Herb Montgomery | January 22, 2021
“This is the intrinsic reason why our collective thriving depends on raising up some in society while those who have gained too much power, privilege, property, or profit must fall back down. Ancient societies also knew this.”
In the gospel of Luke, we read these words about the child Jesus:
“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.’” (Luke 2:34)
We mentioned this passage briefly in part 9 of our Advent series last month. This small statement offers insights that are worth a closer look.
In physics, we typically speak of things rising first and then falling: what goes up must come down. But this passage isn’t talking about physics. It’s talking about pulling some people downward economically, politically, and socially while raising or lifting up others. It harkens back to the language in Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:
“ . . . he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:46-55)
These are passages about wealth disparity, not wealth alone.
Last March, Renewed Heart Ministries’ monthly recommended reading was Kate Pickett’s and Richard Wilkinson’s book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. In page after page of statistics, Pickett and Wilkinson show that once a society reaches a certain level of wealth, the amount quickly becomes irrelevant. What determines the overall health of that society is the degree of equity or disparity that exists there, whether the distance between the haves and have-nots is great or limited. Inequity disproportionally impacts people in regards to education, health care, crime, substance abuse, mental health, and much, much more.
In a different book, Behave, Robert Sapolsky shows that social economic inequity, over time, even damages individuals and the communities they comprise biologically.
This is the intrinsic reason why our collective thriving depends on raising up some in society while those who have gained too much power, privilege, property, or profit must fall back down. Ancient societies also knew this, and the jubilee in the Torah is just one practice they developed to demonstrate it.
I think of those like Jeff Bezos, who became the world’s first centi-billionaire during a global pandemic where many have suffered losses of unimaginable magnitude. A dear friend of mine, for example, just lost a brother-in-law to COVID. He just had just become a father 11 months ago, and died on Christmas day. We are now over 19 million cases, with many hospitals overrun, and an unnecessarily 333,000 now dead.
What could the “pulling down and raising up of many” mean for us today?
When Everyone Has Enough
Chapter 6 of Luke’s gospel continues the theme of redistribution or balancing of resources in Jesus’ community. This was a society where an elite few had more than they could possibly ever need while a multitude of others were being bled dry economically. Their thriving was impossible, their very survival was being threatened as well, and many who had once had modest means were pushed into poverty, much like America’s shrinking middle class today.
Consider how these words would have been heard in that context:
“Looking at his disciples, he said:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets. (Luke 6:20-26)
So much can be said about these words! Notice the parallel to “falling and rising” from Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph. Here, the poor, the hungry, those whom the present unjust system had reduced to tears, and those labelled trouble-makers for speaking out against injustice are being lifted up in Jesus’ vision for a just community. And those the present system has left rich at others’ expense; those well-fed because others go hungry; those rejoicing because of their great, disproportionate wealth, and those whom the system praised would now be brought back down. All of these groups would experience a fall from their places of privilege as their community came back into balance: no one would have too much while others didn’t have enough.
I was once troubled by the idea of the well-fed going hungry. I want to be careful not to interpret this passage in a way that body shames anyone, including myself. In that context, “well-fed” had a political-economic meaning—similar to the elites being referred to as “fat cats.” But some experience hunger at the beginning of a healthy weight loss journey. Not all hunger is bad. In the same way, the elite will experience temporary hunger whenever society is brought back into balance. They may even weep and morn as they see billions of their net-worth lost on their balance sheets as society itself is rebalanced. A return to social equity always feels like “loss” for those who are privileged and powerful. This is why Jesus’ vision of a just society was so threatening. It also explains why that group felt his voice must be silenced and he must be removed from among the poor, those who hunger and thirsted for things to be put right.
Yet Jesus’ teachings of economic redistribution was part of his Jewish heritage and sacred text.
Economic Falling and Rising in the Torah
In the book of Leviticus we read:
“Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property.” (Leviticus 25:8-13)
This jubilee year, also referred to as the year of the Lord’s favor, was an additional sabbatical year when slaves were released, debts were forgiven, and property/land was restored to the original families of ownership (see Isaiah 61:1-2).
Deuteronomy 15 states, “However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.”
These economic laws were intended to be protective. They limited both extremes, preventing anyone from amassing too much or losing too much and therefore risking poverty. These offered a type of “falling and rising” that pulled those at the top back down and lifted those at the bottom, all to prevent societal disparities and inequities becoming too great. These laws were not utopian by any means. They assumed disparities and inequities as both inevitable and damaging, damaging to the degree that the growing society’s disparities needed to be limited so that its potential for damage and harm would also be limited. Redistribution of amassed wealth in this context mitigated harm. (See Debt jubilee: will our debts be written off?, written last March to wrestle with the concept of jubilee and the pandemic’s economic challenges.)
It’s telling that out of all the passages the author of Luke’s gospel could have chosen from the Hebrew scriptures to summarize Jesus work, they chose Isaiah 62:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19, emphasis added.)
What could limits toward amassing too much wealth look like in our context today?
What could limits on poverty through redistribution of that amassed, superfluous wealth look like?
Could this redistribution, which will be seen as a threat to the elite, be life-giving to the masses?
Do we find support for redistribution in the Jesus story and in the Jewish sacred texts?
These are questions worth wrestling with as we enter this new year.
We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.
This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.
1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
2. What are some of the subtle differences between equality and equity? Discuss what social, racial, and economic equity would look like in our society.
3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?
Thanks for checking in with us, today.
Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.
I love each of you dearly,
I’ll see you next week