Thursday, November 20, 2014

God's QC 10.10: Jesus And The One Percent

Here I continue my thoughts on the question whether Jesus can be regarded as a compassionate figure with respect to his attitude toward the needy. To prepare for my previous video and this one, I combed the Gospels for verses that I have come to call money verses, in which Jesus says anything that can be related to the topic of socioeconomic status. I said I had found 250 such verses, but I made a bad mistake in my spreadsheet. The actual count is about 370. Fortunately, the mistake doesn't invalidate anything in the previous video, but I do apologize for the error. The number of money verses is important for this video as well. Jesus gives us about 370. Everything he ever says in favor of the poor or as a warning to the rich comprises only about 60 of these. What can we learn about the mind of Jesus from the remaining 300 or so verses? Let's have a look:

Jesus loves rich people. He exerts literally ten times as much effort telling stories about them as he spends giving lip service to charity. There is only one beggar in all of his parables. We see a handful blue-collar types with homes to live in, food to spare, and easy access to officials in the local law courts. The remainder of his characters own livestock, fishing boats, gardens, farms, vineyards. Some are merchants; others, moneylenders. Some Jesus describes simply as rich, but most he describes in detail. They throw big parties and invite rich friends, or travel long distances to attend their friends' parties. Some develop their lands and use them for commercial purposes. Some have wealth that Jesus presents simply as treasures, while others have cold, hard cash.

Many of his stories are about people with servants. It is interesting to note that Jesus has a few of these "servants" being beaten, some severely. These aren't employees; they're property. We saw him botch his chance to comment on poverty; now we see him botch another big chance, telling stories about slaves without addressing slavery. Without even noticing it.

Revisiting one of the "weeping and gnashing of teeth" stories, we again meet the gangster who goes on a long journey after instructing his servants to invest some of his extra cash. He entrusts them with over $3M. When he returns, they have grown his investment to over $6M. Have a look at the video description if you're interested in how I arrived at these figures. In a different version of this particular story, the protagonist assigns less money to be invested, but this time he is a king who rewards his servants with lordship over entire cities. And not just one or two: he gives his two best performers authority over a total of 15 cities.

Jesus turns positively baroque spinning yarns about vineyards and wineries. In one story, a landowner finds himself in an entrepreneurial mood. He plants a vineyard, builds a wall around it, and constructs a winepress and a watchtower. But he doesn't build a home there, as this is strictly an investment property. He rents it out and moves away--why live near the rabble if you can afford not to? When the rent comes due, the tenants refuse to pay. But no matter, the man has an enormous supply of servants--or slaves--whom he can send to their deaths in futile attempts to collect. If it were anyone other than Jesus telling the story, I would take it as depicting an immensely profitable winery; otherwise, the owner would not have sacrificed so much other property just to collect the rent. But it is more likely that Jesus simply has no head for business, as also shown in the stories where he imagines that a shepherd would risk 99 sheep just to save one that has been lost.

Although Jesus does mutter a few words about greed, materialism, and smugness, he is clearly interested only in the sentiments of the rich, and oblivious to the more practical concern of how they treat the less fortunate. In one of his vineyard stories, the operation is thriving so well that the owner desperately visits the marketplace five times in one day to get enough laborers to work his land. There is so much work to be done that he is willing to hire people at the very end of the day. He can afford to pay even these a full days' wages after they have worked only one hour. When those who have worked all day complain about being paid the same as the latecomers, Jesus defends the rich man's right to treat the workers unfairly. Worse: the rich man's right to behave this way is the entire point of the story.

With a little creativity, any of Jesus' moral teachings could have been imparted with stories about the needy. He clearly has quite an imagination; I can only conclude that the needy simply weren't on his mind.

That's 10.10. Thanks for watching.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

God's QC 10.9: Jesus And The Needy

Here I continue my thoughts on the question whether Jesus can be regarded as a compassionate figure with respect to his attitude toward the needy. Many people believe that this character is a champion of the poor. But as we will see, Jesus is hardly aware of actual poor people, seeing them mostly as an abstract concept, when he bothers to notice them at all. He has almost nothing to say to them, or even about them. Most of his sayings that are widely considered relevant to the needy turn out to be empty, or even injurious. Let's have a look.

After adjusting for all the narrative overlap in the four Gospels, I find that it takes Jesus about 1500 verses to say everything he wants to say. About 250 make up sayings and stories that contain elements with some bearing on socioeconomic status. One would think that most of these might have something to do with the plight of the needy: that he might vigorously goad comfortable people to be charitable; that he might gear his sayings to the realities of life for those in need, perhaps even that he would field some ideas on eliminating poverty altogether.

Sadly, this is not the case. Instead, precisely two of his sayings are addressed directly to the truly downtrodden. In Luke 6, we find that if you're poor and hungry, well, you're blessed. Although he indeed calls on people to give a real blessing to the poor by actually helping them, he does so only three times, and never very convincingly. His best attempt is in Luke 11, where he exhorts the Pharisees, in order to be ritually clean, to be generous to the poor. An appeal to their piety might actually be a good motivator. But that one suggestion is the best he can do, as it is the only one that can be even remotely construed as concern for the needy. Unless we allow for the dimwit hypothesis we discussed in Episode 10.7. In Luke 18, Jesus encourages a rich man to sell his possessions and give to the poor. That might feed a few people, but many more could be fed if the man were to manage his wealth to help the poor over the long term.

But when Jesus spells out the reason we should follow his advice, we can see that dimwittery, although it is a factor, is not the primary factor. In Luke 14, he admonishes those with the means to throw parties to snub their rich friends and invite the poor. Sounds nice, if there is a party somewhere in town every day, which is about how often people need to eat. But the poor are beside the point, as Jesus explains that this is about one's relationship with God.

It's downhill from here, as every one of his remaining comments that mention the needy is about said relationship. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us to do our charitable giving in secret. This admonition has met with approval throughout the centuries, but I consider it grotesque. It's not about the needy at all. It's about the supremely petty concerns of those who have the means to give and their relationship with others who have the means to give. If Jesus had spent two seconds thinking about what really matters, that is, feeding hungry people, he would have imparted exactly the opposite advice. He would have told us to announce our giving with trumpets, to make the needy more visible to those who might give, and to sting the consciences of our well fed fellows.

In the fourth chapter of Luke, Jesus says that he has come to preach the good news to the poor. Does he mean news about where to find some food? No. So it's not good news. In Matthew 25, he condemns people to hell for not feeding and clothing his brothers and sisters. But who are his brothers and sisters? The poor? No. As he makes abundantly clear, his brothers and sisters are those who do the will of his father, and in particular, people with the leisure to follow him around ancient Palestine rather than scrabbling for their next meal.

Jesus does issue a handful of stern warnings to the rich and well fed. One of these warnings even mentions that beggars will be comforted in the afterlife. But as ever, nothing about addressing the suffering that occurs right now, right here on Earth. Further, given how much he hangs out with rich people, amply availing himself of their generous support, it is hard to know what to make of these warnings.

Shockingly, although he in fact does address poverty directly, he says precisely the wrong thing, turning the empty blessings of Luke 6 into a solid curse in John 12: the poor you will always have with you.

It is quite clear that Jesus never gives even a moment's thought to the actual suffering of actual human beings.

That's 10.9. Thanks for watching.