Isaiah 11: 1-10
Chapter 11 of Isaiah is part of that section known to scholars as “First Isaiah”, which sets out the prophetic vision of a prophet who was active in the 8th century BC. It begins with a passage known as the vision of the “peaceful kingdom”. In this vision, Isaiah sets out a pastoral image of the Kingdom of God, drawing on metaphors from the natural world to describe a reality infused by the heavenly shalom, the peace of God that brings to an end the reign of strife and conflict in human existence.
It is worth noting that the vision begins with a “shoot” that springs from the “stock” of Jesse – the royal house of Israel descended from David, the son of Jesse. This brings to mind a branch that emerges from the trunk of a tree that has been chopped down. And clearly this is the prophet’s intent: to both forewarn of the disaster that is coming, but also to provide a word of hope for the future.
First Isaiah was active at a time when the kingdom of Judah was still in existence, and Jerusalem was its capital. However, the great days of David and Solomon were long gone: the royal house, having first been divided, had sunk into both moral turpitude and political impotence, Morally, it had failed to embody the covenant relationship between God and humanity which was expected of the kings of Judah and Israel: the kingship, the aristocracy, and the court-based priesthood had all allowed injustice and wrongdoing to flourish as they pursued their own interests ahead of the welfare of the community. Politically, the small states of Judah and Israel had become increasingly squeezed between the kingdom of Egypt to its south, and the emerging (and re-emerging) empires of Babylon and Assyria to the north. For a long time, the kings of Israel and Judah attempted to walk a tightrope between these competing superpowers, all the while doing nothing to embody the kind of human society willed by God through the covenant with the Chosen People. It was a balancing act that was bound to end in disaster.
That disaster is embodied by the “stock” from which the “shoot” emerges: the severed “trunk” of the house of Jesse that will nonetheless become the source for a new hope, a new reign of God’s peacefulness on earth. But the kingship exercised in this new reign will not be like the reigns by which it has been preceded; those were reigns of violence and despair, of tyranny and chaos. Rather, this will be a reign that fully realises God’s intent for creation, one that draws the whole of the universe into the fullness of God’s life and being.
This fullness is characterised in three ways. Firstly, by describing the one who reigns. Secondly, by describing the manner of their reign. Thirdly, by utilising pastoral imagery to describe the global peace that will be the chief consequence of their reign.
The one who is to reign is described as one upon whom the Spirit of God rests, one who is filled with God’s Spirit and who consequently is gifted with all the fruits of the Spirit. This is one with whom God deeply indwells.
The manner of their reign is differentiated from the reign of the kings of Judah and Israel by reference to justice: the one who is to reign judges, not by what is apparent (and therefore subject to all the prejudices and corruptions of human self-interest) but with true insight and wisdom. The poor and the meek, instead of being shut out from justice because of their poverty and lack of influence, shall be accorded equality. They shall be judged, not according to how much they possess, or how many friends in high places they know, but by reference to how well they have kept the covenant. Likewise, the wealthy and the powerful shall suddenly find their wealth and power count for nothing: what matters is whether they have used their wealth and power as a means to the end of God’s redemptive will, or if they have used it as an instrument of oppression against the helpless.
Finally, the heavenly peace of this new reign is described using pastoral imagery. This imagery juxtaposes opposites from the natural world in order to describe the overthrowing of distinctions that will occur as a consequence of the coming of the “peaceful kingdom”. Wolves and leopards shall lie down with lambs and goats; children shall play unharmed near the dens of deadly snakes. In the new reign that is to come, all the orders of creation shall co-exist without the need for violence or competition, reconciled by the knowledge of God as the source of all being – a knowledge that will cover the earth like the waters of some great flood.
It should be noted that this imagery is not merely bland “levelling”, nor is it utopian wishful thinking. This imagery does not belong to a social-economic revolution that overthrows one class (the aristocracy, the landowners, the controllers of production) and sets up a new ruling class (the peasants, the landless, the workers) in their stead. Neither does it imagine that humanity will somehow simply “come to its senses” by some kind of socio-cultural “evolution” in which “progress” is the inevitable result. Rather, it is a vision that acknowledges – and cries out against – the violence and destructiveness of the present; but which, in articulating God’s judgement against that present, also affirms God’s faithfulness to humanity and creation, a faithfulness that includes restoration and the fulfilment of covenant.
Competition – and the divisiveness of competition – lie at the heart of modernity’s construction of work and economy. Nations compete against one another for resources, trade advantages, and global influence. Corporations compete against one another for market share, profitability, and access to the best employees. Cities compete against one another in order to attract private investment and government infrastructure spending. Regions compete against one another to attract tourism income. Individuals compete against one another for jobs, promotions, the validation and preferment of those in power – even just for “bragging rights” among their neighbours and friends about who has the better job, the bigger income, the more desirable spouse, the most “success”. At every level, from the individual to the collective, competition is seen not only as the driver of human life, but as the necessary quality that makes human life actually liveable.
