For instance, why did Jesus heal? Preeminent among these questions, though, is: whom did Jesus heal?

Jesus healed the poor.

Jesus healed 27 times in the gospels, if you include the exorcisms. Statistically, the spirit-possessed top the list with six instances. Next come the blind, at 5, and the paralyzed or crippled, at 4. Then, at three, the deaf and/or mute and people with fevers. Two instances of lepers and one each of dropsy, epilepsy (assigned to spirit possession in the gospels), menstrual bleeding, and a sword wound. Putting aside the exorcisms, which deserve their own treatment, 43% of Jesus’ healings were people whom the Bible formally categorized among the poor—that is, the blind and the lame.

There are six formal categories or kinds of poverty in the Bible, which are often grouped together, especially in the instructions of Torah: the blind and the lame, the widow and the orphan, the resident alien and the Levite. All were poor because they had no way to support themselves, either because they could not work or because they could not own land.

Jesus added a seventh to the classic list: lepers. These were not people with Hanson’s disease, of Ben Hur fame. They were people with chronic skin diseases, like psoriasis, hives and shingles. These ‘lepers’ were barred by law from meaningful economic contact with others: they couldn’t work at normal trades, handle food, or even come close to people who cared about ritual purity, most notably, priests, Pharisees and other religious conservatives.

The most important breakthrough from the recently passed healthcare insurance reform is that now, for the first time, poor people will be able to get healthcare insurance they can afford.

Trying to block this legislation was (speaking in the religious conservatives’ own language) the devil’s work; that is, fighting this legislation was tantamount to thwarting the primary mission of the Christ, as Jesus defined it in Luke 4:18 (“good news for the poor”): relieving the poor of the burdens of debt and offering them wholeness in the kingdom of God.

Christian conservatives who take their Bible seriously should have tried to make this legislation as strong and as protective of the poor as possible, just as their Lord did, instead of opposing it. Following Jesus’ model, they should have supported a single-payer system, because all the evidence indicates that such a system would have been more efficient and effective, and because ‘socializing’ medicine in this way is exactly what a theocratic state following the teachings of Jesus would look like; see Acts 2 and 4. On the other hand, Christian conservatives who support the lawsuits against this legislation stand in for Satan, who would like nothing better than to see the priorities of the Messiah undermined by his own followers.

Finally, a note about schedule: I am going away for a week and will have no access to the Internet, so I won’t be posting on BibleMonster until the week of May 9.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This final Beatitude returns to the theme of righteousness that opened with the sixth Beatitude: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Both blessings invoke righteousness in their legal application in inheritance law: seeing to it that, as executor of a will, the inheritance is properly distributed so that no one is left without means of support. Jesus is the executor of the will, the guarantor of God’s promise of the Jubilee—release from debt, relief from poverty, return to your family’s portion.

The earlier Beatitude promised the poor that they would finally see righteousness done. This Beatitude promises the redeemers and the redeeming community that by helping the poor you build up treasure in heaven. Here the story of the rich young man illustrates exactly what Jesus has in mind in this Beatitude (Matthew 19:16-29; Mark 10:17-30; Luke 18:18-30):

One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.

We see how Jesus set up the community to do this in Acts 4:32–37: “those who had lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (vv 34-35).”

I confess that I’m not sure where the persecution comes in. Certainly the community is persecuted in the first weeks after Jesus’ death: the apostles are flogged and jailed several times for “speaking in the name of Jesus”. This is a possible clue. The Bible uses “name” in connection with land as inheritance, because a man’s landed estate gave him his ‘name’: Boaz marries Ruth “to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead shall not be cut off from among his brethren and from the gate of his place.” (Ruth 4:10) Ezekiel opens his prescription for land allotments by saying “Now these are the names of the tribes . . . (48:1) The daughters of Zelophehad claim an inheritance using the same language: “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.” (Numbers 27:4)

These examples all have one thing in common: someone receives an inheritance that they have lost, in the face of at least potential resistance against their claim. In at least two of these cases, the claimants have lost their portion because the father had no son. But “our Father who art in heaven” does have a son, who guarantees a righteous distribution of his inheritance.

