July 6, 2010
This is the third in a series of entries on Jesus’ attitude toward riches and the rich, prompted by a June 13 article in Huffington Post by Les Leopold entitled “Is there a Global War Between Financial Theocracy and Democracy?”
Although he famously included women, the poor, lepers and other marginalized people in his community and explicitly forbade hierarchical forms of governance (see Mark 10:35-45), Jesus’ kingdom of God was no democracy. It was in fact a theocracy, a covenant under God’s direct rulership whose primary mission was to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). It also brought bad news to the rich. No story illustrates this central focus of the gospel message better than that of the rich young man who asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”, told in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 10:17-31; Matthew 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30).
The first thing to note right away in the man’s question is the economic language the man uses to describe how he will achieve his goal of eternal life: he hopes to inherit it. Jesus himself uses ‘inherit’ this way quite frequently (see my posts on the Beatitudes). The man is posing a question about the law (and Jesus answers him with the law) and he knows that it is inheritance law that applies to his query: he will inherit eternal life from his Father in heaven as his portion—as a son of God—if he follows the law faithfully. In essence, he is asking Jesus, how can I become a son of God under your interpretation of the law. It’s worth noting that the “sons of God” was the term used in Jesus’ time for angels and that Jesus expected the saints to rise from the dead to become “like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).
Jesus asks him if he has followed the law, citing several of the Ten Commandments, all of them economic crimes: theft, false witness, swindling (coveting, wrongly understood as wishing you had what your neighbor has), care of your aged father and mother, and adultery. (Adultery directly violated inheritance law because conceiving a child outside the marriage disrupted the inheritance of the woman’s family.) The rich young man replies that he has
“kept all these since my youth. Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 10:20-24,
Some scholars have proposed, on only a little evidence, that there was a postern gate (that is, a small gate for people only, rather than for commercial traffic) in the city wall of Jerusalem called the Needle Gate. If this were true, the image would be of a rich merchant forced to unload his camel’s saddlebags of all their cargo so that the camel could fit through the gate. This is a perfect image for what Jesus has in mind, whether there was a Needle Gate or not. In any event, the literal image of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle is hyperbolic and dramatic, capturing the intensity of Jesus’ message: the only way rich people will inherit the kingdom of God is for them to give their surplus wealth to the poor.
Most of us will walk away grieving, just like the man in the story.
April 26, 2010
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.
April 17, 2010
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.
July 16, 2009
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.”
June 19, 2009
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?
June 11, 2009
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.
June 8, 2009
Matthew gives us eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3-10), a number associated with over-abundance (think of Noah’s children)–one more than seven, the number of fullness. The number itself is a promise. (It would be nine Beatitudes if you count the one that breaks completely from all the others in its rambling, even chaotic, format (v. 11) and which seems to be addressed to believers suffering persecution, as they were in Matthew’s own community, rather than to the poor, and which promises relief from persecution rather than debt redemption like all the rest. I think this ninth one is a late addition.)
All the Beatitudes deal with inheritance law and specifically with bankruptcy and the severe poverty that foreclosure brings to free peasant farmers who have lost their land. The first is very straightforward (see also Luke 6:20):
Blessed are the poor (in spirit), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (God).
“The poor” is ani in Hebrew, which also means ‘oppressed’. (Bethany, the village where Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Simon the Leper lived, is beth ani, house of the poor. Apparently, Jesus had two important community churches there, and we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes had a leper colony there.) The poor are those who have lost their family farm and have no way to support themselves, except to appear in the morning at the village gate and hope for day labor on someone else’s farm (sound familiar?). It would not have been uncommon for the poor to end up working on their own farm, now in the hands of the man who had held their mortgage note. This is the source of the term “broken hearted” in Jesus’ delcaration of Jubilee debt freedom in Luke 4:18, and of “those who mourn”, which appears in the next Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (We will discuss this one in a day or two.)
The promise–the fulfillment of the blessing–is “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is the central teaching/promise in Jesus’ ministry: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Father’s will is this (Luke 4:18-19) : that all debts be cancelled, that all slaves be set free (as He set the Israelites free at their foundation), that all families be returned to their original inheritance.
Jesus is saying:
Blessed are those who have lost their family farm/inheritance and now daily face starvation or humiliation as day laborers dependent on others, for they shall be returned to their portion.
The message for today? — Christian communities should be doing all they can to keep people in their homes and to help them get back on their feet if they go bankrupt. And they should support very liberal bankruptcy law, unlike the most recent federal bankruptcy legislation, which makes it hard to file and hard to start over. This should be the central mission of every congregation, as it was the central mission of Jesus.
In part 2–what does “comforted” mean in the next Beatitude? Coming soon to a blog near you.