Category Archives: interpretation

Perpetual Poverty?

“…you always have the poor…”

(Mark 14:7; Matt 26:11; John 12:8)

The two most recent entries in this blog have examined how people have used poor biblical interpretation of, admittedly, difficult texts to justify and undergird racism and misogyny. This entry turns attention to the ways in which some have perverted a saying of Jesus – who elsewhere called the poor blessed and equated how one treats the poor with how one treats Jesus, himself  – into an axiomatic statement describing poverty as a sociological given, almost as though an expression of the order God wills for the moral universe.  In almost paradigmatic fashion, the interpretation of Jesus’ statement on the poor illustrates the importance of contexts.

Recently, speaking about healthcare reform, Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS) appealed to Jesus to support his contention that the poor essentially choose their condition, implying that they cannot be helped or that they deserve poverty. “Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us’…There is a group of people that just … aren’t going to take care of themselves…morally, spiritually, socially….” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/03/09/the-poor-just-dont-want-health-care-republican-congressman-faces-backlash-over-comments/?utm_term=.44c9af2fd8c7)

Did Jesus say that?

In a somewhat unusual case, two of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark and Matthew) share with the Gospel of John an account of a woman (John identifies her as Mary, presumably Lazarus’ sister) anointing Jesus (head – Mark and Matthew; feet – John) with expensive (Mark and John value it at 300 denarii, a year’s wages for a day laborer at the time) ointment (again, Mark and John agree that it was nard) while Jesus was visiting in Bethany.  All three Gospels report that the disciples (John specifies Judas, the Betrayer, raising interesting questions about his motives) objected to the waste and reprimanded the woman. The money spent on ointment could have gone to the poor. In his defense of the woman, Jesus reminded them that the circumstances were unique.  Whether the woman had intended it as such, Jesus saw her actions as preparation for his burial and lauded her. If, indeed, she meant the anointing as Jesus interpreted it, she would have been the first of Jesus’ disciples to understand what was to come. In any case, according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus predicted that her apparent early grasp of the situation would mean that in the future her actions would be associated with the Good News wherever it is preached.

Jesus made the statement about the poor in the exchange about the propriety of the woman’s act.  He did not reject the concern of the disciples (with the possible exception of Judas) for the poor outright.  Instead, he set it in the context of his impending crucifixion. The shortness of time, the fact that Jesus would soon be leaving, justified the woman’s action.  In fact, although Matthew and John omit the phrase, perhaps because each of them uses the story to emphasize another element of their telling of the Jesus story (Matthew surrounds the anointing episode with material about Jesus’ preparations for and celebration of his last Passover on earth; John embeds it in the extended story of Lazarus’ return to life and the trouble this caused with the Jewish authorities), Mark reports that Jesus told the disciples, in effect, that when things returned to “normal” after Easter, the poor would still be there, needing help, if the disciples (truly, remember Judas) want to offer it: “…whenever you will, you can do good to them …” (v 7).

The clause “Whenever you will” provides other context clues. Only a few chapters earlier, Mark relates the episode involving the young man who could not muster the “will” to follow Jesus’ call to sell all his possessions and give to the poor. Indeed, the form of Jesus’ statement about the persistence of poverty suggests that he was quoting Deuteronomy 15:7 and that he probably expected the disciples to be familiar with the text – the “deep context” of Jesus’ statement. The passage constitutes part of the section of Deuteronomy that interprets the Decalogue commandment to observe the Sabbath. Deuteronomy explains Sabbath observance in relation to God’s liberation of Israel from slavery and oppression in Egypt.  Because Israel knew what it meant to suffer through no fault – moral, ethical, or character – of their own, Deuteronomy argues, Israelites should willingly and eagerly exercise particular concern for those who have fallen victim to circumstances. Otherwise, they would run the risk of endorsing, supporting, and sustaining the external conditions that produce poverty.  They would become like pharaoh.

