Pop Quiz

Which statements in last week's debate were false and which were true?
(Winner gets to take moderator, Stan Duncan, to lunch)
  1. Ben Carson, when he said that he had no ties to Mannatech, a nutritional-supplement company that is frequently sued about fraudulent claims. He called the accusation that he had supported them and done promotional videos for them “total propaganda.”
  2. Donald Trump, when he said, “I was not at all critical” of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for his efforts to advance comprehensive immigration reform and widen the H-1B visa program. 
  3. Carly Fiorina, when she claimed 92 percent of those who lost jobs in President Obama’s first term were women. 
  4. Marco Rubio, when he charged the media ignored evidence that Hillary Clinton was a “liar” at Benghazi hearing.
Write your comments below. We'd love to hear from you. 

Thought for the day:

  • July 23, 2015, 3 dead, 7 hurt when gunman opens fire in Lafayette movie theater
  • July 16, 4 Marines killed in attacks on Chattanooga military facilities
  • June 17, 2015, a mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston
  • Two years and seven months since the gun massacre of 26 people, 20 of them children, in Newtown, Connecticut.
  • Three years since the shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado where 12 were killed and 70 people injured
  • Three years on August 5 since the killing of 6 people and wounding of 4 in a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin

Congress has been unable to find any way to pass any law since for any of these shootings, to make Americans safer.
By contrast,
  • Jul 9, 2015 - Kathryn Steinle shot in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant. 
  • In three weeks, the House of Representatives passed the "Enforce the Law for Sanctuary Cities Act," which threatens to cut off federal spending on community safety programs unless cities act to protect our citizens from violent acts when perpetrated by immigrants. 

So, What DID He Do on that Mountain?

John 6:1-21
Proper 12/ Ordinary time 17, Year B

I. Background

The first thing that is important to know about the feeding stories is how significant they were for Jesus and the early church. The feedings are the only miracles that are shared in all four Gospels, and two of them, John and Mark, have either a second feeding story or a second version of the same story. So, either (a) both of them thought the story was so important that they wanted to share it twice (which would attest to its significance to the early church) or (b) Jesus did more feeding than most of us had assumed (which would attest to its significance in the ministry of Jesus). Either possibility testifies to its importance.

John’s version of the story is laden with political symbolism, some of which is apparent to “normal” readers (whatever that means), and some are not. I’ll point out a few of the most important, but John starts right at the very beginning dropping interesting clues.

Notice, for example, that he begins with Jesus getting off of a boat at the Sea of Galilee. All of the four gospels agree on this. But only John adds that it was also known as the Sea of “Tiberias.” Why did he add that? One reason is that Tiberias was one of the most hated and politically volatile cities in Palestine, and he wants the reader to take note of that. It had been in existence for only a few short years. It was built by Herod Antipas at the edge of the Sea of Galilee in the year 20 c.e. (and recall that Jesus’ ministry was around 30 c.e.). It was built to facilitate trade with the gentiles who populated the opposite side of the Sea. What made it a hated name and avoided by many locals was that it was built upon a local Jewish graveyard and was therefore considered unclean to observant Jews. Only people from outside of Israel (and sellouts within Israel) would ever dare living there.

Second, in the short time between its founding and the life of Jesus, it grew rapidly to become the largest city in Israel, surpassing even Sepphoris, which Antipas had rebuilt from ruins and enlarged just a few years earlier. This meant that in less than one generation, tiny Israel grew to have three major cities (these two plus Jerusalem), two of which were populated mainly by outsiders, and all demanding a steady supply of food from the surrounding farms and villages. Their rapid growth put difficult demands on the normal harvests in the region and contributed to an upswing in hunger around them. This was also exacerbated by pro-city economic policies of Antipas, which forced rural farmers to either give up some of their produce to feed the cities or pay a tribute on what they did not give. So, the more crops they grew, the more they had to pay in tribute to the powerful urban centers. They could lower the tax by lowering their production, but they’d still have to pay a percentage to the state, and then they’d have even less left over with which to feed their families. So, they lost either way. Biblical scholar Obery Hendricks, describes the economic life of first century farmers this way:

Most peasant farmers had land holdings of less than six acres, of which on average only 1.5 acres was available for cultivation, hardly enough to support a family. That is, if they were fortunate enough to have saved their farms from outright seizure by the Romans, or from dispossession for tax default, or from the machinations of the Herodians and their cronies who, it is estimated, owned one-half to two-thirds of the land in Galilee. To make ends meet, most farmers either had to hire themselves out for wages to supplement their meager crops, or go into debt, which was usually a worse alternative. Tenant farmers and share-croppers often fared even worse, ending up in prison or enslaved by their creditors.[2]

When food production for the average resident of Galilee was exported to the cities, it did two things. First, it simply lowered the amount of fruits, vegetables, and grains that were available to be consumed by the farmers and made the region grow incrementally more hungry. Second, and more interestingly, when such large percentages of grains were taken out of system, it made the prices of the remaining grains go up. It’s the simple law of “supply and demand”: when there is more of something the price goes down and when there is less of something it goes up. So, there was less food to go around to eat and the food that was grown began to cost more to purchase for the non-farm families who didn’t have direct access to it themselves.

In many ways this is a story that could be told of many poor farmers in the world today. Following the global economic “reforms” of the 1970s and ‘80s, much of the farming in poor and developing countries of the global south was forcefully reoriented from production for local consumption to production for exports. In some instances they were pushed to sell larger and larger portions of their wheat or other grains to middle people or the government which would then export it to the wealthy (usually northern) countries. In some instances they would cease food production altogether and instead grow cash crops like hemp, or cotton, or coffee. In this activity, many people made (and still make) a lot of money, but the same two principles that exacerbated hunger in ancient Israel held true here as well: taking food off of the market meant that there was less of it, and what remained went up in price for low-income non-farmers. So, over all, while some people benefitted from globalization and the rise of the global “free” market, by and large the poor farmers of the world became more poor.

When the ancient farmers of Israel were unable to pay the food tax, they did have access to a convenient loan program from the large wealthy land owners to tide them over—but the interest rates were often as high as fifty to sixty percent! With this precarious combination of fees and loans, whenever there was a bad harvest either from drought or unseasonable rains, many farmers would simply lose everything and have to sell their animals, or their farms, and finally their bodies as slaves to their creditors.[3] High rates of interest were one of the key tools used for creating poverty and debt slavery in the ancient world.

