Tag Archives: Mark

Holy Bread Batman! (Leviticus 24:5-9)

Leviticus 24: 5-6, 8-9 You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD… Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.

Baking God’s Bread
Bread is one of the most common foods around the world. Almost every culture has some form of it whether it’s tortillas in Mexico, naan in India, pita in Greece or any number of variations across cultures. So, it seems both unusual and obvious that this staple is a part of sacred rituals. The unleavened bread prepared in the Exodus for a hasty departure is enshrined in the rituals of Passover. Later Jesus takes this Passover bread along with wine, another ordinary staple of the time, and institutes a new ritual to remember his life and coming death. These ordinary things are consecrated and made holy in their rituals.

The passage under consideration from Leviticus 24 concerns how to prepare and arrange the consecrated bread “as a memorial portion as a food offering” and for the priests to eat. There is nothing very interesting about the passage that I can see, except that something so ordinary as bread is made into something holy. In my post What’s for Dinner? on Leviticus 11 and the dietary laws I considered the distinction drawn in that chapter between what is holy and what is common. In that post I asked, “So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live?” Perhaps we can find some answers in an incident involving this holy bread.

One Order of Holy Bread… Comin’ Up!
In 1 Sam 21 David is fleeing the wrath of King Saul and comes to the priest Ahimelech in Nob. David lies to Ahimelech about being on a secret mission from the king and asks him for “five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (1 Sam 21: 3). Ahimelech responds, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” (1 Sam 21:4) Notice the distinction of holy and common once again. David promises the men are pure enough to receive the holy bread. The bread is handed over without reservation. It doesn’t seem that David is crossing some sort of religious or ethical boundary by taking the bread, nor the priest by giving it. Perhaps the urgency of a secret mission under the authority of the king made it a situation in which this use of the bread was more acceptable. The text, however, does not indicate that there is any problem with the bread being used for such purposes. The text explains, “So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.” The rationale is simply that there was no other bread available.

This episode is picked up by Jesus when his disciples are rebuked by some Pharisees for plucking heads of grain and eating them on the Sabbath (the same day that the bread described in Levticus 24 and 1 Sam 21 was made). This incident occurs in all of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5) and has very little variation between the Gospels. The Pharisees ask, “why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mt 12:24) To which Jesus responds,

Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him? (Mt 12:25-26)

Leviticus does make it clear that the bread was “a perpetual due” (Lev 24:9) for the priests, but does not forbid its consumption by others in this passage. Certainly that tradition came from the ritual purpose of the bread and its intended consumption by the priests who depended on the sacrificial system for their food. Matthew’s Jesus responds by saying “something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Mt 12:6-7) This recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah concerning the emptiness of sacrifices in the presence of injustice (Isaiah 1:11-17). It raises the question concerning the purpose of sacrifices and things consecrated such as the bread.

I Am The Living Bread
Jesus calls into question the assumptions that had developed over the years in terms of his own mission and vocation. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28). The first part of this statement reorients the Sabbath tradition and practices around their intended purpose. It is not an arbitrary rule which people must follow in order to fulfill some religious law and achieve purity or holiness. No, the Sabbath is permeated by an acknowledgment of right relationships throughout creation. I have previously written about connecting the Sabbath day to the practices of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee as a nexus of practices that are interwoven and interrelated. I have also pointed out previously that the Sabbath is first a practice of remembering and retelling the creation story including and perhaps most importantly our place as human beings and creatures within that creation.

The statement that Jesus is “lord of the Sabbath” is the concluding statement in all of the Synoptic Gospels. In light of our broader understanding of the nature of Sabbath practices this statement is far more than an assertion of religious authority. It gather together the Sabbath practices and asserts that right-relatedness to God, other people and the earth finds its ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus. It is this principle of right-relatedness that governs religious practices such as the Sabbath. On the surface this conflict with the Pharisees and Jesus over his disciples’ breaking of Sabbath observance concerns primarily what is or is not allowed during the weekly observance of the Sabbath day. However, Jesus’ response to the confrontation clearly places it within a larger context and places himself at the center of mediating the right-relatedness at the heart of the Sabbath observance.

