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The Politics of Scripture

Healing the Broken Social Body—Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Isaiah 35:4-7a; Mark 7:24-37

How is the riven social body, with its divisions between poor and rich, to be healed?

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
1 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,

and favour is better than silver or gold. 
2 The rich and the poor have this in common:
the Lord is the maker of them all. 
8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
and the rod of anger will fail. 
9 Those who are generous are blessed,
for they share their bread with the poor. 
22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate; 
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Proverbs 22:2 provides a good summary of the thread that binds together these readings: “The rich and poor have a common bond, Yahweh is the maker of them all.”

The text has an immediate contemporary application. Rich and poor aren’t different species, and they shouldn’t occupy different spaces. But, in the U.S. at least, we’re “coming apart,” as Charles Murray has written, with the wealthy segregating themselves physically, socially, educationally. Solomon would be appalled at the neglect of our derelict inner cities; he would be equally appalled at the isolation of our gated communities. We have organized our social space in a way that denies the “common bond” that we have as creatures of Yahweh. We recoil at our own flesh (cf. Isaiah 58:7).

Several of the Proverbs assigned for this week fill out details of Solomon’s vision of a society that embodies the common bond of rich and poor. Proverbs 22:9 says, literally, that “The good (of) eye shall be blessed, for he gives from his bread to the poor.” Jesus also uses the image of the “eye” when talking about wealth: “If your eye is clear, then is your body full of light” (Matthew 6). The eye is an organ of judgment, associated with valuations, including valuations of wealth.

The “dark eye” cannot evaluate the true worth of heavenly or earthly treasure, and so hoards treasure. Those with good eyes know the true value of earthly treasure, and also see the greater value of the poor.

There is a connection with Genesis 3. The eyes of Adam and Eve were opened when they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, a tree that signified kingly status and the authority to judge. By eating from the tree, they were elevated to a royal status for which they were unprepared. Proverbs 22:9 indicates kings with “open eyes” are generous. A good king is one with a good eye and a body of light. A good king discerns between good and evil, and provides for those who are in need. As always in the Bible, care of the poor is the criterion of a just society.

The Proverb says that the man with a good eye gives “from” his bread, or, as the NASB says, “some of his bread.” That might sound less than fully generous: Why doesn’t he give it all away? Is Solomon endorsing a residual selfishness? No. We should view this as a description of hospitality. The man with a good eye consumes his bread, but consumes it along with the poor.

Hospitality, not unilateral dispossession, is the biblical ideal. Those who have should give to those who don’t have, but they should give in such a way that haves and have-nots share goods together. Economics is part of the larger “social” reality of fellowship. The common bond of rich and poor is expressed by common share in a loaf of bread.

Proverbs diverges from the typical two-line pattern. With a few exceptions, these proverbs run to at least two, sometimes several verses. Thus verses 22-23 form a single proverb, as do verses 24-25 and verses 26-27. Verses 28-29 go back to the normal pattern, but then the long-form proverbs resume in 23:1.

In 22:22-23 Solomon instructs his son in just treatment of the poor and afflicted. Proverbs is an instruction manual for princes. Solomon wants his son to rule justly. The “gate” is the place of trials and judgments, the place of entry and exclusion, and Solomon wants his son to establish justice among the elders of the gates. Rulers of the gates shouldn’t ignore the pleas of the poor nor favor the rich.

Verse 23 gives the rationale, echoing the warnings of the Torah (e.g., Exodus 23:6). Yahweh takes up the cause of the afflicted, and those who have no protector. He is Father of the fatherless, Husband of widows, Kinsman Redeemer of the oppressed. There is a ‘lex-talionic’ justice at work: Yahweh threatens to “rob the soul” of those who rob the poor.

Of all nations, Israel should understand this. Israel was formed as a people when Yahweh delivered them from the oppressor—the Exodus. As Yahweh took up the cause of Israel in Egypt, he will take up the cause of the oppressed if Israel becomes an Egypt (as, ironically enough, it does under Solomon himself, and under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, perhaps the first recipient of these proverbs!). In Egypt, the Lord did “rob the soul” of those who “rob the poor,” taking the firstborn of Egypt in exchange for all the sons of Israel that were thrown into the Nile.

James 2:1-10, 14-17
1My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

14What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2 has figured heavily into debates about justification, and rightly so. James and Paul seem to contradict one another. Paul says we are justified by faith with works, from which Luther drew the sola fide slogan. James explicitly denies sola fide: “We are justified by works, and not by faith alone” (2:24). Protestants have found various ways to harmonize Paul and James. Paul isn’t denying the necessity of works, only denying that God accepts us because we merit His favor; James isn’t denying grace, but insisting on the necessity of works.

I don’t believe James and Paul contradict one another, and I believe that, in the sense the Reformers understood it, sola fide is true. But that debate can distract us from the context of James’s teaching on justification. Justification arises in a discussion of the relations of rich and poor (2:1-6) and the demands of charity (2:15-16). “Justification” (dikaoo) is linked with justice, personal and communal.

