On Taxes, Marriage, and the Poor: Lessons from Luke 3:7-11

“John the Baptist Preaching” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. 1733. Fresco. Cappella Colleoni Gallery, Bergamo, Italy.

Verse of the day:
Luke 3:7-11:

7) “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
8) Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
9) Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
10) And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’
11) In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.'”

First, I find it fascinating that John chastised people who came to be baptized.

Second, I find it all the more fascinating that his advice was to give of what you have to those who had nothing.

So let’s review:

1) Don’t come to church just for religious rites.
2) Give away what you have to the poor if you want to be a true child of God.

So tell me: which social, religious, or political party, group, or body best encapsulates this very fundamental, very ‘Christian’ teaching of not worrying about the details of religious rituals and rites and doctrines, and instead focuses on giving goods to and caring for the poor?

And if you’re going to argue that biblical Christian principles should not be legislated when it comes to giving your hard earned money away (i.e., taxes and welfare and health care), then why are you arguing that biblical Christian principles should be legislated on other social issues like same-sex marriage?

Conservative Christian Priorities

My Conservative Christian Priorities (by Robert R. Cargill, 2012)Conservative Christians have spent more time defending their right to assault weapons this week than I ever recall having seen them defend the hungry, the poor, the sick (except to oppose their proposed healthcare), or the imprisoned. (Cf. Matt. 25:31-45)

Priorities are very telling.

There are poor in the world: “Meh.”
We should create healthcare for them: “No way, socialist!”
You probably shouldn’t have semi-automatic assault weapons anymore: “Christian soldiers, to arms!”

It HAS to change. It’s ABOUT to change.

Matt 25:35: For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, *with a permit* (Houston Revised Edition)

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, with a permit.”
– Matthew 25:35 (Houston Revised Edition)

Bobby "Tre9" Herring, center, prays with John Bradley who had been on the streets for 41/2 months after his roommate lost his job and created financial stress during Feed a Friend anniversary event, Nov. 12, 2010, in Houston, under the Main Street bridge near downtown.

Bobby "Tre9" Herring, center, prays with John Bradley who had been on the streets for 41/2 months after his roommate lost his job and created financial stress during Feed a Friend anniversary event, Nov. 12, 2010, in Houston, under the Main Street bridge near downtown. Photo by Eric Kayne for the Chronicle.

It seems you can’t even help the poor any more without a permit.

Bobby and Amanda Herring spent more than a year providing food to homeless people in downtown Houston every day. They fed them, left behind no trash and doled out warm meals peacefully without a single crime being committed, Bobby Herring said.

That ended two weeks ago when the city shut down their “Feed a Friend” effort for lack of a permit. And city officials say the couple most likely will not be able to obtain one.

Read more of the article by Bradley Olson in the Houston Chronicle here.

a lesser-known (but better) model of social justice

Social JusticeI’d like to present the following text and ask that you consider it as a model for social justice.

When I passed through the city gates, To take my seat in the square,
Young men saw me and hid, Elders rose and stood;
Nobles held back their words; They clapped their hands to their mouths.
The voices of princes were hushed; Their tongues stuck to their palates.
The ear that heard me acclaimed me; The eye that saw, commended me.
For I saved the poor man who cried out, The orphan who had none to help him.
I received the blessing of the lost; I gladdened the heart of the widow.
I clothed myself in righteousness and it robed me; Justice was my cloak and turban.
I was eyes to the blind And feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy, And I looked into the case of the stranger.
I broke the jaws of the wrongdoer, And I wrested prey from his teeth.
I thought I would end my days with my family, And be as long-lived as the phoenix (alt: sand),
My roots reaching water, And dew lying on my branches;
My vigor refreshed, My bow ever new in my hand.
Men would listen to me expectantly, And wait for my counsel.
After I spoke they had nothing to say; My words were as drops [of dew] upon them.
They waited for me as for rain, For the late rain, their mouths open wide.
When I smiled at them, they would not believe it; They never expected a sign of my favor.
I decided their course and presided over them; I lived like a king among his troops, Like one who consoles mourners.

The above lament from Job 29 (JPS) serves as a wise model for social justice. It is powerful because it demonstrates a proper balance between service to and defense of the poor, the marginalized, and the victims of those who would seek to do them harm. It avoids the common debate that pits non-violent advocacy against a justified use of force, and balances the often conflicting concepts of mercy and justice. In this model, it is just as important to provide for the needy as it is to defend them physically and be willing to risk bodily injury to do so.

This model of social justice is markedly different from many modern concepts of social justice that often avoid physical conflict at all costs often in exchange for an arguably naïve, and at times, inefficient service to others. Many pacifist notions of social justice regularly struggle with issues of treating the symptoms of social issues without addressing the underlying problems. What good is it to continually give money to the poor if it is regularly and immediately taken away by the pimp, the boss, or the shark? Treating symptoms without addressing the root of the social problem both allows the problem to persist and increases the potential for still others to be harmed. The socially just advocate should not only serve the poor, but defend them as well, and should be willing to risk physical and professional harm to do so.

Job’s description of his former life effectively balances service to the needy (the poor, the orphan, the lost, the widow, the blind, the lame, the needy, and the stranger) with a firm concept of justice (“I broke the jaws of the wrong does, And I wrested prey from his teeth”). This is not unlike Jesus’ use of force in John 2:15, when he made a whip of cords and used it do drive out of the Temple moneychangers, who were taking advantage of those coming to worship. In the end, Job’s concept of social justice is willing to both be a service to victims and to pursue vigorously their persecutors.

Job 29 is also a good wisdom text, as it paints a beautiful picture of the expected and deserved rewards that await those who defend the poor and the marginalized. The socially just not only experience praise and respect from the elders of the city and the children alike, but also come to be regarded for their wise counsel in other matters, demonstrating that those who are willing to walk the talk are more likely to have their “talk” considered as wise counsel over time. And this is as it should be; the words of those who have done will always trump the words of whose who have only said.

In the end, while we should not seek conflict, we also must not stand idly by and hold the coats of those who would do others harm. Despite the fact that it is easier to turn the other cheek and wait for a bully to become bored with his victim and move on, and despite the fact that involvement in a conflict may cause the aggressor to turn and pursue you for a while, the socially just advocate must be willing to draw fire from an aggressor’s victims and do what he or she can do to stop the aggression, even if it causes him or her harm. The socially just advocate must pursue justice even in the difficult times, even if it potentially involves conflict, ridicule, harassment, exhaustion, and even physical harm. But, if it is done properly, the socially just advocate will not only have helped his neighbor, but will enjoy the thanks and respect of those who witnessed the struggle.

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