This too has a contemporary parallel. Leaders of poor and developing countries in the global south took out huge loans in the 1970s from banks in the north, under the advice that they would make enough in export sales back to the north again to eventually pay back the loans and become “First World” countries. However, in the eighties, two things came together at the same time that destroyed that possibility. First, the wealthy countries of the global north fell into a recession and cut back on purchases of the products that the poor countries were trying to sell to raise money to pay back the loans. And that drove the prices of their products downward, severely cutting back on their ability make payments on the loans. Second (partly because of the recession and partly because of the US Federal Reserve tightening credit), the interest on their loans went up. So, while the costs for their loans (the interest) was going up, their income with which to pay on them was going down. Poor countries fell into an economic abyss from which many have still not quite recovered. Latin America called the eighties the “Lost Decade,” but the nineties were nothing to write home about. To keep the countries paying on their loans, the wealthy and powerful countries, and the multi-lateral banks that they controlled (like the World Bank and the IMF), forced them into draconian, belt tightening, austerity programs that cut things like health care, education and price supports for the poor. It caused so much suffering that many people of faith and conscience believed them to be a modern version of slavery. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs and their livelihoods (not to mention all of the merchants and services around them who no longer had customers), driving unimaginable numbers of people into hunger, poverty and in many cases outright starvation. All of which is ominously reminiscent of the time of Nehemiah, when debts grew so large that people had to sell their children to pay them. To pay our creditors, they said, “we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.” In Mexico, and Central America, millions of those who fled north to the US in the nineties did so in part as a response to the economic cutbacks imposed upon their countries that devastated their local communities.

In the US following the 2007-9 recession this same philosophy was used to cripple state economies in order to “save” them. The ideology that cutting salaries, pensions, benefits, social services and jobs to pay off loans would somehow result in growth was imposed on state and local governments in the US and also the poorer countries of southern Europe. The belief  was that if you can just fire enough people and cut enough salaries, pensions and benefits, and cause enough suffering and hunger and misery, then it will miraculously lift the economy and promote business and trade. Today, many, perhaps most, economists believe that one of the reasons why our recession lasted as long as it did and rebounded as poorly as it did was because of the state and local governments took this path off cutting, rather than stimulating, their way to “growth.”

This policy is not totally wrong in the long, long, long, long, long, term, perhaps, but in the short term (twenty to thirty years) the reverse has nearly always happened. In the developing world cuts of the eighties, it took more than twenty years of brutal, painful human suffering before the economies began to claw their way back to some semblance of economic health. The problem with this ideology is that when people’s incomes and salaries are cut, they pay less in income and sales taxes and the government’s income actually goes down (not up) and its deficit increases, resulting in the “need” for more and more rounds of cuts. It was and is a downward spiral that almost always ends badly. Like the US states, the poor countries stricken by this policy in the eighties and nineties (and countries like Greece today), were forced into massive cuts and firings and that policy has been a major drag on the global economy its recovery from the recession. In Europe the horrific cuts in social services and livelihoods drove Greece into such poverty that it will take generations before they reach anything roughly resembling economic and social health.[4] The demands for cuts in personnel and social spending made to Greece by the European Union in July 2015 were so extreme that even the usually bloodless number crunchers in the IMF protested that they would cripple the Greek economy and make their debts unpayable (and their people suffer) for over thirty years before they could be paid back.[5]

While the details of these contemporary examples are different than those of first century Palestine, they are in many ways similar. The demands imposed on poor farmers by Herod and wealthy land owners and those imposed on poor nations by creditors and wealthy nations, both have a familiar ring to them.

All of this background is tied closely to the feeding story and is related to why the author of the Gospel of John wanted you to know that this took place close to the hated city of Tiberias. Have you ever wondered why it was that so often when Jesus was in the country side he was swarmed by great crowds of people? Where did they come from? When he is in the towns, you may not see them by the thousands, but there are still hoards flocking after him. Even allowing for some exaggeration from the Gospel writers, it still is an interesting phenomenon. Where did they come from? These stories were for the most part in the middle of the day. Don’t they have jobs?

The answer is “no.” These were people who were driven off of their land by poverty and hunger and oppression by their rulers. They often were not able to pay the demanded tribute and feed themselves at the same time and got desperately into debt and finally lost their farms.[6] Some in fact moved back onto the farms they once owned as indebted workers; many others just became homeless, beggars, prostitutes, thieves, and day laborers. When they heard of Jesus, teaching, healing and feeding in the region or neighborhood they flocked to see him. And when he got out of the boat at the beginning of our story, and the crowds saw him, they clamored for him, wanting to see or experience some of the healing signs that they had heard were taking place through him.

Another seemingly innocuous comment from John is that all of this took place near the Passover. There is nothing in the story as it stands that otherwise refers to, or relates to, the Passover, so why did he think it was important to mention that here? Part of it was likely  because he wants the reader to think of Jesus as a new Moses, who you will recall also delivered bread (manna) from a mountain (Exod. 16:4, cf. John 6:31-33). But it is also likely that John once again wants us to feel the politically charged atmosphere surrounding this event. In a fairly consistent way, whenever John makes note of an event being close to a Jewish festival, he has Jesus present some kind of controversial teaching that subverts and undermines a traditional teaching that is held by the religious authorities, and the result is often a confrontation with those authorities (cf. 1:13ff; 7:2ff; 10:22ff; 12:1ff)”[7] While in this instance the religious authorities do not show up until after the feeding story, the provocative, confrontational nature of the feeding is nonetheless clear here as well.

Here is where the story begins to get interesting (I bet you thought it was interesting already). When Jesus and his disciples cross over the Sea of Tiberius, and settle down on a high hill to rest, he sees a large crowd running up the hill toward them. He leans over to Philip and asks, “Where can we go to buy enough bread to feed these people?” John says that he already knew the answer to that question when he asked it, but he asked it anyway to see what Philip would say (v. 6).

It might be helpful to point out here that—at least in the hands of John, the gospel writer—these conversations with the disciples are understood to be conversations also with the church. John preserves them or crafts them and broadens them, in ways that let them speak to the critical issues of his own church community, and not just to one individual on the side of a lake in ancient Israel. So, when we overhear these exchanges thousands of years later, we too should feel ourselves being asked the same questions asked of Philip and the others, “where are we going to get the food to feed these people?”

