What Would Jesus Do at Christmas?

America’s widening gap between rich and poor is especially noticeable at Christmastime when the rich shower themselves with extravagant gifts and assuage their self-images by donating a few turkeys and a toy or two to the poor, a tradition that troubles Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

A turkey given to a poor person or family at Thanksgiving or Christmas is the great symbol of American generosity. The gifts of turkeys to the needy and toys for their children are given great publicity. Newspapers are full of pictures of smiling children and grateful women who have fallen on hard times.

Editors are quick to write glowing editorials about American generosity and heap praise on the well-to-do who support these charities. Add a bell ringer and a metal bucket at the door of every grocery store and the feel-good season for the “haves” is complete.

Jesus, driving the money-changers from the Temple, in a painting by El Greco.

Jesus, driving the money-changers from the Temple, in a painting by El Greco.

But the turkeys and toys programs are an embarrassment to the poor, and poor kids grow up in shame for their poverty. Yet, one of the complaints against poor people is that some are not grateful enough for these charities and some even abuse the give-away by getting in line at more than one distribution point.

A related complaint about Jesus was that he hung out too much with poor people and with those deemed dirty and unclean. Almost all his followers were peasants and expendables.

Many Christian churches try to make Jesus out to be middle-class and present him as a skilled, respected tradesman. But the truth is that he was not. His status as some sort of handyman put him between peasantry and being an expendable. He did not just hang out with the poor, he was one of them.

Jesus was a dangerous man because he had figured out how peasants got that way. Many of the stories that he told were told to start discussions about what rich people were doing to them. One such story is recorded in Matthew Chapter 20. It is about the relationship between a rich landowner and day laborers.

The traditional interpretation of the parable is that the owner is a God figure and casts the laborers as ungrateful, grumbling sinners. This is a theological interpretation that is now questioned by a growing number of scholars.

The key to understanding the parable is to ask what the peasant audience of Jesus heard. If read as social commentary from that perspective, the rich owner is an unscrupulous man who had acquired the land by dishonesty, manipulation and greed. To the ears of the peasants and the disposables who listened to Jesus, the man was a hated owner who manipulated their lives and left them in unbearable poverty.

When the laborers of the story began grumbling among themselves about the business practices of the rich owner, the man took charge of the conversation and lectured the laborers. “Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

The response of the rich owner in the story takes away the possibility of making him a loving God figure. He is plainly an arrogant rich man who believed his ownership gave him the right to set the rules of the relationship of owners and laborers.

Our modern American economy parallels the economy of Jesus’s day. The gap between rich and poor is wide and growing wider, with an arrogant upper class that lives apart from the poor. The rich have gained enormous wealth through manipulation and the misuse of laborers.

The poor beg for a livable wage, a decent house to live in, good education and basic health care. The rich pit the poor against one another and continue to pay poverty wages. But rich people and those who have more than enough also want to look good, so at this time of year, they proclaim: “Let’s give the destitute turkeys and toys.”

The message of this column will not be popular. I can hear the plea of the “givers”: “Are you criticizing our generosity?” My response is “No, I am suggesting there is a better way.”

When the minimum wage is a living wage, when we have excellent education for all, when every American is decently housed, and when every American has access to good health care, the turkey-and-toy giveaway will no longer be needed and self-esteem will soar.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.   

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7 comments for “What Would Jesus Do at Christmas?

  1. paganus
    December 31, 2014 at 7:11 pm

    Well, it’s an interesting attempt to read 21st century American values into the Middle East of the 1st century, but for many of us, Christian beliefs are shallow and unsatisfactory. Jesus is not a great moral teacher. He merely makes arbitrary assertions.He never deigns to advance arguments for their validity, unlike the great philosophers of the classical tradition.

    When confronted with such baseless assertions, there are only two choices: to accept them or to ignore them. We cannot logically “prove” them false, because no evidence is provided to demonstrate their validity.

    Nothing in the “Christian” message was original. The Christian faith was a vulgarised paganism, set to the theme of the Jewish prophets and debased by their religious and ethnic intolerance. The god imagined by the Jews, Yahweh, was a brutal tyrant, a being with a humanoid personality and a disturbing blood-lust. Judaism bequeathed its unfortunate mix of ignorance and prejudice to a wayward faction of heretics who would eventually become known to the world as Christians.

    And if the Christ figure (if he actually existed, and is not a composite as are Abraham, Moses, and Solomon) seriously thought himself to be the flesh-and-blood son of the creator of the universe, by whose dying all mankind would be redeemed from death, well, today we recognize such grandiose delusions as symptomatic of a mental disorder called paranoid schizophrenia.

