Tag Archives: James

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

The Law of Liberty (Leviticus 19 The New Testament Remix)

One semester in seminary I was taking a New Testament class and a Greek class on the Letter of James. In my New Testament class I volunteered to write a paper about James 1:25-27. I thought I’d have a leg up since I was already doing research by reading the letter in Greek for another class. I discovered a couple of wonderful texts on James that connected it to this chapter of Leviticus. First, Luke Timothy Johnson wrote an article asserting that the entire letter of James can be read as a gloss of Leviticus 19. He lines up the topics covered side by side, verse by verse, and it is astonishing to see the parallels. Robert Wall wrote an excellent commentary on James in which he suggests that the reference to the “law of liberty” in the passage I was assigned, or also “royal law” (2:8), is a reference to the Jubilee in Leviticus 25. These two commentaries have a lot to do with the way I read James, Leviticus 19 and ultimately the biblical narrative. I would like to consider these two insights, first reading James’ letter as a gloss of Leviticus 19 and then the idea that the “law of liberty” and “royal law” is a reference to Leviticus 25 and the Jubilee.

If you just read Leviticus 19 and the James’ letter together the parallels jump out. James 2:1-7 is an extended exposition of Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” However, James does not settle for the total impartiality in Leviticus, but seems to suggest in verses 5-7 the “preferential option for the poor” argued for by liberation theology.

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

Perhaps James, reading Leviticus 19, realized that it is rarely the poor that are shown partiality or favoritism within the unjust systems with which he was familiar. This is then followed by James’ quote of Leviticus 19:18 (to which we will return later). James 4:11 finds its corollary in Leviticus 19:16 concerning slandering and treatment of neighbors. James’ invective against the rich and oppressors in 5:1-6 very closely resembles Leviticus 19: 9-11, 13 and 35-36. These are the most obvious connections, but more commonalities exist concerning the more general tone and emphasis on the outworking of covenantal relationship with God through the just relationships within the community and to the earth. In James’ language we are to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22).

The Law of Liberty
I also wrote a paper in seminary arguing that, in terms of the relationship of faith and works, Paul and James are actually on the same page, but are coming from different perspectives, particularly in terms of their unique missions, and writing to very different audiences. This is very important in terms of the way James and Paul use the term “law”. Paul’s Gentile audience does not have the same relationship to Torah that James’ Jewish audience does. Now, let’s turn to the way that James uses the term “law”.

James uses the term law in seven verses. Out of those seven three use the phrase “law of liberty” or “royal law”. Are these just stylistic flourishes? The repetition of the phrase “law of liberty” in both 1:25 and 2:12 suggests an intentionality and distinction from other uses of the term. In verse 25 it is the “perfect law, the law of liberty”, further elevating the status of the phrase. This comes as James is making the central argument of his letter, the judgment of true or sincere faith by the actions it produces (1:22-25). The next use of the phrase “law of liberty” occurs within the same passage as the term “royal law”; therefore we will consider them together.

Verse 8, which quotes directly the “love your neighbor” command in Leviticus 19:8, comes immediately after the discourse on partiality and favoritism towards the rich and the “preferential option for the poor” which I mentioned above. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well” (Jas 2:8). This love command does away with the partiality and favoritism as illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 (discussed in the previous post). The designation “royal law” seems to carry the same weight that Jesus gives to Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31where it is paired with the Shema as the commandment on which “depend all the Law and Prophets” (22:40). So, this is nothing new from what we have already seen.

The Jubilee in Leviticus is described in this way “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Lev 25:10). So, if we take Robert Wall’s suggestion that the “law of liberty” is a reference to the Jubilee, then we should read 1:25 and 2:12 in light of this reference. James concludes his diatribe against partiality and the law with verses 12-13, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” In the context of the Jubilee then this can be read as a reference to the forgiveness of debts, freeing of slaves and return of land and with the land the equality of economic opportunity.

The “law of liberty”, then, represents an ideal of social, economic and ecological relationships that may have never actually been practiced according to many scholars. Thus James’ insistence that “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (1:25) may be an indictment of Israel’s inability to fulfill this “perfect law”. It represents a messianic hope for the coming reign of God where all injustice and inequality will be done away with, while simultaneously urging Israel and the church to embody this coming hope in concrete practice that was not considered a distant impossibility.

