Jesus the Christ and Quaker Economic Testimony — The Proclamation

February 9, 2011 § 10 Comments

I said in my previous post that I think the Bible, and specifically, the gospel of Jesus should be one of the places we go for guidance and inspiration when trying to develop an effective and spirit-led testimony on economics. The good news is that the gospel of Jesus is, at its very heart, an economic message. Jesus defined his role as “the Christ” in specifically economic terms. To see this, though, you have to let go of our traditionally Pauline christology and even the testimony of the evangelists, and turn directly to Jesus himself. You have to ask, what did “the Christ” mean to Jesus?

Nowhere in Christian scripture does Jesus forthrightly claim, “I am the Christ, the Messiah” (christos in Greek and messiah in Hebrew both mean “anointed”). In every passage in which these words are used—but one—someone else is speaking confessionally, proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, or simply assuming it. There is one place, however (Luke 4:18), where Jesus does say the word. Moreover, though he does so indirectly, nevertheless he quite plainly claims the title for himself. Yet this passage is almost never used to define what “Christ” actually means. Why in the history of christology (the theology of who and what the Christ is) do theologians so rarely turn to Jesus himself as their starting point?

I think it’s because of how Jesus defines his ‘christ-hood’. He mentions nothing about sin or salvation. Rather, he defines the role of the messiah in terms of liberation from poverty. The Christ is a redeemer—but in the economic sense of releasing someone from their debt. Though we must add that, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus equates sin and debt (forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors), and this, in fact, reflects a deep and far-reaching connection between spiritual and financial redemption, not just in his teaching, but in the very DNA of the religion of ancient Israel.

Here’s what Jesus said in Luke 4:

Jesus has just returned to his home town after being tested in the wilderness. Barely six weeks have passed since he heard his call to prophetic mission at his baptism. He is invited to give a guest sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. These will be the very first words of his public ministry in the gospel according to Luke. He reads from the 61st chapter of Isaiah, the first couple of verses: (I’m quoting from Isaiah below, rather than from Luke, since Luke quotes the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Torah in use in his time; but Jesus and his synagogue would have used either the Hebrew text or an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew, a Targum; the Hebrew and Septuagint versions of these verses differ a little, but without changing their substantial meaning.)

The spirit of the Lord Yahweh is upon me,

for Yahweh has anointed me (christos, messiah),

he has sent me

to bring good news (evangelion) to the poor/oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to captives

and release for the prisoners;

to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors.

After reading these verses, Jesus sits down and begins his discourse: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s all he says. He has claimed: “I am the anointed one that Isaiah foretold and my mission is to bring good news to the poor—to end their poverty and oppression; specifically, to proclaim the year that my father favors—a Jubilee.”

The year of Jubilee refers to the practice defined in Leviticus 25 in which, every fifty years, all debts are cancelled, all debt slaves are set free, all families who have been alienated from their family farms due to bankruptcy and foreclosure are returned to their ancestral inheritance, and the land is to lie fallow for a year’s rest. (Actually, for a second year’s rest, since the fiftieth year follows the 49th, the end of the last of seven sabbatical years—Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 established seven years as the maximum term for debt slavery, for paying off short-term debts with your labor, and the land was also released from labor every seven years. The Jubilee was for long-term debt.)

There is no evidence that the Jubilee was ever practiced at all, let alone every fifty years. But it was not too uncommon for kings in the ancient Near East to proclaim a Jubilee, often upon accession to the throne. It was in this context that Jesus, the anointed prophet king, claimed the authority of God’s own spirit to proclaim universal redemption—release from debt.

In the paralellism of Isaiah’s and Jesus’ poetry, in which the second line of a poetic couplet reiterates and develops the idea of the first, “the poor” are the “brokenhearted—men who have lost their family farms and must rely on day labor to support their families; the “captives” and the “prisoners” are people whose debts have completely overwhelmed them, so that they now have no prospect of paying off their debts through their labor, even in seven years; they have become permanently dependent on the holders of their notes as their servants.

Jesus’ claim to be able to fulfill all these things was laughable on its face, as he well knew: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” he said, for he was himself as poor as you could get. He had just spent six weeks living off the land in the desert. He must have been emaciated, his cloak full of dust and thistles, his hair matted, his eyes burning with that praeternatural shine that comes from extreme fasting. He must have looked like like that other nut, John the Baptizer.

We have to wonder ourselves how Jesus planned to pull off this outrageous claim. Luke gives us the answer in Acts, chapters two and four—new rules for community in which those with surplus wealth liquidate it for distribution to the poor (see specifically, Acts 4:34-37 for how this was supposed to work). Jesus’ answer to how he planned to fulfill such a radical promise was: that you will do it for each other. You will organize the community around the principle of koine, of fellowship, of sharing what you have to relieve each other’s suffering.

A Quaker testimony that rested on the gospel of Jesus as its foundation would likewise organize community around this kind of fellowship, offering good news to the poor and those in debt.

This has profound implications for community dynamics. It requires a completely new approach to the testimony on community, not just a new faith, but new practices, as well. Here also, the gospels (the Synoptic Gospels, anyway) and Acts offer clues as to where to start. Material for another post. . .