James begins the chapter by denouncing favoritism to the rich. He reminds his readers that the rich are the ones “who oppress you and personally drag you into court” (2:6). This isn’t hyperbole or metaphor. James wrote his epistle very early in the history of the church, to saints dispersed by the persecution that began with Stephen’s martyrdom. James’s readers were in real danger from actual rich people, especially well-connected Jews who wanted to stamp out the nascent Jesus movement.

But that’s not the heart of James’s appeal. He envisions a social space where rich and poor mix and mingle, without favoritism. A wealthy, well-dressed person who enters a church shouldn’t be treated like a king; the poor shouldn’t be squeezed to the corners or confined to the balcony. Making judgments is inevitable, but we need to have open eyes to make the right judgments. Valuing on the basis of wealth or clothing is “evil” judgment, a sign of “dark” eyes. A community full of darkened eyes cannot be a community of light. Without the spirit of just works, the faith we profess is no more than a corpse (2:26).

If we’re honest, we have to admit that many contemporary churches never face the problem. The people we go to church with represent only a slight sliver of the socio-economic spectrum. Everyone is nicely dressed, or everyone is poor. How can James’s vision be realized? How can we form churches where rich and poor actually share space?

It is finally God’s work. Knitting together rich and poor into one communion of saints is analogous to knitting Jews and Gentiles into one body. It took a cross to break the dividing wall between the Jews with their spiritual riches and the Gentiles who were without God and hope in the world. It takes a cross to break down the dividing wall of rich and poor.

Isaiah 35:4-7a
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert; 
7 the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water

That’s the message of the text from Isaiah. From the beginning of his prophecy, he focuses on the health of Judah’s social body. The prognosis is not good: Judah’s head is sick, her heart faint; she’s covered with bruises, welts, unbandaged wounds (1:5-6). She is deaf and blind (Isaiah 6). She is damaged because she has abandoned justice and become another Sodom (1:9). She is ruthless, preying on the helpless, and no one comes to their defense (1:16-17).

Isaiah 35 envisions a new exodus, as Yahweh leads a limping Judah through the wilderness. As the procession moves through the wilderness, the desert turns to a garden. The whole wilderness blossoms like the rose of Sharon of the Song of Songs, the bride who is the lily and flower of Yahweh. As they see the king in His beauty when Zion is restored, that beauty fills the land. Isaiah is in ecstasy over the change. He repeats himself; he shouts; he sings; he babbles.

And in this restoration the people are healed. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap like gazelles. The bodies of the people of Judah are healed. More, the body of Judah is healed—that bruised, beaten, disfigured body becomes whole. When that new exodus happens, rich and poor will mingle and mix in her open squares.

Mark 7:24-37
24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 28But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ 29Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ 35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

Mark 7 is one of many passages where Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. He gives hearing to the deaf and articulate speech to the dumb. Like Isaiah, Mark is interested in more than isolated healings. These healings manifest the kingdom; they are the kingdom in action. And the healings depict what is happening to the whole body of Israel, the social body that is being restored in the new exodus that Jesus leads.

Ultimately, Jesus heals because He assumes the broken social body. When Yahweh’s Servant comes, the arm of the Lord is revealed—the arm that rescued Israel from Egypt and swept away the Canaanites like gnats (Isaiah 53:1). But He doesn’t look like the arm of the Lord. The Servant’s face and form are marred, stricken, pierced, crushed, chastened, scourged.

The Servant’s resembles the body that’s already there, the body of Judah, the bruised and broken social body. What kind of help is this? The Servant reflects the disfigurements of the body politic back to the people. Judah already knew it was ugly. What she needs is a makeover. Why did the Lord instead send a mirror?

It’s a patristic axiom: What is not assumed is not redeemed. The Servant assumes flesh—not only a human body or a human nature but the whole dilapidated human condition. The Servant assumes Israelite flesh, the bruised, broken, unbandaged body of Zion, so that He can restore Israelite flesh. In His suffering and vindication, the Servant restores the social body to health. Because of the Servant, Zion will cease to be Sodom and will again be a city where righteousness dwells.

To say that forging a bond between rich and poor is God’s work is not an encouragement to quietism. We shouldn’t reason, “Because God alone can unite rich a poor, we just have to sit back and wait for Him to do it.” That reflects a zero-sum view of the relation of God and creation; if God is active, then we can’t be. That’s not how the world works. Rather, we are active because God is active. Thus, we should reason: “Because God alone can unit rich and poor, we must strive to build churches that welcome all sorts and conditions of men.”

Here too, it takes a cross to bind us together into one new humanity. It takes the cross of Jesus, re-enacted by the Spirit in the life of the church. The cross is re-enacted when we seek the good of others and not merely ourselves, when we are willing to suffer loss for the sake of our brothers, when we imitate our Father in welcoming people from the byways to the Lord’s feast, when we do what James commands and stop showing favoritism to the wealthy. The church will become the common space that James envisions, she will reflect the common bond of rich and poor, only when we all deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus.

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