Philip answers him with the straightforward economic reality: No place. Nowhere. It’s impossible. To feed these people, he says, would take six months of wages, and nobody—certainly not the rag tag crowd that were following Jesus—had that kind of money lying around. Even if Judas had not been skimming off donations from the till,[8] they still couldn’t do it. Six months wages (or eight or ten, depending on the various translations) are actually just guesses. In the Greek it says two hundred denarii. A denarius was a Roman coin equal to about one day’s wage for a desperately poor common laborer. Philip is saying it would take two hundred days’ worth of work to feed these people (though the value of money at the time was falling because the size of the work force was growing). His precision is interesting. Why not be more general as numbers often are in the Bible? My hunch is that in addition to just simply saying that this is a big chunk of change, it is likely that Philip is also expressing his exasperation about the outrageousness of the decline in the value of money in his day, and the rapid escalation in prices.[9] He is probably making a statement about the impossibility of buying food to live on in an age of stagnating wages and inflationary prices. And if that is what he was doing, he was certainly correct.

As an aside, I also find it interesting that Jesus asked the “where” question, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” But Philip only hears a “how much” question: “How much will it cost to buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus’ question assumes that they will buy bread, and can buy bread, but Philip’s answer makes it clear that he disagrees. He thinks they can’t buy that much bread, no matter where the late-night bakery is located. Philip is talking in simple economic terms but Jesus is talking about something larger.

Before Jesus could say anything, Andrew, Peter’s brother—also sounding exasperated and futile—says, “Well, we got this boy here, who has some fish and bread.” It’s not clear in English, but his choice of words indicates that he also thinks this is a lost cause. The words for “boy” (paidárion) and “fish” (opsarion )[10] are diminutive, that is, a “small boy” and a “small amount of fish.” Also, the use of the term “barley” loaves has a negative connotation to it because only the very poor and the very desperate would lower themselves to tasting this tasteless bread. Barley was what you fed to farm animals. Translated into more clear English, he’s saying something like, “We got bubkes here, zilch, nada. Our resources are zero, the economy has gone to Hades, and just to make that perfectly clear, look at what we’ve got for a meal: a little kid with a couple of fish and some really, really, smelly barley, which tastes awful, and I’m not going there.” (Maybe not a word-for-word translation, but you get the point.)

Jesus responds to this in a very odd way, but before we get to it, let me say what Jesus did not do. He did not offer communion. That is, when he took the loaves, broke them, gave thanks, and gave them…, he was not imitating some form of pre-communion, even though the Gospel writers, writing many years later, certainly had that in mind, and even though approximately 487.09 gazillion preachers (more or less) have later said he did. Whatever else he was thinking of up there on the mountain, it is all but one hundred percent certain that Jesus did not have the Celebration of Holy Eucharist on his mind while he was breaking bread and handing it out to hungry people. If he did, what would have been the point? The crowd that gathered there on that day would have had no idea what he was talking about. He could not have been trying to do some symbolism to tens of thousands of strangers of an event that had not even happened yet. Almost every Bible scholar on the planet (with the possible exception of my pet squirrel, but his credentials are a little thin) believes that the Gospel writers retrofitted that theology back into the actions of Jesus later because that was what they were thinking about, not Jesus.

So, with that out of the way, what did Jesus do? If the account can be accepted (and of course, that always carries some degree of conjecture), he was looking out onto a sea of faces, all poor and almost all hungry. They represented a wide swath of the economic and social bottom of Israelite society of the day. They were probably far more than 5,000 people, because in those days they only counted men, not women and not children. So a good guess would be at least ten thousand, perhaps as many as twenty. Again, this is if the crowd estimates of John and the others can be accepted, but by any accounting this was an incredible number of people.

Look again at the four acts described before the actual feeding: he “took,” “gave thanks,”[11] “broke,” and “gave.” While these probably are not images that prophesy upcoming Holy Communion, they are images that hearken back to traditional Hebrew gestures of a gracious host welcoming guests to his banquet table (except that Jesus’ guest list was a bit larger than that of most of us).

Think about the first two words, “took” and “blessed.” These are welcoming acts, and in a typical first century Jewish family, these are the acts of hosting. They bring you into the family. The last two, “broke” and “gave” are acts of serving and they are acts done usually by a slave (or worse: a wife). Notice too that before Jesus either welcomes or serves, he has everyone in the crowd “recline” (anepeson), which is the posture one takes in a banquet, not an ordinary meal. To recline means that the host has to lean down to serve you. It is also the posture that Jesus takes later in his last supper, when he also serves. In doing this, Jesus, in a subtle, almost radical, way has symbolically taken on the role of both master and slave, husband and wife, teacher and student, and welcomes everyone to the table.[12] When he does that, the participants almost certainly realized that something very special was about to happen.

So far, he is doing two things. First he is embodying the majestic vision of the “messianic banquet” of the Hebrew prophets. And they, in turn, were envisioning the “Jubilee,” that great age, heralded in Leviticus 25, when all of God’s creation, which has been broken and disfigured by human corruption and greed, will be returned back to the harmony and justice that God had originally intended. In the Jubilee, the days of God’s final dispensation, a celebration of oneness and equality will break out all over the land, and it will be symbolized by the one thing that almost all poor people lacked: food. There will be a great and glorious banquet on the mountain tops, which will be attended by all who can walk or crawl (and some who can do neither).

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
        of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
— Isaiah 25:6

Most significant for a Christian interpretation of this act is that throughout his ministry, Jesus many times—here included—acted as though he was embodying the vision of the banquet. He acted it out in his behaviors with others and embodied its salvific meaning. His expansive, sharing, welcoming style had in fact garnered for him a reputation as a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 11:19). It was considered a criticism by his enemies, but to his supporters it was actually a beacon of what God intended for the earth. He “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1–2) and in so doing he becomes God’s magisterial welcome mat to sinners (which, we should remember, included people who were sick, contagious, old, non-Jews, immigrants, criminals, slaves, and women) to enter in and become a part of the true end for humanity, the “kingdom” of God.

An important link to the events of the Last Supper is that in that meal, not only was he pointing backward to this feeding story, but he was also pointing forward to the coming eschatological banquet. He said, “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18; cf. Luke 22:28–30).

Second, Jesus is also not just symbolically being the new realm of God embodied on earth, but he is also modeling a way to create it. If your community is beginning to feel the long, slow rise of hunger in America, then Jesus’ modeling of a way to address it may speak to you. He once told his followers, “The Kingdom (or realm) of God is within you,” and here is what that Realm looks like. Watch his actions: He holds up the little boy and distributes his paltry offering in front of everyone, and suddenly there is an abundance of food. One way of putting it is to say that what happened in the various feeding stories was much less “magical” than they sound in the preaching of most sermons, but far more “miraculous.”

It’s very likely that what happened was something like this: Jesus took the little boy and set him in front of the crowd and said, “Hey, hey, all of you. Listen up. Look up here, focus, focus. Okay. Now I know that all of you are very poor. All of you have felt like you have been caught up in the economic crash that drove up the prices of food and drove down your income. We all know that. And all of you are afraid that you don’t have enough even to survive on your own and you’re afraid to spend anything. Now, I’m not going to give you some long lecture about Keynesian economics and how major financial powers need to step in and invest and spend and loan until the smaller folks can get their faith and trust and security back. Rome may get around to something like that one of these days, but who knows.

