Misconceptions about Christianity and Politics / Economics: or, Why Perkins is Wrong about Jesus

The conservative religio-political propaganda has been flying today. Various initiatives are underway to combat it. But I could not resist throwing up something brief on one of them...

Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council. The "Belief" blog on CNN.com published a piece from him today entitled, My Take: Jesus was a free marketer, not an Occupier. I could spend ages taking this article apart, but I think the best thing to do would be to juxtapose a few pieces of text.

First, Perkins highlights the parable of the servants in Luke 19 who are given resources by their lord and left for a time to oversee them. From this parable he draws the following conclusion: "Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy – equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual."

Second, consider the parable of the workers in the vineyard, found in Matthew 20. The vineyard owner goes out at different times of day and hires workers. Here is the payoff:
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his supervisor, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.' The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.' But he answers one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

It is clear that this passage is not about money. Jesus teaches here about God's grace, which comes to all equally regardless of their effort. The point is to undermine usual ways of thinking about earning and compensation, even if the narrative context suggests a certain economic free-dealing. Clearly this passage isn't trying to teach us that we have to honor contractual terms or that those who control capital should be given free reign to take advantage of those hired earlier should economic conditions change. It is trying to teach us that just as God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10.34), God is also no respecter of productions.

Perhaps the most important thing that putting these two texts side by side suggests is that folks like Perkins need to be more sensitive to the hermeneutical challenges involved when one interprets scripture. Perkins not only neglects other relevant passages in other gospels (as I highlight), but he also misses things like important clues in the immediate context (Zacchaeus was moved mere verses previously to give half of his money away to the poor and to repay 4x the amount that he cheated people out of with questionable business practices, whereupon Jesus declares that "Today salvation has come to this house"), and the broader context (Luke's gospel is predisposed to support of the poor and oppressed, and consistently pictures Jesus as such; cf. Lk 4.18-19). He is also rather tone-deaf to the rhetorical force of the parable he cites: Jesus' point is not to promote capitalism, but to spur his followers on to faithful service of God and neighbor while waiting for the kingdom of God's coming.

Jesus was neither a Free-marketer or an Occupier, but he did have very specific things to teach those who profess him as Lord about how to live in the world, and there is no question that the Occupy folks have a better handle on that than do the conservative Christians running around trying to convince each other that Jesus would prefer for society to be set up to favor the rich and powerful rather than the poor and helpless.

[UPDATE: 12.22.11]

P.S. A friend e-mailed me the following in response to this post, and it was too good not to share:
I love the fact that your post flies in the face of what is often called "a politics of envy." In Matthew 20, it's the "hard-worker" who God accuses of envy because of God's generosity.

Life isn't fair - life is struggle. God isn't fair - God is mercy.
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