Friday, January 20, 2017

Jesus' Inaugural Address

At one point in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. While Matthew and Mark place this scene later in Jesus’ ministry, Luke has Jesus in Nazareth’s synagogue early in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke’s Gospel, these are Jesus’ first public words. One could say that this is Jesus’ inaugural address in Luke, where he lays out his agenda as the Beloved Son of God who brings in the rule of God.

What is interesting about Luke’s version is that Jesus actually takes the scroll, finds the reading from Isaiah, and reads that portion:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19)

But, what is important about this reading from Isaiah is that Jesus is not going rogue here; he situates his agenda within the prophetic tradition of Israel that emphasized the eschatological salvation that God had promised to bring about; an eschatological salvation that would bring about a reversal and a turning upside down of the norms of a society that favored the rich and powerful over the poor and oppressed.

In other words, Jesus understood Isaiah’s prophetic words as coming to fulfillment in his own coming and he understood his own agenda in terms of Isaiah’s prophecy. In that sense, Jesus centered his agenda on the Jewish Scripture, but not just any Scripture, but the one that placed emphasis on the reversal and turning upside down of the norms of a world that placed authority in the hands of a few and that treated the poor, the sick, the lame, and others with disdain, suspicion, and oppression.

While we should not push Jesus’ use of this particular reading from the prophet as giving us a full picture of how Jesus read and interpreted Scripture, I do think it is important, at least for Luke, that Jesus’ reading of this particular passage and his application of the passage to himself at the beginning of his ministry tells us something about what the author of this Gospel was saying about Jesus. Jesus’ agenda would side with the poor over the rich, with the oppressed over the oppressors, and with the sick over the well.

Indeed, if we jump over a couple of chapters in Luke we find Jesus saying these words:

Looking at his disciples, he said:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

"But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-21; 24-25)

Jesus’ inaugural address at Nazareth, and his agenda that he sets forth there, challenges the powers that be. It challenges the status quo of a world that is built on authority that favors the rich, powerful, and influential and forgets those on the margins of society. Indeed, in all three accounts of this event in Nazareth’s synagogue, the people are perplexed, offended, and in Luke, enraged at what Jesus has to say.

But why? Why would they be enraged to the point of wanting to cast him off a cliff?
Perhaps the simple answer may be the one that still rings true for us when we hear Jesus say certain things. As Mark tells of the response of those who hear Jesus in the synagogue, he says they took offense at him; literally they were scandalized by Jesus. And so are we.

We may not want to take Jesus to the edge of a cliff and toss him off, and we may not speak ill of Jesus when we consider the words he spoke and the actions he carried out concerning the rule of God, for that, for us, would be sacrilegious, even blasphemous. No, we would not do these things. Instead, we just ignore what Jesus says or try to explain it all away.

What I think Jesus’ inaugural address confronts us with is our own unwillingness to take up his agenda instead of our own. Our agendas are filled with self-preservation instead of self-sacrifice. Our agendas are filled with superiority instead of humility. Out agendas are filled with power instead of empathy. Our agendas are filled with fear of the other instead of faith in God. Our agendas are filled with the Jesus we create instead of the Jesus that comes to us through the Gospels.
Our Jesus is our ally in the face of our enemies.  He is always on our side, answering our prayers and blessing us. This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable, even complacent, and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness. 

This Jesus we create in our own minds and answers to our demands and specifications. He permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, nationalities, sexual orientations, and religions in the name of cultural security.

This Jesus is the one who gives us easy teachings that fail to challenge us to think outside our own insular lives. This Jesus, and indeed, this form of Christianity, settles on the simplistic answers that comfort our minds, but that fall short of calling us to authentic discipleship. Yes, this Jesus, the easy Jesus is the one we prefer; the one we can affirm and worship.

But this is not the Jesus we find in Luke 4 or in other parts of the Gospels.  

This is the Jesus that calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him.   

This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture, and gender and all the other socially constructed ways we have created to divide humanity.  

This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased, and various persons of questionable social standing.   

This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace, and hope in our world. 

This is the Jesus who set forth his agenda in his Nazareth inaugural address; an address that set forth not his own agenda for himself, but the agenda that he called his followers to live and fulfill.

