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.

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