Returning then to our initial question concerning what makes something holy, we find that Jesus has, as usual, subverted our questions by shifting the focus. The point is not what is holy or common, clean or unclean. The proper perspective concerns our relationship to our fellow humans and our individual and collective relationship to the earth. The fact that sacred rituals make common elements and objects into holy things teaches us that they are not magic talismans. They remain ordinary staples that can be consumed in a moment of need. The Sabbath can be broken based on its own inherent principle of right-relatedness. This teaches us the principle that our relationships to our neighbor and the biosphere take priority over religious rituals, even when, and especially if, the rituals intended to serve that purpose fail to do so.

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.


Can I Offer You Something? (Leviticus 1-7)

The only reason I knew anything about the book of Leviticus growing up is because it has lots of weird rules about sex including nocturnal emissions which for a teenager was pretty entertaining. For me and most people the book is a pretty boring collection of rules and regulations about a lot of things that don’t seem to make any sense in our modern world. While there is plenty that remains a mystery to me, this book has become one of my favorites because of some of its key passages (Chapters 19 and 25 being my favorite).

The Divine Meal
That said, the opening chapters do appear to be some of the most boring in the whole Bible. Leviticus 1-7 gives instructions on offerings and sacrifices for the Israelites. There’s lots of detail and repetition and very little seems to connect to a world in which this sacrificial system is non-existent. A few things stand out to me at first glance, especially as it relates to our theme of food. First, the people making these offerings are all farmers. These are agrarian people who are bringing crops and animals that they grew themselves. This changes later and Jesus is not happy about it (see Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 20:45-48; Jn 2:12-25). So, they are directly related to the sacrifice that they offer and it is an agricultural product, food.

The second is that for three of the five kinds of offerings there is no explicit reason given for the offering. The text simply says, “When any of you brings an offering to the Lord…” (Lev 1:2) and goes on with instructions about how it should be done. The instructions for these offerings (burnt, grain and fellowship offerings) conclude with something like “[It is] an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Lev 1:17). While many people and theologians focus on the sin and guilt offerings (especially as they relate to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, particularly because of the connections made by the Letter to the Hebrews), these other offerings concern the ongoing relationship of the people to God apart from any need for atonement. This is the meal and the gift in which the people encounter the divine.

The burnt, grain and fellowship offerings are how they continue and maintain a relationship with God and they are intimately connected to the land which produces their sustenance in crops and animals. The burnt and fellowship offerings were to be “without defect” whether it was a cow, sheep or goat. The grain offering was to be “fine flour” whether it was baked into bread or not. In my mind I connect these offerings with the biblical practice of hospitality. It is as if God is a guest and we are preparing a meal to share. This is what we say to guests when they come to our houses. “Can I offer you something to drink or eat?” It is not just about being proper. It is about nurturing a relationship. I’m sure a lot could be added about “hospitality cultures” and the role of hospitality in episodes throughout the Bible, but you can see the basic connection.

Everybody’s Guilty
I noticed a couple of interesting things about the sin and guilt offerings. First, the language is not one of harsh rebuke. It does not say when you really screw up and feel guilty you should come and give an offering to straighten things out and feel better. It says, “When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden…” (Lev 4:2) There is also language about intentional sin (Lev 5:1-6; 6:1-7), but unintentional sin is referred to as the reason for making either the sin or guilt offering five out of seven times (Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15). Imagine the humility of bringing your most prized possession, “a young bull without defect” (4:3), to atone for something you might have done wrong but didn’t know about.

