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Saturday, December 24, 2016

A PRESENT FROM the PAST

PLEASE NOTE:  I just found a draft posting from five years ago that was never published for readers to view.  I regret that error and that omission.  It is almost Christmas 2016.  This is most certainly a season of new birth, of joy, of caring, of inner peace and of hope.  In this particular year, on the political scene, it is seemingly also a season of nervous anticipation, actual fear, disgust, hypocrisy, division, anger, lies and bigotry, to say nothing about belligerence, intolerance, hatred and racism.  We are caught in a dilemma of our own choosing and of our own making.  One side of that dilemma expresses the virtues of love, family, faith, goodness, kindness peace and hope.  As with many of the events of Jesus’ life (birth, death, resurrection, ascension), there is great meaning within the events themselves, and a certain spiritual power or grace that emanates from that event into the celebration of it.  That's why we wish each other a "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays."



But, we cannot ignore the other side of our dilemma – also something of our own making and of our own choosing. We have allowed the creation of something frighteningly unfamiliar: the inside out, upside-down, value-threatening world of the President-elect of our country and of those leaders who will follow and support him. Donald Trump has, for many people, come to symbolize that inside-out Christmas, represented by the Grinch, (or perhaps -- Beelzebub).


So, in the midst of this dilemma, I am re-presenting this posting as a quick look at one of our most important Judeo-Christian values or beliefs that is being turned inside out - a PRESENT from the PAST! Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas!


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One of the major themes of the Bible is clearly the treatment of the poor and oppressed.  In fact, if someone wanted to be a one-issue candidate or voter, the Bible would lend itself to supporting that particular value as the one for which it speaks in no uncertain terms.  Perhaps as far back as the thirteenth century B.C., the Hebrew Law institutionalized assistance to the poor:

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” 

Seems somewhat trivial in our high-powered capitalistic world, doesn’t it?  Leave something for the poor and alien from your harvest; but, it not only set a precedent in Israel, but carried over into other countries and cultures as well.  
England, for example, for a long time, allowed the poor to glean wood from forests owned by the rich and to have a “commons” where they could allow their animals to graze because it was held “in common” by all the tenants of the lord of a manor, and by villagers who settled nearby.  It was a rule followed right into the 17th and 18th centuries, until the rich began to push for “enclosure” of their lands so that their holdings could be protected and held inviolable.  Many of the poor were adversely affected by such a reversal of the custom of providing “gleanings” from the forests and the commons.

This message about helping the poor continues throughout the Old Testament, and is found not only in the Torah, but in the Psalms and Proverbs (songs and sayings), and in the Prophets.   It is found again in the New Testament as Jesus and some of his writer-followers reiterated the admonitions and content of the Old Testament.  Moreover, Jesus during his ministry, came back to his hometown of Nazareth and proclaimed something quite remarkable:  that he would be the fulfillment of God’s concern for the poor and downtrodden. 


“ He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read (from Hebrew scripture, of course)….’ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he appointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord…’ Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)


Then, Jesus went a step further to make clear that God, and his own ministry, is on the side of the poor and downtrodden, by defining salvation as depending on how individuals and nations treat the poorest and most afflicted in the rather alarming parable or allegory of the Sheep and the Goats.

“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty, and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked, and clothe you?’
“And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’.”

Of course, we all know what happened to the goats who didn’t see God in their brothers, and who didn’t offer their help; they went away into eternal punishment, while the righteous gained eternal life.

  
This was a startling message for Jesus’ day, for the prevailing belief was that wealth and position were signs of God’s favor, and poverty was God’s punishment for sin.  Jesus rejected that idea most clearly in the parable or allegory of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).  The rich man ended up in hell because of his lack of compassion toward the beggar Lazarus (obviously, his wealth was not a sign of God’s favor), and Lazarus ended up in heaven (his great poverty was obviously not a sign of sinfulness or his own folly). 

