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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

More Scripture-Twisting on the Campaign Trail?

Release date:

April 17, 2012


Ethics Politics

Raise your hand if you’re offended by politicians and church leaders using the Bible like a wax nose. On the left bank, there is the well-worn battery of references to Jesus and the rich young ruler, the command to “render unto Caesar,” and the last judgment where the sheep and goats are separated. As the Washington Post poses the question: “Jesus said, ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ In a time of economic turmoil and record poverty levels, are tax cuts for the wealthy moral?” Regular “On Faith” columnist and former seminary president Susan Brooks Thistlewaite is ready with an answer—and verses to back it up. Jesus told the rich young ruler, “‘Sell all that you own and distribute the money.’ But the young man, ‘who was very rich,’ turned away. Jesus’ comment? ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Luke 18: 21-25).” “All too true,” Ms. Thistlewaite sighs with all the self-satisfaction of someone who thinks she’s not the rich young ruler. “It’s also easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a bill with the rich paying their fair share of taxes to get through Congress. Not gonna happen.”

Meanwhile, back on the right bank, NPR reported yesterday the latest use of the Bible for small government. The report quotes Richard Land (head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) as saying that “the Bible tells us that socialism and neosocialism never worked. Confiscatory tax rates never work.” Really, the Bible tells us so? As it turns out, not in so many words. However, the Bible does tell us that because we are by nature sinful and selfish, “people aren’t going to work very hard and very productively unless they get to keep a substantial portion of that which they make for them and for their families.” (Is implies ought? Aren’t good laws supposed to guard the weak against the selfish ambitions of the powerful? Why couldn’t someone use the same logic to argue that out-of-wedlock teens shouldn’t have to carry their babies to term, since they’re not as likely to be ready to love and care for them?)

The report also cites the appeal to our Lord’s parable of the vineyard by WallBuilders’ David Barton. As the NPR piece puts it (better than Mr. Barton), in the biblical parable “the owner pays the worker he hires at the end of the day the same wage as he pays the one who begins work in the morning. Many theologians have long interpreted this as God’s grace being available right up to the last minute, but Barton sees the parable as a bar to collective bargaining. ‘Where were unions in all this? The contract is between an employer and an employee. It’s not between a group,’ Barton said. ‘He went out and hired individually the guys he wanted to work.'”
At least Congressman Paul Ryan (cited in the same report) has centuries of robust Catholic social thought to draw upon, including the idea of “subsidiarity” (similar to Abraham Kuyper’s concept of “sphere-sovereignty,” where the state isn’t the only charity in town). Like Rick Santorum, Mr. Ryan has been subjected to criticism by Roman Catholic scholars for his interpretation of subsidiary, but at least there is a broader tradition of reflection to draw upon than trading Bible verses that have absolutely no bearing on the subject at hand.

Sheep and goats (Matthew 25)

The sheep are commended: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'” The righteous wonder when they did all these things. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me'” (Mat 25:35-40). A group of more politically liberal evangelicals calling itself Matthew 25 contributed significantly to President Obama’s first campaign. Former Republican senator John Danforth added, “I think Matthew 25 is a very good place to start” (Lisa Miller, “Heaven Help Him: Religious Centrists Bail on Obama,” Newsweek, Feb. 8, 2010, 18).

These verses are part of a single sermon that begins in Matthew 24:1: Jesus prophesies the destruction of the Temple (which occurred in 70 AD) and the signs of the end of the age, with a focus on a long period of the church’s tribulation until the gospel is preached to the ends of the earth. The emphasis in the sermon is on preparing his hearers for imminent persecution. The sermon concludes with the statements above about the final judgment, with the separation of the sheep and the goats. What’s intriguing is that the “goats”—those condemned—are clearly professing followers of Jesus. After all, they protest their loyalty to Jesus. The difference is that the sheep cared for each other. Earlier in the sermon, Jesus warned his followers that they would be hungry, thrown out of their homes by their own family members who would even turn them in to the authorities, imprisoned, and abandoned. The sheep are those who cared for their brothers and sisters—even total strangers—in the face of persecution, even at the cost of their own safety.

In other words, Matthew 25 is not a generic call to care for the oppressed. There are many other passages one could go to for that. Matthew 25 is a specific statement about how the Shepherd looks after his sheep and expects the sheep to do the same. So closely identified with his church is Christ that he could demand of Saul in Acts 9:4, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” We are to look upon fellow-Christians as we would Christ. Christians who, for fear of their own lives, refused to show solidarity with fellow saints—”these my brothers” (v 40), were in effect denying Christ himself.

Rich young ruler

The story of the rich young ruler (Mat 19:16-22) also has a context that is somewhat different from the issues related to the US tax structure. The man asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The question itself provides a clue as to the point of Jesus’ strategy. The Mosaic covenant was based on reciprocity: fulfill the law and you will live long in the land. It never held out eternal life; the conditions of the covenant that Israel swore at Mount Sinai pertained exclusively to the temporary geo-political nation of Israel.

