There is a phrase popular since the 1990s which asks, “What would Jesus do?” Its origin is from Charles Sheldon’s 1896 Christian novel “In His Steps,” which held a mirror to the faces of comfortable churchgoers who, like Dickens’ Scrooge, often ignored the sufferings of the poor and homeless.
Over the last 10 years or so, WWJD has inspired some people to act with more compassion, as reflected in Jesus’ moral teaching in the parable of the Good Samaritan — an outcast who took care of a man left in the road for dead after a priest and others had passed by without giving a damn for the victim (Luke 10:25-37).
Early Christians attempted to live the community ideal, sharing with others according to their need. As St. Paul wrote: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: ‘He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.’ (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)”
To heal the very rich, Jesus sometimes suggested something more extreme. For example, Jesus told the rich young man who desired salvation to “sell your possessions, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the rich man couldn’t bring himself to do it, Jesus told his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:21-23).
On another occasion, Jesus praised a poor widow for her tiny donation because she gave “all she had to live on” (Luke 21:4). In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus describes eternal punishment for the greed of the wealthy and how the poor will gain justice, as well as God’s love, in heaven (Luke 16:19-31).
When it comes to the Occupy Wall Street movement, there is no question mark needed for WWJD. Indeed, one of the few times Jesus expressed anger was over the Temple moneychangers, and the text describes his overturning the tables and driving out that “den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13). It may well have been this act, more than his theology, which led to Jesus’ death at the hands of the power structure.
Jesus compared us to the birds, but today many of us are like ravens trying to peck our next meal in a financial minefield. One false move and we can lose everything — cancer with no health insurance, a mortgage with no job, crushing student loans with no recourse, employee pensions robbed blind by CEOs. These land mines are considered complications of our modern age but are mainly the result of very wealthy systems of exploitation that leave average people, the 99 percent, entrapped. Now, about all this bad behavior and all this needless human suffering, don’t you think God has something to say?
In point of fact, God does. Leviticus spells out in great detail what our economic dealings with each other are supposed to be. One of the primary injunctions is against lending money at interest — to your brother or your neighbor. In Exodus, the injunction also covers lending to the poor or to any of God’s people. Therefore, in the Good Samaritan parable when the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” there are heavy financial consequences to Jesus’ answer that even Samaritans, a tribe of foreigners, are your neighbors. It implies that even foreigners should not be charged interest on a loan.
In recent times, we hardly ever think to apply Jesus’ teachings, or Old Testament law, to our financial dealings. It’s as if the bank and the church were two institutions with no bearing on one another. But in Jesus’ day, it was very different.
The Temple was the bank in Jerusalem, and temples of all sorts, all over the ancient world, were storehouses of wealth and places travelers went to do their banking. There were even letters of credit, so a temple in Rome could send a letter with a traveler verifying deposits against which funds could be drawn at the Temple in Jerusalem. This facilitated commerce, of course, but it was anathema to Jesus, who drove the moneychangers from the Temple. This was probably the last straw for the Temple hierarchy, which profited greatly from their banking operations. In point of fact, it was probably Jesus’ rage against this financial machine that resulted in his death.
Today’s media paint the Occupy Wall Street movement spreading around the world as being political in nature. But it is more than that. It is the same impulse to decency, to basic fairness, that Jesus taught. What Jesus would do on Wall Street is just what Jesus did at the Temple in Jerusalem, and to the same end — not only that greed should not reside in the house of God, but that God’s spirit of love should reside in every one of mankind’s institutions.
There is another parable with implications for the “99 percenters” now protesting the 1 percent of the population that controls nearly half of the nation’s wealth. Jesus told the Pharisees, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4)
The lost sheep, the sinner, is the one the 99 are attempting to reform and redeem. These protests, if successful, could ultimately prove a blessing for everyone — not only for the abandoned 99, but also for the salvation of that 1 percent now gobbling even the social safety nets.
Jesus said, “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over the sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who did not need to repent.” And to that I say, Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.