Over the past couple of months, since about October or so, I’ve begun to realize why the Bible is so hard for me to understand. It all started with James Cone’s emphatic statements about how God is on the side of the oppressed and therefore, by default, he is against the powerful. I was blinded to the profundity of his declarations mostly because of his categories: white = powerful and black = oppressed. I was certain that things with God weren’t so ‘black’ and ‘white’ (see what I did there). I pushed back against it because, well, I’m white, and if white is equivalent with ‘against God’ then I felt stuck. I was doomed. There was no hope for me.
However, if anyone were to read the Bible for the first time, in a vacuum, they would certainly come to the same conclusion (minus the categories of black and white). The Catholic Church has itself identified something they call “God’s preferential option for the poor”, and in doing so, have implored Catholics everywhere to find themselves on the right side of God by always caring for the poor in their midst.
I wasn’t raised Catholic, but Baptist, and Baptists (especially white Conservative Baptists) are known for being opposed to any sort of social engagement that would be considered a part of the liberal ‘social gospel’ (this isn’t always true, but it is a reputation that my people have somewhat earned). Baptists are known for quoting Jesus as saying, “The poor you will always have with you”, and take that to mean that Jesus doesn’t really intend for his followers to work towards social justice and the end of poverty.
The crazy thing about this is that Jesus was always speaking about the vindication of the poor – a theme that is found throughout Scripture from Genesis through Revelation as well. Deuteronomy says, “There shall be no poor among you”, Hannah sings about the great reversal of God at the birth of her son Samuel (meaning God has heard), Isaiah talks about mountains being leveled and valleys being raised up at the great banquet of God (referring to the equity of all people) and says that true fasting is caring for the poor among us, Mary sings about the vindication of the poor at the annunciation of her conception of Jesus, Jesus tells us in Matthew that our ultimate proof of salvation lies not in our ability to ascend to orthodox beliefs but in what we did for the ‘least of these’, Luke tells us in Acts that the church was actively selling off possessions to take care of anyone’s needs, and James tells us that true religion is taking care of the poor and widows along with warning the rich of God’s ultimate judgment which is coming upon them in due time. This short summary should be enough for us to understand that God is about taking care of the poor, the outcast, and the stranger.
These are inconvenient truths to those of us who have power in this world.
In reading and writing about a book today by Justo Gonzalez called Santa Biblia, I was struck again by all of this. The book is written in order to give us a glimpse into how Latinos read the Scriptures as marginalized, poor, mixed race, strangers and aliens in our country. It’s a fantastic book, and very insightful. Gonzalez illuminated several of the parables of Jesus for me, which I wish to pass along to you in hopes that you, too, might see how incredibly hopeful and revolutionary is the Gospel of Jesus.
Gonzalez proposes that the intended audience of the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal (lost) son is not the lost, but the found. “He is not speaking to the lost coin that the woman searches for until she finds it, but to the other nine that remain safely in her purse…He is not merely speaking of God’s love for the margin, but he is speaking of those who think they belong at the center (those of us in power), telling them that unless they too go out and seek the lost sheep and the lost coin, and welcome the younger brother, they are not true servants of God” (Gonzalez, 45). In short, according to Jesus, if we who can are not seeking to help those who can’t we are not working alongside God.
The reason I have not understood the Scriptures is because I am in the shoes of the oppressor. I don’t understand them because I am not the intended audience, and until I divest myself of my position of power, I won’t understand. I’ll try to rationalize them, spiritualize them, and steal the power from them, but I won’t ever understand them.
This is a hard word for me. I have a lot to think about, and a lot to do in order to live openly towards God and others, especially the poor and the oppressed around me.
I need to get my hands dirty, give to those who ask of me, and stop worrying about tomorrow.