Yet the question the young man asks is how to have eternal life: what’s the missing work. The law hasn’t changed, Jesus replies: “‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments.'” “Which ones?”, the man asks. After Jesus restates the obvious (namely, the Ten Commandments), the man replies, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Talk about setting himself up! The man’s concern is not for God or for his neighbor, but for himself and the one good deed that will put him over the top. Alms-giving was part of the routine, too, so giving to the poor wouldn’t have been foreign to the man. However, “‘If you would be perfect,'” Jesus tells him, “‘go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'”

It’s a bit cynical to suggest that the only thing Jesus was up to here was to convince the rich young ruler that he was not righteous. The kingdom that Jesus brings is defined by the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. It isn’t a check-list for feathering one’s own nest. The man’s problem was not only that he was self-righteous, but that he was also so bound up in his identity with his wealth that he couldn’t even recognize his neighbor. The love that Jesus himself demonstrates in his self-offering is far more reckless than that love that he demands of us. Jesus doesn’t merely tell his disciples that the take-away is that it’s hard for the self-righteous to enter the kingdom, but, “‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven.'” Someone asked Nelson Rockefeller how much money it takes to be happy and he reportedly replied, “A little more.” From the earliest days of the apostolic era wealthy believers contributed significantly to the mission and welfare of the church as well as wider society. And yet, where there is more wealth, there is a greater opportunity to lodge one’s treasure in this age rather than in the age to come.

The bottom line is that the rich young man left sad, because he had many possessions. He had lodged his identity in both his moral and financial net worth and Jesus wouldn’t lower the bar. The man thought he had kept the law, but he really hadn’t kept it. The Pharisees might have made him chairman of the board, but Jesus told him the truth.

The tragic fact of this story is that those who invoke it against Republicans miss the point as badly as the rich young ruler. In fact, we show ourselves to be uncomfortably like the rich young ruler when we deflect the point to others—The Rich—and imagine that Jesus is suggesting that the Roman government should redistribute their income. The truth is, we are the rich young ruler and if we’re looking for “the one thing” we supposedly haven’t done to possess one more possession (eternal life), the command is for us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor. Have the invokers of this story done that? If they haven’t, then they don’t have a right to use the story against the “bad guys.”

Parable of the vineyard

Like all of the parables, this one is about the kingdom that Christ brings, as indicated by the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”. As with the others, the focus is on the division in the house of Israel that Jesus precipitates. Outsiders become insiders and insiders become outsiders. Here, in Matthew 20, the master hires laborers. Israel is often called the Lord’s vineyard (Is 5:1-7; Jer 2:21; Hos 10:1). But in this case, the workers who had been there all day begrudge those who arrived near the close of the workday. Jesus says that the master replies, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last” (Mat 20:15-16).

The religious leaders had devoted their lives to hard work in the Lord’s vineyard. They multiplied rules for piety. And they begrudged God’s generosity in making room at the table, right next to Abraham, for sinners and Samaritans, much less unclean Gentiles.

Sadly, even the disciples get in on the act. Matthew places this parable right before the narrative of Jesus’ announcement of his crucifixion and resurrection as the disciples jockey for positions of prominence and authority in Jesus’ kingdom. “‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'” (Mat 20:17-28).

It’s not surprising that Mr. Barton doesn’t find labor unions in this passage, since they didn’t exist in first-century Palestine and the parable doesn’t have the 2012 election in view.

Small government vs. socialism

It’s not just that Bible doesn’t give us enough data on small government versus socialism; it’s not written to a society that would have known what these economic arrangements were in the first place. It’s completely anachronistic to expect the Bible to address economic systems that would evolve through centuries of Western history.

There are plenty of laws in the Torah that would make a Tea Partier think twice before inviting theonomists to join them on the campaign trail. In fact, God’s indictment in the prophets against Israel’s thorough breach of covenant frequently turns on the nation’s mistreatment of the poor. In any case, if you’re looking for small government, these texts will probably disappoint. So far in the political debates I haven’t heard anyone try to apply Leviticus 25:29 to the housing crisis: “If a man sells a dwelling house in a walled city, he may redeem it within a year of its sale. For a full year he shall have the right of redemption.” Every detail of social and civic life was included in God’s law—not as universal applications of God’s moral law, but as pieces of a puzzle that distinguished Israel as God’s holy nation.

You can’t pick and choose which of Israel’s civil laws to invoke and apply to modern nation states. As the Westminster Confession explains (chapter 19), although the moral law remains binding upon all, the ceremonial laws given specially to Israel to lead them to Christ are “now abrogated under the new testament.” “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

That is precisely why Reformed social thought, in conversation with—and sometimes opposed to—Roman Catholic social thought has brought theologically-informed wisdom to bear on broader ethical questions that are not determined explicitly or even implicitly from Scripture. Even Christians who share the same biblical and theological convictions will differ on a host of specific applications and must be given the charity and liberty to do so.

According to a recent Pew Study, Americans think that there has been too much about religion in the political campaign. And no wonder. It’s no time for Christians to back away from concern for the common good, bringing their deepest convictions to bear just as others do. However, the trading of Bible verses ripped from their covenantal context and intention is a sure way to trivialize God’s Word in our society, in our churches, and in our own lives.