Thus the persecution that Jesus is referring to in our last Beatitude may refer to the legal denial of the poor’s inheritance claims in the assemblies of elders in the various villages he’s been visiting. By declaring the Jubilee, bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:18), as he did in Nazareth in Luke 4:18, he is asserting the claim of the poor with divine authority and seeking to overturn that resistance. If the poor can find no redress in the courts, he promises they will receive righteousness (that is, their just portion) anyway. This claim was so incendiary in Jesus’ own home town that the people tried to kill him (Luke 4:28-29).

Though the gospels don’t really spell out just what form the persecution Jesus is referring to takes, it may refer to the more general persecution that the community faced for preaching this good news of debt relief for the poor and, more to the point, condemning those who deny their claims to justice. On the other hand, those who use their wealth to help the poor will have treasure in heaven.

After my series on the Politics of Passion Week, I am returning to finish the series on the Beatitudes and Bankruptcy, begun some time ago.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Like a couple of other Beatitudes, these two seem on the surface to have no direct bearing on bankruptcy and inheritance law. This is especially true of the blessing of the “pure in heart”. When taken together, however, a parallelism emerges that suggests an indirect connection to justice, debt and debt relief. ‘Parallelism’ is a poetic device much used in Hebrew scripture and in the words of Jesus in which the second of two consecutive elements repeats and restates the first, often by developing the idea further or by giving a more specific or a more general case.

The clue to the parallelism is the echo of “they will see God” in “they will be called the sons of God.” The New Revised Standard Version quoted at the top is striving for gender neutrality with its “children of God,” but the Greek (and the Hebrew) reads “sons.” “The sons of God” is what the Bible calls angels. We know from Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees in the temple about levirate marriage (Matthew 22:30) that Jesus believed the righteous do not have physical bodies after death but become “like the angels in heaven.” Where, as angels, they will “see God.”

So, if the second halves of these two Beatitudes express the same idea—that of a heavenly reward among the angelic host—the first halves do, as well. That is, being “peacemakers” explains what being “pure in heart” means.

Furthermore, all this echoes Psalm 24 (verses 3 & 4):

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.

‘Clean hands’ means those whose actions are free of guilt; ‘pure hearts’ means those with righteous motives and intentions. For the ‘heart’ in ancient Semitic anthropology is the seat of the will, not of the emotions or sentiments, as in Greek anthropology, which we have inherited. To be pure in heart means to dedicate yourself solely to the law (Torah) and its justice. And, according to Psalm 24, that means not worshipping idols and not giving false testimony in court or trying to swindle others with false oaths.

Finally, “peacemakers” are people who work to reconcile enemies. This is a quasi-legal term, in that it refers to those who seek to reconcile parties in legal dispute. We would call them arbitrators.

While most of the Beatitudes are addressed to those who are being oppressed economically—the debtors in cases of bankruptcy—these two address third parties in such cases, people who are in a position to help the debtor find justice. This could also be the plaintiffs, those who hold the debtor’s note, who, because they are pure of heart, decide to make peace by withdrawing their claim on the debtor’s property. This is what the previous Beatitude speaks to: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy, which restates the line from the Lord’s prayer: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Thus the first four Beatitudes speak to the debtors in cases of bankruptcy. The fifth (blessed are the merciful) speaks to the creditor. And the sixth and seventh promise a place in heaven to those third parties who help protect the debtor from foreclosure. You could do this in one of two ways: you could convince the creditor to be merciful, or you could assume the debtor’s debt yourself as a redeemer. This latter is probably what Jesus had in mind, with an act that will be rewarded with a place among the angels.

In the next posting , we shall see that Jesus widens his focus in the final Beatitude to address the community that seeks to ensure debt-righteousness as he is defining it, and that faces persecution because of its radical reconstruction of its economics.

Jesus appeared to his friends and followers ten different times, if you count all the accounts in all four gospels and then adjust for duplicates (both Mark and Luke recount an appearance to two men walking on the road; both Mark and John recount an appearance to Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb). Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36, and John 20:19-23 might all be the same event, as well, since Jesus appears to the disciples in each story while they are eating and they all include references to doubting the resurrection; but I’m treating them as separate events. All of the accounts in Mark are somewhat suspect because the original gospel breaks off abruptly before any resurrection accounts; all of chapter 16 was added later and most manuscripts don’t have verses nine to the end, which includes all the actual appearances. In fact, doubt, ambivalence and ambiguity color most of the stories of resurrection appearances.

