Love versus Entitlement

In today’s gospel, Jesus fed the five thousand.  The story is set up with the quote, “When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them …”  They had no food and they were apparently off the beaten path enough that practicality dictated that they be sent away to buy food in distant villages and towns.  Jesus didn’t want them to have to do that, so he performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and the five thousand were fed.

Jesus feeds the 5000

Many today equate such actions with the actions of government on behalf of those who are hungry (or ill- clothed or housed).  But these actions are truly different from one another, both for the giver and the receiver.  And they are also different in their respective effects.

When the government creates such a program, its creators feel that there is a need in the community for some help, but not enough of a need to try to help meet it with their own money or time, or goods.  Nor do they feel it is worthy of their leadership to call on many givers to meet the need.  Rather they take other people’s money to fund the need.  This is not compassion, it is passing the buck.  The new law entitles its beneficiaries to certain, specified values, whether those values are goods, like healthcare and housing, or cash, like food stamps and welfare.  The ultimate dispensors of the benefits are not allowed to make judgements as to who should receive the benefits.  Instead they try to ascertain who is eligible under the rules of the program.  The ultimate recipients feel that they are owed the benefits, because they are entitled under the program.  All the actors in this drama are cold, playing their parts without any need for compassion on the one hand, or gratitude on the other.  The law says thus and so, and therefore it is done.

bureaucracy-cover

Now consider what happens when  you give to a charity that pursues these same ends.  The need pulls on your heartstrings.  The charity has organized itself to meet the need.  The charity workers are generally not paid well, or at all.  They serve because they have com-passion (meaning: to suffer with) for those in need.  The recipients are aware of all this and are usually both grateful for the help, and resolved not to continue to be as dependent in the future, if they can help it.  Many will also resolve to give to this charity when they are able to.   All the actors in this drama are motivated by or demonstrate love.

howtobecompassionate

Which of these systems do you think will be better for society?  Which will be more successful at meeting the need?

Did Jesus ever point out the obligation of the Roman or Herodian government to take care of the poor?  He did not.  Instead he moved to serve the poor, and others, directly, out of love.  When we write a check to a charity, love is inspiring us.  When we serve in a charity, or help another person directly, love is moving us.  When we receive from another or from a charity, we give love back.

The Den of Thieves

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus drives the vendors, most notably the money changers, out of the Temple.  Actually, he drove them out of the great plaza in front of the Temple building itself.  Why did he do this and what does it mean for us?

The Jewish laws and rules were specific on the sacrificial requirements the people had to observe.  Only the finest animals and other offerings, as defined in the law, were deemed acceptable for the altar. Furthermore, money offerings were restricted to Temple sheklels, archaic coinage no longer in general circulation.

Each of these items was available only within the Temple precincts.  Those who sold them to pilgrims had been granted monopolies by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.  Privileged families were designated as the exclusive sellers of specific items for proper sacrifice.  So one vendor had the dove concession, another supplied all the lambs, and so forth.  This was hugely profitable.  The monopoly markups were scandalous.

Most representative of this cozy “crony capitalism” setup were the moneychangers, the family of Hannan.  Their system exchanged common coinage for Temple shekels.  It was easy to see the abuse because coins of the same weight and metallic makeup were considered by the populace to be of equal value.  But the Temple shekel, based on its weight and metallic content was of far less value than the common coins the Hannan family demanded for its purchase.  Everyone knew and could see and feel the injustice in this arrangement, but they could do nothing about it because the Sanhedrin had declared that only through the Hannan family could worthy coinage be obtained.

Jesus strode into this cozy setup and tried to break it up.   He made a whip and drove the sheep, oxen, and their vendors out.  He told the dove vendors to get out. He went to the moneychangers’ tables and upended them, scattering the coins across the pavement.  He declared, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it ‘a den of thieves.’”  The power structure vowed to get rid of this troublemaker.

Often, this incident is used to condemn commerce, but that is not what Jesus is doing here.  He is condemning governmental privilege and the theft that always results from it.  His people are being ripped off and they have no recourse.  And this abomination is happening within the holy precincts of the Temple itself.  Is it any wonder that he was upset?

If we really pay attention to what Jesus said and did, instead of reinterpreting  his life to suit our own prejudices, we can find great wisdom.

Blessed Are The Meek

In today’s Gospel, we are presented with the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives us the Beatitudes.  I am always struck by the third one, (Matthew 5:5) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.”  Other translations end the passage with “… they shall inherit the earth” (RSV) and “… they shall have the earth as their inheritance” (NJB).  What is Jesus referring to here?

Our homilist suggested that the “land” or “earth” are metaphors for our place in the heavenly, spiritual, and therefore, non-physical existence to come.  If that’s so, Jesus may have been being a bit overly clever with his hearers.

