Over Memorial Day Weekend, I participated as a pilgrim at the Taize gathering at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. During part of our time we selected small discussion groups in which to reflect on the intersection of Christian worship and the systemic poverty and injustice of the rez.
Unbeknownst to me until much later, the facilitator of my small group was Ched Myers.
Who? (You might wonder)
Ched Myers is a biblical scholar and a Christian mediator. He’s the author of perhaps the best biblical commentary of the last few decades- and one of my favorites: Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.
One of Myers’ chief critiques is the propensity among believers to spiritualize and thus neuter the message and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus’ Gospel is about the world to come the here and now can breath a sigh of relief. Fortunately, as long as Christians are stuck with the image of state-sponsored torture as our primary symbol we’ll continually be reminded that our Savior, despite our wishes to the contrary, is a thoroughly political figure.
A “spiritualized” interpretation of the references to Jesus’ ministry and gospel as “good news to the poor” misses the ways in which Jesus addressed the concrete, spiritual and material realities of his time and, specifically, of the peasant Jewish community of which he was part.
“Only a real debt-cancellation and land-restoration could represent good news to real poor people,” says Ched Myers.
Many scholars, including Myers, have noted that Jesus seems to have regarded himself as one who proclaimed and brought a new season of jubilee such as that mandated in the ancient Jewish law. The text from Isaiah that Jesus quoted and declared fulfilled at the synagogue in his hometown when he began his ministry is itself a reference to the jubilee year from the ancient Jewish law.
Many have also noted the relationship between the way in which Jesus talked about the forgiveness of sins and the forgiveness of debt. This is seen most clearly in Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer with its pleas to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
“The gospels agree,” says Myers that “Jesus’ first substantive clash with the authorities arose as a result of his practice of ‘unlicensed’ forgiveness of sins, which has clear Jubilee overtones.”
Richard Horsley has offered a helpful account of the relationship between forgiveness of sin and debt in the context of first century rural Galilee.
There are indications …that the people…may have been blaming themselves. Insofar as they were suffering hunger, disease, and poverty, it was because they had sinned, by breaking the covenant laws. They were therefore now receiving the curses. This is surely what Jesus was addressing in this forgiveness of sins in connection with healings (as in Mark 2:1-12). In addressing the people’s self-blame and despair, therefore, Jesus transforms the blessings and curses into a new declaration of God’s assurance of deliverance for the poor and hungry and condemnation of those who were wealthy, almost certainly because they were expropriating the goods of the peasantry.
To announce forgiveness of sins is truly good news for those who are literally poor.
Jesus not only sought to lift the spiritual burden associated with poverty, but also to transform the material relationships that produced that poverty.
Myers indicates for example that
“Jesus’ Jubilee orientation” is seen not just in his forgiveness of sins/debts but also in: 1) his instructing the disciples to “to help themselves to field produce” justifying it with “his punch line: ‘The Sabbath was created for humanity’” (Mark 2:27); 2) “his efforts to rebuild community between socio-economically- alienated groups” such as tax-collectors (Levi, Zaccheus) and the debtors they exploited; 3) and his call for radical restructuring at all levels, from the household (Mark 3:31-35) to the body politic (Mark 10:35-45).
Myers regards “table fellowship” both in Jesus’ practice and in his storytelling as the typical venue chosen by Jesus to illustrate his Jubilee claim that “first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).
Meals lay at the heart of ancient society: Where, what, and with whom you ate defined your social identity and status. Thus the table was the “mirror” of society, with its economic classes and political divisions.
In the extended banquet story of in Luke 14, Jesus systematically undermines prevailing conventions and proprieties which advocating a new “table” of compassion and equality. The opening episode deals (not surprisingly) with a dispute over the Sabbath practice (Luke 14:1-6).
Next comes Jesus attack on the dominant system of meritocracy, with its hierarchies, prestige posturing, and ladder-climbing, and his invitation to “downward mobility” (verses 7-11).
He then offends his host by criticizing his guest list, rejecting the reciprocal patronage system of the elite and calling for a focus upon “those who cannot repay” (verses 12-14).
The series concludes with Jesus pointed little fable about an exemplary host who finally understands the bankruptcy of meritocracy and decides instead to build a Jubilee community with the poor and outcast (verses 15-24).
In the light of these and other “Jubilee footprints” in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, Myers finds it not surprising that the early church practiced what he calls “Sabbath economics” as exemplified in the story of radical sharing of property among believers in the aftermath of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first day Pentecost.
And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved [Acts 2:44-47].
Christian conviction is that God promises a comprehensive fulfillment of human existence in the universe.
Salvation includes our souls and our bodies, our individual and our collective or corporate existence.
Jesus’ primary metaphor for speaking of salvation was a political one, “The Kingdom of God.”
It was an economic metaphor as well.
We are bold to proclaim that among the promises of God to us is this: the situation of mass poverty and gross material inequality that reigns now shall not be when God reigns.
And where God reigns even now in the world that he so loves, that poverty and inequality is being transformed in justice.