You know #OccupyWallStreet is preoccupying the conservatives when Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council feels he has make the convoluted argument that “Jesus was a free marketer, not an Occupier.”
Except, of course, Jesus was an Occupier. Jesus occupied the biggest bank in Jerusalem, calling it a “Den of Thieves.” He threw the money-changers out. “Then Jesus entered the Temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers...” (Matthew 21:12)
The Temple in Jerusalem was a powerful national treasury in Jesus time, in effect the biggest bank. The Temple got rich from collecting the temple tax from the pilgrims who came during Passover. These pilgrims would bring their monetary offerings in their own coinage, and the brokers in the Temple would “exchange” their money at a high rate of exchange. The Temple accumulated great wealth this way, and the great wealth did not sit idle. The bank lent the money it collected at very high interest rates, contributing to the tremendous poverty in Jerusalem during Jesus’ time.
Perkins relies on the Parable of the Ten Talents (Luke 19:11-27) for his ‘Jesus is a free marketer’ argument. Here’s where Perkins and I agree, actually. I also think Jesus is talking about the ‘free market’ in that parable, only, as in many of the parables, there is a reversal. A ‘the last shall be first and the first shall be last’ kind of a move that Jesus so often makes in his teaching.
Jesus employed parables as a way for the people in his time to actually think about the surprising nature of God’s justice, and what their social responsibilities might be. Jesus’ parables often expose the social inequalities of his time, and contrast them with God’s call for greater justice and mercy in the Kingdom of God.
The wealthy “nobleman” in the parable is not exactly a model citizen. Indeed, he doesn’t deny the accusation of the third servant who says, “you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” (21) Is Jesus suggesting a critique of the absentee landlord, who is only interested in maximizing his profit?
The third servant is the one who refuses to participate in the game of increasing his lord’s financial wealth at the costs of the poor. When the nobleman chastises the third servant, it is the nobleman and not the servant who is in violation of the laws of the Hebrew Bible, the laws on usury that Jesus is trying to defend. This kind of financial transaction is forbidden in the Torah. “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.” (Exodus 22:25)
One of my seminary teacher’s long ago, Frederick Herzog, from whom I learned this social justice interpretation of the Parable of the Ten Talents, called that servant a “whistle-blower.”
Jesus taught in parables to the people in the street, to the poor. Jesus was teaching to those who had been driven into poverty by unjust lending practices in his time, and his turning the tables on the nobleman, and making the third servant the real hero of the story would have been well understood by his hearers.
From the streets of Jerusalem two millennia ago to Wall Street in New York, and LaSalle Street in Chicago and throughout the world, it is the have-nots who are the beloved of God.
Occupy the Bible. Don’t believe these ‘free-market’ interpretations of Jesus of Nazareth. They are not true.