We would have a hard time practicing this kind of relationship to God in our churches. We are way more concerned about figuring out our own sins (and often everyone else’s as well) and doing what it takes to atone for that sin. Whether it’s confession and penance for Catholics, Eucharist for all Christians or even the fervent prayers of evangelicals and ecstatic worship of charismatics, all are (some in more ways than others) an attempt to atone for intentional, known sin. What does it look like to approach God humbly with a precious offering for our unknown sins?

The second thing I noticed is the communal language concerning the sin offering. “If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally…When they become aware…the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering… This is the sin offering for the community.” (Lev 4:13-14, 21) This is so foreign to our modern sensibilities that it is almost hard to imagine how this would work. How does the whole community even become aware of unintentional sin?Then how do they collectively act together to atone? Certainly there is some hierarchy involved, because “the elders of the community” (Lev 4:15) were to act on behalf of the people. Yet there is still a sense of the communal that our concept of religion, influenced by western individualism and American exceptionalism has a hard time grasping.

Conclusion
Pulling these thoughts together I have two main issues that, I think, this reading raises concerning our understanding of atonement theology and the implications for an agrarian context on the interpretation of the Bible.

First, If our theology of atonement has developed over the centuries by connecting Jesus’ work on the cross to the sacrificial system of the Israelites as outlined in these first chapters of Leviticus, then how would our theology change with a different understanding of the nature and purpose of the sacrificial system? The Bible uses a number of metaphors to understand Jesus’ work on the cross. The judicial language predominates in modern theology where Jesus takes our place in a transaction where he absorbs our guilt and offers a way out of the conundrum of sin. This language does connect somewhat to the practice of the sin and guilt offerings, but these were less than half of the whole sacrificial system and as we have seen they also involved a communal understanding of what took place. So, a better understanding of Jesus’ work that continues to draw on the sacrificial system as a metaphor, or better parallel, should include the communal and unintentional aspects of the sin offering along side our current emphasis.

This broadened understanding of atonement should also include the other offerings that were made. How would we expand our understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross to include the offerings of crops and animals to maintain and nurture a relationship? Could it be that Jesus’ death and resurrection can also be understood as a divine act that attempts to maintain and nurture (even in some ultimate or cosmic sense) the relationship between the divine and human? The fact that Jesus, himself, instituted a meal as the ritual for remembering the sacrifice he would make strongly suggests a connection to the offerings that were in effect divine meals. It also seems that the dual nature of Christ and the idea from Hebrews that Jesus is both the High Priest and sacrifice speak to the work on the cross as somehow transcending the sacrificial system, not by doing away with it, but incorporating it into this new work, the breaking in of the new heaven and new earth. In this way we can balance the traditional emphasis on guilt and repentance, which is important, with the other 3/5 of the sacrificial system which was meant to maintain and nurture the divine/human relationship.

The subtitle of Ellen Davis’ book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture is “An Agrarian Reading of the Bible”. Her book does an incredible job connecting modern agrarian writers and thought to the context of the biblical narrative, primarily the Hebrew Bible. What is left to do after her most helpful contribution is to begin to draw out the implications for our understandings of theological doctrines, such as the atonement, and what’s more our hermeneutic for reading and interpreting our sacred text. The historical-critical method and other schools of interpretation place emphasis on understanding the cultural and historical context in order to interpret the biblical text. While some work has surely been done in this area, most of the scholarship focuses on political, economic, social, cultural and religious realities. It seems that we may have ignored a fundamental dimension of the biblical context which should shape our understanding and interpretation of the text.

The question then becomes whether what we find can be transferred to our current technological society in which we are (in “developed” countries”) far removed from an agrarian lifestyle and worldview, or does the text from an agrarian interpretation stand in judgment of our way of life in relationship to each other and the land? My guess is that the answer is both, but the latter is the aspect of the text that has been neglected. In many ways this is what my Food in the Bible project is really all about. I am trying to reclaim an agrarian reading of the Bible that reads, interprets and judges the context of the world as we experience it today.

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.

kids-sharing.jpg

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.