Jesus's Unsettling Lessons for America
Editor’s Note: Over the past several decades as the United States has embraced free-market Reaganomics and has grown evermore enamored of wealth and power, many Christian churches have tried to bend Jesus’s teachings in ways not to offend their patriotic parishioners and well-to-do benefactors.
However, in this guest essay, the Rev. Howard Bess argues that Christian churches should, first and foremost, be true to Jesus’s actual teachings -- regardless of how inconvenient or discomforting they may be to many Americans:
Typical Christians are very selective in their Bible reading. The parts in which believers find affirmation, they are quick to quote. Bible portions that confront them and their chosen lifestyles are conveniently ignored.
Americans are especially adept at sidestepping the teachings of Jesus about wealth, lessons of which there are many and they are not obscure.
Yet, very few ministers dare to preach, say, the parable of the bigger barns found in chapter 12 of the Luke Gospel, which puts the questions of greed and envy into the context of a dispute between two brothers.
It seems their father had died and left an inheritance. By tradition, the oldest son was in charge of the estate and there was a disagreement between the two brothers over how the estate would be divided.
The younger of the two brothers came to Jesus and asked him to arbitrate the dispute. The younger brother wanted his fair share and the older brother was holding out. Jesus refused to play the role of arbiter.
Instead he told a story, prefacing it with a pointed aphorism: “A person’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions.”
Then Jesus told the story. A rich man owned a lot of land. This particular rich man had experienced good crop yields and had filled all his storage barns with grain. His fields produced even more grain, so he decided to build bigger barns. He drew much satisfaction and security from what he owned.
However, the Lord God had something to say about the situation. The first words out of the mouth of God were “You fool! Tonight is the night of your death. When you die, who will then own your barns and grain?”
To grasp the meaning of the story, we need to understand more about the rich men who controlled the area. Rich owners did not live in the community. They lived in a nearby city. From what we now know about the economics of the area, the rich men were investors who had made loans to small farmers at high interest rates.
When poor farmers were not able to repay the loans, investors foreclosed. They became rich men who owned a lot of land and held grain for a better market.
It was an ancient version of modern American agriculture where corporate farming replaced the family farm.
Jesus told the story knowing the young man was aware of the rich, absentee owners, who were generally despised by local people. Jesus’s message to the man was clear “do not become like them!”
The Tithing Option
Far too little has been said about Jesus’s teachings regarding wealth and the cancer of greed. Christian churches and ministers have ducked the issue by teaching the practice of tithing, giving ten percent of your income to your church or to some charitable cause.
The not so subtle message is: “Tithe, and wealth will be no problem.”
The practice of tithing is taught in the Old Testament, but not without dispute or challenge. Also prominent in the Old Testament teachings is that personal wealth is not to be permanent. Old Testament law called for a complete redistribution of wealth every 50th year. The practice is described in the book of Leviticus, but was never practiced.
The only time Jesus mentioned tithing, he condemned those who practiced it. Every minister and every church that teaches and encourages the practice of tithing does so without any support from the person they vow to follow.
At the time of Jesus, economic practice was a form of unregulated capitalism. Opulent wealth abounded and poverty was oppressive and crushing. The story about the “fool” who built bigger barns reflects one portion of the teachings of Jesus about wealth, charity and justice.
In this story, the message is clear: “Do not allow greed to get you.”
Grasping Jesus’s teachings about wealth has been one of my major tasks in trying to translate his understandings into real-life practices. Some have concluded that Jesus was a socialist, though that argument is not convincing to me.
I have concluded that unregulated capitalism is the devil’s workshop. And the greed that drives unregulated capitalism cannot be harmonized with the teachings of the rabbi from Nazareth.
I have come to conclusions of my own about wealth that now govern the use of my possessions, my charitable practices, and the distribution of my estate when I die.
It is not the purpose of this column to share the standards that I have adopted. It is the purpose of this column to challenge every person, who is a follower of Jesus, to look more carefully at the teachings of Jesus about wealth, charity and justice.
We live in an America that is greed-driven. We glorify the rich and vilify the poor. We complain about taxes and take no note of the public services that we enjoy.
After every speech made by President Obama, he adds “and God bless America.”
It is a comment that might have evoked from God the Father of Jesus from Nazareth: “What a bunch of fools.”
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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