Monday, 12 August 2013 00:00

“A Christ-Inspired Economic Ethic”, August 11, 2013

“A Christ-Inspired Economic Ethic”
Mark 10:46-52
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 11, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

When I heard Karen Swenson pause to read the “grab bag” piece of paper last Sunday, I wondered if she was doing some editing.  It turns out she was.  She paused and said, “justice in employment”.  The full text was this: “how to deal with panhandlers” or “justice in employment, firings and low pay”.  That’s about 4 sermons right there.  In the interest of not keeping you here through the evening, I’m going to consolidate this and talk about the economic ethics that ought to embody those of us who seek to follow Christ.

Jesus did not go about setting up an economic system.  When people came to see Jesus, they left their nets and followed him.  When someone who was wealthy wanted to follow him, Jesus said, “Sell all you have and give to the poor and then come and follow me.”  There is little evidence that wealthy people ever took him up on that invitation, prompting Jesus to say, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for one who is wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.” The early church held everything in common and gave things out as people had need.  This is a form of community-based socialism and it works well for a small group of people.  But when extrapolated to a long-term economic policy, it’s not very helpful.  There has always been a tension between the simple eschatological teachings of Jesus and the economic realities of the world.  What we do have from Jesus are choice words for those who would hoard worldly goods while they see their sister or brother in need.

It’s important to note that the Gospel writers and the early church thought that the end was near.  They were not interested in long-term investments.  They were judgmental of profit-motivated landlords who kept others in perpetual economic servitude. They were preparing people for the end times—to meet God, and in the meantime, to establish the Kingdom here on earth.  And anything standing in the way of that, namely wealth, was bad.  The apostle Paul even said it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon (or wealth).


We get into problems when we become consumed with wealth.  Look at the shady dealings of Zygi Wilf. He was going to be the Savior of the Vikings and thus of urban Minneapolis. Look at sports heroes who juice themselves up so they can get hefty paychecks.  Look at the high-rise developments right around this neighborhood and what the increased rents will do to small businesses in Dinkytown.  Who would Jesus support?

Charles Blow wrote an editorial published two days ago in the New York Times.
‘A Town Without Pity’ By CHARLES M. BLOW
Published: August 9, 2013—New York Times

America was once the land of Lady Liberty, beckoning the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

No more.

Today’s America — at least as measured by the actions and inactions of the pariahs who roam its halls of power and the people who put them there — is insular, cruel and uncaring.

In this America, people blame welfare for creating poverty rather than for mitigating the impact of it. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in June found that the No. 1 reason people gave for our continuing poverty crisis was: “Too much welfare that prevents initiative.”

In this America, the House can — as it did in July — pass a farm bill that left out the food stamp program at a time when a record number of Americans, nearly 48 million, are depending on the benefits.

In this America…, poverty and homelessness can easily seep beneath the wall we erect in our minds to define it…

How did we come to such a pass? Why aren’t more politicians —  and people in general — expressing outrage and showing empathy?

(Some politicians have embraced the meme) of “blame the victim.” Whatever your lesser lot in life, it’s completely within your means to correct, according to their logic. Poverty, hunger, homelessness and desperation aren’t violence to the spirit but motivation to the will. If you want more and you work harder, all your problems will disappear. Sink or swim. Pull yourself up. Get over it. Of course, that narrow conservative doctrine denies a broader reality: that there are working poor and chronically unemployed — people who do want and who do work and who do want to work, but who remain stuck on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

In this regard, (certain politicians) have all but abandoned the idea of compassionate conservatism and are diving headlong into callous conservatism.

I googled Panhandlers in the Bible and came upon a website that said that Jesus never gave money to a drunk.  Well, as far as I know Jesus never gave money to anyone.  He did give hungry people food.  And he never turned anyone away who needed help.

There are so many stories of Jesus healing people in the Bible: lepers, hemorrhaging women, blind folk, deaf folk, hungry folk.  All of them were poor.  Most of them made their living off of the generosity of others.  And none of them were judged by Jesus for their disease or their economic plight.  We know where Jesus’ judgment was directed.

It’s easy to pick out the panhandlers of today’s world and wonder where they spent the night.  We wonder what they will do with the money we give them.  We look at the economic problems in the world and say it’s because we have too many lazy panhandlers.  I don’t know, when I see a panhandler in February, I hardly call them lazy.  Desperate, creative, pushy maybe, but not lazy.

When I was in San Francisco, there was an initiative called “Make change, don’t give it.”  It was encouraged by the businesses who didn’t want panhandlers in front of their shops.  It encouraged people to send their money to homeless shelters instead of giving it to the beggars on the street.  It was intended to clean things up. It made shopkeepers feel better about encouraging help with needed services while also eliminating the often smelly and sometimes pushy people from their doors.

But is this what Jesus would have done? One of my clergy colleagues in San Francisco questioned what it did to our souls to turn hungry people away. It’s so much easier to put money in a sanitized collection plate than it is to confront or connect with people in poverty. When I lived in New York City, I used to fill my pockets with change and give it all to then first panhandler I saw.

When we were in Nicaragua, poor children would often follow the North Americans.  They were cute and they made special origami figures out of palm fronds. They would give them to us as “gifts” and then ask us for money. We were instructed not to give them money, for it encouraged poor children and their parents to not send them to school.  After worship at FBC Managua, we were told to grab our belongings right away because beggars often came to the church and snatched up the backpacks, purses and other belongings of unsuspecting folks.  They would also ask for money and it was hard to not give them money, especially if you just heard a sermon about giving to the poor.