For those of us who are Christian, we must always remember that we can be both faithful to the kingdom of God and good citizens of our country; indeed we must be both. But, our ultimate allegiance must be to Jesus and his agenda of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and setting free the oppressed.
Today, a new President of the United States will take the oath of office and take his place as the new leader of our country and the free world. He will set forth his own agenda through his inaugural address. Let us listen closely to see how much his agenda cares for the least of these, and more importantly, that his actions in the coming days demonstrate a commitment for justice- the kind of justice for which Jesus gave his life.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Jesus and God’s Economy

It is often said that Jesus had more to say about money than any other subject. From his statements about wealth and possessions, to his parables about agriculture and land, to his calling his followers to invest in treasures in heaven, Jesus’ teachings are replete with the theme of wealth and possessions. We might say that Jesus was, to some extent, an economist.

By saying that Jesus was an economist, I don’t mean that Jesus was an economist in the sense that you and I think of an economist. Jesus did not earn a degree in economics. He was not a major investor in the Roman economy. And, he wrote no book on the issue of financial success. But, he had a great deal to say about economics, and specifically how he envisioned God’s economy.

But what do we mean by God’s economy? Our modern word, “economy”, really has more to do with profits and losses and wages and benefits. It is concerned with trade deficits and budget deficits. It is focused on unemployment and welfare, and a host of other issues. All of these are legitimate concerns in a modern day economy like our own, but this is not exactly what is meant when talking about God’s economy.

Before we move to unpack what we might mean by God’s economy, we need to dispel some fallacies that I think are ingrained our cultural subconscious. First, while the idea is popular among religious conservatives, Jesus was not a capitalist, and his teachings should not be interpreted as being specifically supportive of capitalism.

It is hard to believe that Jesus even would have been a capitalist since he sided with the poor over the rich, and he gave up worldly possessions and called others to do the same. So, when some Christians want to argue that the Bible and Jesus support capitalism as God’s ordained way of doing economics, they are sadly mistaken.

Second, one can be a follower of Christ and be a capitalist or a socialist. Following Jesus is not about one’s concept of the best form of modern day economics, despite those same religious conservatives saying the opposite in recent years. We should never equate any political or economic ideology, such as capitalism or socialism, with being Christian or non-Christian.

Again, this is not to say that Jesus was not concerned with economics, for he clearly was. So, in considering what Jesus said and did that defined God’s economy, perhaps the idea we should dispel the most goes back to the word economy, and what exactly this word means. 

The Greek word from which we get our English word economy is oikonomia. The word means house-law, or perhaps better, house rules or management. It would have been used to talk about a family managing their household. But this would apply to more than simply managing the finances of the home.

If we consider, then, that Jesus was concerned with the economy, that is managing the household, we should ask exactly what this means. We could take it as Jesus talking about individual households and families taking care of their own business and managing their own affairs. But this seems a bit limiting, particularly when Jesus does not appear to be concerned with the financial success of individual families.

What if we consider Jesus to be talking about all of creation as God’s household?  This, at least from my reading of scripture, seems to make sense, and I think the story of creation from Genesis captures this idea wonderfully. We are told that the representatives of humanity were to care for the garden in which God had placed them. They were charged with caring for God’s household, and specifically with caring for each other.

And this, it appears, is how Jesus views God’s economy; an economy that is not so much concerned with profits, but with the welfare of all.

Economic systems that are focused on profits are inherently inconsistent in the effects on the lives of people within a society, for they create the haves and the have-nots. But God’s economy, as envisioned by Jesus, confronts the economies of the world with their inherent inconsistencies toward humanity that caused some to be rich and others to be poor, and judges them as unjust.

What is needed to move our economics in line with God’s economy is more fairness and equality.

When Paul was writing to the Corinthians to ask them to share with those in Jerusalem who were experiencing famine, he based that appeal on what Christ had done for them by becoming poor so that they could become rich. Paul was, of course, speaking of a spiritual richness.

But, he also understood that the economy of God was about justice and fairness, and in calling the Corinthians to give up some of their wealth for the benefit of others, Paul said,

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." (2 Cor. 8:13-15)

Both Jesus and Paul understood that God was concerned with more than the spiritual welfare of people, and Jesus’ message was certainly more about economics than we often admit. But they also understood that God’s economy was about fairness and justice, particularly towards the poor.

Christians can disagree as to how we create an economy that is more just and fair, but we cannot deny that Jesus was very clear about what constituted God’s vision of a just and fair economy. It was not the greedy accumulation of wealth that left others poor and destitute. It was the viewing of wealth and possessions as that which God graciously gives to some so that they might share with others.

The test of faithfulness is always in how we treat the vulnerable of society. Christians who seek to follow Jesus in authentic discipleship should strive for the fulfillment of God’s economy in which the one who has much does not have too much, and the one who has little does not have too little.