(EDITOR'S NOTE: Faith Matters is a column written by the social concerns committee of the United Churches of Lycoming County. The monthly feature will include local faith-based comment on issues facing us today. Opinions expressed in the columns are those of the writers and the social concerns committee, not necessarily the Sun-Gazette.)
One of the petitions in the Lord's prayer is to forgive us our debts. Or is it our trespasses? Our sins? Which one is it?
Linguistically, Bible translators will tell you that the Greek word 'opheilemata' could mean either debts or trespasses, while moderns think sins captures the meaning best.
Theologically, the answer is much simpler. Jesus meant debts. He overturned the moneychanger tables, condemning the Temple.
Jesus was executed for threatening the Temple ("tear it down in three days") and its economy and tax structure of double tithing and Temple taxes ("Korban,"etc.). And yes, his healings and teachings at no cost were a threat to the Temple way of doing business, too. He endorsed debt relief of the 97 percent who were always in ever-increasing debt on the Temple books (and not with any goods or services to show for it either). Collected monies were spent for the elite in Jerusalem (or to build the outlying Greek cites, which Jesus refused to enter). Rural residents even incurred paper debt for the privilege to worship.
People in ancient Palestine existed merely to serve the wealthy 3 percent in Jerusalem, which functioned as a religious center, political capitol and the regional bank. This debt economy (most everyone forced into constant debt they could never repay) was why there was no middle class in Jesus' time. And today in the United States, we face a similar problem. Official poverty rates are over 25 percent in Lycoming County and 50 percent in cities such as Philadelphia; actual rates are much higher. Upward mobility has ceased. The middle class is dissolving. Our democracy is being threatened. The vast majority of people exist merely to serve the super rich.
Income inequality and the growing gap between the rich and rest of us have become the hot button social issue this year. We could look to the robber barons who dumped sacks of money on legislators' desks in the late 19th century for precedents, but the world of Jesus offers a better example. Even before capitalism, Jesus' Palestinian society understood that there was a "Limited Good" - there is a limited number of everything in the world.
If one person stockpiled money, goods or land, they took away from everyone else. There is not an unlimited amount of wealth so that anyone can become rich. If a small group of people possess most of the money, the rest of us fight for what little is left. And today even that game is rigged.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, 95 percent of all economic gains have gone to the top 1 percent. Political campaigns, think tanks, media campaigns and social attitudes are all unduly influenced by the wealthy. Even the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats is a smokescreen for the real problem: the elite force us into partisan battles to fight for the scraps of an economic pie after the rich have already taken the biggest slices. All of us have to be responsible ones, to either "balance the budget" or "fund programs" with what is left.
What can we do? Insist politicians prove they are "working for you." By getting the big money out of politics. By closing tax loopholes. By lowering the tax ceiling on inherited wealth. Any number of things can be done with bipartisan cooperation if we realize who is forcing us to fight for the leftovers. I ask only one question of any legislation, law, or social policy: Who benefits the most? If it is the wealthiest, it is likely to be unjust. Just ask Jesus.
- Manzinger is the pastor at First Baptist Church in Williamsport.