Pete Buttigieg & Fake “Good News” About Jesus’ Poverty

Readings for Holy Family Sunday: SIR 3:2-6, 12-14; PS 128: 1-2, 3, 4-5; COL 3: 12-21;NT 2: 13-15, 19-23

Last week Pete Buttigieg annoyed white Evangelicals by calling attention to Jesus’ poverty.

As reported in The Washington Post, his Christmas tweet read: “Today I join millions around the world celebrating the arrival of divinity on earth, who came into this world not in riches but in poverty, not as a citizen but as a refugee. No matter where or how we celebrate, merry Christmas.”

In response, many mostly white evangelicals went apoplectic.  “Jesus was not poor,” they countered. “And he certainly was not one of those despicable refugees. At his birth, his parents were simply obeying imperial law by returning to Joseph’s town of origin.  Bethlehem just happened to have all its rooms filled with similar obedient taxpayers. So even though Joseph and Mary were quite capable of paying, their hotel bill, they had to accept an overnight stay in a smelly, rodent-infested stable. Which of us wouldn’t do the same?”

__________

The next day, when we discussed the controversy over breakfast, my daughter asked, “What’s the big deal? Why do those people care so much?”

I answered, “It’s because if Jesus was poor and a refugee from state violence, the whole anti-poor, anti-refugee program of the Republican Party is nullified at least from the standpoint of faith.” It means for instance that:

  • When they support Donald Trump’s exclusion of immigrants and refugees at the U.S. border, Republicans are really excluding the modern-day equivalents of Jesus, his mother and father as depicted in today’s Gospel selection. There, the Jewish King Herod’s planned slaughter of innocent babies drives Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt with their new son. In other words, the Holy Family sought refugee status in Egypt.
  • Republicans are refusing to recognize Jesus’ later specific identification with such emigrants, when in the clearest representation of final judgment (MT 25), he says, “Whatever you do to the least of the brethren (i.e. the hungry, thirsty, immigrants (“strangers”), the sick and imprisoned), you do to me.” Those words absolutely identify Jesus with the categories of people just mentioned – all of them impoverished.
  • Jesus advised his followers that they themselves must become poor (MT 19:21).  He’s remembered as telling them “. . . sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” (Would Jesus recommend poverty to his followers and remain un-poor himself?)
  • The earliest Christian communities took literally Jesus’ injunction about becoming poor. In the Acts of the Apostles we read, “There were no needy ones among them, because those who owned lands or houses would sell their property, bring the proceeds from the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet for distribution to anyone as he had need.” That is, the earliest Christians’ desire to follow Jesus drove them to imitate his lowly social status.
  • Jesus described his entire mission as directed towards the poor. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Even more, as economist Michael Hudson points out in his monumental And Forgive Them Their Debts, Jesus’ programmatic reference to the “year of the Lord’s favor” points to the Jewish Jubilee Year. “Jubilee” was the biblically mandated period when all debts were to be forgiven and land returned to its original (mostly poor) owners. Hudson points out that such debt forgiveness was practiced throughout the ancient mid-east. It was more general than a biblical mandate.

According to Hudson, when new leaders acceded to the throne, they created a clean slate. All debts were forgiven. The corresponding legislation in the Book of Deuteronomy had Israel following suit.

Jesus’ “Good News” to the poor was that (following Deuteronomy) their debts needed forgiveness. Inevitably, that demand was understood by all concerned (especially by Rome’s imperialists and their puppet clients in Jerusalem’s temple) as a highly threatening call to social justice. (Can you see how that understanding of Jesus’ Good News Gospel would be similarly threatening to Republicans while at the same time encouraging Democrats seeking relief for debt -crushed students?)

As I told my daughter, that’s why it’s important to evangelical Trumpists that Jesus not be a poor man himself, that he not be an advocate for the poor, or that he not be a refugee. The contrary calls everything Republicans stand for into question. It makes Donald Trump, his exclusion of refugees, and his baby jails eerily similar to King Herod as depicted in today’s final reading.

__________

But everything I’ve said so far overlooks an even deeper point that I developed in my Christmas reflections last Wednesday. My point there was that the “infancy narratives” (found only in Luke and Matthew) constitute what biblical scholars for the last century and more have recognized as Midrash and Haggadah. That is, following rabbinic tradition, these accounts represent fictional stories based on readings of the Jewish Testament and intended to make a theological point.

And in the case of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the Holy Family’s seeking refugee status in Egypt, Matthew’s theological point for his specifically Jewish audience (vs. Luke’s gentile readers) is that Jesus is the New Israel. As such, he relives his people’s early history. [And that entire history from its very beginning (and repeated in its occupation of Palestine in 1948) is that of a refugee people – refugees from Pharaoh’s enslavement to Hitler’s genocide and ubiquitous anti-Semitism.] We might even say that the Jewish Testament’s very message (reiterated in the case of Jesus) is that REFUGEES ARE GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE.

Put otherwise, the story of the Holy Family’s “Flight into Egypt” is far more than a rabbinic riff on Moses’s escape from the slaughter of Hebrew children under the Egyptian pharaoh 1200 years earlier. It actually has Jesus:

  • Begin is life, like the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in “The Promised Land”
  • Go down into Egypt to escape disaster
  • Leave Egypt
  • Spend 40 days in the desert (recapitulating Israel’s 40 years there)
  • Like Moses, dispense a New Law (i.e. the Beatitudes)
  • Precisely on a mountain (the analogue of Mt Zion) — as opposed to Luke’s location of the same teaching “on a plain.”

In summary, and in the context of Mayor Pete’s observation about Jesus’ poverty and refugee status, the point made in today’s Gospel reading is not the relatively superficial one that Jesus was poor. By all accounts he was.

No, it’s the much deeper theological point that the earliest Christian believers (like Matthew) identified Jesus with an entire people whose very essence was their refugee status. They were enslaved, had no possessions at all, had no liberty, were completely despised by their captors, and were victims of imperialism, infanticide and even genocide.

And yet this man rejected and executed by empire ended up (according to early Christian faith) destined to rule the entire cosmos.

Could any message be more revolutionary or encouraging to the world’s refugees, immigrants, poor, victims of slavery and genocide? It’s that the future belongs to them; the world belongs to them. In God’s eyes, borders are irrelevant. God is on their side. History is on their side. They have nothing to lose but their chains!

Thanks, Mayor Pete, for starting a dialog that in this election year might help Christians recognize and embrace the real Jesus and his implications for today’s problems of poverty, state-sponsored violence, immigration, and debt.

Evidently, they are not implications Republicans care to entertain.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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