You see, the Law of Moses, which, later in the Sermon, Jesus says is still in effect, apportioned all the land in Israel to to the individual families of the nation.  This legal possession (not ownership – God was the owner) of the land was one of the means by which the Law guaranteed prosperity for all the Jews.  That part of the Law had only recently been crushed by the Herods and the Romans.  Except for those with government privilege, the Jews had been reduced to poverty, now being tenant farmers and sharecroppers on the land that their fathers or grandfathers had possessed.

The Lost Land

This memory, and the injustice it represented, was certainly in the minds of his listeners as Jesus gave his famous sermon.  What do you think was triggered when Jesus said “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.”?  I believe it was the promise of the Law, that the land should be restored, that everyone was an equal inheritor of the land God made.  That the “rent” God charged for his land was the tithe, which took care of all religious and civil government needs.

If the people to whom Jesus was talking thought he was speaking metaphorically, I think they would have found the statement a cruel joke, so soon after they had lost their inheritance, and with it, their freedom and prosperity.

I think Jesus was harkening to the Law.  However, he could not restore the Law.  That is up to us.

Ruth Proof

The first part of the story of Ruth was today’s Old Testament reading. It detailed how a Bethlehem couple, Elimilech and Naomi left their land because of a famine and went to nearby Moab where, presumably, prospects seemed better. Eventually, their two sons married Moabite women. Then, one by one, the three men, Elimilech and the two sons, died, leaving their three widows in perilous economic straits. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem where her land and family still were. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, insisted on accompanying her with her famous pledge, “Wherever you go, I shall go, … Your people shall be my people and your God will be my God.” Ruth_asks_Naomi_C-206[1]The reading ended with the two women arriving at the time of the barley harvest.
In his homily, our celebrant told us that the reading is the only one in the Catholic Lectionary from the Book of Ruth. From my perspecive, that’s too bad. The story of Ruth and Naomi make clear that the Land Law was being observed during this time – first half of the tenth century, BC.
Elimilech’s ancestral land had been leased out until the next Jubilee. Naomi could not afford to “redeem” it. So she and Ruth were destitute, dependent on the generosity of their neighbors. However, they did have the right to glean the fields after the harvesters had passed through. 2-rooke-ruth-bows-to-boaz[1]
Ruth was gleaning the field of Boaz, who seemed a bit taken with her. He told her she could have all the water she wanted and supplied her with a more than ample lunch. He told his harvesters not to be too careful so that this girl could gather enough to keep hunger at bay. That evening, Ruth told Naomi about all that had happened and Naomi asked the name of this man. When Ruth told her it was Boaz, Naomi was excited. “This man is our redeemer!” She meant that Boaz had the right and the obligation to redeem Elimilech’s land and marry Ruth. The story goes on. The land is redeemed and Boaz and Ruth marry. They had a son, Obed, who was the grandfather of King David.
The story assumes that the Land Law was in effect and was understood by the Israelites. Otherwise, the story makes no sense.
So, despite many scholars’ opinions to the contrary, the Land Law was being observed through the time of the Judges and at least up until the time of the Kings.

Pay Caesar!

The Gospel reading at mass this morning was the story of the tribute coin.  In his homily, our priest used the standard interpretation of this story: Jesus endorses paying to Caesar all the taxes that Caesar says are due, and, by extension, Jesus instructs us to pay our taxes as good Christians.  In Matthew 22, Scripture says the Pharisees (with Herodian witnesses) wanted to trap Jesus with the question, “Master … is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Where is the trap?

We have a strong hint in tradition.  If Jesus said it was permissible to pay the taxes, he would risk alienating his followers.  If he said it was not permissible, then he would be guilty of sedition, with the Herodians as reliable witnesses.  This choice implies some sort of problem in paying the taxes.  Some translations even say “… Is it legal …”  Well it was certainly legal under Roman and Herodian law.  The trap was that it was illegal under Jewish, or Mosaic Law.  Taxes in general were illegal, and paying a tribute or a tax to a foreign potentate an even more flagrant illegality under Mosaic Law.

denarius

Under Mosaic Law, the tithe took care of all community needs, both sacred and secular.  The tithe provided for the religious needs of the nation as well as those we would today call civil.  And the tithe was owed to God as rent for the bountiful land that he made and still legally owned.  So the tithe, properly set up, was not a choice, it was a legal tenant/landlord obligation.

So when Jesus said (paraphrasing now) “Pay Caesar what you owe him and  also pay God what God is owed,” He slipped through the trap.  The Pharisees and Jesus’ followers all knew what he meant: You owe Caesar – nothing!  And you owe God the tithe, the rent of his land, which takes care of, among other things, all the civil needs that Caesar purports to provide.