In three of the ten, the people to whom Jesus appears do not recognize him until something happens to open their eyes. These include the two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32); the disciples, right after being told by these same fellows from Emmaus about their encounter (and they are apparently actually still there in the room; Lk 24:36-49); and several disciples while fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:1-14).

One of these appearances—to Mary Magdalene at the tomb—receives conflicting accounts. In Mark (16:9), Mary recognizes Jesus. In John (20:14), she doesn’t, at least not right away.

Four of the accounts include some reference to a problem with recognizing Jesus or believing in his resurrection. In Matthew 28:16ff, Jesus appears to the Eleven on a mountain in Galilee, “but some doubted.” In Mark 16:14, Jesus appears to the Eleven and rebukes them “for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe.” In the two appearances to the disciples with and without doubting Thomas in John 20:19-29, the people present at the moment do not doubt, but the stories are all about the doubter Thomas. Also, weirdly, seven of these men, including Simon and Thomas, fail to recognize Jesus again in the story of the appearance to the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, in the passage that follows directly after the story of Thomas feeling Jesus’ wounds and believing; Thomas and the others have already somehow again lost their ability to recognize/believe after having just regained it.

In only two of the accounts do Jesus’ followers recognize him right away, with no reservations or complications, when he appears to them: the women at the tomb in Matthew 28:1-10, and Simon in a very brief, offhand notice with no elaboration in Luke 24:34.

The point is that Jesus’ followers needed to be coaxed into believing that the vision Jesus had given them of a reign of God that would transform their outer and inner lives was still alive and viable, even though Jesus himself wasn’t anymore. For this, they needed time. And they needed repetition. Even people who were intimates of Jesus himself had to be coached—they had to be taught, all over again, over and over again, what the kingdom of God meant, now that the Teacher was no longer with them in the flesh.

The story of the two men on the road to Emmaus is instructive in this regard. They recognize Jesus, after hours of conversation, only after he has broken bread with them. That is, after they have shared the common meal that the Last Supper epitomized and which was apparently the central daily-bread event in Jesus’ movement. The teaching dimension of this meal comes clear in its description in Acts (2:42-47):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The apostles taught; they distributed food and money to the poor; they ate; and they prayed. Apparently when gathered together for the common meal. Food and teaching and religious experience and radical economics were all almost literally the same thing. They ate and studied together, they shared all they had, and they had profound religious experiences, all of which were so attractive that more and more people joined them.

Give us this day our daily bread. Feed my sheep. You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him? This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.

At some point in the future, I want to start a series on spiritual food—on the way Christian scripture conflates feeding and teaching, eating and learning, sharing and understanding. For now, I close this series on the Politics of Passion Week with this conclusion about the politics of resurrection:

When Jesus’ followers were finally convinced that he continued to live and work among them and within them, his presence inspired them to radically remake the social and economic structures of their community along egalitarian and communitarian lines. This took discipline. It took study, practice, repetition, example. Folks lost the message, and then were brought back again. It was hard work. But it filled them with awe and joy.

Jesus raids the temple treasury

Directly from the royal processional to the city gates, Jesus and his exultant followers go to the temple gates and one of the most extraordinary events in Jesus’ ministry begins: he raids the temple treasury. Picture the scene:

A crowd arrives at the gate of the Temple with their leader at the head. They are singing, “This is the gate that belongs to Yahweh; let the righteous/triumphant enter through it” (Ps 118:20). The demonstrators stream into the Temple court behind Jesus, who advances to the tables of the moneychangers. Quoting the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, he grabs the planks and heaves them over.

In a clatter of wings, the doves ascend into heaven from their shattered cages. The four-legged animals get jittery, bleating and lowing nervously and pressing against their pens in increasing panic. Accounting records fall beneath the tables and underfoot, splintering clay tablets, smearing ink, tearing parchment and vellum. Coins splash onto the pavement and roll away. Servants trying to escape with vessels are intercepted.

Over the shouting and laughing and hymn singing, Jesus harangues the merchants, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah in their faces and literally herding them toward the gates of the court with a cattle whip.

