Poverty and the Un-holy

The Jerusalem elites who Jesus clashes with prioritise the Purity codes. Poverty is the result of uncleanness.

The Jerusalem elites who Jesus clashes with prioritise the Purity codes. Poverty is the result of uncleanness. If one were pure one would be blessed i.e. not poor. Hence the way in which the Temple authorities, who based themselves on the Purity codes, blamed those they exploited by portraying them as unclean amme ha-aretz. Their poverty was their own fault because they did not follow the Sabbath and Purity laws.

But read from the point of view of the Debt codes, poverty is the result of the covetous greed of the rich and the powerful or what Jesus calls Mammon, the unrestricted accumulation of wealth. And how do the rich in this society accumulate wealth? At the expense of peasant producers, through fraudulent collection of taxes and tithes, through lending to those who would have difficulty paying back and then foreclosing on their loans. All this is a violation of the will of Yahweh expressed in the non-exploitative social relations of the covenant.

Exodus 23:9 “You shall not oppress the stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The theological principle underlying this is simple: “For I am compassionate.” Exodus 22:27. In the Exodus covenant the powerless stranger is under God’s protection. The identity of Israel was to be a people who offered protection of others not contempt or exclusion.

Into this reality Jesus comes bringing a message about a God who is not primarily interested in rituals of home or Temple, nor of Purity laws or racial identity since “The Sabbath is for humans…”. Rather, this God is reminding Israel of where they come from. When Jesus says in Mark 12:28 “Love God with your whole self and your neighbour as yourself”, he is evoking ancient memories. They would have heard the echo of the prayer written on the heart of every Israelite and taught to all children in Deuteronomy 6:5 – Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.” And the second half echoes Leviticus 19:18 – “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countryman. You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

The people of Israel were a liberated people made up of migrant workers under the Egyptians. They were 12 separate gangs with little in common except their slavery. God calls them out of nothingness, to be something, his people Israel. A people characterised by a unique freedom, and as such, they were to be a sign for others that such freedom was possible. They must create an inclusive land where there would always be a place for the widow, the orphan and the stranger – the migrant worker! The people whose power was sheer gift from God (Israel = God’s People) should not threaten the powerless.