Today’s Readings: Nm 11:25-29; Ps 19:8, 10, 12-14; Jas. 5:1-6; Mk. 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48
This, of course, is the “political season,” and debate is heating up. All the candidates claim to be followers of Jesus. Governor Romney is a Mormon. Paul Ryan is Catholic. President Obama’s affiliation is with the United Church of Christ. Like his Republican counterpart, Joe Biden is Catholic.
And that’s confusing, because often it’s precisely as “religious,” and specifically as being Christian that the candidates explain their policies. In the name of Jesus, Republicans speak of individual independence, personal responsibility, “tough love” and of riches as God’s blessing as though such orientations represented the attitude of Jesus. On the other hand, Democrats talk about compassion, community identity and “we’re all in this together” solidarity in the same way. In the end, however, both parties explain their policies in terms of their impact on the “one percent” and on the “middle class.” Virtually no one utters a word about “the poor.”
Today’s liturgy of the word calls into question such silence about the real People of God. Using the images of Moses and Jesus, this Sunday’s readings remind us that both the Jewish and the Christian Testaments describe a God whose people are the Poor. Moreover, the readings supply us with criteria that turn out to be useful for critiquing candidates’ discourse during this political season. In the first reading from the Book of Numbers, Moses declares that whoever speaks and acts like him has the right to prophesy (i.e. speak in God’s name) even if he or she hasn’t been officially approved. In the Gospel, Jesus says something similar. He says “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is, no one should be silenced whose message is in line with Jesus’ own. Then today’s second reading, the author of the Letter of James specifically identifies the policies that are in line with the teachings of Moses and Jesus. We do well to take all three readings very seriously.
As for the reading from Numbers, it helps to remember who Moses was. Though born a slave, Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace. However as a young adult, when he saw an Egyptian overlord mistreating a slave, he recognized himself in the abused slave, and experienced a kind of personal conversion. So Moses fled his comfortable palace home and took off for the desert. There he discovered a Nameless God whose single desire was that Egypt’s slaves be freed. That God persuaded Moses to overcome his fear and self-doubt to confront the Pharaoh himself and demand the freedom of Egypt’s slaves. “Let my people go,” was the message of the God on whose behalf Moses prophesied.
Today’s first reading says wherever Moses’ spirit of identification with the poor and oppressed appears, it represents the Spirit of God. Would that all people of faith, Moses says in the reading, would share his spirit and speak out on behalf of the poor (i.e. prophetically). No one needs special appointment to do that, Moses says. To qualify as prophet, it’s enough to be a human being who recognizes solidarity with the least.
Jesus echoes Moses in today’s Gospel selection. It helps to recall who he was too. Jesus was a Galilean peasant from an extremely poor background. He was born in Nazareth of Galilee, a community of about 24 families. Jesus was originally a follower of the great prophet, John the Baptist. He actually took over the Baptist’s movement after John was executed by King Herod of Galilee.
Jesus’ prophetic message was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God which was good news for the poor (“anawim” in the Jewish Testament). That news said that God was on their side. (It was in no way about the rich who are “poor in spirit.”) In fact, according to Jesus, the only way for the rich to enter the kingdom was for them to adopt the perspective of the poor, support them in their struggle against oppression, and to share their own wealth with the indigent.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says that anyone with a message not contrary to his proclamation of a kingdom belonging to the poor, the prostitutes and tax collectors is on his side. Standing with Jesus doesn’t depend on official approval Jesus’ disciples were so concerned about. We’d say, it doesn’t depend on religious affiliation – whether one is a Mormon, a Catholic, or a member of the United Church of Christ. Jesus’ own words say it best: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
However, the reverse is also true. That is, whoever’s message is against Jesus’ message of identification and solidarity with the poor cannot claim to stand with him. Here’s where the words of James come through so strongly. They represent harsh criticism of the rich and of those who, like both Republicans and Democrats, implement policies that favor the rich while imposing austerity measures on the poor.
Have you been listening to the readings from James over the past number of weeks? They are so harsh in their criticism of the rich. In fact, their harshness rivals Jesus’ own words about the wealthy – “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Elsewhere Jesus reveals a clear class-consciousness. In Luke he says, “Blessed are you poor,” and “Woe to you rich! You have received your reward.” Erich Fromm has referred to the Letter from James – so faithful to the spirit of Jesus himself – as the clearest expression in the ancient world of the disdain of the poor for their overlords – the rich, the learned and the powerful.
The disdain continues in today’s excerpt from James. Be aware that he is addressing rich Christians – people of faith who thought of themselves as their community’s most respectable members. He mentions specifically employers who pay slave wages to their workers and as a result amass great fortunes. Does that sound like the globalized order that both Republicans and Democrats support? The fact is that the huge fortunes that allow 225 people to own as much as nearly half the world (nearly 3 billion people) are made from exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable.
However, in God’s eyes, James warns, such accumulation is for naught. In the Great Reversal represented by the Kingdom of God, the silver and gold of the wealthy will have corroded. Their fine clothes will have turned to moth-eaten rags. It will become evident that they were not God’s people at all. In Jesus’ fearfully poetic words, they will be cut off from the Body of the Faithful like unwanted hands or feet; they will be cast out onto Jerusalem’s garbage heap everyone knew as “Gehenna.”
Those words about cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes are written for us too – even for us who are not in the 1% that controls more than 40% of the world’s resources and wealth. The words of course are hyperbolic. They’re about the harsh choices we all have to make in following Jesus. If the food we take with our hands is produced by those underpaid workers James talks about, we have to stop eating it. “Cut off your hands” is the way Jesus puts it. If our eyes make us envious of others possessions produced by the same processes of exploitation, we have to “pluck them out.” Stop looking! Stop consuming! And if our feet need to travel despite the impact of modern motorized journeys on the environment, we told to “cut them off” and throw them on the garbage heap. These are hard, challenging words that call us all to self-examination and repentance.
“Make the hard radical choices necessary to follow me” is what Jesus commands. What radical choices do you think today’s readings are calling you to make personally?
Don’t miss Monday’s posting on the historical Jesus.