Conclusion
In the first post on Leviticus 19 in its original context, I argued that the entire chapter concerns the convergence of relationships between God, humanity and the earth. In light of this, what we have said about the New Testament passages and references to Leviticus 19 should also be read in light of the connections that Leviticus 19 itself makes between the command to “love your neighbor” and the Sabbath practices to care for the earth which includes the Jubilee. I think that this integrated, holistic way of thinking is assumed by Jesus, Paul and James in their words and actions.

We have also seen how the law to “love your neighbor” includes the social and political realms. Our relationship to possessions and wealth is directly related by Jesus to our living out the “love your neighbor” law. Jesus moves this law from the realm of feeling, where we have relegated it, into the realm of action by transforming neighbor from a category of people into an action taken by the righteous person. Paul challenges the Powers by elevating this law of love above “what is owed” to the Powers and authorities of this world. He also defines our understanding of the freedom we have in Christ in terms of the limits that the law of love places on freedom because of its social, political and economic implications. This is exactly what James does in his letter concerning the practical application of the law of love, the “royal law”, and its companion, the Jubilee, in which this law of love is expressed most concretely in terms of the social, economic and ecological ordering of our lives.

The command to “love your neighbor” has never seemed both so simple and complex at the same time. This law of love draws to itself so many aspects of our lives and society that are broken and unjust. Yet, Paul simplifies it so eloquently for us in his advice to the Romans living in the heart of the Empire, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). The outworking of this reality will take a lifetime for individuals and longer for the world, but we don’t have to perfect it before we can begin practicing it in our lives and embodying it in our communities and churches.

The Law of Love (Leviticus 19 The New Testament Remix)

I began looking at Leviticus 19 a couple weeks ago in terms of its original context. This is part two in which I hope to draw some important connections with the New Testament, in particular Jesus and Paul. Because of the scope of what I’m trying to cover, I will conclude with a post connecting Leviticus 19 and the letter of James with some concluding remarks. I will warn you ahead of time that this is long and could easily have been a thesis paper for seminary, but I believe it is well worth your time and was edifying to me as I studied and wrote it. First, I would like to rant a little and clarify something.

“Various Laws”
The title given in some Bibles for this chapter is “Various Laws”. Indeed it seems to be an amalgamation of leftover laws, thoughts and ideas that didn’t make the cut or reiterations of laws found elsewhere. Yet, we should remember that the system of chapters and verses was added after the fact and certainly the designation of “Various Laws” for this chapter is not part of the inspired word. While people who publish Bibles like to add these little things (not to mention all the sidebars, boxes and inserts in many Bibles) in order to help us read the Bible, they act as a filter and mediator for our reading of the text. The title “Various Laws” tells me what to think about the text that follows. Instead, we should assume that those ancient editors who put together the version of Scripture that we have today did so with intention and purpose, not haphazardly. What appears to be a random collection of laws probably serves some particular purpose. The fact that Leviticus 19 contains the verse on which Jesus said all of the Law and Prophets hinged (19:18b) should also tell us that something more than “Various Laws” is going on here.

Jesus, Paul and James all refer to Leviticus 19:18 in different contexts. With the previous post on Leviticus 19 in its original context as our background, I would like to consider each of the eight passages in which it is mentioned and attempt to synthesize the importance of this verse and chapter of Leviticus for a New Testament theology.

The Great Commandment
The most important parallel references are in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31 in which the scribes or Pharisees question Jesus about which commandment is the greatest in the Torah. Matthew’s Pharisees intend to “test” Jesus with their question, while the scribe in Mark affirms Jesus’ response and is in turn affirmed by Jesus with the words “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. In both cases the answer to the question is the same. The greatest commandment is the Shema, “
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). This was the expected traditional Jewish answer, but Jesus adds another qualifier to his answer and quotes Leviticus 19:18b “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember that Jesus was only asked to give one command, the greatest. Instead Jesus, I believe, correctly interprets the Torah and refuses to separate love of God from love of neighbor. In Matthew he then orients the entire Hebrew Bible around the connection of these two commands by saying “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:40).

We should also read these passages within their greater context of questioning by the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus’ responses aimed at undermining oppressive structures, religious, political or otherwise. Matthew 22 begins with a parable about the kingdom in which the uninvited and unwanted become guests of honor at the wedding feast. Both Mark and Matthew connect this with the question about paying taxes to Caesar and Jesus’ subversive response. Mark concludes his chapter with the observation of the poor widow who gave “everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:44) and was thus deprived of subsistence by an unjust temple tax. Therefore Jesus’ insistence that all of the Torah and Prophets depend on the understanding that our social relationships reflect our relationship to God and vice versa means that justice and right-relatedness is at the very heart of his understanding of the “kingdom of God” that he preached.

