Saturday, September 03, 2011

A Biblical Theme

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure* for the last days. Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.
James 5:1-6

One would be hard pressed to find a more persistent moral theme running through Scripture than the condemnation that follows upon the accumulation of wealth. While there is also the theme of the emptiness of so much religious observance - the prophets were eager to condemn the emptiness of ritual in ancient Israel and Judah - this was always in a context where the heart of the Covenant was already broken because of lack of justice, the absence of mercy, the oppression of the poor, the widow and orphan, and the dehumanization and enslavement of the foreigner in the land.

It would be a mistake, however, to limit this witness only to the prophetic tradition. The historic tradition, too, knows of the need for justice, for a social contract rooted in God's love for all people to be reflected in a society that lives it, rather than just laying out slaughtered animals and bunches of wheat on an altar only to let the people starve. For example, from 1 Kings, the story of the final division of the old Kingdom:
Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), then Jeroboam returned from Egypt. And they sent and called him; and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.’ He said to them, ‘Go away for three days, then come again to me.’ So the people went away.

Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the older men who had attended his father Solomon while he was still alive, saying, ‘How do you advise me to answer this people?’ They answered him, ‘If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants for ever.’ But he disregarded the advice that the older men gave him, and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and now attended him. He said to them, ‘What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, “Lighten the yoke that your father put on us”?’ The young men who had grown up with him said to him, ‘Thus you should say to this people who spoke to you, “Your father made our yoke heavy, but you must lighten it for us”; thus you should say to them, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” ’

So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day, as the king had said, ‘Come to me again on the third day.’ The king answered the people harshly. He disregarded the advice that the older men had given him and spoke to them according to the advice of the young men, ‘My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’ So the king did not listen to the people, because it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfil his word, which the Lord had spoken by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam son of Nebat.

When all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, the people answered the king,
‘What share do we have in David?
We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse.
To your tents, O Israel!
Look now to your own house, O David.’
So Israel went away to their tents. But Rehoboam reigned over the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah. When King Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was taskmaster over the forced labour, all Israel stoned him to death. King Rehoboam then hurriedly mounted his chariot to flee to Jerusalem. So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.
When all Israel heard that Jeroboam had returned, they sent and called him to the assembly and made him king over all Israel. There was no one who followed the house of David, except the tribe of Judah alone.
Please note at least one passage here that made me chuckle. Rehoboam makes the boast that he little finger is greater than the loins of his father. Seems bragging about dick size is something that men have always done.

When people start whining about "liberal" Christians who "only" pay attention to verses and sections such as these, I honestly wonder if they have really read the Bible. It isn't like this stuff is hidden away in secret teachings only we read. It isn't as if we have invented the thread that runs through so much of Scripture that condemns the accumulation of wealth at the expense of other persons. It isn't as if "social justice" were something we moderns invented as a way of bastardizing the faith. Norman Cohn wrote a detailed account of revolutionary Christianity in the High and Late Middle Ages in central Europe, entitled The Pursuit Of The Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (it was reading this and another of Cohn's books that really got me started thinking about the depth and breadth of Christian teaching at a time when I had pretty much given it up as a bad business; realizing through reading history that ours is just a passing moment in a long and varied tradition was an eye-opening experience for me).

While it is indeed true that there are a variety of concerns within the traditions of Scripture, from personal hygiene and marriage and sexual relations to matters of civil law and even dietary codes, these, like all else must be considered against the backdrop of larger thematic content, as well as within a theological hermeneutic and contextualizing that keeps one eye always on this far more insistent, and persistent, and overarching theme: at the heart of the details of the Covenant between God and the people of Israel is that, as the chosen people of this God, of this one they call the living LORD, Elohim, they are to represent to the world who this God is by living not at other kingdoms and peoples live, but as those who embody God's love and justice for all. That is the heart of covenant itself, after all - God's mercy, love, and justice, amazing precisely because it is not rooted in any merit, but the free choice of this God. While ritual and a well-ordered polis are important, they are not at the heart of what this God calls the people to live out.

When Jesus says that the law can be summed up by loving God and loving others, it is this tradition to which he refers. When the writer of James condemns the wealthy who amass fortunes while enslaving and even murdering the poor, it is this tradition within which he writes. When liberation theologians insist that God has a preferential option for the poor, it is to this Scriptural theme they return, again and again. When John Wesley went out and preached to the workers in the mines and fields, it was this tradition out of which he lived and practiced his ministry.

Of course, it is important as Americans that we not get too caught up in condemning all those rich folk too easily. Even in the midst of the worst economic troubles in 80 years, we are far richer, far more comfortable than billions of our fellow human beings. We should never forget that our ease is bought at the price of the sufferings of our fellow humanity. Our drugs are tested on poor Africans, even as the final products are withheld from them because the cost the drug companies charge is too high even for their governments to afford. Our cars run on oil, the drilling and refining and burning of which is warming the planet at an exponential rate, bringing untold havoc to the whole planet. We wear clothes, buy shoes and toys for our children made in sweat shops, where people toil for pennies and dimes (comparatively speaking) so that we can ensure a steady supply of cheap products. We even distort and ignore our own laws to make sure our fellow Americans are not paid a living wage, cannot afford health care or higher education.

The word of justice, of condemnation here, is not for some others. This theme, this insistent Biblical demand that we live together, in justice, hearing the cries of our fellow human beings for food and shelter, for the simple recognition of their humanity, is a Word for us. A Word we must hear. These days, I think it is already too late, as the organs of our government make sure large banks and companies survive even as millions of my fellow citizens lose their jobs, their homes, their livelihoods, their hope.

This theme - that we are to live not as just run-of-the-mill human beings, but as a people called by God, this God, the living God who created the universe and loved us for no other reason than this God decided to do so, and therefore are obliged to love others in a living, breathing testimony to this free, joyful, bounteous love - runs throughout the Scriptures. It is the theme of the Bible, sung in Psalms, given in the rise and fall of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It is embodied in the crucified and risen Jesus. It is the theme to which St. Paul and St. James, St. Peter and the author of the Revelation call us - to witness through our life together to God's love and justice.

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