The Pharisees’ Invisible Hand: Proper 17, Year A

Matthew 23

Matthew’s “condemnation of the pharisees,” also appears in Luke, but not in Mark.  The source for this diatribe is most likely Q, but Matthew expands on the theme to an extent not found in Luke.  Regardless of the original source, or where it appears, the Elves disregard the controversy completely.  One verse (Matthew 23:5-7) is read in Proper 26, Year B (Mark 12:38-39):

        Everything they do, they do for show. So they widen their phylacteries and enlarge their tassels.  They love the best couches at banquets and prominent seats in synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and they like to be called “Rabbi” by everyone.

Mark’s setting for this sarcastic description of the conduct of the pharisees is a scene outside the Temple in Jerusalem in which he watches a poor widow drop her last coin into the collection box (see “Widows might not,” which is even more relevant today).  Matthew pays no attention to the widow.  He’s far more concerned with railing against the Jewish leadership of his time, which – if scholarship is accurate – were actively excommunicating fledgling Christians from their synagogues.

Matthew holds the present generation responsible for the sins of the past.  But what he is really doing is to accuse his fellow Jews of murdering the Messiah.  He calls down a curse:  “As a result there will be on your heads all the innocent blood that has been shed on the earth from the blood of the innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah.”  As with much of Matthew, sermon writers and bible study leaders must be careful not to fall into anti-Semitism.  Matthew and other early Christians were in religious combat over whether or not Jesus was the Messiah predicted by the Jewish legend told in the book of Daniel.  Not surprisingly, Matthew’s condemnation of the pharisees is followed by his version of the last judgment (apocalypse) in chapter 24.

The diatribe in chapter 23 includes six parts: 1) Introduction, in which pharisees are criticized for being all talk and no action; for being concerned with style and not substance; and for claiming authority they do not have.  2) Pharisees are accused of being hypocritical, imposters, preventing people from participating in the covenant relationship with God, and with swearing false oaths.  3) They are concerned with small things of no importance (like taxing herbs and spices) instead of working for justice-compassion (“You strain out a gnat and gulp down a camel”). 4) The “outside versus inside” charge – the outside is clean but the inside is corrupt:

        You scholars and Pharisees, you imposters!  Damn you!  You are like whitewashed tombs: on the outside they look beautiful, but inside they are full of dead bones and every kind of decay.  So you too look like decent people on the outside, but on the inside you are doing nothing but posturing and subverting the Law.

5) The current generation of scholars and Pharisees are no different from the ancestors who killed the prophets.  Therefore, “there will be on your heads all the innocent blood that has been shed on the earth . . .”  6) The chapter ends with the lament over Jerusalem: “Can’t you see, your house is being abandoned as a ruin.”

As a left-wing, liberal Christian blogger, the natural expectation is that I would apply Matthew’s entire rant in chapter 23 to present-day, Tea Party, fundamentalist, Christian literalists and their panderers in the current Republican presidential brouhaha.  But that is too easy.  A right-wing fundamentalist Christian blogger could easily apply the same charges to all left-wing liberals and the Obama administration.  Rather than contributing to the level of vitriol in 21st century politics, consider the comic strip Doonesbury for Sunday, August 21, 2011.

In this strip, Zipper is talking to his roommate Jeff.  Zipper is astounded to learn that the 400 richest families in America now hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the entire country combined.  Jeff – with the kind of logic that causes otherwise prudent folk to bet on the highest odds at the craps table or the race track – says “if each group has the same amount, what exactly is the problem?  Sounds totally fair to me!”  Zip knows something is wrong with this, but can’t articulate it.  Jeff says, “It’s all good, Dawg.  Trust the invisible hand.”

The “father of modern economics and capitalism,” Adam Smith, believed that in a free market, no regulation of any type would be needed to ensure that the mutually beneficial exchange of goods and services took place, because an “invisible hand” would guide market participants to trade in the most mutually beneficial manner:

        As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestick industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestiek to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other eases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good.  Wealth of Nations (emphasis added).

In other words, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”  Smith, A., 1976, The Glasgow edition, vol. 2a, pp. 26-7.  Like many people today, whether politically conservative or liberal, Smith had a healthy distrust of barons of wealth and industry who – like the pharisees of sacked Jerusalem – “pay tithes on mint and dill and cumin too, but ignore the really important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and trust.”  Instead, Smith seems to be saying, a free market, in which laborers and small business owners can produce goods and services without regulation, will ipso facto result in a just distribution of wealth.

But it doesn’t work that way – as Matthew and the later Christian leaders discovered.  Jesus has not yet returned.  The normal systems that govern civilizations continue to create inequity – whether it is in societies that are ethnically homogenous (such as Sweden) or in societies that deliberately set out to establish fairness and equity in a culture of diversity (such as the United States in its original Constitution and later amendments).

Matthew is putting words into Jesus’ mouth 50 years removed from the original.  By the late 90s of the first century, C.E., Jerusalem and Temple Judaism were essentially destroyed, and the early movement that became Christianity was fighting for its life, trying to ride the coat-tails of Judaism into acceptance by Rome (see The Five Gospels pp. 238-245).  Matthew accuses the pharisees and synagogue leaders of hypocrisy, self-promotion, and corruption.  He lumps them in with the kings and leaders of the past who ignored God’s rule, and persecuted and destroyed the prophets.

Here is where Left and Right cross paths and become hopelessly confused – just like Zipper.  In Trudeau’s comic strip Jeff represents those who only vaguely understand democratic fairness, and the deliberately ignorant among us who thoughtlessly assume that “a rising tide raises all boats,” or that the wealth that is made at the top of the economic ladder will “trickle down” to everyone on the lower rungs.  The illogic of assuming that a group consisting of 400 millionaires is economically equal to a group of 200 million whose average income is $30,000 per year is breath-takingly naive.  Equally breath-taking is the confidence in the god of the “invisible hand” to intervene on the side of economic justice, especially when that economic justice is tied to the effects of unjust systems that preclude access to the level of power enjoyed by the richest 400.  A corollary to Jeff’s nonchalance is the assertion that there are plenty of jobs out there if the unemployed truly want them.  Sure, you might have to do something you think is beneath your pay grade, but if you really need a job, you can get one (or three).

It’s easy to blame the victim.  It’s not so easy to create systems of equal access to justice, in which self interest is radically abandoned, as Jesus actually taught.  As the writer of Matthew reminds us on many occasions, “the last shall be first” in the realm of God.  But the pursuit of self-interest is not the means to a just end, conscious or unconscious.

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