The Bible and the 47%

Proper 20B/Ordinary 25B/Pentecost 17
September 23, 2012

Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:22

Psalm 1

Mark 9:30-37

There’s nothing like a “hot” microphone to reveal the content of one’s character.  In 1984, President Ronald Reagan was caught quipping into a microphone during a sound-check before his weekly radio address, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”  It looks like we have had another open-mike-insert-foot incident with Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s comments at a fundraiser this week, captured on videotape:

” … there are 47 percent who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.  That that’s an entitlement.  And the government should give it to them.  And they will vote for this president no matter what … These are people who pay no income tax … [M]y job is is not to worry about those people.  I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Although Mr. Romney’s assumptions about “the 47%” are faulty (see “Five Myths About the 47%,” Washington Post), the readings for this week certainly have something to say about them – and Mr. Romney’s attitude toward them.

The Hebrew Bible reading from the Apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon features the telling heading “Life as the Ungodly See It.”  It is a meditation in the voice of the Ungodly, reasoning that life is short, so “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.  Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by” (Wisdom 2:6-7).  This carpe diem attitude is quickly followed by utter contempt for the poor:

“Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
or regard the grey hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless” (vv.10-11).

The reading concludes by condemning the attitudes of the Godless: “Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God” (vv.21-22).  The message of the reading is fairly blunt: callousness toward the poor is not the mark of righteousness, but a hallmark of the Godless who believe in their own might and their own right to enjoy the riches of the world.  While wealth itself may not be a bad thing, using it as license to disregard the poor is seen as the sign of wickedness.

“Jesus Welcomes the Children,” African Mafa Art

Jesus also has something to say about the 47% in this week’s readings.  In the Gospel reading from Mark, the Disciples are arguing among themselves about who is the greatest, and Jesus catches them off-guard saying “What were you arguing about on the way?” (Mark 9:33).  Jesus calls the Twelve, sits down and says “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (vv.35), then demonstrates His point by taking a little child in His arms, saying “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (vv.37).

In Jesus’ time, children were looked at in a different way than they are now.  There was no concept of childhood as a special developmental period, with distinct needs (such as playing, learning and being cared for).  Children were basically seen as small, dependent adults with no status or rights.  While children were cherished as the promise of the future, theologian Amy Allen points out that “in the present, they were a liability.  Small children, especially, were more likely to contract an illness and to die.  They participated in the household labor, but were not yet fully productive, and still represented another mouth to feed.  Many historians of this time period compare the status of children in such a situation to that of a slave” (“Welcoming the Child: The Politics of Mark 9:30-37”).  So when Jesus spoke of welcoming the child, his First Century audience would have understood that as meaning anyone who was like a child – dependent and a liability (at least in the short run).

Mother Theresa Feeding the Poor

Before we dismiss “the 47%” as being dependent liabilities, we should bear in mind who they really are: The elderly, who we provide for in gratitude for what they have provided us; families with children, struggling to make ends meet in a slow economy; Veterans, to whom we owe a sacred debt for their sacrifice; and many others.  To think that we have never been, and will never be, among “the 47%” is sheer arrogance and folly – we have all been dependent as children, and if we live long enough, we will be dependent again as elders.  We are not guaranteed to be healthy, able-bodied and able to work our whole lives.  True leadership – as Jesus points out – is serving those people who cannot serve themselves, not least because we may well eventually become one of them.  And it is worthwhile to note that welcoming – true welcoming – does not consist of throwing money at a 501(c)(3) charity, hoping that a nonprofit will “take care” of the 47% for you.  Welcoming means opening your arms, sitting down and embracing – in person – whether the microphone is on or not.

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