In particular, the Deuteronomy passage Jesus quoted contemplates situations that could arise during the so-called “Sabbath Year,” every seventh year in which debts were to be forgiven, slaves set free, and property returned to its original owner.  Suppose a poor person were to ask for a loan on New Year’s Eve before the beginning of a Sabbath Year. In such a case, the lender would be required to forgive the debt the next day and would have no hope of recovering any portion of the loan. The text Jesus quotes, and presumably invokes, very explicitly commands that, even in such extreme circumstances, the need of the poor and the hope that individual Israelites will emulate their Liberator God, surmount the economic interests of the lender.

If there is among you a poor person …do not harden your heart (this allusion to pharaoh is unmistakable) and do not close your hand to your poor neighbor. For you shall certainly open your hand to your neighbor and you shall certain lend enough to meet your neighbor’s need. Keep yourself from speaking foolishness in your heart, “It is nearly the Sabbath Year, the Year of the Forgiveness of Debts.” Your poor neighbor will seem evil to you and you will not give… Your neighbor will cry out against you to YHWH and it will be your sin.  Give! …. (vv 7-10, my translation).

In other words, since Jesus quoted this text in part, and probably meant to evoke the entire passage in the minds of his disciples (and Mark in the minds of his readers), his observation that poverty is a persistent problem constitutes anything but an excuse for abandoning the poor, and certainly not for blaming the poor for their poverty.

In fact, neither Jesus nor the Deuteronomy text discuss the cause or causes of poverty. For the author(s) of Deuteronomy, at least, poverty seems to represent an embarrassment of sorts. After contemplating an ideal circumstance in which God’s blessings for Israel would mean no poverty (v 4), hinging that bounty on Israel’s obedience (v 5), the Deuteronomy text relents, admitting that the world in which Israel lived, and in which we live, is far from ideal (v 7).  The author(s) of Deuteronomy recognized the importance of yet another context important in considering Jesus’ statement about the persistence of poverty, namely, the real world of lived experience.

Whether because a basic human urge seeks to provide explanations for threats such as poverty in order to make them seem manageable or because another basic human urge resorts to blaming victims to dismiss the obligation to help, like Job’s friends, many, even many Christians, pursue the logic that the Deuteronomy text abandons.  Since God blesses the righteous, so the reasoning goes, poverty must signify the opposite.  The poor deserve their poverty; they bring it upon themselves; they do not want to work hard and flourish.  Furthermore, if all this is true, to offer assistance would simply be to reward sloth and sin.  A simple syllogism undercuts the biblical mandate for generosity.

Of course, the real world does not confirm this logic.  Children born into poverty have not sinned to merit their condition. Children born with conditions that will restrict their ability to learn and to earn have not sinned.  Educational opportunities in America are not equal.  Since most public school funding comes from property taxes, schools in wealthy areas as well-funded; they can offer AP courses, IB programs, and enrichment opportunities.  Schools in poor areas struggle to pay well enough just to keep good teachers.  Poor teenagers work part-time, after school jobs to supplement family finances.  They do not have the means or time to attend math camp in the summer or to accept (mostly unpaid) internships.  Their college applications, therefore, lack the bells-and-whistles that attract the attention of college admissions staffs. Every middle class family in America is just one serious medical crisis away from bankruptcy. (A 2013 study finds that inability to pay high medical bills is the leading cause of bankruptcy, health insurance, notwithstanding.  Seventy-eight percent of those filing for medical-bill related bankruptcy in a recent year had health insurance.  Note the source of this information:  http://www.foxbusiness.com/features/2014/02/18/medical-bankruptcies-are-still-problem-here-what-to-expect.html).  In Jesus’ day, a failed crop could propel a hard-working family into poverty; today, down-sizing does. Any claim that people are poor because they deserve it ignores the genetic, sociological, economic, and systemic realities of an unpredictable world.

Yet, a recent Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,686 American adults reveals that, in response to the question “Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?” 46 percent of self-identified Christians attributed poverty primarily to sloth (in contrast to only 29 percent of non-Christians).  Moreover, a majority, 53 percent, of white evangelical Protestants blame poverty on the poor. (source – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/08/03/christians-are-more-than-twice-as-likely-to-blame-a-persons-poverty-on-lack-of-effort/?utm_term=.6ee9f7fe992e).