 

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§ 10 Responses to Jesus the Christ and Quaker Economic Testimony — The Proclamation

  • […] to let go… Feb 9th, 2011 by Martin Kelley. // nRelate.domain = "www.quakerranter.org"; //Steven Davision: The gospel of Jesus as an economic message /**/ Share this:EmailFacebookPosted in: misc. ← In both the revivalism of the late 1800s […]

  • […] said in the earlier post in this series that, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God by declaring a Jubilee, a general […]

  • Thanks for this. It rings lots of bells with my current reaearch and resonates with much of what I have been working on in my recent bog posts, which if anyone is interested can be found at http://rogerhaydonmitchell.wordpress.com

  • Alice Y. says:

    Thanks for this. It has been my understanding as well – that following Jesus transforms my understanding of economics as well as my spiritual understanding.

  • […] Steven Davision: The gospel of Jesus as an economic message […]

  • forrest curo says:

    I knew this passage was very much about what Jesus was intended to put into practice. And you’re the first I’ve read pointing out the significance of the fact that this is precisely what the Messiah is supposed to accomplish.

    It won’t do, though, to reduce Jesus’ message to the economic aspects, which I would see as consequences of the spiritual situation he was addressing, not in themselves more than symptomatic (as they are today as well.)

    That is, you can’t say that the causes of poverty aren’t in the poor. Certainly you have to see that the rich have far more to do with the political and economic causes of poverty– but both rich and poor share equally in the spiritual causes.

    Whether Jesus said this in his original life (or later?), the Gospel of Thomas puts it pretty well: ” the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”

    The poverty of the rich is worse than that of the poor, for it impoverishes everyone, while being mistaken for riches. But anyway…

    The “Jesus” of John– despite speaking in a preachy and annoying style that is altogether absent in the more historical gospels– says some crucial truths that tend to be merely implied in some of his actual quotes. These may well be teachings that weren’t at first circulated… because they took considerable time for the disciples to digest, so far as they did. Specifically, the spiritual nature that Jesus observed in himself and all people, which most humans are still only gradually, murkily managing to realise. The existential terror that drives the whole economic cannibalising-mechanism is merely the result of people’s failure to recognize God at work in them– and part of the process working to turn our attention to that sphere.

  • jeff agnew says:

    Let’s not forget that perennial Friend’s favorite the cleansing of the temple, or collecting tax money from the mouths of fish.

    • I think the cleansing of the temple is one of the key passages for the understanding of Jesus’ economic agenda. He brings a crowd of peasants already pumped up and proclaiming him king. He overturns the tables, with money rolling across the floor and records spilling everywhere. He intercepts servants carrying vessels into the temple—trying to escape with jars of money. This was a raid. I picture people scooping money off the floor, grabbing the jars full of cash, trampling the records, a Robin Hood action in which the poor take from the robbers in God’s house.

      I don’t think Jesus’ main concern here was with ‘purity,’ as most interpreters think. I think we inaccurately refer to the incident as the “cleansing of the temple.” Jesus was famously unorthodox when it came to purity and he had already written off the temple, anyway. He cared about state-sponsored usury and thievery. He cared about the oppression of the poor, not where the currency exchange was located, though moving it into the temple from the Mount of Olives, which had only recently been done, just showed the hypocrisy of the temple rulers.

  • Very interesting stuff. I think you’re very much on to something. A lot of the parables revolve around money–the Parables of the Talents and the Workers in the Vineyard come most immediately to mind. I think he’s talking about spiritual debts in all this. He’s turning to personal economics as a way to show us just how far deep in the hole we are spiritually. The Workers parable doesn’t make sense economically from any principle of fairness but it totally works if you’re talking about inescapable spiritual sins and the total forgiveness by the Lamb of God. Still, the Spiritual is the Political, and the Political is Economic. I can see how this could feed into a Quaker economics–in theory at least, I’m not going to be the one to bring a proposal for communalism to yearly meeting sessions.

    I use the One Year Bible reading plan and what’s striking me this run-through is just how many tax collectors are in there. Jesus seems to have a special fondness for them. He’s always walking up to them and encouraging them to go AWOL. One of his most famous riddles (Render Unto Caesar) is the sidestepping of a call to tax resistance and despite this quick answer, one of the charges he’s eventually brought up on is inciting a tax revolt. This isn’t what you’re talking about here, but it is another piece to the economics of Jesus.

    • i think taxes and tax collectors did figure importantly in Jesus’ economic agenda. Judeans and Galileeans were being double taxed: once for the support of the temple-state, and again through the Roman poll tax. This pushed the peasantry right to the edge of economic failure in an ecology that was already tough on farmers. Converting the tax farmers under hire to Rome was a high priority. They were loosely supervised and often took more than their legal commission and often used extortion. One thinks of Zacchaeus.

      About tax resistance, however, I must disagree with you. I think he dodged both the Roman tax and the temple tax and that the Roman charge may have had some substance. When he said, Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, I believe he had in mind “the greatest commandment,” which, in Matthew, follows shortly after the passage about taxes. What is God’s? All your heart, all your soul, all your strength—that is, everything. Nothing left for Caesar. “Strength”, in fact, was specifically understood to include your wealth, your assets, though originally, it had meant the commitment to answer a muster to holy war.

      He treats the temple tax in the same way in Matthew 17:24-27. To pay it, he tells Peter to go fishing and look for a coin in the mouth of the first fish he catches. Jesus had made Peter a “fisher of men.” I believe what he’s saying here is, go find one of our converts and ask him for the money.

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