Money and metaphor

We’ve seen so much rhetoric on the role of wealth and job creation recently that I find myself bewildered, especially when so much of it comes from the religious right and the emerging evangelical megachurches. The message is that God isn’t hostile to wealth, he wants Christians to create it.

Nor is this message new, we can date it back to Calvinism as it took root in the colonies. Puritans preached that wealth was a sign of God’s favor to those who worked hard.

There is some truth to this, but not in the modern spin. The Gospels make it clear that God isn’t hostile to wealth so long as the wealthy recognize that they are the primary caretakers of the poor and underprivileged. I say this because, contrary to the Christian right—who claim to be Biblical literalists—this is the only position we can take if we wish to interpret the Bible literally.

Unlike many theologians, I studied literature and literary criticism in grad school, and while they get many things wrong and often look down the wrong trails, they do understand the lines where texts cease to be read literally and enter figurative territory. In addition, they understand the function of motifs, themes and rhetorical devices as well.1

This doesn’t make me more knowledgable about theology, it allows me to understand reading a little better. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Some statements are meant to be read literally, e.g. “Feed the poor.”
  • Some statements are metaphorical but we can interpret them as though they are literal. The statements, “God watches over us and keeps us” or “God is a loving father” are metaphoric because we don’t understand the literal process of God watching and keeping (or God’s fatherhood). God is not a physical, biological entity with eyes and sperm. But the metaphor is “God is man/father” and it is safe to interpret the phrase, literally, to mean that God cares for us.

  • Some statements are clearly metaphorical and meant to be interpreted so. When the psalmist says we will mount up with wings as eagles, the literal meaning would suggest we take wings and fly. But to assume this is what the psalmist meant is, quite simply, ludicrous. I have never heard even the most fundamentalist evangel suggest we will fly with wings. The meaning of passages such as this is more ambiguous and subject to interpretation.
  • So let’s look at a couple of passages in Luke and see what Jesus literally said about money, the love of money and the responsibility of wealth.

    Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind

    “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.'” (Luke 14:12-14)

    Literally: Don’t lavish your gifts on friends and influential people because there is no charity in it. Give it to those in need if you want and you will be rewarded at the resurrection. “Friends, relatives and rich neighbors” literally means friends, relatives and rich neighbors. The poor, crippled and lame aren’t the spiritually bereft. They are literally poor, crippled, lame and blind.

    There is no metaphor here. In the context he is speaking to a wealthy patron. Furthermore, Jesus phrases the statement as an imperative. He is not informing the rich man of his options; he is telling him what to do.

    The parable of the dishonest steward

    Immediately before the previous command, Jesus relates the parable of the dishonest manager. The dishonest manager knows he is to be fired, so in his final act he discharges portions of the debts owed to his master. He doesn’t keep the money, he merely makes friends who he can later turn to in need.

    Surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t condemn this in the least. He considers this a shrewd use of someone else’s money. This is pretty damn close to the kinds of statements the Christian Right would consider to be socialist class warfare.2 While he doesn’t say outright that we should rob from the rich to give to the poor, he doesn’t condemn the manager (nor, in fact, does his boss). He makes it clear, however, that the point of wealth is to take care of others and build a place in heaven.

    Who’s your master?

    Just in case those listening didn’t get the message, Jesus spells it out: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 14:13)

    There is only one metaphor in this passage: “master.” But even this metaphor falls into the second category I mentioned above, a figurative statement we can treat literally. The metaphor “master” is merely intended to suggest “To whom you are loyal, to whom you have pledged your devotion, the figure who is responsible for your livelihood, the one whose interests you serve.”

    Nor is this a difficult metaphor to interpret. But the literal meaning is clear, if money is your primary concern (think profit motive) you can’t follow God.

    Just in case you miss this, however, the Gospel goes on to say: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.'”

    Those pharisees sound exactly like modern day Republicans. They love money and justify themselves in the eyes of others. Now admittedly, this description fits a lot of Democrats and progressives too. The difference is they don’t claim to speak for God and they don’t claim people can’t be Christian if they aren’t Democrats.

    The rich man and Lazarus

    Luke 16 relates the sharpest condemnation of the wealthy who refuse to assist the poor. And in case you doubt me, you can read it in the King James Version authorized by Jesus, or the NIV, which is a real translation written for modern speakers of English.

    A rich man refused to give a beggar even the scraps from his table. Guess which one goes to hell? Ironically, the rich man in hell is so self-absorbed he wants the beggar, who he wouldn’t give the time of day, to be the person to help him. He wants the beggar to put a drop of water on his tongue.

    How’s that for trickle-down economics?

    Now a good Republican story of justice prevailing would have the beggar say, “Look who won, sucker. I won the race. I did it right and you did it wrong, so you got your just reward.” The liberal version would have the beggar rising to the occasion because he understands suffering and recognizes a soul in need.

    In Jesus’ parable there is no indication of the beggar’s intentions, because it doesn’t matter. The chasm between the just and unjust is so great it can’t be crossed. (Although I would suggest that this, in itself, is a poignant metaphor for the chasm between charity and greed).

    Here’s where some Christians fall into the mistakes of rhetoric. Most would get into arguments about whether heaven and the afterlife are real or figures of speech. Fundamentalists would claim this is definite proof that God punishes sinners with physical torment. More progressive Christians would spin the entire story as a fable.

    As far as the intent of the parable, however, it doesn’t matter whether heaven is real or a metaphor. What matters is that the command to spend the wealth of the world on the needy. That isn’t metaphor, it’s God’s policy and imperative.

    Many passages in the Gospel of Luke stand Christian Right policy on its head. If the rich want to earn God’s favor they provide for the poor—even though they get nothing back financially. Nor should the Right argue that they shouldn’t pay taxes because they already tithed.3 Early Christians surrendered all of their wealth willingly.

    Far too often I hear conservatives claim that charity shouldn’t be a function of government, it is the responsibility of private citizens. As a political statement, this is debatable. But even if we accept this as true, wealthy Christians then have to hold up their end of the bargain and feed the poor and needy. The Right, however, interprets charity to mean symphonies and arts and computer labs—all of which can be written off, and little of which benefits those in need.

    But, again, the Gospels make it clear, there is no act of charity if we get something in return. It is simply more commerce, a trade of another kind. Christians should give willingly, and if the government asks for more they should give that willingly too.

    I shouldn’t have to remind readers about the command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. (Literal translation, pay taxes).

    So let’s sum up what the Gospel of Luke really says about the pursuit of wealth and the responsibility of the wealthy to the poor.

    • God doesn’t care about worldly rewards. There is no profit motive in Christianity.
    • You should take care of those in need, and other Christians, in return, will remember your kindness should you find yourself in need.
    • If God graced you with wealth, it was to care for the needy.

    In addition Jesus said that believers are as obliged to pay taxes as they are to give to God. That’s what I call tough love for Republicans.

    1For a good example of the role in literary analysis in reading the Gospels, see L. Michael White’s Scripting Jesus. Far from being the dreaded “higher criticism” I was raised to run away from, this is an exercise in using literary studies to understand the intent of the four different Gospel authors (although, yes, he does imply God didn’t dictate the Gospels word for word). back

    2When I was a teenager, during the sixties, I heard more than one Baptist minister and Sunday School teacher say that, yes, Jesus invented Communism, but he didn’t intend it for us. The Christian Right won’t even grant us the Communism part. According to contemporary Christian Right thinking, Jesus always intended for Christians to behave like free market entrepreneurs, and if someone falls behind they should have been better Christians. back

    3And tithes are tax deductible anyway, so it’s not like they’re being double billed.back