By far the most important context for interpreting Jesus statement about the persistence of poverty, of course, is the mandate to care for the poor and for any (orphan, widow, immigrant) on the margins, a mandate that runs throughout the Bible, both Testaments, Moses and Jesus.

Talk about taking something out of context….

Eve’s Curse

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; also that women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty. (1Tim 2:8-15 RSV)

I devoted the previous entry to this blog to “observations concerning the very real damage that unsophisticated or self-serving biblical interpretation can do to people” on the example of the so-called “Curse of Ham.”  The damage done by wrong-headed biblical interpretation in that case was and is, of course, to black people.  A range of other biblical texts, in the hands of careless or selfishly-motivated interpreters, have done and still do similar damage to other groups of people, and even to creation and the public good.  Hopefully, an examination of several of these texts, and, more importantly, of the poor hermeneutical practices that render them dangerous, will help readers to be better biblical interpreters and will provide them with resources for correcting such abuse of scripture as they encounter it.

According to an interpretation with an ancient pedigree, the passage from 1 Timothy cited above describes unequivocally and categorically the proper status of women in God’s order: they are to be submission (even silent); they may not hold positions of authority over men; these strictures result from the role Eve played in the Garden of Eden fiasco. In the background, of course, is the twofold “curse” placed upon Eve (Gen 3:16) involving pain in childbirth (cf. 1 Tim 2:15) and hierarchical gender relations (1 Tim 2:12).

Christians – from Roman Catholic officialdom to American Evangelicals – base their views on issues such as women in ministry and the proper model for Christian marriage on this strict, “literal” interpretation of this passage. Closer examination – of the wording of the text, of its context in scripture, and of its context in history and culture – suggests, however, that this interpretation need not, and indeed, should not prevail.

First, the author (Paul or one of Paul’s disciples, if, as many modern scholars think, the Pastoral Epistles are “Deutero-Pauline”) twice explicitly states that he is describing his personal wishes (v 8 – Βούλομαι boulomai “I wish”) and values (v 12 – οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω ouk epitrepō “I do not turn to” in the sense of “I do not turn over to”), implying that these wishes and desires do not reflect a divine mandate. On occasion elsewhere, Paul makes this distinction between his thinking and divine mandate explicit (cf. 1 Cor 7:12). This observation, in turn, raises the question of the nature of the Bible, of biblical authority, and of the authority of biblical authors.  Readers of the Bible must remember that, although we refer to the Bible, as a whole, as the word of God, it contains many statements that should not and cannot be understood as statements of God’s will. Further, the authority of the prophets (cf. Jeremiah’s hesitancy to denounce Hananiah without the divine mandate to do so – Jer 27-28; or Amos’ efforts to divert God from the plan to punish Israel – Amos 7-8) and of Paul was not a personal characteristic, i.e., they were not personally authoritative in and of themselves. Unless upon divine instruction and inspiration, the words of biblical authors carry no more authority than the words of any other person. Paul, in fact, typically based his claims to authority on tradition (cf. 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1, 3) and biblical interpretation (Rom 1:17; 2:24; 3:4, 10; 4:17, etc.).

Second, this text expresses an attitude toward women that does not comport with scripture taken as a whole.  It describes Miriam (Exod 15:20), Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the four anonymous daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9) as prophetesses.  Deborah was a judge, exercising authority over Barak (Judg 4:6-9). The first to bring the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus, the first evangelists, were women. Prisca taught the Gospel message to Apollos (Acts 18:26) and Phoebe was a deaconess (Rom 16:1). In his letters, Paul sent greetings to scores of women whom he hailed as co-workers in Christ.

Indeed, an interpretation that regards the perpetuation of the curse upon Eve as an element of the Gospel entirely misapprehends the Gospel, itself. Paul wrote, “Christ redeems us from the curse of the law” (Gal 3:13), a recognition that enable him to assert just a few verses later that, therefore, “…in Christ…there is neither Jew nor Greek…slave nor free…male nor female…” (Gal 3:27-8).  In other words, while the fallen state of humanity may involve hierarchical gender relations, a redeemed humanity will enjoy restoration to the original harmonious equality between the genders. Disciples of Jesus Christ should not enforce the curse but participate with God in Christ lifting the curse.