…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah 53:7

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

Jeremiah 7:5-11

While Jesus is pronouncing his oracle of judgment against the thieving oppressors of the alien, the orphan and the widow, and dismantling the infrastructure of their oppression—what are his followers doing? When the gospel is for the poor, and the Jubilee relieves debt, and the kingship of God replaces the mastership of Mammon, of wealth gained through thievery, force and privilege—certainly, the crowds are swooping on the rolling coins with a whoop and stuffing them into their pockets. Certainly, the vessels Jesus intercepts are full of money, or they soon are filled with money. Surely, the accounting records are deliberately trampled, just as tax and debt records were and will be destroyed by other peasant uprisings in Israel’s history. Perhaps the twelve watch for the inevitable police intervention, maybe stacking tables in front of the doors, or helping to keep the money-gathering operation a systematic pillage on behalf of the poor and watching that no one pockets a personal take.

Matthew and Mark tell us that, after inciting a riot, Jesus remained in the Temple precincts, teaching the people while the Temple authorities plotted ways to kill him. Hard to imagine, unless the crowd was large and totally on his side. This is easy to imagine. Furthermore, the passage Jesus had quoted from Jeremiah against the rulers explicitly condemned violence against innocents in the temple and many there could personally remember when just this atrocity had occurred during a tax rebellion under Quirinius in 6 CE.

An exorcism

So Jesus stole from the rich and the emperor and gave to the poor. While Jesus’ actions and the Bible passages he uses to support his demonstration emphasize the political and, especially, the economic thrust of the action, Jesus also clearly intends to ‘cleanse’ the temple of its idolatrous and polluting elements; or, to put it more accurately, the two are the same thing: theft from the poor is idolatry, for Jesus, as it was for Jeremiah and other prophets before him.

To reinforce this meaning of ‘cleansing’, the evangelists use the language of exorcism to tell the story. Jesus “drives out” the moneychangers, the same word (ekballein) and the same action as “casting out” unclean spirits. As an exorcism, the cleansing of the temple stands as a hallmark case of our enriched definition of possession as assimilation to Greco-Roman culture and its greed and lust for power (Mt 20:25-28). And “casting out” meant rejecting the way of the world and taking care of each other; it often meant being cast out of temple, synagogue or even one’s own home.

Jesus made the economic dimension of exorcism and the exorcistic dimension of radical economic reconstruction explicit with the story of binding the strong man. As Ched Meyers has pointed out in Binding the Strong Man, this parable and the action of in the court of the moneychangers share key elements. The evangelists us the same word for the “vessels” of the temple as for the “household goods” of the parable. In the story of the cleansing, these vessels were the coffers used to cart the money into the temple. The “house” of the strong man in the parable is the House of the Lord of Isaiah 56:7.

Jesus told the story of the strong man to legitimize his authority to cast out demons. Jesus casts out spirits by the Holy Spirit as the legitimate head of the true, undivided house of God. The temple, as the illegitimate House of the Lord, is divided—against the poor, especially—and therefore cannot stand.

The cleansing episode describes an act of political-economic liberation. The temple is released from the demonic possession of usurious oppressors—and the money of the oppressors is released to the oppressed from whom they’ve stolen it. The den of thieves has been liberated—by a crowd of counter-thieves. Jesus here acts as a 1st century Robin Hood in the quintessential pattern of the peasant uprising, motivated as was so often the case with such uprisings in ancient Judea, by religion.

But, as with so many of Jesus’ actions and parables, the ‘cleansing of the temple’ expresses a paradox; they turn his religious-political tradition on its head. For if the house of the strong man is the temple and Jesus is the binder, then the Son of Man is the thief. In order to bind up the brokenhearted and release from darkness those who are bound (Lk 4:18), the anointed one must bind the strong man (the rulers of the temple-state) and cast out the thieves who oppress the poor.

Meanwhile, of course, these money-changers must certainly have run to the rulers of the temple and the Roman guards on watch from the bastions of the Tower of Antonia must have seen the riot below and mobilized a unit for crowd control.

Matthew implies that Jesus stayed long enough to heal the blind and the lame and to dispute with the chief priests and teachers of the law about the crowd’s (the children’s) acclaims of Hosanna to the Son of David. Yet, with the riot police storming down fortress Antonia’s steps, he could hardly have lingered long. Did he ‘heal’ the ‘lame’ and the ‘blind’ with a lightning strike of direct action, with the Jubilee release-liberation of stolen money? Or did the demonstration convert the spiritually blind and lame, so that they confessed the coming of the kingdom in their lives, given that ‘children’ was both a metaphor and a technical term for new converts to the Way? Or both?

