(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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As all of us know, Easter Sunday celebrates for Christians the day they believe Jesus rose from the dead. Its date changes year to year because it closely correlates with the Jewish holiday of Passover. Passover was and is usually celebrated by Jews on what Christians call Good Friday – the day Jesus was crucified. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder meal. Easter and Passover are thus forever closely linked.
Fifteen days after Easter comes the Christian celebration of Pentecost. That is when the holy spirit is said to have come down from heaven to empower Jesus’ followers. That event is when Christianity, as a religion, is believed to have begun.
Important for my topic this morning, “God is a Socialist,” this is what the Biblical Book of Acts, chapter 2, says about the very first Christians and how they practiced their faith after Pentecost::
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had…God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
The first Christians took to heart what Jesus had taught. No longer would they be indifferent to the needs of the poor, homeless and sick. Money and resources were shared by everyone. Early Christians created the version of heaven on earth that Jesus had advocated – one that exemplified god as the power of love. Compassion and gentleness were genuinely practiced, all had homes, clothing, and food. Arrogance, material wealth, and greed were considered sins. Christianity began as a socialist religion.
Of added interest is what the book of Acts describes later. All of the early Christians sold their homes and then contributed the money to the communal account. But a few did not. One couple sold their home but they contributed only a portion of the proceeds to the community. The rest they secreted away for themselves. The Bible says that both the husband and wife were struck dead soon after. The lesson of the story is that selfishness is a bad attitude. It leads one to forget about the poor. God, Karma or simply one’s conscience will punish the greedy.
That ethic was repeatedly taught by Jesus. Many of you know his famous saying that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it will be for a rich person to go to heaven. He used that vivid imagery to teach his lesson. Too much wealth often causes arrogance, a lack of compassion and a lust for more. He did not teach that a wealthy person cannot go to heaven, but that if one is rich, he or she ought to deeply reflect on their attitude and how they use their money.
Ultimately, Jesus taught that one can only serve one boss – in this case either god or money. If one chooses to serve money, he or she will despise god. For us, that teaching might be interpreted as the love for money and material things often leads to a disdain for charity and compassion.
Interestingly, Jesus also taught, as quoted in the book of Luke, chapter 14, a practice we follow here. He said that when one holds a feast or banquet, one should make a point to invite those with less. Don’t hold a party just for the fortunate few. Hold it for everyone and thereby practice universal love and equality.
I so appreciate how some of you have followed that ethic and offered to pay for GNH members who have tight holiday budgets and would otherwise forego attending our holiday party. We are a beloved community that does not esteem the sum of someone’s wealth, but rather the unique goodness in each person. All are invited to attend every event we hold – no matter what can be paid or not. That seemingly minor practice is our own version of socialism.
Jewish religious rules, established centuries before Jesus, encouraged similar attitudes toward wealth and treatment of the poor. Farmers were forbidden in the Book of Leviticus from reaping crops along the edges of fields. Produce from those areas must be saved for those in need.
Also, every fifty years was declared a year of Jubilee. It was a celebration year when all debts were forgiven. Land, houses and property reverted back to the first owners and everyone essentially began anew. Nobody owned land but rather leased it until Jubilee years – all of this was due to Jewish belief that Yahweh, or god, is the true owner of everything. People own nothing. That early Jewish ideal was an early socialist one. Wealth could not be passed from one generation to the next because of the Jubilee. People could be economically comfortable, but nobody could be rich – all because of the Jubilee. It significantly contributed to a more egalitarian society.
Sadly, Jubilee ideals were not long practiced. The book of Amos, chapters 2 and 4, says Jewish culture eventually turned greedy and uncaring. It quotes god as saying this:
For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not relent.
They who sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They who trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground,
and they who deny justice to the oppressed.
You will each go straight out
through breaches in the wall,
and you will be cast out toward Harmon.”
Harmon was the sewage and waste dump for Jerusalem. It was a foul place that burned almost non-stop. Jews considered it the gateway to hell. The Biblical message is clear. God champions equality, respect and dignity for everyone – especially the poor and marginalized.
As I said two weeks ago, there are over two thousand verses in the Bible that teach compassion and justice for the poor and oppressed. I could spend the next week repeating them. Suffice it to say that the Bible, from beginning to end, is full of verses that teach economic justice as a primary concern of god.
As I’ve also said the last two Sundays, I lament the misinterpretation of the Bible by many religiously conservative Christians. Many of them ignore these 2000 plus verses and instead focus on a few which they believe teach a prosperity gospel. God will reward those who are faithful with abundant wealth, they believe. They quote the book of Malachi, chapter 3, which says god will “open the windows of heaven for you and pour out all the blessings you need”…….IF you tithe ten per cent of your income to his churches.
