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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Jesus: Wine-guzzling Vagrant and Socialist?

Was Jesus a “wine-guzzling vagrant and socialist?” That’s the assertion made in a book by Barbara Ehrenreich titled “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” It is about her efforts as an “undercover journalist” to make a living working minimum wage jobs in Minnesota, Maine, and Florida. I never would have heard of this book if I had not read a news article concerning it and the controversy it has caused. It is required reading for a personal finance class at Bedford High School in New Hampshire. The book is supposed to be a supportive argument in favor of a higher minimum wage, but it goes beyond that by using foul language and being offensively critical of Jesus and Christianity. An excerpt from the book, in which the author describes a Christian church service she attended in Maine, reads,

 "It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ
crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is
to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth."

In the book's Frequently Asked Questions section of the author’s website, the question is posed, “Why did you go out of your way to insult Jesus as a “wine-guzzling vagrant?” The author’s reply states:

"I didn’t! In fact, Nickel and Dimed received a Christopher Award, which is given by a Catholic group in recognition of books "which affirm the highest values of the human spirit." In the section at issue, I observed that the social teachings of Jesus went utterly unmentioned at the tent revival I attended. The revival preachers clearly preferred the dead and risen Christ to the living Jesus -- who did indeed drink wine and could even make it out of water. As for the vagrancy charge: that’s what he was, a homeless, itinerant preacher."

Despite what some fundamental legalists might say, I would agree that, yes, Jesus did make actual wine at the wedding feast of Cana, and I’m sure He likely drank some of it, as well, but He was certainly no drunkard as the author seems to imply. Wine was, and still is, a very common part of the culture of the region in which Jesus lived His earthly life. I would compare it to sweet tea in the southern US. As for homeless, I suppose that technically, yes, He was homeless. Jesus Himself said,

Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man
has nowhere to lay His head.” - Matthew 8:20

However, I fail to see how mention of this is even necessary in a book about the struggles of minimum wage workers. Even so, this could easily have been worded much differently and still make whatever point the author intended. It seems to me that it was purposely worded to sound inflammatory and create controversy, perhaps for the advancement of the author’s recognition and career.

Based on the above excerpt and the authors FAQ response, it seems pretty clear to me that the author is completely lacking in biblical understanding in a few key points. As for the “dead and risen Christ,” absolutely that must be preached! If Jesus had not died, been buried, and arisen to sit at the right hand of the Father, there would be no redemption for mankind. There would be no atonement for our sins. Christianity would be just another “religious morality system,” and Jesus would have been just another great teacher. But the fact that He rose from the dead, just as He said He would, proved who He is and provided the way for us to gain eternal life; by what He did and not by anything we do or don’t do. Yes, His recorded earthly ministry taught us a lot about the character of God and how He would like us to live, but everything hangs on the resurrection.

Nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount does Jesus address “income inequality.” He addressed a lot of other things, such as those seeking to follow Him and living to please God will have great reward in Heaven, sin begins with our thoughts and attitudes, marriage is sacred, keep your word, go the extra mile for people even if they’re doing you wrong, love your enemies and pray for them, don’t pray or do good deeds for public recognition, but to please God, forgive others, do things for the good of God’s kingdom rather than personal material gain, don’t try to serve God and money, trust God to provide what you need to survive, don’t judge others but rather examine yourself first, earnestly seek to reflect the character of God, and keep Christ at the center of your life and He will sustain you. Hmmm… that pretty well sums up the Sermon on the Mount, and I see nothing close to “income inequality” or any other type of social or economic justice. He did, however, teach a lot about not worrying about your economic status but trust that God will provide for your needs.