Who Do You Love, Neighbors or Possessions?
The other parallel reference is in Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 10:25-37. Both passages begin with someone coming to Jesus to ask, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25). In the Matthew passage Jesus initially deflects the question and tells him simply to keep the commandments. When the man presses him asking, “Which ones?”, Jesus lists off half of the Ten Commandments and ends with “love your neighbor as yourself”. The man claims that he has kept all these commandments. But when Jesus tells him to “be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”, the man refuses and leaves in sorrow “for he had great possessions” (Mt 19:21-22). In light of our reading of the command in Leviticus 19:18, it is clear that the man cannot fulfill the spirit of the commandments because he refuses his social connection and responsibility to those around him. Indeed, his confession that he has kept all these commands is revealed to be false when the practical application and implications of these commands is taken to their logical conclusion. He cannot maintain his “great possessions” and confess to love his neighbor. They are mutually exclusive.

Neighbor is a Verb
The reference in Luke to the neighbor commandment comes in the context of a lawyer trying to test Jesus. Luke’s passage does not end with the lawyer retreating. Instead the lawyer “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the question is changed from “Who is my neighbor?” into “Who is a neighbor?”. The attempt to find loopholes in the law is subverted by transforming the idea that the “neighbor” is an identifiable group of people into the idea that it is our job to be a neighbor to others, to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). So, Jesus adds another dimension to this command about loving our neighbor. It is not possible to fulfill the command while simultaneously trying to exclude any group of people from its implications.

Finally, Jesus also refers to the “love your neighbor” passage in his Sermon on the Mount when he transcends the “eye for an eye” ethic of the Hebrew Bible (which was intended to limit excessive punishment) and reframes it in these terms, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). So, neighbor is equated here with enemy and the division that makes it possible to draw lines between humanity is obliterated.

Love Is Not Against the Law
Paul refers to the “love your neighbor” command in Romans 13:9 where he says that all the commandments “are summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. First we should simply recognize that Paul is picking up on Jesus’ teaching about the Torah and reiterating it here for us. What is more interesting to me is that this occurs directly after the passage which many Christians and theologians use to justify subservience and acquiescence to governmental authority regardless of the nature of its laws, governing or authority. I tend to agree with John Howard Yoder’s interpretation of Paul’s words concerning the Christian’s relationship to authorities and government in this passage which you can read in his book Politics of Jesus. It is as if Paul intends to clarify his previous statement, perhaps to prevent it from being misconstrued, by placing it squarely in the center of Jesus’ teaching about the commandments in the Torah.

Paul concludes his discourse on submitting to authorities by saying, “Pay to all what is owed to them” (Ro 13:7) and immediately turns and says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). This is an incredible piece of rhetoric, perhaps even political satire reminiscent of Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. In the same way Jesus subverts “what is Caesar’s” by saying that the Jews should “give to God what is God’s”, Paul seems to wink at the previous advice to submit to authorities and pay what is owed by them by pointing out that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Ro 13:10). What law is he referring to here, the law of the Torah or the law of the governing authorities? I would suggest that the answer is both and that Paul is juxtaposing the ultimate law of love with the imperfect laws of the Powers. So, the great command which integrates love of God and the social justice inherent in loving our neighbor is also inherently countercultural to the order and tendency of the Powers of the world.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he is primarily concerned with the influence of Judaizers who insisted that followers of Jesus had to continue to follow the laws of the Torah, in particular the rite of circumcision. The main theme of the letter is the meaning and purpose of the law, of freedom in Christ and the implications of the latter on the former. Chapter five begins, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Then Paul sums up his understanding of the relationship of the law to this new freedom in Christ this way, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14). Again, reiterating Jesus’ teaching on the centrality of the “love your neighbor” commandment in another context, Paul expands the understanding of freedom in terms of the “law of love”. The freedom we are called to in Christ is not a license to do what we want, but rather a limited freedom governed by the great commandment to love our neighbor which contains the social and political implications we have already outlined.