But this interpretation – that god will enrich you if you give generously to his churches – is grossly inconsistent with the true message of the Bible. Malachi verses say that if you donate to the work of a church, you will be blessed. The verses do not say you will be blessed with money or things. You will be blessed instead with a joy that comes from giving – the kind that brings a content feeling after serving and caring for another. Indeed, Jesus taught that we should save up the kind of good wealth that rust and moth can’t destroy – meaning the “wealth” of charity, kindness and humility.
Prosperity gospel Christians, like the televangelist who refused to open his 17,000 seat church in Houston to victims of hurricane Harvey, also often cite the book of Philippians, chapter 4, which says god will meet all a believer’s wishes. He will do that, they believe, because god has made a contract with humans. In this prosperity theology, god will bless us and allow us dominion over the earth in return for our obedience – meaning if we obey his rules, believe in him, and give to his churches, then he will make us as wealthy as we desire.
I believe such teachings are both wrong and, frankly, evil. Imagine hearing such an interpretation of the Bible, believing with all your heart that it is true and yet years later, you find yourself deeply in debt and not rich. Have you not believed? Is your faith deficient? According to the prosperity gospel, it is. If you are fortunate to be wealthy, however, that means god favors you! You truly believe and have been faithful to him. Such an interpretation of the Bible is used today as a form of social Darwinism. The rich deserve their wealth because they are the good and capable. The poor deserve their poverty because they are bad, lazy and stupid. If you are unlucky enough to be middle class or poor, well your faith must be no good. Or your donations to the church have not been large enough. Why not write a big check to the church and then,THEN god will make you rich!
If these interpretations of the Bible are accurate, then why was Jesus so poor? Why did he not have a house of his own? Why did he need to rely on the kindness of his followers for support? Why did he tell a wealthy, arrogant prince that the only way he can get to heaven would be to give all his money to the poor? Why did he tell the story of Lazarus and a rich man? Lazarus, who was poor all his life, finds himself resting in the peace of heaven, while a rich man, who was Lazarus’ exploitive employer, pleads from the fiery depths of hell to have pity and give him a drink of water? According to conservative Christian misinterpretations of the Bible about wealth and poverty, Jesus should have been
weak, sinful and dumb.
Woe to false teachers and hypocrites, Jesus often said. I imagine he would say the same to wealthy ministers and Christians who believe and teach a prosperity gospel.
As I’ve done at the conclusion of my last two messages, I explain the primary point of my message. Does the Bible say god is a socialist? Yes and no. The Bible does not condemn wealth. Rather, as I’ve said before, god condemns greed and the love of wealth. It’s our attitude toward money that counts. Can a rich person go to heaven? Of course. Wealthy individuals like Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffet might meet the criteria for heaven – if one exists. They earned their wealth by hard work and innovations that should be rewarded. Most important, they have pledged the vast bulk of their wealth to support the poor, sick and oppressed.
But philanthropy is not socialism. Indeed, under most forms of socialism, Gates and Buffet would not have been able to make their fortunes. Furthermore, the inclination of many wealthy people is, as Jesus said, to always want more and to mostly ignore the poor. Ideas like trickle down economics and unrestrained free market capitalism inspire rampant greed and the ultimate failure of a society.
As an economic idea, socialism suggests that the means of production be communally owned and profits be fairly distributed. That model, as opposed to capitalism, however, is a difficult one to favor since it can lead to laziness and an unwillingness to work hard or innovate. Your neighbor, who may not want to work, will get just as much as you. The Bible teaches that those who wish to eat must also work and that those who DO work hard are worthy of their wages. Jesus, I believe, would not support unrestricted capitalism – but neither would he advocate pure socialism.
What I do know is that in the modern world, the Nordic economic models of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland offer a possible resolution between capitalism and socialism. Citizens can own private property and they can modestly prosper themselves through hard work and innovation. But extreme wealth is not possible. But neither is extreme poverty. Many peoples believe those countries come the closest to practicing genuine Jesus ethics and the type of socialism adopted by early Christians.
What I do find offensive are interpretations of the Bible that say god will reward believers with great wealth. Such teachers and preachers have hijacked the Bible. As progressively spiritual people, we must take it back. The ideal society, as clearly taught in the Bible, is one similar to that created by ancient Jews and early Christians. In such societies, there was no poverty, no want and no hunger. Everybody worked and everyone shared with one another in a compassionate, gentle and cooperative realm of peace and joy. I believe we should aspire to do the same.