“Until then, we’re going to try something else; something that might be a model for the government and might work out better for you in the long run; something that might actually bring in the Kingdom that I’ve been talking so much about. We may not have enough food to go around individually, but in the aggregate, we can fix this problem. I’m going to put this little kid out in front here—with his frankly dismal little offering—for all of you to look at. He’s saying he is offering to give us everything he’s got, and I want you to see that. And then I’m going to break up his smelly bread and give thanks to God for it, and then start distributing it to all of you, and then you will…well, I don’t know. I hope I know what you’re going to do, but let’s see what happens after that. Alright? Got it? Don’t let me down. So now bow your heads I’m going to pray” and he starts praying.

And then, I think, as the bits and pieces of food are handed down the aisle, one person starts to think to himself, “Y’ know, the wife did make me this sandwich and packed me this thermos of coffee, and I probably don’t need all of it, so I’ll break it in half and pass it down with the barley as it comes handed down the aisle to me.” And then the next guy says, “Well, I do have this banana that I forgot to check at the gate when I came in, and I don’t need all of it,” so he breaks it in half and passes it down. And then there’s the guy who picked up the box of Oreos at the Seven Eleven that morning on the way out of town to the rally. And the one who won the turkey at the meat raffle at the Grange meeting last night. And the one who remembers he still has a piece of that fruit cake left over from the office party a couple of years ago that never went bad. And so on, all down the line, until all the loaves and fishes had been passed around and the disciples gathered up the scraps and found twelve baskets full of leftovers and snacks.

Goodness. Now that would be a miracle!

[1] The list is probably slightly exaggerated, but close enough to make the point.
[2] Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (Doubleday, 2006) p.
[3] Exod. 23:6–13; Lev. 25; Deut. 15; cf. 2 Kings 8:1–6; Neh. 5.
[4] It would take far too much space to develop this theme, but it is essentially true that until relatively recently (the Reagan/Thatcher administrations), it was considered basic “Econ 101” that you spend money during a recession because the economy needs more money and you paid it back during boom times because then the economy has more money. The idea of cutting spending when the economy is in recession and desperately needs money to survive is a relatively new notion and somewhat like bleeding a hemophiliac and expecting it to make him get well.
[5] “The IMF position on Greece – explained, The Guardian (www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/jul/15/the-imf-position-on-greece-explained), retrieved July 22, 2015.
[6] See Amy Jill-Levine, “Visions of Kingdoms” The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Ed. Michael D. Coogan (Oxford University Press: 1998), p. 364.
[7] “Jesus Doesn’t Use IVR!”, Homiletics, vol. 18, no. 4, July 2006, pp. 41-46.
[8] John 12:6, “…he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”
[9] The Denarius (from the Latin dēnī, “containing ten”) was a silver coin originally minted as the value of ten asses. However, during the reign of Caesar Augustus (63 bce –14 ce), it had steadily declined in value to where, by the time of the ministry of Jesus, it had shrunk to nearly half its original size and purchasing value in asses. Unsurprisingly, in Israel all of the people forced to work on the massive government jobs were paid the same salaries decade after decade, even as the value of the currency was falling. Other references to denarii in the Gospels: Matthew 20:1-2; John 6:5-7; John 6:5-7; Luke 10:33-35; and John 12:4-6.
[10] In fact, the Louw/Nida Greek-English Lexicon translates it as a fish “Tidbit.”
[11] Actually the Synoptics say “blessed” (eulogēsen) and John’s Gospel says “gave thanks” (eucharistēsas), but the difference is not great enough for our purposes here to quibble.
[12] In the words of John Dominic Crossan, “Long before he was the ‘host,’ he was the hostess.” The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), p. 404.