    • Gregory Kruse
      January 1, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      How can an imagined god be a brutal tyrant? It is the people who imagine a god who are brutal or gentle, or both. Rev. Bess imagines a god, and you don’t imagine a god, but both of you are equally ignorant and exactly as ignorant as I am. Arrogance doesn’t make a person more intelligent, unfortunately.

    • Zachary Smith
      January 2, 2015 at 1:47 am

      Um, fellows – I just examined the essay again, and so far as I can tell, it’s about a fellow named Jesus.

      The deity spoken of in the OT didn’t really come up.

      BTW, do you have any thoughts about the reported teachings of the man called Jesus relative to the present-day holiday of Christmas?

  2. Hillary
    December 30, 2014 at 7:50 am

    Indoctrinated humans believing in the Jesus story ( the greatest story ever sold )
    indoctrinate their children & the rest of the ignorant humans who are likewise sent off to repeat this process of mind control.
    One doesn’t need a soul or a world hereafter to live a life of pleasure, beauty, and meaning.
    Does anyone think that the universe just happened, or did some unimaginable intelligent force initiate the Big Bang? And if an intelligence that unimaginably powerful could indeed initiate the Big Bang why would it be so arrogant and neurotic as to need constant affirmation from us in the form of prayer and worship?
    Any rational person with a brain will doubt the existence of something that is posited to exist in a story without a shred of evidence.
    An all-knowing, all-loving, mysterious cosmic sky wizard god sent his ” son” to a tiny speck of rock in a vast universe full of trillions of other rocks to be beaten & nailed to a cross ?
    http://ffrf.org/
    ..

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 29, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    What Would Jesus Do at Christmas?

    That’s a hard one. At the very least, he’d become violently ill – as in throwing up. At the worst, he’d have a heart attack or stroke.

    Many Christian churches try to make Jesus out to be middle-class and present him as a skilled, respected tradesman. But the truth is that he was not. His status as some sort of handyman put him between peasantry and being an expendable. He did not just hang out with the poor, he was one of them.

    Excellent! Jesus was from the very lowest class, and undoubtedly that influenced his skeptical view of the rich.

    If read as social commentary from that perspective, the rich owner is an unscrupulous man who had acquired the land by dishonesty, manipulation and greed.

    Opinion time, but I disagree here. As I see things, it didn’t matter how the rich bastard got his wealth – his being such a misbehaving jerk was part of his very nature. The various Christian Churches through the ages have been behaving like a cat who must take a toilet break on a gym floor – working very hard to cover up that Jesus REALLY didn’t like rich people. Consider the example of Luke 16:19 – The Rich Man and Lazarus. There was no mention of any of the sins of the rich man, nor anything said about the virtues of Lazarus. The rich guy was in Hades, and Lazarus in Heaven, and that’s all there was to it. This might be better understood by examining the lead-up to the story in Luke 16:1. A rich guy discovered he was being bamboozled by his steward, and prepared to fire him. When the steward figured out how to make a Golden Parachute (as they say these days) the rich guy was delighted. By their very natures rich people admire those skilled at cheating others! That’s unchanged today. Honesty and decency just aren’t among the virtues the bosses are looking for when they send out head-hunters for the upper level jobs. (or American Torturers, for that matter.} Pond Scum-morality hires work out just fine)

    When the minimum wage is a living wage, when we have excellent education for all, when every American is decently housed, and when every American has access to good health care, the turkey-and-toy giveaway will no longer be needed – and self-esteem will soar.

    Again I must voice a slight disagreement. Certainly a living wage would be a “must” for Jesus, but I believe he’d have also set a limit on the wealth a person could hold and still be considered full of virtue. Needless to say, I’ve no idea what the multiple would be, but I strongly suspect something less than 20x the wealth of the poorest man would be the limit. And only then if the well-off guy was extremely charitable.

    The message of this column will not be popular.

    Never fear: even in the unlikely event wealthy Good Christians read this, they’ll dismiss it, for they’ve got over 2000 years of Church Coddling telling them they’re doing just fine with the annual token meal and trinkets-for-tots. Charity levels of .1% are just fine. Just ask the heirs of the biggest box store chain in the US of A.

  4. JWalters
    December 29, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Personally, I think that parable is very plausibly about begrudging another’s receiving generosity – the crabs in a barrel phenomenon.

    However, Jesus was certainly fighting against corrupt bankers (e.g. in the temple). And that was the specific reason they manipulated the legal system to have him executed. Not that different from today in some respects.

  5. tsantry2012@yahoo.com
    December 29, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    Thank You and may your message be read widely…

Comments are closed.