Let’s consider the blind beggar Bartimaeus.  His story is not unlike the stories of several people who received something from Jesus.

He was blind from birth. We imagine he had exhausted his co-payment and exceeded his limit of coverage. The doctor bills piled up and when added to his other debt, he lost his home.  He was now out on the street, ignored by almost everyone.  Even his name made him an outcast, Bartimaeus, son of the unclean.

As a disabled poor person, he was on the receiving end of the magnified strictness of the righteous.  Unclean was not just a comment on his appearance or his aversion to soap. Unclean was a religious term which meant that because of some action or sin or your lot in life, you are ritually impure. You’re cut off from the assembly. You’re not able to partake in the fullness of the community. You’re an outsider, an outcast. And to make matters worse, if you touched someone, you made them unclean, too. So imagine this blind beggar with his hand out and all of the people keeping their distance, lest they get infected with his cooties. And the only way to make yourself clean again it to get a priest to declare you clean.

In his desperation, he made a ruckus. He called out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Have mercy on me.  If there is a wideness in God’s mercy, have it on me.  Now, just like any other day, many told him to shut up.  He was disturbing the peace.  He was making a spectacle out of this nice friendly procession.

The more they tried to silence him, the louder Bartimaeus yelled, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Pain and injustice can be like that. All we have left are our cries. Now, there were probably lots of people yelling, but none of them used “Son of David”.  In fact, no one in the Bible called him Son of David except for the supposedly blind beggar Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus, the blind, unclean, outcast declared who Jesus was.  Son of David is a synonym for Messiah.  It is a royal declaration.  It’s a title even the disciples didn’t give Jesus.  The disciples weren’t too thrilled with the implications of the whole Messiah thing.  Jesus told them that it meant he was likely going to die, because that’s what happens to people who upset the apple-cart like he does.  
And not only that, but if they were to truly follow him, then they might well be killed too.  The disciples spend a good bit of the Gospels trying to get Jesus to do the safe thing, not make so many waves, not make it worse for them, and certainly not upsetting the wrong people.  Bartimaeus was yet another example of Jesus going too far.  “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  I may be blind, but I know who you are.  I know what religion is supposed to be about.  It’s supposed to be about mercy.  “Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Jesus stopped and asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you.”  Not what do you want me to say to you to make you feel better, not what word shall I preach to you, what proof-text can I bestow upon you, what pious prayer can I say over you.  Jesus asks what he can do for him.  Bartimaeus wants to see again. And just like he said to the Syro-Phoenician woman and the woman with the flow of blood, Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

Bartimaeus saw clearly.  He knew Jesus was the messiah and Jesus knew that his request was not so that he could gain status.  “Your faith has made you well.” And we are to see clearly as well.  Jesus doesn’t give Bartimaeus a hand-out. He goes to the source of his poverty.  He heals the blindness.  But is it Bartimaeus’ blindness or our blindness that gets healed? As Christians, we are called to take the scales off of our eyes, too.

Seeing clearly is a theme of Les Miserables.  The hero Jean Valjean is a marked man. As an excon he cannot find an honest job, so he first steals from a priest and then hides his identity as he tries to live a redeemed and God-filled life. He spends the rest of the play showing mercy to people, providing work and charity for the poor.  Most people see the anti-hero as Javert, the rule-bound and predatory magistrate who sees no possibility that anyone can truly change. I think the real anti-heroes are the Thernardiers.  They are the swindling masters of the house who joyfully and comically rip people off, getting rich off of others’ misfortune. In both the movie version and a recent community theater production, they left out a telling song by Mr. Thernardier.  He is stealing from the dead bodies at the barricades and looks at the audience and sings:

It's a world where the dog eats the dog
Where they kill for bones in the street
And God in His Heaven
He don't interfere
'Cause he's dead as the stiffs at my feet
I raise my eyes to see the heavens
And only the moon looks down
The harvest moon shines down!

Of course, the point of the play is that God is very much alive and shows up the most in acts of mercy, compassion and redemption.  The saddest part of the play is not the death of the main characters, but the blindness of the Thernardiers and their accomplices so drunk by the wine of the world that they cannot see the virtue in mercy and compassion.

So what does this have to do with our Christ-centered economic ethic?

Just this:

God wants mercy and justice for everyone, not just the chosen few.

The way we treat people in employment matters matters.  We need to advocate for decent wages, good working conditions and fair labor practices.

The ethics of Christ demand that we pay decent wages and treat people fairly and with dignity. We try to model that here and I hope you experience this in your work life.  And remember, many of us are just a paycheck or two away from being a beggar on the street.  So treat people with compassion and love.  Christ would want nothing less of you.

But more than that, exercise the mercy of Christ, recognizing that we might not know the struggles that has brought someone to be poor or outcast.  The Christ-centered economic ethic is the same as the Christ-centered religious ethic.  Advocate for the poor.  Walk alongside the poor.  They will teach you and hold up a mirror to you.  For as Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food.  I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was in prison and you visited me.  I was naked and you clothed me.  I was a stranger at the gate and you welcomed me.”  It’s easy to give someone money.  It’s harder, and more important, to walk alongside someone in need.  You may well encounter yourself, or at least a mirror.  Then you’ll know to do.