I’m a Christian, Therefore I Support Same-Sex Marriage

2015-07-01-1435781644-9557938-Obergefell_v._Hodges_Decision_Announced_at_the_Supreme_Court_of_the_United_States_June_26_20151.jpgCrowd assembled in front of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, DC on Friday, June 26, 2015
(commons.wikimedia.org Matt Popovich)
Last week, in a landmark opinion, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples would be allowed to marry in all fifty states. And that banning them would violate the 14th Amendment of the federal Constitution. It was a historic victory for gay rights advocates, and immediately there was both dancing in the streets and weddings in the chapels.
However, before the digital ink was dry on the press releases, a chorus of protests rose up by those who opposed the decision, mainly from evangelical Christians. Some of the comments were strongly worded and ominous. Many of them, like TV evangelist, Pat Robertson, said that because of this decision, there will be a national wave of persecutions of Christians. Christians will now be hunted down and raped by mobs of gay people, he said. They will be "the victims of vicious, vicious attacks," just like the angels who visited Sodom were nearly raped by "virulent homosexuals." Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told Fox News that the Supreme Court has knowingly chosen to reject biblical truths and endorsed sin instead. "This court is endorsing sin," he said, "That's what homosexuality is--a sin against God...I believe God could bring judgment upon America." California megachurch pastor Greg Laurie told his flock that the decision was an "attack on the Bible," a sign of the end times coming, and that dire "Bible prophecies are being fulfilled before our very eyes." And the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, of the New Season Christian Worship Center, says the decision "serves as a de facto and legal catalyst for the marginalization of Americans who embrace a biblical worldview."
When I hear of my brothers and sisters in the faith protesting full equality for gay people in the name of the Bible, it breaks my heart. It reminds me of that fake booklet that was going around a few years ago. On the cover were the words, "Open This to Read Everything Jesus Ever said About Homosexuality."
And, of course, if you opened it up, it was blank, absolutely blank.
It's true. Jesus never said a single word about gays or lesbians or same-sex marriage, or any of the other social issues that so many people seem to be possessed with fighting today.
There are, of course, other places in the Bible that talk about various forms of same-gender coupling. The Apostle Paul, for example, in one of his letters, condemned a particularly horrendous practice in ancient Rome where an older rich male would take in a young boy and have him castrated and then use him as a sex toy. Well, I don't think gay marriage advocates would approve of that either.
And then there are the famous passages in Leviticus 18 and 20, that are often used by people to excoriate gays. Chapter 18 says that it is an "abomination" if a man "lies" with someone who is "of his own flesh," or neighbors, or animals, or another man. Then chapter 20 says that if a male is caught doing any of those things, then all of them--men, women, and the pet dog--should all be taken to the edge of town and killed, some by fire, some with rocks. Um, in our most intense religious moments, I don't think most of us would want to enact those biblical provisions into law.
There are two or three other passages (that's right, only two or three out of 31,173) that deal even remotely with anything we could call homosexuality, but even if every single one was an outright, clear, condemnation of gay rights or gay marriage, it still seems hard to argue that this issue has any real importance in the Bible. Until people started tediously scouring through the texts looking for those random verses that might prove their conviction that gays were sinful, I don't think anyone had ever given it any thought. In fact, a quick perusal of my eighteenth and nineteenth century commentaries on these hot button verses shows nothing. No one, until recently, ever thought that the Bible had any stance on the subject. No one tried to dig out those verses to prove that the Bible was opposed to gay rights or gay "lifestyle" or gay marriage.
Now, it's not as though Jesus didn't have strong opinions on other things. He railed against people who were wealthy or powerful, or who oppressed the poor, the sick and the weak. And more. But he never said a word about the two retired women in a church I used to serve who met playing bridge and fell in love and then wanted to seal their love in holy matrimony.
He talked a lot about welcoming in those who were --as we might say today--"marginalized," that is, foreigners, lepers, the sick, the poor, and even women (men were not supposed to talk to women, though Jesus often did). But he never said anything about two young men who meet in college and fall in love but can never tell anyone because their church has told them that their love was a sin.
Jesus' sense of radical openness to all kinds of people was very controversial in his day and unfortunately it still is today. He told us to go out into the highways and byways and bring in the kinds of people (that most of us would not want to have in our family) and to offer them a seat at our table. In fact, that attitude of his was probably one of the things that got him killed. And following in his footsteps today isn't easy.
But I'm not a Christian because what Jesus said was easy. I'm a Christian because I've been convicted that what he said was true.
We hear Pat Robertson, or Franklin Graham, or many others, call for a constitutional amendment to deny the Supreme Court the authority to make rulings on social issues. They say it's right and just (and should be legal) to exclude whole groups of people from ever getting married.
I don't know where they're going with that, but it makes me say, I'm going with Jesus
When someone like Donald Trump says that two men getting married violates the meaning of traditional marriage, but his own three wives and multiple affairs does not, I'm going with Jesus.
When I hear politicians--most of whom are either Christians or at least religious--say that it's legal for Brittney Spears (remember her?) to have a one-day marriage because she got drunk in a bar and woke up married, but that we need to re-write the constitution to protect us from the two gay guys who lived across the street from my mother and took care of her when she was old and sick, I think I'm going with Jesus.
When the chips are down and the going gets rough, and people are claiming that we need to protect ourselves from a dangerous wave of tolerance, and openness, and acceptance, I think I'm going with Jesus.
And I think that going with Jesus--that is, "being a Christian"--means that I really have to support same-sex marriage.
Saints Sergius and Bacchus, 7th Century Christians. Thought by Yale historian John Boswell to be an example of an early Christian same-sex union (with Jesus in the center as officiant) reflective of tolerant early Christians attitudes toward homosexuality.
(Public domain en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergius_and_Bacchus)

Natural and Unnatural Disasters in Nepal

Stan G. Duncan

Nepal has been in the news recently and for horrific reasons. If you are a member of a religious congregation or faith group, you have probably heard someone lift them up in prayer over the last few weeks. Their situation is terrifyingly awful and will probably stay that way for years.

On April 15, Nepal was hit by one of the most devastating earthquakes in modern history. The quake (and its aftermaths) took the lives of over 9,000 people and wounded or destroyed the homes and towns and livelihoods of millions more. The numbers are so staggering they can easily sound like bumper stickers and statistics instead of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and children, all of whom deserved to live and love and have meaningful lives in the middle of some already incredibly difficult conditions.

Here are some of those statistics: According to a study recently released by the United Nations, twelve babies are born every hour in one of the earthquake-impacted regions of Nepal that doesn’t have basic health care.[1] Clean water, stable homes, basic roads, are all desperately threatened. Even before the earthquake, Nepal was ranked 145th out of 187 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index. In addition to having no ocean access, little arable farmland, and few easily accessible natural resources, it also has been stricken for decades with civil wars, palace coups, and corrupt leaders. All of which make economic development daunting under the best of circumstances.

And now this.

There is one area of the crisis where you can help. It’s an issue that few people realize and few in the media report on. That is, much of Nepal’s “ordinary” attempts at economic development have been hindered for decades by an enormous and growing external debt.

That sounds geeky and complicated, but here is the breakdown of what Nepal owes bank and oother lenders:
  • $1,100 million to the World Bank;
  • $1,200 million to non-World Bank multilateral agencies (such as the Asian Development Bank);
  • $250 million to governments (like the US and others);
  • $64 million to the International Monetary Fund  
  • $1 million to private lenders. [2]

What that means in day-to-day money is that Nepal—again one of the poorest countries in the world—pays nearly $600,000 in debt payments every single day.[3] To put that in perspective, it's helpful to note that the US typically gives Nepal about $15 million a year in foreign aid. Since the earthquake, we have increased that up to $25 million.[4] That’s a lot of money. However, Nepal pays back, out of the country (to the World Bank, the US, etc.) over $27 million every six weeks! Imagine how many roads, homes, and schools, could be built with more than America’s entire annual donation every month and a half. Even if you believe that some of that will be spent badly through corruption and faulty financial systems (less likely during such a disaster, but not impossible), it still would not be the absolute net loss to the economy and growth that it is now.

One organization that is in the forefront of lobbying the IMF and others to cancel those debts is the faith-based Jubilee USA Network. You may have read about them for their similar lobbying efforts in 2010, following the disastrous earthquake in Haiti. Haiti was also weighted down with external (and ancient) debts that were nearly impossible to pay off before the hurricane, and out of the question afterwards. And last year, during the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, Jubilee (and others) pushed successfully to have the International Monetary Fund (IMF) establish a “Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust” (CCR), which provides relief to poor countries after a natural disaster or health crisis. When the trust was established, it was able to cancel $100 million in debt for Ebola-impacted West African countries. Not bad work for a tiny organization of religious people that survives off of individual donations and rummage sales from churches, synagogues and mosques.

If Jubilee is successful this time around, Nepal is likely to qualify for around $23 million from the IMF. That doesn’t sound like much, but the IMF is a sort of “gatekeeper” for many of the other lending countries and agencies. If the IMF cancels major debts of Nepal, then the US, Europe, the World Bank, and regional development banks will follow suit. Hundreds of millions could be freed up for targeted and specific relief and development work. 

