[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Is God a Socialist? And if so, what kind of socialism does God espouse?
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes,
…the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. (12:22-24)
At a philosophical level, one of the most obvious things that delineates socialism from communism is that in spite of social ownership of the means of production, there remains an unequal distribution of goods. It would seem that Paul agrees. All members of the body are to suffer and rejoice together, but all members of the body are not and should not be treated the same. In an ideal socialist system, however, one would expect these differences to be seen by the distribution of goods, given commensurate with the work done. Therefore, it might follow that the “most honorable” (however one defines honor) would receive the most, while the “inferior member” would receive the least. This is where Paul seems to have other ideas.
Corinth was a wealthy city in Paul’s day, however, from clues in Paul’s text it seems likely that the majority of the church there probably belonged to the lower socio-economic class (cf. 1 Cor 2:26, 7:21; 11:22b). Paul dedicates most of this first letter to attempting to heal divisions of various kinds between members of the church. Not the least of these, as is made clear in the discussion of the eucharist immediately preceeding today’s text, are the divisions between the “haves” and “have nots”. While Paul moves in the verses that follow to compare the “least” and “greatest” metaphors of the body with the spiritual gifts that various members of the church possess, I suspect that the language of “least” and “greater” would have been impossible to read without a good amount of socio-economic awareness on the part of the church. Indeed, how do we most often define “least” and “greatest” if we’re not consciously checking ourselves? Moreover, given the role of the wealthy church members in hosting the gatherings, socio-economic status and spiritual gifts would not have been clearly delineated at all times.
“This is our church.” “You’re welcome to come if you do things our way.” “The mission of our church is to feed the poor and proclaim good news to the outcast” (as though the poor and the outcast are not present in the church itself!?!) It’s easy to think of ourselves as the more honorable body parts, sent to serve the inferior members. It’s even pretty easy to put a good social justice spin on such missions. But Paul (and Jesus!) have something else in mind.
When Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reads the scroll from Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
He concludes his reading by proclaiming, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). A lot of energy is spent on the messianic implications of Jesus’ identification with this scroll. Jesus is so bold to identify himself with the anointed one (in Greek, literally, “Messiah”) in Isaiah’s prophecy! And of course, that is there. But equally as shocking—Jesus is so bold as to identify the congregation gathered in the synagogue with the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed! Imagine someone getting up in our churches and saying something like that today!
God’s preference is for the poor, the marginalized, the outcast. God loves and cares for each and every person because we are God’s good creation. God suffers and rejoices with each of us. But who does God uplift? When God has to choose, to whom does God seek to direct the greater good? For whom would God be writing bills to provide health care, improve schooling, lower taxes, and the like?
In the words of Saint Paul,
God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (1 Corinthians 12:25-26)
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.