Or perhaps the teeming crowds made it possible for Jesus to slip away into the outer courts in the temple complex, to continue teaching and building the reign of God, despite the dangers. All the accounts agree that he left the city at dusk and returned to his base in Bethany, the House of the Poor.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

For Jesus and his listeners, these words were more than mere metaphor. Families that were about to lose their farm to foreclosure literally faced starvation. To avoid hunger, your options were limited. You could hope that day labor would provide enough income to buy food for your family. You could put a member of the family into debt slavery under the holder of the note. This family member would then work the debt off under the terms defined in Deuteronomy 15. If the claim on your land was unjust–if you were the victim of predatory lending intended to seize your property, which was the specific focus of the ninth and tenth commandments against ‘coveting’ (a terrible translation of the word)–you could hope that your creditor did the righteous thing and canceled the note. Or, if the debt was legitimate, you could pray that he would be merciful and cancel the note.

With these Beatitudes, Jesus was once again promising justice to the bankrupt and those facing bankruptcy. He was saying that, in the kingdom of God–that is, in his community of the new covenant–predatory lending was not allowed and all debts were to be canceled. He was saying that no one would lose their farm to foreclosure, because the righteous would redeem the debts owed them.

And he was not just promising blessings to the poor and oppressed, that is, to debtors; he also was promising blessings to creditors who embraced the new covenant of the kingdom. Show mercy (a technical term for withdrawing a legal complaint), and you will receive mercy. Or, in its more familiar phrasing: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

So reads the third Beatitude in Matthew (5:5). I was taught (were you?) that this meant something like, “Blessed are those who endure injury with patience and without resentment, for they shall reap a last reward (in heaven). It was a promise to the passive. But not so for Jesus and his listeners.

They recognized “meek” as a legal term referring to people who have been judicially disenfranchised by bankruptcy and can no longer represent themselves in court and must find another elder in the assembly who can bring their case. And “earth” (eretz, in Hebrew) is a word that’s really rich with meanings: it can mean earth in the universal, cosmic sense, but it can also mean just dirt, soil, specifically arable soil; but more pointedly, in a meaning that more directly fits with the legal meaning of “meek”, it can mean your land, your family farm, your inheritance. (It can also stand in for eretz Israel, the land of Israel, Yawheh’s inheritance.)

So this is what Jesus’ listeners heard:

Blessed are those who have lost their family farm and can therefore no longer protect themselves in court or bring their own claims for judgment, for they shall re-inherit their portion and recover their position among the elders of the assembly.

What would we do today if we aligned ourselves with the spirit of this pronouncement?

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Jesus’ promise that those who mourn will be comforted corresponds directly to his promise in his inaugural proclamation in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah 61, to “bind up the brokenhearted.”  The “brokenhearted” are those who have been impoverished by foreclosure, as you can see from the poetic parallelism in Isaiah’s oracle:

[He has sent me] to bind up the brokenhearted // to proclaim freedom for the captives, // and release from darkness for the prisoners // to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors–four ways to say basically the same thing.

‘Comfort’ here is a legal term. The Comforter (Paraclete in the gospel of John) was someone who took your side in court, either as your proxy among the elders, someone who can bring your case up in the assembly of elders (since you can’t do it yourself because you’ve lost your land), or as a witness in your defense.

So Jesus’ listeners heard this Beatitude this way:

Blessed are they who have lost their land and home, their means of livelihood, and mourn for their family and their children in poverty; for they shall have their (foreclosure) case appealed and ultimately repealed–for, when God takes up your case, you win.

The message for us?: be comforters. Be advocates for those in poverty.

We’re not done with the Beatitudes. My favorite, and the most misunderstood, I think, is next: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth–a totally inadequate translation, as we shall see. But already some readers may be asking the question that naturally follows on all these promises: How? How is Jesus going to make good on these promises?

When they are just vague spiritual comfort, you can fob them off on the afterlife. But when the comfort promised is actual representation and action in real courts, including the reversal of real judicial decisions, as I am claiming, then how in practical terms did this work? Where is the evidence that Jesus actually fulfilled these promises? How did he plan to return the homeless to their land?

The answer, coming soon in a blog near you.