Here are the guidelines for qualifying, according to the IMF. The country must be suffering from a natural catastrophic and:
  • Have a per capita income below US$1,215;
  • Have the disaster directly affect at least one third of the population; and
  • Have it destroy more than a quarter of the country’s productive capacity…[5]
There are few things in the world that are more clear than that poverty-stricken and earthquake beaten Nepal qualifies for debt relief. And the IMF is to be applauded for creating the special trust and putting Nepal's case at the front for consideration. But you can help. This is one of those rare international tragedies where ordinary people can actually play a role. Here are three things you can do.

First,     Click here to sign a petition to the IMF to encourage them to open the CCR trust to Nepal. Nepal almost definitely qualifies for that, but if the IMF receives a significant number of names on a petition, it will be a serious encouragement to them in their deliberations.

Second, Click here to make a donation to the tremendous work that this small-but-aggressive, under-the-radar organization does for economic justice and responsible lending and borrowing all around the world. They survive off of small donations from individuals like you and me and could use your support.

Third,  Click here if you would like to play a larger part: volunteer, host a speaker, start a chapter, etc. Do you belong to a religious congregation or a social service organization that would be interested in joining Jubilee as a group? Then Click here to go to their “Jubilee Congregation” page.

I know it sounds self-serving for me to say this, since I have been with them since their founding fifteen years ago, but they are a solid, responsible organization that has done amazing work over the years, and deserve your help. The good people of places like Nepal deserve it.

Stan Duncan

(Stan Duncan is an economist and a pastor with the United Church of Christ. He is presently serving as interim pastor at the Four Corners Community Chapel in Cumberland, RI, and is on the national Board of Directors for the Jubilee USA Network)

[1] “Nepal earthquake: IMF aid likely as toll reaches 3,200,” Jerin Mathew, April 27, 2015 http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/nepal-earthquake-imf-aid-likely-toll-reaches-3200-1498455).
[2] “External debt is a cancer to Nepal. Cancel it now!” Sunil Pant, May 15, 2015 (http://scroll.in/article/727811/external-debt-is-a-cancer-to-nepal-cancel-it-now).
[3] Jubilee USA Network report, “Devastated Nepal Daily Pays $600,000 on Debt,” May 15, 2015 (http://www.jubileeusa.org/press/press-item/article/devastated-nepal-daily-pays-600000-on-debt.html).  
[4] “U.S. Increases Funding to Nepal Earthquake Relief Effort,” Alfonso E. Lenhardt, May 5th 2015 (http://blog.usaid.gov/2015/05/u-s-increases-funding-to-nepal-earthquake-relief-effort).  
[5] It goes on to add, “as estimated by early indications such as destroyed structures and impact on key economic sectors and public institutions, or caused damage deemed to exceed 100 percent of GDP.” The Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, February 13, 2015, pp. 1-2 (http://www.imf.org/external/np/exr/facts/pdf/ccr.pdf).

"Now You Go Behave"

Sermon notes and Suggestions on Jeremiah 31:31-34
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary

This is a beautiful and theologically powerful passage, and it contains numerous themes and allusions which could work well with a justice message. However, perhaps the first thing to be emphasized in interpreting it is that its reference to “old” and “new” covenants does not refer either to the Old and New Testaments, or to the Eucharistic words of Jesus. It is certainly clear that the Christian Bible compilers had Jeremiah in mind when they separated the two testaments (or testamentum, “covenants”), as did Jesus (or his biographers) at the last supper. But to say, as commentators occasionally have, that Jeremiah was prophesying the division of the Bible into two parts, diminishes the very important message that Jeremiah was in fact trying to convey.[1]

Background to Jeremiah 31
In terms of its background, this section is a part of a larger collection of writings, chs. 30-31, sometimes known as the “Book of Comfort.” There is some debate as to whether portions of this collection (including today’s text) were authored by Jeremiah himself or one of his followers. The reason is that they were written during the latter days of the Babylonian exile and Jeremiah would have been extremely old by that time if he was their author. However, the language and message is very compatible with that of Jeremiah (see the very similar message found in ch. 32:37-41 and 24:7), so if they were in fact composed by a later writer, that writer believed that he or she was writing within Jeremiah’s point of view.[2]  Also, the purpose of this section was to promise hope and a renewal of the covenant to the beleaguered and depressed Hebrew community living in Babylonia, and for our purposes, that message is important regardless of the author.

The New Covenant
In this text Yahweh promises a new day and a new covenant for the exiled houses of Judah and Israel. The previous covenant was based upon their liberation from bondage, “when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.” But they broke that covenant, resulting in their new bondage in Babylonia, and now God is promising to try it again, this time placing it within them and writing it on their hearts.

To illustrate to your parishioners what this offer of a new covenant might have meant theologically to Israel (and to us today), you might reflect with them on the meaning of the original covenant Yahweh made with Moses at Mt. Sinai. It was the central event for all Israelite life and thought, and had a profound impact on later Christian thinking. In it Yahweh promised to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and in return they promised to act like liberated people. That meant two things: worshiping only Yahweh, and treating others in the same manner that they had been treated by God. They were a chosen, liberated people, and their only requirement was that they were to act like it: they should be different from their idolatrous, brutal, oppressive neighbors. This is the basic theological assumption of much of the Hebrew scriptures (including Jeremiah).

Deuteronomy contains a number of statements of this theology. For example, why should you love a stranger? “You shall...love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). After listing things to do in the Sabbatical year (including the remission of debts and slaves, and to “open your hand to the poor and need neighbor in your land”) the Deuteronomist reminds them why: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today” (15:15). Their redemption from slavery was the theological backbone for ethical conduct with the weak and the marginalized:
“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice;

you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.
Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there;
therefore I command you to do this” (24:17-18).

“When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall before the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this” (24:22 cf. Deut. 5:6, 15, 10:17-22, 16:12, 26:6-10).
However, as numerous prophetic voices later point out, the Hebrew people repeatedly broke their end of the covenant, following after other gods and oppressing their neighbors.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;

      they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan,    to make it prosper,
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
      Shall I not punish them for these things?
                       says the LORD? (Jer. 5:27b-28)
        [T]hey sell the righteous (or “the innocent”) for silver
             and the needy for a pair of sandals---
        they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
             and push the afflicted out of the way.
                                                            (Amos 2:6-7a)
And in a brutal world, why were these crimes so important? Because God had liberated them and they were supposed to act different.
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt,
      and led you forty years in the wilderness
to possess the land of the Amorites.
      And I raised up some of your children to be prophets
and some of your youths to be nazirites (priests).
      Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel?
                                      says the LORD.
                                                                    (Amos 2:10-11)
To the Israelites, the clear result of breaking the covenant was punishment and a return to bondage in Babylonia, which for them became a new “Egypt.”
This (the exile) occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They had worshiped other gods and walked in the customs of the nations....(2 Kings 17:7-8a. Cf. 2 Kings 21:14-15, 23:26-27, 24:3-4).