Is it possible that there is a strong undercurrent of such attitudes existing today that allows our corporations and our government to justify economic and social policies that favor the rich and prosperous while undermining and zeroing- out programs that help the poor? Certainly the attitude that the poor, and even the handicapped, have done something to deserve their condition is much too prevalent.
In both the Old and New Testaments, helping the less fortunate is a message without caveats; it is simply something that must be done: a duty, an obligation, a way of life. And the overwhelming message in all these sources is that God wants it this way! Rather than quote hundreds of passages to prove a point, let us simply take a few samples to remind ourselves of the content of these messages:


1) It is incumbent on all to help the poor and oppressed:

“You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him.” (Leviticus 19:13).

“If there is a poor man among you…in any of the towns of the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to the poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.” (Deut. 15:7)

“When you have finished paying the complete tithe of your increase in…the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” (Deut. 26:12)


“Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3)


2)  The Lord God is on the side of the poor and He protects and defends them; He identifies with them.  In fact, God is called by many names throughout the scriptures and many of those names emphasize His great love for the poor:




“Defender of the fatherless and widows” (Deut. 10:18; Psalm 10:16-18; Jeremiah 22:16)
“Protector of the poor” (Psalm 12:5)
“Rescuer of the poor” (I Sam. 2:8; Psalm 35:10; Isaiah 19:20; Jeremiah. 20:13)
“Provider of the poor” (Psalm 68:10; Isaiah 41:17)
“Savior of the poor” (Psalm 34:6; 109:31)
“Refuge of the poor” (Psalm 14:6; Isaiah 25:4)



3) Those in positions of authority - Kings, Judges, representatives; and those who are rich -- are all responsible for the care and protection of the poor:

[A Commandment to kings] “Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all the unfortunate.  Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Prov. 31:8ff).

“Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who continually record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice and rob the poor of My people of their rights"(Isa. 10:1-3)

“He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who are hungry. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.” (Luke 1:52ff)

“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matthew t6:24-25)
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth… but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1Timothy 6:17,18)

4)  Care for the poor brings rewards; oppression and indifference bring other outcomes:

“He who despises his neighbor sins, but happy is he who is gracious to the poor.” (Proverbs 14:21)



“He who gives to the poor will never want, but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses.” (Proverbs 28:27)


“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13-14)


“But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1John 3:17)


What might we conclude from all this?  Too many ultra-Conservatives have already concluded that the scriptures simply call us to recognize that the poor will always be with us and that the best way to approach poverty is to have faith communities handle their needs, but not to burden government with this task.  Many of them have also concluded that the poor and indigent, the immigrant and alien, those who receive welfare payments from government are lazy, illegal, undeserving, and are defrauding the government. 


However, the Book that has given us so many tenets related to human rights and dignity, to liberty and equality, and even to democracy, is unequivocal in its admonition that the poor and oppressed, even the stranger and alien, must be cared for; that officers of government and the rich have a solemn obligation to seek justice and to stand on the side of the downtrodden.  The Bible actually equates helping the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the oppressed with aiding God.  That is, the lives and well-being of the most vulnerable in our societies are directly bound-up in our relationship with God.

While I do not contend that the Bible is to taken literally, or for that matter, as an Absolute of some kind, I do take it as a very important source of the Judeo-Christian ethic and thus for democratic ideals and institutions.
 
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It is perhaps not too harsh, then, to conclude from that source, that American society is headed in the wrong direction as it turns over its administration to the rich and powerful; as it diverts the taxes of the middle and working classes to further enrich the already prosperous; as it tolerates the efforts of lobbyists and lawyers to gain clear advantages for the rich and powerful in our laws and regulations, without regard to the consequences for the less fortunate; as legislators cut needed programs that assist the less fortunate under the guise of reduction of government debt.


We would not be amiss to conclude also from that source that government is not exempt from providing for the poor, the downtrodden, and the less fortunate; that government, and churches, synagogues and mosques, as well as individuals, all have an equal obligation to stand with the poor and to give absolute assurance of opportunity, safety, security, protection and justice to all in need. To do less is to deny our God, our patriotism, our sacred honor and our obligation as citizens of this great Democracy.