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. . .