Posted By Eric Ethington (Author) on March 22, 2009
In the book of Acts of the Apostles, we get a graphic picture of the early Christian community right up front. In the second chapter we learn: “The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out of the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed.”
If I didn’t alert you this was from scripture, you may well have thought it was either from the philosophy of the early Mormon pioneers in Utah who practiced even more socialism then the dreaded “European Socialism” which seems to frighten Congress half to death. or if you didn’t connect this passage to early Mormonism you may have thought is was part of Obama’s speech to the nation describing his new economic policy where we would own everything in common, including the banks.
Two chapters later in the Book of Acts, we get a review of the economic policy of the Christian community: “The whole group was united, heart and soul; no one claimed for his own use anything that he had, as everythin they owned was held in common…none of the members was ever in want, as all of those who owned land or houses would sell them, and bring the money from them, to present it to the apostles; it was then distributed to any members who might be in need.”
Now it gets interesting. In the next chapter in Acts, a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira agree to sell their property. And as was custom, they brought the proceeds to the apostles to be distributed. Except…except…that this couple kept back part of the proceeds for themselves. Who knows: Maybe they wanted to start their own venture capitalist business, or maybe they coveted something their neighbor had and needed a little extra scratch.
So the apostle Peter says to Ananais: Satan has possessed you. What else could be responsible for your thinking that the land you owned was yours to keep or that after you sold it, you could do with the money as you liked? you haven’t just lied to other men; you have lied to God. And then Ananais falls down dead (there are no second chances in this case; no forgiveness or pleas for mercy. If you don’t give to the community what is rightfully theirs, it’s over, and it’s unlikely you’ll be seeing any pearly gates). Some younger men got up, wrapped a sheet over Ananias, and walked off to bury him.
About three hours later, the Bible tells us, Sapphira walks in without any knowledge of what happened to her husband. She hands over the proceeds to Peter. He asks her, “Was this all the money you got for selling the land?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price. Peter said, “What made you do it?” and then he says, “Do you hear those footsteps?” They were the footsteps of the young men returning from burying Ananias. Peter informed her that they were now going to bury her like they did her husband and (as the Good Book relates to us) “She dropped dead at his feet.”
I always thought the Old Testament prophets were tough, but they just talked a good game. They painted a picture of how society ought to look, what justice was supposed to reveal, and then they got into a rage because nobody listened to them. But these apostles….let me tell you, they meant business.
As the Hebrew prophets cry out eloquently for a fair and just society and the people turn a deaf ear motivated primarily by their own greed, it is as though their reply to the prophets is, “Sorry buddy, but we are living in times of deregulation. Nobody is going to impose any rules or constraints; it’s whatever the free market bears. And this may accumulate some collateral damage along the way, but we are free to pursue our own needs and interests and will give to the poor whatever we feel like.”
The Apostles of course, were into strict regulatory guidelines. It makes you wish the Apostles had oversight over bailing out our bank industry, let alone bailing out AIG. The lesson we learn from Peter’s handling of Ananais and Sapphira is not the literal cause and effect of holding onto personal gain. We need to understand the power of the Bible in a modern context. Coveting your neighbor’s ox is no longer relevant, at least not to us sophisticated urbanites, but the notion of coveting, say your neighbor’s BMW remains germane to the message. We are not shepherds nor do we live in a tribal society, and to be honest, the economic messages in the Bible can be easily dismissed these days as immaterial such as forgiving all debts, sharing property, or giving all our possessions to the poor. The Bible appears to have little connection with the economic choices in our lives today.
Forgive my bias when it comes to contemporary progressive thought relating to justice, and I include our Unitarian Universalist tradition in that liberal mindset. But ironically liberal thought holds scripture with a higher regard and greater relevancy in our lives than the more traditional Christians who interpret the current economic meltdown as their last gasp effort to reap bonuses and continue their opulence with zero regard for the poor and the millions who are losing their homes and retirements and savings. Does the economic crisis of today come with a moral mandate of any kind?
The progressive thinker will read these biblical passages and ask “What does this mean about my behavior in the world today?” In the case of the apostle Peter dealing with Ananias and Sapphira, the meaning is quite clear: Charity is not voluntary. Many of our Christian senators and representatives voting in Congress on the future of our economy, assume a notion of freedom and autonomy for individuals that would have been totally alien to early Christian communities, let alone for the Apostle Peter. Freedom is interpreted in the New Testament not as giving to others as little as you please, but as being empowered to do good (what a radical idea).
Those congressmen and women sitting on the side of the aisle who gleefully unite in their relentless and defiant “no” to any of the proposed changes in restructuring the economy and economic system fail to integrate their much espoused Christian faith with the reality of our times. They fail to comprehend that charity is not optional and that the most profound message of Jesus calls for no dichotomy between love and justice.
Given the harsh criticism that has been thrown at President Obama with acusations that he wants to redistribute wealth, it would be interesting to compare Obama’s plans to tax the wealthy, reduce large farm subsidies, extend health care, help 4 million people avoid foreclosures on their homes, extend unemployment benefits and help states pay Medicaid to the poor… to compare those changes with the redistribution of wealth called for in Deuteronomy and Leviticus where it is clear that God demands that people reorder their spiritual lives and their material lives in ways that are pleasing to God.
The law of the Old Testament is directly focused on the rights of the least powerful and the neediest among us. They are listed: the poor, the stranger, the sojourner, the widow and the orphan. Those people most marginalized in society MUST receive their just share of the community’s resources. That’s the prophetic voice, clamoring for the redistribution of wealth and property.
