Sunday, September 28, 2014

Is Private Property Sacred? (Very long)

This discussion will be of little interest to those who are ambivalent to the Christian heritage/tradition.  You are welcome to follow along.  I make no claims of being "a teacher".  In fact, I am scared to death of being considered a teacher because James 3:1 cautions us that few should be teachers for they shall be judged more harshly.

So rather than be guilty of teaching or to be guilty of adding-to or subtracting-from Scripture I will quote extensively from Scripture and suggest that you think about, and pray about the readings.  The length of this entry is very poor blogging practice but it is what I am comfortable doing.

The New Testament

The format for this section will be to quote a passage that seems to deny the sacredness of private property and then alternate with another passage that seems to support it.  I will do this twice.  All quotes from the NAB translation.

The Eye of the Needle

Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother'; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?”  Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” -Matthew 19:16-24

This is where the typical anti-private property Christian will stop quoting the Bible.  They read enough to support their world view and stopped reading.  I propose we look at the next two verses.  These are the verses where Jesus delivers the core message.
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this (being saved) is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”  -Matthew 19:25,26
 At least two questions merit your prayerful consideration:
  1. Was Jesus using hyperbole?  Even the staunchest supporter of a literal interpretation of the Bible at least tacitly supports the possibility that Jesus was capable of hyperbole.  Matt 5:30 suggests that it is better to cut off our hand than to let them lead us to sin.  Given that the vast majority have both hands, one must conclude that the vast majority accept this passage as an exaggeration used to capture our attention and help us see the message from a new perspective.
  2. Was Jesus demanding a proof of loyalty?  God the Father demanded that Abraham sacrifice his only son, Isaac (Genesis 22).  Abraham was given great blessings after he demonstrated his trust and loyalty to God.  A recurring message in the Bible is Dominion and Stewardship.  A good steward acts as an agent of the Master.  A test forces us to choose and it reinforces that agency within us.  The young, rich man failed that test.


The good shepherd

One of the most iconic passages in the Bible:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech they did not realize what he was trying to tell them.  So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who came [before me] are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”  -John 10:1-18  Bold added by ERJ
Would Jesus use the analogy of the Good Shepherd, the shepherd who owns his sheep (private property) as a metaphor if private property were intrinsically evil?

This intersects with the Stewardship directive.  It is more likely that one will be a good steward when one has some skin in the game.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores. who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’ Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’ He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’ -Luke 16:19-31

Jesus is telling us that even though he will rise from the dead that there will still be people who will reject His message.  The rich man is not condemned because he is rich but because he does not follow the rules of tithing and caring for the poor that were handed down from Moses, i.e., the Law.

A point to prayerfully consider is that God does not need our wealth or our material goods.  He created all of them to begin with.  He desires our obedience and our alignment with His plan.  I believe that God would view coercive taxation and wealth transfers as missing the point, as an excessive focus on the material rather than the spiritual.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

“Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;  -Matt 21:33-42
This parable was told by Jesus just before his passion and death.  He is foretelling his death at the hands of the high priests and Pharisees.  This parable is not a treatise on private property.  The sin of envy is a minor subtext in this parable by simple virtue of where it is placed in the narrative of Jesus' ministry.

It was entirely clear to his audience that he was identifying as the son of the owner of the vineyard....a capitalist.  And his audience was entirely horrified by the tenant's treatment of the son.  A new vineyard had a life expectancy of 200 years...a lifespan of 10 generations.  It would qualify as a "capital good" by any definition.


My prayerful reflection is that God cares more about our souls than than our pocketbooks or our political leanings.  Even the passages that seem to be about money are primarily about our souls and our salvation.  My prayerful reflection also leads me to believe that Jesus' message is embedded in a culture that had a strong belief in private property.  But like anything else, taken to excess...where love of money exceeds love of God... it becomes a sin. 

In his parables Jesus frequently identifies as an owner of private property.  In the parable of the Wicked Tenants Jesus identifies those who would take private property as evil.  When combined with the Biblical messages of Stewardship then my belief is that God favors private property as long as it is tempered, by the property owner, by mercy and charity.

So, is private property sacred?  Perhaps not....but it is pretty close.

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