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.


Christ on bankruptcy

June 5, 2009

The thread that has unraveled the global economy is mortgage debt. The hands that pulled the string were the visible hands of greedy lenders and the invisible hand of markets structured to pursue profits over human welfare. About debt and debt relief, bankruptcy and poverty, Jesus has a great deal to say.

In fact, Jesus’ entire ministry was a radical program for debt relief, what I call the planks in the platform for a commonwealth of God. I will go even further: debt relief defined the very meaning of his role as the Christ/Messiah. And his teachings and actions relating to poverty and debt relief are so extensive that it would takes weeks to discuss it all. So I will return to this theme over and over as the economic crisis grinds on, as it grinds down workers and homeowners, the sick and the poor.

With Chrysler and GM declaring bankruptcy and getting mega-help from the federal government while people I know are trying to scrape together the money needed just to file ($1,500) without even a rag of vinegar to put to their lips, I feel bankruptcy is the place to start. Also, there is no more exciting place to start in the teachings of Jesus than the Beatitudes, which are all about bankruptcy law. And one of the reasons they are so exciting is that virtually no one seems to recognize that they are about bankruptcy—and inheritance law—even though the word ‘inherit’ appears prominently in several. Rather, the Beautitudes are always presented as conveniently vague sayings of spiritual comfort, when in fact they are unconvienently concrete prescriptions for legal practice. (It’s useful to remind ourselves that Jesus’ religion was, in fact, a legal framework.)

Next week, I’ll start with the first one, whose real meaning is always eviscerated by the usual translation: “Blessed are the meek,  for they shall inherit the earth.” Once you know enough about legal terminology in the Bible, a better translation becomes clear:

“Blessed are the those who have been legally disenfranchised because they have lost their family’s portion (farm) to foreclosure and therefore can no longer represent themselves before the gate (in court), for they shall reinherit their farm and be restored to their status as elders/landowners.”

That will require some unpacking, as you can imagine. Meanwhile, I recognize that I have made some other radical claims not directly related to bankruptcy that I will also have to address—especially, that debt relief defines Jesus’ role as Christ.

I will do this soon, as well. The claim rests on the only passage in which Jesus declares openly what his mission is, Luke 4:18-19:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed (christ, in Greek; messiah in Hebrew) me to BRING GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR (OPPRESSED–same word in Hebrew), to bind up the broken-hearted (idiom for those how have lost their inheritance, that is, gone bankrupt), to proclaim (evangelion) release to the captives (debt slaves working out their debt with labor), and release to the prisoners; and to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors (the Jubilee, in which, every 50 years, are debts are cancelled, all debt slaves are set free, and all families are returned to their family farms).

I have used the original passage which Jesus is quoting here, Isaiah 61:1-2, rather than the version in Luke. Luke could only read Greek and so he had to use the Septuagint, the Greek translation in circulation in the 1st Century, where as Jesus would probably not have read Greek and would have used either a Hebrew version or one in Aramaic.

More on this incredible passage later. This is really the cornerstone of the commonwealth of God, the foundation for the planks in its platform, so it deserves a full treatment in good time.