I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights.
– Desmond Tutu
Conservative Christians will often quote a snippet of Jesus to explain why they don’t have to care about taking care of immediate or far-reaching concerns of poor families, children and people. You know that quote: The poor will always be among you.
We’ve deconstructed that myth here. But here’s what I’m wondering:
Do these fiscal conservative Christians who identify as capitalists understand that the phrase is contextualized in a passage of scripture about a radical redistribution of wealth and property delivered through the government?
Jesus wasn’t ignoring the poor. He wasn’t taking a laissez-faire approach to poverty. Rather, the very opposite.
Jesus and his disciples pooled all their resources into a shared, common purse – which he knew Judas was stealing from for his own personal purposes. If that sounds an awful lot like Religious Right leaders that use the Poor Will Always Be Among You verse to deny poor families, women, children, workers, men, and countries basic amenities while stuffing their own faces, it’s because that’s exactly what it is like. If it sounds like parks or libraries or schools or food stamps being defunded due to the fact that “there just isn’t enough money” while the rich generously receive tax breaks worth far more than what your typical worker makes in a generation, that’s because it’s exactly what it is like.
Jesus and his followers lived a common life with common resources. It wasn’t Marxism, specifically, but they were practicing a type of communism. The problem wasn’t in the communism itself – it was in the deception, thievery and gluttony that Judas surrounded it with. Judas was practicing austerity and Jesus was putting him in check – reminding him of his thievery, warning him that he knew what he was doing.
Judas was stealing from the common funds. In response, Jesus was Occupying.
Note that it was after this prophetic warning that Judas sold out Jesus and delivered him up to the Empire paragons – the minsters of the violent status quo.
Secondly, Jesus was not just talking to Judas but to an entire host of people who were also complaining that this perfume was not given away as a sign of charity. Which is odd. Jesus has spent his entire ministry with, as, and helping poor people in Judea and Samaria – and now they’re upset that someone else – a woman, at that – wasn’t living up to their newly adopted standards. In his response, Jesus referenced an ancient purity law that the religious leaders were not pursuing and one that the people weren’t pushing. The idea of a just society over and above an occasional charity. We call this law Jubilee. It was the wholesale cancelling of debts and redistribution of wealth, of unrelenting justice.
While much of the Old Testament would not be considered equitable by today’s standards, it had many of its own bright spots in the midst of the shaming purity and people-as-property laws. We can attribute this to an opening of the narrative of the Bible, a process of liberation from a patriarchal, brutal society to a communal and equitable one. Notice I say equitable. Most of us concern ourselves with charity and so leave little room for equity – equity is scary for the dominating powers and charity makes us feel good, so we tend to focus efforts on charity work. It is here we need a true revolution of values, to use Martin Luther King’s phrase.
Ultimately, charity stalls the necessary confrontation of injustice. Though it addresses some immediate need and is necessary in such a cruel and bitter world, the need it addresses is extremely finite, limited, and random. A patchwork of mercy work based on charity leads to an inextricable mix of exhaustion and apathy.
We don’t need more charity and kind-hearted masters, we need justice and liberation. The process of liberation is not an easy one to begin nor to endure – which is probably why Christianity has had more false starts than Christ-like visions over its two thousand year history. It’s much easier for us to endorse the ways of the world – the ways of violence, of gluttony, of oppression – than the path of Jesus – that of shalom, of economic and political equity, of liberation.
But that is the call that Jesus gave to his followers.