Jesus is all about economics. What economic decisions must one make to be faithful to God? How should the wise steward use his master’s money? What should the rich young man do with his possessions? What role should the moneychangers have in church? In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus proclaims that the hungry shall be fed in God’s kingdom. In Luke He says feeding the hungry here on earth is a way to do God’s will. In Matthew, Jesus castigates those who focus on material possessions as the primary aim in life and who do not share their wealth with others.
And then there’s the unforgettable contrast between the indifference of the wealthy and the widow who quietly gives from her meager resources to help the poor. What all those people who collect huge bonuses forget…what all those people who make our economic policies forget…is that God cares deeply about the economic life.
I’m sure many of you read in Frank rich’s column a week ago about the money managers whose $667 million fraud looted the endowment of both The University of Pittsburgh and Canegie Mellon, nothing compared to Bernie Madoff, but the point is they were fond of collecting stuffed animals, including an $80,000 teddy bear. Another guy poured most of his $8 billion in ill-gotten gains into his castle, complete with moat, man-made cliff and pub. The head of Bear Sterns who reassured folks that Bear Sterns was not in trouble just six days before its March 2008 collapse, and Charlie Gasparino of AIG who claimed its subprime losses were very manageable and that in December of 2007 told everyone that the worst of the subprime business was over, assailed Obama for what they characterized as “wealth destruction.”
I don’t know whether or not Obama is drawing his economic policies from the Bible, but it would please God either way. In all probability, Obama’s policies which his critics deride as “socialist,” stem from the obscene widening of income inequality between the very rich and everyone else since the 1970’s. I wish Obama had a comeback like Adlai Stevenson did when Eisenhower accused him of “creeping socialism.” Stevenson dismissed the comment by saying, “I detest anything that creeps.”
What Obama did say in his budget message was: “There is something wrong when we allow the playing field to be tilted so far in the favor of so few.” Perhaps it was finally a call for fairness.
Our own esteemed [Utah] Senator Orrin Hatch replied to Obama that the budget was “not fair to the rich.” (an exact quote). Hatch went on that Obama’s budget robs the rich to pay the poor. If you don’t want to attack scripture, I guess it’s permissible to attach Robin Hood.
Before the economic meltdown, (in 2005) one of every six children in America was categorized as poor; 36 million people lived below the poverty line; 45 million Americans were without health insurance. I don’t know of any statistics in the last six months that count the poor aside from the unemployment figures which are frightening beyond belief, both for their stark reality and implications of further poverty, despair, and anguish.
And those who hope for Obama to fail, and whose only solution is to cling steadfastly to voting “no” across the board, are the same legislators who in the last administration called for billions of dollars to increase the military, voted for massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, and to cut funding for overcoming poverty. In all the new economic endeavors trying to deal with joblessness, health care, education and the environment, many of these Christian legislators are now calling for fiscal restraint. They are trying to derail a redistribution of wealth, the blueprint for which is writ largely throughout their entire sacred text. Go figure. The identification with the poor is most keenly expressed when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt.25:40)
This segues perfectly into the theologian, Douglas Meeks, who teaches now at Vanderbilt Divinity School and whose book by this same title as this sermon, God the Economist, argues that God’s primary role in the Bible is to be an economist. Meeks draws the image that we are all included in God’s “household.” And so God naturally wants to make damn sure it’s going to be a just “household.” A household where EVERYONE has the resources necessary for life. Could you imaging God’s household run in any other way?
Meeks uses the Hebrew exile out of Egypt as a fine example. God leads the Israelites out of the oppressive household of Pharaoh, out of slavery and into freedom, establishing a new household, and a new economic system. God provides manna in the desert where each is to take only according to need. No more. And He gives the Jews an economic framework that explicitly protects the rights of the least powerful.
The covenant between God and the Israelites is that earth will provide abundantly in return for keeping their “household” in accordance with god’s wishes. This proves historically to be one tough deal. The Israelites, mere human mortals drawn to materialism and conveniently forgetting about the poor, fail in their covenantal responsibilities. And that’s why God sends in the prophets, to bring them back to their agreed upon contract. The household has grown unjust. And thus Isaiah says, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then…the Lord will guide you continually.” (Isa. 8:10-11)
And Jesus, who proclaimed a new covenant, yet still mindful of God’s “household,” speaks of a radical commitment challenging the powerful.
I want for one person, just one person in our nation’s capital sitting there in Congress with no worries about their own health care of pension, to tell me how economic justice differs from a redistribution of wealth.
Overcoming poverty has to be a bipartisan objective. I don’t see any other way unless we break a sacred covenant: the literal one we find in scripture, and also the moral covenant we make to one another simply as citizens of a common household, humbled by the gift of life, respecting one another as equals. After all, should we not ask, “What does a good society really mean? What does a good society really look like?”
I would think a just society includes basic human rights like food, shelter, health care, work, security in old age and taking care of those are inform, widows and orphans. 13 million American children should not need to have to live in poverty. Rather than deal with those issues substantively, our Congress dismisses the prospect by smearing it as “European Socialism.” Why not call it fairness? Why not work towards economic justice?”
Whatever your understanding of God may be..from an anthropomorphic judge in the heavens to a mystical spirit that acquaints us with such unfathomable ideas like love and compassion and who also plants a moral conscience right in our hearts…however you try to figure out he sacred, we all know, left wing, right wing, liberal, conservative, blue state, red state, gay, straight, black, white, socialist and capitalist, Christian, Jew, Muslim…we all know what it means to live in God’s household. We all know the responsibilities we share to make good on our promise to live according to moral law.
Let’s get away from meaningless and derogatory labels; let’s stop pretending that justice is charity handed out as though it were a bonus; let’s begin looking at what the redistribution of wealth really means and begin acting as one family in the same household.