In the final post I will consider the connection between Leviticus 19, the letter of James and the observations we have already made concerning the original context of the Hebrew Bible and the consequent interpretations and teaching by Jesus and Paul.


All My Relations (Leviticus 19 The Original Cut)

This is one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. At first I tried to squeeze this whole chapter into one post, but like the love of God it could not be contained. So, instead I will break this up into two parts. First, I will consider the chapter in its Old Testament context. In the next post I will interpret and connect the chapter to the New Testament, primarily Jesus’ reference to this passage and the Letter of James.

We are the Land
My reading of this chapter has been partially inspired by a traditional Native American greeting that the musical group Ulali enshrined in a powerful song. The greeting is “All my relations” and it is offered as a reminder of our connections to each other. The song which I have quoted at the end of this post captures beautifully the sense of this powerful, all-embracing salutation. It is in this light that I offer my thoughts on this pivotal chapter in the Hebrew Scripture.

Verses 1-4 are a recapitulation of the first five commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai against idolatry, making idols and using the name of YHWH in vain, and for keeping the Sabbath and honoring father and mother (Ex 20:3-6, 8-12). I wonder about the way that the command to honor parents and the Sabbath are lumped together in verse 3. It’s almost the inverse of the Native American tradition of thinking about consequences to the seventh generation. Here Sabbath practice (which includes the care for the land involved in Sabbatical and Jubilee years) honors those that have gone before by continuing the tradition and legacy of stewardship of creation. Verses 5-8 then concern the peace or fellowship offering, connecting this opening salvo to the sacrificial system which maintained and nurtured Israel’s ongoing relationship with YHWH. The context of this covenantal relationship with YHWH is is the foundational framework for understanding the commandments that follow.

The following verses deal with Israel’s social relationships and their use of nature. The practice of gleaning combines these two arenas into one practice.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:9-10)

It is hard to imagine farmers allowing the practice of gleaning in our era of industrial agriculture that is so obsessed with yields above all other measures or qualities of crops. There is a certain amount of respect inherent in this command for those who gain their sustenance by foraging for leftovers in other people’s fields. In North American culture we tend to look down on those that take handouts in order to survive (though not in the case of farmers who are propped up by government subsidies), but this practice was a way of maintaining community ties with those who were most vulnerable. The story of Ruth and Boaz certainly does not condemn them for making use of this practice. The rest of the commandments can be read in light of this first command which combines social relationships and their relationship to nature.

It also seems important to note that almost all of the commands come in pairs, each verse containing two or more commands that somehow relate to each other. Often a section of commands is concluded by a command or statement about how this relates to God and then the words “I am the LORD”. This is the pattern for 9-18 and 23-37. Only verses 19-22 break with this pattern (I’m not sure exactly why). For example, verses 11-12 almost seem to imply a scenario in which someone gets more and more entangled in their misdeeds (this is also the plot of many a Hollywood comedy). First someone steals. Then they must cover up what they’ve done by lying and “dealing falsely”. Perhaps when confronted or in an effort to keep their sin hidden they make an oath or swear using the Divine name to back up their (false) righteousness. You can see how these commands relate, intertwine and culminate. This also connects broken social relationships to a broken relationship with God.

Many of the verses leading up to the well known verse 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, also concern the treatment of neighbors, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (13), “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (15) and “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor” (16). Loving your neighbor has very little to do with feelings in this context, but requires concrete actions.

More Sex and the Land
Verses 19-25 are filled with subtle references to sex. First there is a prohibition against breeding two different cattle and planting fields with two kinds of seed. This may seem foreign to us, since our culture has gone far beyond traditional breeding and crossing of animals into the realms of cloning and bioengineering. Planting a field with only one kind of seed sounds like the monoculture of industrial agriculture practiced around the world today, but contradicts what science has taught us about biodiversity and ecosystems. I’ll be honest, without the help of commentaries for more insight into this particular prohibition I would just be shooting in the dark (and as you may know that can be dangerous). The commandments concerning fruit trees in verses 23-25 are pretty much common sense. Most fruit trees take 3-5 years before producing fruit, again in the way of all living things involving sex of some kind.

Sandwiched in between these two verses is another command concerning sexuality (20-22) further connecting sexual relationships and sexuality to our treatment of the land (see Sex and the Land). The image of the land falling into prostitution in verse 29 is an interesting one in this regard. The connection between objectifying sexual relationships and objectifying the land is reiterated. The keeping of Sabbath practices in verse 30 then properly reflects the opposite of prostituting the land.