As for the statement “Christ crucified rules,” I would beg to differ. In the words of Jesus, again from the Sermon on the Mount,

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.
I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you,
till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no
means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” – Matthew 5:17-18

In His own words, He did not do away with “rules.” His sacrificial atonement was because we are unable to “follow the rules” completely enough to match His perfect righteousness. It is by His grace that HIS righteousness is imputed to us that we may stand before a holy and righteous God and be worthy to enter His kingdom. A little later in the Sermon Jesus said,

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust
destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves
treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where
thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6:19-21

It is by “following these rules” that we lay up our treasures in heaven; seeking to please God, loving and forgiving others, keeping a check on our thoughts and attitudes, and doing good for others by putting them ahead of ourselves out of unselfish love, even our enemies. In no way do I mean to say that we have to earn our salvation by being “good enough.” Eternal life by His work on the cross is an absolutely FREE GIFT that we cannot earn but only receive. There are, however, rewards in heaven that we earn in this earthly life by what we do after we receive His greatest gift that can ever be given. If we are too worried about how much money we have, how big our house is, what our job title is, what kind of car we drive, etc, it gets in the way or our relationship with Jesus and takes our focus off of Him. I’ve been going through some things in my own life lately that have really been driving that point home. Our identity should not be in our material possessions, but in Christ, and Him alone. Again from the Sermon on the Mount,

Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we
drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles
seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these
things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day
is its own trouble.” – Matthew 6:31-34

Jesus did talk a lot about money, but He never said it was wrong for some to not have money and some to have it. An often misused and misquoted passage is from 1 Timothy 6:10, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” It is not the money itself, but the love of money and putting it before God that is wrong. Jesus praised the poor widow in the temple who gave what little she had out of a pure heart, but didn’t question why she was poor and didn’t have as much as others. He said it was easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than to enter heaven because, as I said above, it gets in the way of our relationship with Him because we get too concerned with it. He told the rich young ruler to sell all he had, give it to the poor, and follow Him. He didn’t want to give up his money so he didn’t follow Jesus, and Jesus didn’t force him.

When the woman in Bethany used expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ head, the disciples got upset and said the perfume could have been sold and the money used to feed the poor. Jesus responded with,

Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always.” – Mark 14:6-7

Jesus acknowledged that there would always be the poor. He never said they were entitled to any certain standard of living. Nor did He say the rich should not have their money. If He said the rich had to give their money to the poor so everyone would be on the same level, then that would be Socialism. He gave us free will and allows us to decide what to do with our money, good or bad, for His glory, or not for His glory, so Jesus was certainly no Socialist. The “social teachings” of Jesus, such as can be seen in the Sermon on the Mount, can largely be summed up with “love your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t know what Christ the author is referring to, but it’s certainly not the Christ of the Gospel.

There are many reasons people are poor. Often it is because of their own actions and decisions. Sometimes they’re just too lazy to work and just want a handout they feel “entitled” to. Sometimes it is because of an illness or some other circumstance beyond their control. The bible says in several places, basically, “you don’t work, you don’t eat.” Those with more should, indeed, help out those less fortunate voluntarily out of love and compassion, and many do, but those of lower economic status should help themselves, as well. People need to take responsibility for themselves and their situation and do what they have to in order to improve their economic status, but it should always be done with an eye toward pleasing God and always trusting that He will provide. America has long been called the “Land of Opportunity,” and there is story after story of people working their way from janitor to CEO, from welfare to millionaire, seizing opportunities and making the most of their situation. I don’t mind giving someone a hand up in a time of need when they are putting forth effort to better themselves and their situation, but I don’t believe it’s right for my tax dollars to be used to give hand outs, sometimes for generation after generation.

I am completely bewildered as to why this book is required reading in any public school in the US. Students get in trouble for having bibles in school. Prayer has been taken out of schools. A student in New York was suspended for wearing a rosary. Yet this book, which contains offensive remarks toward Christianity, is "required reading." This book also contains language that is illegal to use on television, so we'll require our kids to read the words, instead. The parents of 16 year-old Jordan Henderson pulled him out of the school and began home-schooling him over this issue. They voiced their concerns to the principal, but three weeks later, a review committee determined that, despite its issues, "the book provided valuable insight into the circumstances of the working poor and an opportunity for students to demonstrate mastery of the 'Financial Impact' competency," Now, I wonder, what if it was a book that referred to Islam’s prophet Mohammed as a pedophile? Well, he did marry one of his wives, Sahih Bukhari Aisha, when she was 6 and consummated the marriage when she was 9, so technically, yes; he was a pedophile, in the same manner in which the author justifies calling Jesus a vagrant. Would a book with a mention of that be allowed in the school, even if it “provided valuable insight?” Somehow I doubt it.
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