In his famous “Temple Sermon,” Jeremiah paraphrases the “if...then” nature of the covenant:
...[I]f you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. (Jer 7:5-7)
But, of course, they did not hold up their end of the covenant.
...[Y]ou steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name, and say, “we are safe!”---only to go on doing all of these abominations. [Therefore] I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste. (Jer. 7:9-10, 34)
With that background, we can return now to chapter 31, and understand how important this “new” covenant was to be. God had liberated them from slavery and delivered them to a promised land so that they would be different from their neighbors. They would create a community of justice in which the weak (widows, orphans, resident aliens, and “the poor”) would be cared for. Deuteronomy 15, Exodus 12, and Leviticus 25 (the latter containing the Jubilee laws) describe a kingdom with radically just values, the values of a world as God intended it. Slavery of your neighbors (which in Israel was almost always caused by indebtedness) would be banned. Slavery of foreigners would be canceled after seven years. Aid would be given to neighbors in need, and one was not allowed to give aid to a friend or family member in need in such a way as to turn a profit. But instead of this Jubilee kingdom, the Israelites evolved into a society of economic exploitation and oppression rivaling that of their neighbors.  It is one of the interesting ironies of biblical history that the Jubilee laws of Leviticus were some of the most radically egalitarian of any ancient society, and perhaps because of that, there is not one single example in or out of the Bible of the powers that be ever allowing those laws to be enacted.

On Their Hearts
The result of all of this for Jeremiah (and others) was that God responded to their violation of the covenant by delivering them into a second slavery, this time in Babylonia. In 597, with the surrender of Jehoiachin of Judah, and again in 587, with the fall of Jerusalem itself, the wealthy, the powerful, and the royalty of Israel were all deported to Babylon for almost fifty years. This geopolitical event was, according to Jeremiah and other theologians of the period, a direct result of their acts of oppressing the poor and worshiping idols: the two major “planks” of the violated covenant. But now, says Jeremiah, in spite of their sin, God would give them a second chance, a second opportunity to bring about the world that God intended. God was now promising to make available for them a new covenant. It would not be new in terms of content—the torah would still be its basis (Jer. 31:33)—but in terms of place. This new covenant which would be made available to them would not be imposed upon them from the outside, but would be embedded “within them,” “on their hearts” (lêb or “in their center”).  It is a bit like the emotions of a cat. There are few things in creation that are less responsive than a cat who does not give a damn whether you live or die.  And there are few animals more loving than a cat who wants to show affection. The difference is a matter of the will from the inside, certainly not a will imposed by a cat’s “owner” from the outside.

The heart, for Jeremiah, is the seat of the will. It was not a geographical location, but a volitional one. When the heart was evil, one turned from God and did evil. When the heart was good, one turned to God and did good. But according to Jeremiah the hearts of the people of Israel had become evil. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (17:9).
[T]his people has a stubborn and rebellious heart;

       they have turned aside and gone away.
they do not say in their hearts,
             let us fear the LORD our God,
        who gives rain in its season,
             the autumn rain and the spring rain,
        and keeps for us
             the weeks appointed for the harvest. (5:23-24)
In a prophesy calling upon the people of Jerusalem to repent he appeals to them to “wash your heart clean of wickedness so that you may be saved” (4:14 a). In a passage that anticipates the one for today, Yahweh makes the promise to the exiles that “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD; and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. (24:7. Cf. also 3:17; 7:24; 9:14; 11:8; 13:10; 16:12; 17:1; 18:12; 23:17).

A sermon on this passage that tried to be honest to its justice underpinnings could be based solely on the notion of the ways in which we have broken the covenant of worship toward God and towards others. The central ethical principle of the Hebrew Scriptures, and echoed in Christian scriptures, is that God has liberated (saved, redeemed) us and now we are supposed to liberate and redeem others. Seldom heard in church sermons, even on this very passage, is that at its core, what it means to be a religious person is to liberate slaves. And that means slaves of psychic demons in abusive homes, and it means physical demons of countries enmeshed in the crippling demands of top down elitist international trade laws that impoverish families and starve children. But God, in spite of our perpetual inclination to break the covenant, comes to us in these words of Jeremiah and offers us a second (and third and fourth) chance. “Renew the covenant, and have it written on your hearts, where it will emanate out from you rather than being imposed from outside onto you.” God is always calling us back to the basics of worship and justice. God is always offering us a chance to come home from Babylon. It is up to us to make the decision to make the journey.

Knowledge of God
According to Jeremiah, for those who respond to this new covenant written on the heart, two radical things will occur. First they will no longer need to learn of God from others, for they will now “know the LORD” from the inside, “from the least of them to the greatest” (31:34b). An important point to make here is that for Jeremiah, to know the LORD, is not a mere act of religious education. It isn’t a list of facts that one can memorize for confirmation class (you do, however, have kids memorize things in Confirmation class don’t you?). For Jeremiah to know God is to do acts of justice. When criticizing King Jehoiakim, he compares his wicked reign with the good one of his father Josiah. He first attacks him for using slave labor to build himself a palace during a time of war and tremendous deprivation.

Woe to him (Jehoiakim) who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice;who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages...
                                                                                                                   (Jeremiah 22:13)
In the ancient world there were typically two ways that one acquired a slave: as a captive during war, and through loaning money to the poor at usurious rates and then foreclosing on their freedom when they could not pay up (cf. Nehemiah 5:1-13; Matthew 18:21-35 (the parable of the Unforgiving Slave). It’s interesting that since Israel seldom won a war, they had very few military slaves, but a crisis-level number of debt slaves, especially during times of economic distress. Therefore, when both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refer to a “slave,” it is almost always synonymous with “debtor.” Someone who has lost control of their lives due to a broken and oppressive economic system.