I would need much more time and space to make all of the connections in this chapter, but I believe they are there. For example, verse 26 contains two seemingly unrelated commands, the first not to eat blood and the second not to try and tell the future. If we recall that the prohibition of consuming blood is because it is the source of life (see Blood Cries Out), then the connection to telling the future is our attempt to control or have power over things that are not ours to control. Verses 27-28 are about how we mourn and our relationship to the dead, the opposite of the previous verse.

Present in all of these commandments is the idea that sex, fertility, the land, respect for life and for things that are beyond our control are interconnected parts of the same whole reality and our relationship to it. As I said before, I think that the Native American greeting “All my relations” is a helpful way of understanding this.

All My Relations by Ulali

To our elders who teach us of our creation and our past so we may preserve mother earth for ancestors yet to come

We are the land

This is dedicated to our relatives before us thousands of years ago

And to the 150 million who were exterminated across the western hemisphere in the first 400 years time starting in 1492

To those who have kept their homelands

And to the nations extinct due to mass slaughter, slavery, deportation and disease unknown to them

And to the ones who are subjected to the same treatment today

To the ones who survived the relocations and the ones who died along the way

To those who carried on traditions and lived strong among their people

To those who left their communities by force or by choice and through generations no longer know who they are

To those who search and never find

To those that turn away the so-called unaccepted

To those that bring us together and to those living outside keeping touch, the voice for many

To those that make it back to live and fight the struggles of their people

To those that give up and those who do not care

To those who abuse themselves and others and those who revive again

To those who are physically, mentally or spiritually incapable by accident or by birth

To those who seek strength in our spirituality and ways of life and those who exploit it, even our own

To those who fall for the lies and join the dividing lines that keep us fighting amongst each other

To the outsiders who step in good or bad and those of us who don’t know better

To the leaders and prisoners of war politics crime race and religion innocent or guilty

To the young, the old, the living and the dead

To our brothers and sisters and all living things across mother earth

Whose beauty we have destroyed and denied the honor the Creator has given each individual

The truth that lies in our hearts

All my relations

Sharing Possessions

51f605hBcUL.jpgI was excited to read Sharing Possessions for two reasons 1) previous conversations about our relationship to property and possessions in the Bible and 2) practical help with how to live this out in community. While this was interesting book for the first reason, it was not very helpful with the second. That’s not a fault of the book. It just was not the author’s purpose.

Luke Timothy Johnson has been a favorite scholar of mine since I used his article, “The Use of Leviticus 19 in the Letter of James”, for a paper in seminary. I’ve since heard an interview and now read one of his books. I respect his work a lot. Even though this book was not what I expected or hoped, it was a solid piece of scholarship and very helpful in thinking through our relationship to possessions as people of faith.

Johnson starts off considering the philosophical idea of “owning”, “having”, or “possessing”. He points out the ambiguous nature of our language in describing our own selves and our bodies. We say that this is “my” body or that I “have” a hand. What is the nature of our identity as it relates to our bodies. Are we something besides our bodies that simply possesses our physical self? Or can we say in some sense that we are our bodies? Or is it some combination of the two, some third option?

At first I was put off by this starting point. But if it is this difficult to understand the relationship between body, mind and identity, then how much harder must it be when material possessions enter the picture. Johnson rightly reminds us that we do well to understand our own identity and relationship to our own physical existence before attempting to unpack how that self relates to the world of material possessions. I think Johnson’s definition of possession or ownership is a good one. “Generally, I can safely claim to own something when I can effectively assert my power over it.” (2) I think the inclusion of the power dynamic in ownership is important.

ways_t11.jpgJohnson has an entire chapter that covers references to possessions throughout the Bible. Having these references collected and analyzed in one place is in itself worth the price of the book… at least to me. Johnson then uses Luke-Acts as a test case, because it includes references to possessions found in Mark and Matthew and includes additional references not in the others. There are also references to possessions in the material in Acts, most notably in Acts 2 and 4. Let us consider some of Johnson’s findings and conclusions fro this survey.