Render to Caesar

The ending of the story puts a neat bow on the package: the Pharisees “were unable to catch him out in anything he had to say in public; they were amazed at his answer and silenced.” (Luke 20:26)

Certainly this would not have been their reaction if Jesus had just endorsed the Roman tax system.  Jesus did not instruct us to pay our taxes.  If we want to pay them, fine.  If we feel coerced to pay them, fine.  But Jesus did not endorse paying them.

God did set up a system that works very well, if we would only pay attention to it and let it guide us.

The Tithe – a Different “Take” – Uses

What were the uses to which the tithe was put?  Our standard answer is that the tithe supported the religious establishment.  I don’t think that’s right. In Numbers 18:25-29 it says,

Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, “Speak to the Levites and say: ‘When from the Israelites you receive the tithe which I have given you as your heritage, you will set a portion of this aside for Yahweh: a tithe of the tithe.  … You will give what you have set aside for Yahweh to the priest Aaron.  … You will set aside the best, the sacred portion.’”

So, according to the quote above, only a tenth of the tithe was dedicated to the needs of the priests and Levites and the other requirements at the site of the Ark.  The rest, the remaining nine tenths, stayed in the Levite hometowns.  It did not go to the site of religious worship.  What was done with the other ninety percent?

Once again, convention may be wrong.  It usually answered this question by saying that the other ninety percent went to the rest of the Levites, for their support.  But as The Levites demonstrates, they did not need support.  They had the town occupations which made them an adequate living.  So, since the other Levites did not need support, we must find another destination or use for that residual ninety percent of the tithe.  (Post not finished)

The Levites

There was an exception to the general land distribution of the Israelites: the tribe of Levi was not given any land.  Instead, they were given 48 “walled towns,” or about four per tribal area.  These towns served an essential function in this agricultural/pastoral economy.  The towns contained the skilled workers that supported the farming and herding surrounding them.  So here were found the carpenters, metal smiths, harness makers, wheelwrights, etc. that were needed to make the economy more efficient.  Here were found the experts in such public works as roads, bridges, and irrigation systems.  Here also were found writers, traders, and perhaps weavers of cloth beyond the abilities of the people of the land.  The Levites filled these jobs.

Furthermore a Levite man only worked in his religious capacity, which was to preside or assist at the site of the Ark of the Covenant, once every twenty-four weeks.  For the other twenty-three weeks, he was back in his hometown, one of those forty-eight “walled towns.”  So for over ninety percent of the time, he was pursuing his profession or selling his skills, back home.  This goes against the conventional wisdom, which seems to put forward the notions that (1) all the Levites were priests, and (2) their full time job was at the site of the Ark, performing priestly duties.

So the Levites had the urban jobs in the economy of ancient Israel.  They had an income.  Some of them did well, while a few did not.  It’s important to keep this in mind, especially when one discusses the Tithe.

The Tithe – a Different “Take” – Sources

We view the tithe as an income tax, and we are taught that it is to be used to support the Church.  I believe that both of these assumptions are incorrect.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist; I just think we’ve all grown up with the wrong idea.  Getting the tithe wrong has been, and will continue to be, harmful not only to God’s people and his Church, but also to the greater society.  This posting will be about the source of the tithe.  My next posting will be about the uses to which the tithe was put.

As I implied above, I don’t believe the tithe was an income tax.  Rather, I think it was a land rent.  God said in the 26th chapter of Leviticus that the land belonged to him, and that the Israelites were “strangers and guests” on his land.  Now God did set it aside for them – promised it to them – but as legal possessors, not owners.  God set the terms for possession: Sabbath and Sabbatical year observances, the Jubilee, and following the Law.  Furthermore, he set the payment terms for renting his land – the tithe.

God’s Law was set up between 1400 BC and 1200 BC, hundreds of years before the development of money.  So payment of rent to a landlord, in those pre-monetary days, was accomplished by turning over a fixed percentage of the land’s annual production.  In this case, 10% of this year’s crop or yearling livestock.  It was turned over as part of a standard landlord/tenant relationship, although, relative to the level demanded by landlords in nearby countries, it was a generous arrangement.  The Israelite “tenants” did not have to pay much to stay on the land.

There was an exception to this general arrangement: the Levites.  The tribe of Levi was not given any land.  They filled the urban jobs in the major towns.  They had income.  Except for their one week out of twenty-four at the site of the Ark, they were self-supporting.  Yet the Bible says they paid no tithe.  Why?

The 18th Chapter of the book of Numbers says the Levites paid no tithe because they had no inheritance in land.  Only those who had an inheritance (from God) in land paid the tithe.  We tend to think that they did not pay a tithe because they were involved in priestly or other religious duties.  This is not so.

The members of the other tribes paid the tithe, based on the productivity of the land they possessed, because they were renting it from the owner, God.  The tithe was land rent to God, not an income tax.