What Kind of World Would It Be If the Rich Admitted They Need the Poor?

While working on a sermon about Jesus’ encounter with the young man who wanted to know what he must do to inherit eternal life, I ran across a Catharine Rampell article on presidential candidate Governor Bobby Jindal. It seems Jindal has put forward a new tax plan that would increase the after tax income of the top 1 percent by over one quarter (26%). But generously giving the richest people in the country an enormous raise isn’t the most striking thing about Jindal’s proposal--since pretty much every GOP presidential candidate favors the same thing. No, what’s really conspicuous about the governor’s proposal is that while cutting taxes on the wealthiest, according to the notoriously pro-business Tax Foundation it “would increase taxes on low-income taxpayers.”

I’m used to the whole rich-people-are-unfairly-oppressed-by-progressive-taxation mantra put forward as economic policy. It’s been around for a long time and is admirably immune to the overwhelming evidence of its historic failure to deliver on its promises of creating jobs and increasing tax revenues. But the whole taxes-are-oppressive-to-the-rich-but-character-building-for-the-poor seems like such a bald attempt to justify greed that I had to stop for a moment to collect my thoughts.

See, because I had been dealing in my sermon writing with Jesus’ command to the young man concerned with inheriting eternal life to sell all he had and give the proceeds to the poor. So, I was really struck by Governor Jindal’s insistence that what the poor really need to become more productive citizens is for us to take money from them and give it to the rich. Governor Jindal insists that “there is great strength in shared sacrifice”--and out of the kindness of his heart, all he wants to do is give the poor greater strength by allowing them a proportionally larger share of the sacrifice.

But I’m dealing with Jesus right now, and I’m having a difficult time manipulating his words so that they come out approving of any policy enacted by the powerful that says to the powerless, “This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me--but it does hurt me, what with the rising cost of real estate in La Jolla. Have you seen it? You would not even believe the pressure I’m under.”

Even after all these years of hermeneutical practice I can’t quite figure out how to get Jesus to say to the poor, “Sell all you have and give the money to the top 1 percent.”

And it’s at this point that someone will jump in and counter, “Yeah, well, Jesus didn’t say to anybody that they should sell all they have and give it to the government either.”

But that argument is a non-starter--at least in terms of corresponding interpretive analogies--for at least a couple of reasons. First, as my conservative discussion partners are quick to point out, “Jesus never advocated propping up the Roman government as a means of accomplishing his purposes.”

True enough, I guess. But the Roman government was an occupation government, not a democratically elected one. It would have been exceedingly peculiar for Jesus to advocate trusting the distributive capacity of a government just about everybody in his social world fervently wished would take the first train back to wherever it came from. In terms of comparison, the American poor do not have anything like the same relationship to the American government as the Judean poor had to the Roman government. So, no, Jesus didn’t push for a tax increase on behalf of the Roman occupation government. But why would he?

Second, but no less important, what the Jews in Jesus’ time longed for while in the grip of Roman occupation was a theocracy--which, evangelical Reconstructionists to the contrary notwithstanding, is not the goal of American democracy. Even more damning is the realization that Jewish nostalgia for such a theocracy would also have included an assumption that the poor were self-evidently the government’s responsibility, inasmuch as governmental and religious institutions were inextricably linked in ways that the church and the American government are (by design) not. Here’s government welfare as envisioned in the Torah:

  • “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits” (Ex. 23:6).
  • “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:22).
  • “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake” (Deut. 14:28–29).
  • “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today” (Deut. 15:4–5).

And so on.

But please note, these are instructions on how the community of God’s people and its government are to treat the poor according to Hebrew law. Consequently, the objection that the Bible never tells us to give money to the government to do work the church should be doing runs into problems in the Hebrew scriptures, and is never really one of the options on the table in the Christian scriptures.

So, I return to Jesus and his encounter with the young man seeking to inherit eternal life. What Jesus does in this passage is not only to ask the young man to give up his dependence on stuff, but to give the money to the poor--that is, to reorient his life in a way that reveals his dependence on everyone else.

In the young man's search to inherit eternal life, Jesus shows him that he needs the poor just as much as they need him. So, when the young man walks away dejected, it's not only because he can't bear to part with his stuff. Part of what drives him away is the thought of letting go of a system in which he has few needs, in favor of a system in which the powerless are on equal footing, a system in which the rich looking to inherit eternal life need the poor … as much as the poor looking for an equitable community where everyone has enough need the rich.

For those people like Bobby Jindal who so publicly proclaim their Christian faith, it seems odd to argue that Christians shouldn’t rely on government to help make poor people’s lives more livable by giving them money, but then turn around and claim that, of course, the government can be relied upon to make the lives of the poor more responsible by taking money away.