If the more I have the more I am (the stance of idolatry), then my worth is measured by what I possess. But in a world of limited resources, I can have (and therefore be) more, only when you have less… there is really no way for me to measure my existence except by comparison with the achievement of others… To lose one of my possessions is to lose part of my self. Allowing others to share freely in what is mine means that I have no way of distinguishing myself from them; I lose my identity. (85)

The idea that wrong relationship to our possessions is idolatry is a powerful and important one. It is also important to recognize that our relationship to possessions is directly related to other human beings. I remain unconvinced that it is possible to continue increasing the wealth of individuals indefinitely without adversely affecting others. The belief that we are somehow separate and disconnected from our brothers and sisters next door and around the globe only leads us to idolatry, which leads us to Johnson’s next point.

In the preaching of the prophets, therefore, as in the laws of the Pentateuch, we see that the human use of possessions directly symbolizes and makes real the fundamental human response to God, and it does this precisely in the way possessions are taken from or given to other human beings. We respond to our neighbor as we respond to God. How we use possessions reveals both.” (97)

Our relationship to possessions reveals the reality of our relationship with God and our neighbor. We cannot simply accumulate wealth without exploiting our neighbors (and the earth) and engaging in idolatry. Johnson does not believe that ownership or possessions are inherently evil or sinful.

The tradition of which we are a part, and which we affirm, recognizes that as bodily creatures human beings inevitably must “have” as well as “be”… Human “owning” is not itself a result of sin but the consequence of being a body. Humans, therefore, cannot become completely “dispossessed” without losing their identity. (114)

I agree that owning is part of the nature of our existence, but I’m not sure that ownership as we understand it is part of God’s vision or intention for the way life should be. The vision of Isaiah that the people would “build houses and live in them” seems intended more to describe the justice of that future state of affairs than to establish property rights as part of the Messianic age. It is helpful to recognize that “having” is simply part of the nature of our existence. We should also recognize that the nature of our existence, according to our tradition, is broken and sinful, and enshrining ownership as a part of the intended nature of creation might inadvertently be elevating our own brokenness.

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So, if the Bible clearly has a lot to say about our relationship to possessions, even warning that it reveals our relationship with God and our neighbors, but does not speak univocally about how to mitigate the problems of this necessary relationship, then how are we to navigate our relationship to possessions as the faithful people of God in 2011? Johnson has no clear answer or advice, but gives more advice on what Scripture does not say.

In “1 Cor. 7:30-31 Paul says that one of the consequences of living in a period of eschatological tension is that ‘those who buy [should act] as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away’… Paul does not encourage his churches to withdraw from society and form closed, intentional communities. The Christian church is not an alternative social structure, but a way of living in freedom within the world. (110)

If Paul does not encourage “closed intentional communities”, I wonder if he does encourage open intentional communities. The problem seems to be with the terms “withdraw” and “closed”, not intentional. There are intentional Christian communities (of which I am a part of one) that do not intend to be closed or withdrawn from society. I think Johnson unfortunately (and perhaps unintentionally) lumps together all attempts to live out the Gospel in communities that include some practice of sharing possessions in common as misguided and even naive. While the warning that Scripture does not give clear guidelines for how we should relate to property is important, it could lead us to believe that it does not matter how we relate to the things we own which Johnson clearly argues against. According to Johnson’s own words quoted above, the way we relate to possessions is of utmost importance lest we fall into idolatry.

hbpic7small.gifAgain, in what is a pretty concise summation of the findings of Johnson’s investigation into what Scripture says about possessions, he says this,

The Scriptures do not present for our consideration or implementation any grand scheme for the proper disposition of possessions. There is no Christian economic structure to be found in the Bible, any more than there is a Christian political structure or educational system. The Bible does not tell us how to organize our lives together, and still less which things we should call private and which public. Nor does it propose a clear program of social change. It does not even present one way of sharing possessions as uniquely appropriate. (115)

I agree with the sentiment that there is no simple fix for us in the Bible, no system or set of rules or guidelines that will once and for all answer the questions we’re asking. However, I think the Scripture speaks a little more strongly concerning our relationship to possessions than Johnson’s conclusion would suggest (and as before he himself points out in his survey of the Bible). While keeping the caution against looking for a system or quick fix in mind, I think it would be helpful to put down some anchors on this issue and make some claims about principles for living in community and relating to possessions and wealth. We need good theology, but we also need practical advice on how to live. Since Scripture is silent on exactly how to live this out, it seems appropriate to listen to the wisdom of people throughout Christian history, but in particular more recent communities, that have tried to live out another way of relating to possessions and wealth in the midst of the world.