So, among other things, Jeremiah is criticizing Jehoiakim for enslaving the poor for their debts and then using them to build a first world-style house for himself. It is being built with unrighteousness and injustice. But then he goes on to compare Jehoiakim with his father, Josiah:
He (Josiah) judged the cause of the poor and needy;
 then it was well.Is this not to know me?                                                     says the LORD.
But your eyes and heart (Jehoiakim’s)are only on your dishonest gain,        for shedding innocent blood;      and for practicing oppression and violence.
                                             (Jer. 22:16-17 Italics added)
Another direction for your sermon could be based on the justice demands of the notion of the “knowledge of God.” Walter Brueggemann, commenting on this passage, argues that one cannot know God without being attentive to the needs of the poor and the weak. And he says it is not that one is derived intellectually from the other, “rather, the two are synonymous. One could scarcely imagine a more radical and subversive theological claim.”[3] This is very similar to the claims about loving God in the New Testament. See for example the blunt words of 1 John 4:20-21: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”

Hosea, a contemporary of Jeremiah, reports that when “there is no knowledge of God in the land, swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish....” (4:1b-3a). The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez makes the point that God is encountered in concrete acts of justice an mercy to others. So if justice is not present, then God is not present. “To know Yahweh...is to establish just relationships among persons, it is to recognize the rights of the poor. The God of Biblical revelation is known through interhuman justice. When justice does not exist, God is not known; God is absent.”[4]  Robert McAfee Brown, in a sermon on a related passage in Jeremiah, gives these examples of the same point:
So, to know God might mean working in a political party to overthrow a modern Jehoiakim. It might mean saying no to economic or religious structures that provide privileges for the rich at the expense of the poor. It might mean joining a labor union in areas where labor unions are outlawed, since in no other way would the poor be able to gain enough power to demand just working conditions and just wages.[5]
Forgive Their Iniquity
The second thing which will happen to those who respond to the new covenant is that they will receive forgiveness. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (v. 34c cf. 1 Kings 8:46-53). The phrase hangs on the key introductory word, ki, “because.” All of the above will happen because I forgive their iniquity. Everything in the new covenant and all sense of beginning again anew depends entirely on Yahweh’s forgiveness. Accept it and a new life opens up. Reject it and you have rejected the covenant itself.[6]

It’s probably too great a leap to move straight from God’s forgiveness of the iniquity of the Babylonian captives to the forgiveness of debts in the third world, though it is true that by the time of Jesus “debt” and “sin” had become almost synonymous (consider the interchangeability of the words debts and sins in the “Lord’s Prayer”). However, there are two elements in Yahweh’s forgiveness which at least touch on it. 

First, true forgiveness will “remember their sin no more.” True forgiveness does not cover up the past, but lets it go. The misguided (even “sinful”) loans of the 1970s which caused the wretched indebted conditions of today were caused by negotiations wealthy people in both the first world and the third world. But today it is only people of the third world which is being asked to pay for those sins. To be more precise, it is the poor of the third world who see money for public education, healthcare, and roads being spent on repaying loans made to their grandparents twenty-five years ago, who are paying for the sins. The rich can afford private health care and private education, and always have the remaining, tiny, infrastructure budgets spent on their communities.

There are also some similarities closer to home in the causes of the gradual crumbling we are experiencing in the US economy. Again, there is not an exact parallel, but there are some threads that can be found in both stories, and could at least be mentioned in a sermon on this text. As most of us are aware, for the first two hundred years of US history, productivity and wealth went up at roughly the same rate for all income brackets. The poor were poorer, but their incomes still rose when productivity rose. But starting gradually in the late seventies and explosively in the eighties, the link between income and productivity came uncoupled. Productivity continued to rise, but the income from it went almost exclusively to the wealthy. Incomes for the middle class stagnated and for the poor they actually went down, and incomes for the wealthy skyrocketed. Not often mentioned in news reports on this topic was that as middle class incomes stayed flat, costs of education, healthcare, and Social Security continued to rise. So, in terms of actual buying power, the incomes of almost every person in modern America has declined for over thirty years. A new study recently found that wages for young worker have been dropping twice as fast as for older workers, which does not bode well for the future of the nation as a whole.[8] 

These changes, just like in Ancient Israel, were planned and not accidental. Increasingly tax cuts and favorable trade laws for wealthy families and corporations (which encourage moving jobs to poorer countries) redistributed wealth upward and created an increasingly unstable economy. In the nineties, people increasingly went into debt to keep up an appearance of being middle class while Wall Street banking and investment firms took their mortgage money and gambled with it internationally as though it was their own, ultimately causing a crash that destroyed a generation of lives and families and futures in America, and it ricocheted all around the world (the disease of greed is not unique to the US). Everybody lost something, but the Bush and Obama bailouts and tax cuts allowed the very richest people in America to regain their wealth and income within two to three years, while the middle and bottom are still struggling with stagnating and declining incomes.

It's telling to note that even now when employment is going up for the first time in five years, salaries are not. It is good that people are beginning to return to work, but they are returning to the same flat-lined income they had back in 2006 and 7.  

This (overly abbreviated) story is one that Jeremiah would find great resonance in and sympathy for.

The second thing about true forgiveness is that it may not redistribute wealth, but it does redistribute power.[7] A snarky corollary of a new “Golden Rule” might be, “the one has the gold gets to make the rules.” This is uncannily true in the workings of such financial institutions as the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, that have the power to set global rules for finance and trade and then force  developing countries  to  comply, even  if  it means impoverishing their own people to do so. In true forgiveness, the one who truly forgives, forgets the past and shares the gold. Jesus was despised by the power brokers who were his contemporaries, because he understood this. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

Now Behave
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once told a story of teaching a confirmation class years ago in which he outlined the meaning of the Mosaic Covenant. He went step by step through it, explaining the promise of God, that God would rescue the Hebrew people from slavery and that they would worship only God and then act in ways that showed themselves to be liberated people. And he tried to illustrate for the kids how that principle also showed up in the teaching of Jesus later on. When finished, to see if he had gotten the message across,  he asked them to tell him what he had just said. He got a variety of attempts, some close some not. Then one little boy raised his hand and put it better than any theologian could have. He said (quoting God), “I saved your butts, so now you go behave.”

[1]A case strongly made by Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, revised), pp. 291-295.
[2] Gerhard Von Rad sees these two passages as different versions of the same message delivered on separate occasions, and therefore evidence that both are from Jeremiah. The Message of the Prophets, tr. D.M.G. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row: 1965), p. 181.
[3] Brueggemann, “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm,” A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel's Communal Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress: 1994), p. 49.
[4] A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, tr. Sr. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (New York: Maryknoll: 1988, revised ed.), p. 110-111.
[5] Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 68.
[6] Brueggemann, Jeremiah, p. 294. Italics added.
[7] See Brueggemann, “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm,” p. 50, for more on this.
[8] Heidi Shierholz, Hilary Wething, and Natalie Sabadish, The Class of 2012: Labor market for young graduates remains grim, Economic Policy Institute, May 3, 2012 (http://www.epi.org/publication/bp340-labor-market-young-graduates).