Readings for 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 8: 23-9:3; PS 27: 1, 4, 13-14; I COR 1: 10-13, 17; MT 4: 12=23
Well, it’s happened. Donald Trump is our new president. We saw the know-nothing real estate magnate, casino king, reality show star, and unrepentant assailant of women sworn in last Friday at noon. Many of us are still in shock.
As everyone knows, the new president’s announced program is to make America great again. His cabinet picks evidence his strategy. It’s to run the country “like a business.”
Look at them all. Every one sitting around the table where decisions will be made about our lives and the fate of the planet comes from the 1%. They are all billionaires, multi-millionaires, generals and Christian fundamentalists. (One of them boasts that killing is fun.) Ironically, they claim to prefer biblical science to what our world’s finest minds (including Pope Francis) tell us about the errors of “the American Way.” Evidently, for Mr. Trump the best and the brightest are the richest, most venal, and violent.
The new president’s cabinet picks reveal his underlying philosophy. It’s austerity for the poor (and the planet) complemented by welfare for the rich. They want to defund public schools, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA. They oppose raising the minimum wage. Meanwhile, they want to drastically lower tax rates for themselves. It’s the tired old “trickle-down” theory revisited with a vengeance, even though it’s been completely discredited. In his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis called the ideology homicidal (53), ineffective (54), and unjust at its root (59).
Yet many Christians (even Catholics) voted for Trump and see him as somehow the instrument of God!
Providentially, all of that is extremely relevant to the readings for this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (and first in the Extraordinary Time of the Donald). That’s because today’s Gospel reading in effect records Jesus’ selection of his own “cabinet picks” as he begins his campaign to make his country great again. Today’s reading from Matthew records his selection of the first of his twelve apostles – the successors to the great patriarchs of Israel.
It’s no stretch to say that Jesus’ program was to “Make Israel Great Again.” In his day, the country could have no such pretensions. (In fact, it probably never was great.) It was a poor backwater – an obscure province of the Roman Empire.
Yet its prophets remembered days of prosperity, when God seemed to be on Israel’s side.
Those were all times of liberation from oppression specifically by the rich and powerful – the ancient analogs of Mr. Trump’s cabinet. The first glorious period followed after Yahweh freed slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and Joshua. Another came in the 6th century, when the Persian monarch, Cyrus the Great, released captives from the long Babylonian Captivity of 70 years.
A third time of liberation and joy is the one Isaiah references in today’s first reading. The ecstasy he describes came in the 8th century BCE, when leaders from Israel’s Northern Kingdom returned home after a captivity (under Assyria) of some 20 years. Then, he says, bitterness and sorrow were turned to joy – specifically, for orphans, widows and resident aliens.
The bitterness began, Isaiah notes, in the regions where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali lived. That was in the region that by Jesus’ time became known as Capernaum – the city in the Galilee that Jesus adopted as his own (MT 9:1). Significantly, in today’s Gospel excerpt, Matthew has Jesus beginning his public career in the very place where Israel had first become oppressed – in that region of Zebulun and Naphtali.
Matthew’s point is hard to miss: Jesus has come to end all (especially foreign) forms of oppression with his announcement of the advent of God’s Kingdom. It would be a reality mirroring what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. Prostitutes and beggars, n’er do wells, the halt and the lame would enter that kingdom, Jesus promised, before the rich and professionally holy (MT 21:31).
The Kingdom would represent a system that favored workers rather than rich landlords, bankers, and oligarchs. “Blessed are you poor,” Jesus would say, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (LK 6:20). “Woe to you rich, you have had your reward” (LK 6:24). “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God” (MT 19: 16-24). All of these statements betray an approach that might be described as “percolate-up” rather than “trickle-down.”
So does Jesus’ selection of the New Israel’s 12 patriarchs. From the viewpoint of the world, it’s almost comic. In today’s reading, Jesus chooses ignorant, illiterate working men as successors to Old Testament saints like Joseph and Benjamin, Zebulun, Naphtali, and their eight revered brothers. In their place, Jesus installs smelly fishermen Peter, James, and John. Later he’ll add a reformed tax collector, and at least one insurgent against the Roman occupiers. Women who had no political power at all would be central in his band of followers.
All of that gives us a God’s eye view of how to make Israel, America – the world – great. Apparently, according to the divine order, it’s not by making the rich richer. To repeat: unlike Donald Trump, Jesus doesn’t begin by enlisting the services of his country’s great landlords, its generals, or its bankers. (As a poor peasant himself, the carpenter from Nazareth didn’t even have that option!) Instead, he starts from below, where all truly effective social change must start.
All such reflections give direction to those attempting to follow the Master from Capernaum today. Our readings call us to join Pope Francis and other critical thinkers in rejecting all forms of trickle-down theory. As the pope reminds us, history and common sense lead to that rejection.
Today’s Gospel supplies a more profound reason for doing so: trickle-down is not the way of the Jesus’ God whose universe is not run like a business, but is a gift system. The world itself is an expression of God’s generosity to all of us. And something is drastically wrong when workers and their children go hungry, when people are forced into prostitution to make ends meet, and when beggars cannot find work.
Something is also profoundly out-of-order when would-be followers of Jesus support politicians convinced that the way to make a country great is by giving even more wealth to the obscenely rich, while forcing austerity measures on the poor.