Third, of course, one must take historical and cultural factors into account. First Timothy dates to a period and a place in which a casual observer would probably assume that a well-dressed, bejeweled, well-coiffed, vocal woman was a prostitute or mystery religion priestess.  Indeed, some in the churches Paul founded across the eastern Mediterranean probably came from such backgrounds. Everything that I have already said notwithstanding, one can understand why it would have been important, even in the symbolic mode of dress, to distance one’s self from such pasts.  In fact, if the passage before us continues to speak a positive word to Christians, and I believe that it does, it is probably on this point. Even our symbolical statements of who we are, as in how we dress and the vocabulary we use, stand under the claim of God. We should be careful not to undermine our confession through our style of dress and manner of comportment.

Finally, many of the conservative, Evangelical Christians, including Baptists in the South, who insist on the strict interpretation of the “silent and submissive” interpretation of this Timothy passage, do not employ a consistent hermeneutic.  They take “literally” the components of this passage with which they are comfortable; but ignore or explain away the rest. If this passage calls for “silent and submissive” women, it also calls for women to dress frumpily, to wear their hair simply, and to eschew jewelry.  Understood “literally,” this text calls for Christian women to be silent, submissive, and plain. I find it somewhat hypocritical for male evangelicals who insist on the “silent and submissive” interpretation not also to insist that their wives be as plain as possible. I suspect an ulterior motive – the will to dominate instead of the determination to serve as the lowliest.

I hope that readers of the Bible will see the importance of taking in the full biblical panorama. A snapshot cannot convey the breadth and grandeur.  Readings of the Bible designed to limit God’s grace do damage. The Bible is not the problem.

 

Note:  It is summer. I am busy with family visits and household chores in addition to my regular schedule of editing and writing.  Until September, I will be making blog entries irregularly, but I will not be entirely quiet and come fall, I will return to a normal weekly (or nearly so) schedule.

The Curse of Ham: An Admonitory Case-Study in Misreading Scripture

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah Continue reading The Curse of Ham: An Admonitory Case-Study in Misreading Scripture

No Stream without a Source

Part II

In the most recent entry in this blog, I reacted to Brent Strawn’s, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment by offering reflections concerning factors that may contribute to the phenomenon Strawn describes.  This second entry on the subject will examine some of the dangers for believers and for the church inherent in Continue reading No Stream without a Source

Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”

The concept of “Christian values” is playing a prominent role in the public arena today, but my Facebook® feed lately suggests very little agreement among those who call themselves Christian concerning the identification of these values or the definition of them individually. No one should wonder that people outside the church view it with suspicion Continue reading Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”

Eager to Exclude

Ezra 9:1

Political rhetoric this election cycle has called attention to the undercurrent of exclusionary sentiment flowing throughout the U.S. population.  Events abroad surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis attest to the universal character of this sentiment.  Everyone, even believers, it seems, wants to exclude someone from access to something and somewhere.

Continue reading Eager to Exclude

“Outside Agitators”

In the previous entry in this blog, I argued that the most profitable approach to reading prophetic literature involves a variety of “pattern recognition.”  Yesterday, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I took the opportunity to re-read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, and the concluding chapter of his

Continue reading “Outside Agitators”

“Fallen, Fallen is Babylon” (Isa 21:9)

 The Danger of Genre Confusion

During the initial days of the First Gulf War, several local news outlets contacted me wanting to know whether events in the Persian Gulf were fulfilling biblical prophecies against Babylon. I am sure that they expected the Baptist Old Testament professor at the local college to detail an apocalyptic panorama for them.  Instead, I told them, simply,

Continue reading “Fallen, Fallen is Babylon” (Isa 21:9)

The Letter Kills; the Spirit Gives Life

The early church affirmed the canonical authority of the Old Testament over the objections raised by some (Marcion, for example) that its focus on covenant-keeping (works legalism) and its portrayal of an “angry,” “violent” God do not comport with the Gospel’s message of grace and love. Nonetheless, the history of the church’s relationship

Continue reading The Letter Kills; the Spirit Gives Life