There are a number of justifications for this competition. The first is that it drives “innovation”: the necessity to compete against – and defeat – others drives an inventiveness that in turn propels social “progress”. The second is that competition “brings out the best” in people: put to the test, they discover potentials within themselves which they might otherwise never realise or bring to fruition. The third is that competition rewards “merit”: that the distribution of the rewards of competition is a reflection of the relative “just deserts” of each participant in the process. The fourth is that competition produces “robust” societies that possess the necessary “flexibility” to thrive over the longer term, and thereby secure human flourishing: without competition, society would simply become stagnant and decay. The fifth is that competition is a mechanism by which each individual member can “contribute” to society, maximising their productivity and efficiency to the greater benefit of the entire human community.
But these justifications hide the violence that is done to people through the competitive process – violence that is physical, emotional, psychological, existential, and interpersonal. They hide the sheer brutality of that violence – how it damages, degrades, and dehumanises people. They hide the inequalities and injustices that reflect a reality “on the ground” which the justifications gloss over – the reality that the distribution of the rewards of competition rarely reflect “merit”, and are instead the product of power hierarchies and corrupt relationships. These justifications also hide the moral judgementalism attached to hierarchy: namely, that those who don’t achieve or succeed – those who can’t “compete” – are morally deficient and deserving of being subject to punitive social and economic policies.
Covenant is the opposite to competition. Covenant doesn’t deny that, within human relationships, there will be scope for difference of perspective or viewpoint. However, by stressing our shared, relational co-existence, covenant recasts these differences, changing them from a winner-takes-all competition to an understanding of diversity that emphasises continuing relationship over triumphalist gloating. In other words, the “contest of ideas” is not about “defeating” or “destroying” one’s “competition”, but about enabling a diversity that prioritises the centrality of relationship rather than the achievement of dominance.
Of course, this does not deny the reality that humans, in their brokenness and limitation, will develop resentments when their views and ideas fail to persuade, or that conflict won’t result when different perspectives come into contact. Nor does it deny the reality that political leaders, in particular, will need to make choices and decisions that impact upon the choices and decisions made by corporations, communities, and individuals. But covenant changes the basis upon which these decisions are made: instead of being about “winning” or “advantage” or “success”, they become a reflection of the ongoing relational, co-existence between all people. Our struggle becomes, not to come out “on top”, but to give expression to our shared human dignity.
The ideology of competition that lies at the heart of modernity’s construction of work and economy is deeply antithetical to human dignity. Instead of modelling a life of relational co-existence, our prevailing power structures model a reality in which self-interest, even at the most brutal expense of others, is held up as both normative and morally sanctioned. Moreover, that model seems so all-pervasive, so universal as to be unquestioned and unquestionable; any suggestions for an alternative way of life and being are dismissed as “fantasy” or suppressed as “threats” to social cohesion.
But the “shoot” that springs from the “stock” reveals the lie to the claims by modernity’s ideology of work and economy. The mighty tree that was the kingdom founded by David was cut down and destroyed; but from it a shoot springs that re-imagines human life and the relationship between kingly power and creation. Likewise, the mighty tree that seems to be the invincible form in which modernity’s construction of work and economy takes shape is also vulnerable – not to revolutions or upheavals, but to the spirit within the human heart – driven by the Spirit of God – which re-imagines the ways in which work and economy can model human relationships and the realities of human life.
It may be that a time of intense suffering lies ahead – that the ravages which human rapacity has inflicted upon the non-human ecology will rebound upon humankind in various forms. But even if this is the case, the prophetic word of warning carries a prophetic word of hope: from the struck down trunk, new things grow. We need only be attentive to the Spirit of God that works among us, bringing forth the fruits of a new peaceful kingdom. That is as true for the world – and the Church – today as it was for the world and society of First Isaiah’s time.
Psalm 72: 1-2, 18-19
This short excerpt from Psalm 72 comes from a text attributed to Solomon. Solomon has become proverbial for his wisdom, for his ability to get to the heart of a matter in order to ensure a just and proper outcome. This is reflected in his handling of the dispute between two women claiming the same baby (1 Kings 3: 16-28); Solomon literally “cut to the chase” in order to discern which of the two women was lying, and which was not.
The four short verses which are excerpted from the longer text of Psalm 72 reflect Solomon’s prayer for wisdom (1 Kings 3: 5-14). But instead of wisdom per se, Solomon prays for the righteousness and justice of God, In other words, the wisdom to exercise justice and righteousness according to God’s vision of human dignity and covenantal relationship, instead of according to the conventional dictates of power or social standing.
The reading concludes with a declaration of praise to God, acknowledging that it is from God’s sovereignty that the blessings of justice and righteousness ultimately descend.
As with the reading from Isaiah, this brief passage from Psalm 72 models a different understanding of sovereignty and power. The kingly authority is also the responsibility to model justice and righteousness to the people; without this dimension, the kings’ claim that their power comes to them from God is empty and self-serving. Solomon’s prayer to embody the characteristics of God’s justice and righteousness reflects the reality that all power is provisional: unless it serves the purpose of human dignity and flourishing envisaged by God, it is corrupt. Without righteousness and justice, and the requisite humility which these involve, power is simply abusive.
The same is true in terms of how we understand work – especially waged labour – and economics. Corporations, through lobbyists, exercise a disproportionate influence on government. Employers, through the “reform” of industrial relations laws, exercise increasing control over their workers. Institutions and organisations – including churches and sporting bodies as well as corporations – intrude ever more into the private lives of individuals through “codes of ethics” that restrict what people can do or say on platforms like social media in order to protect their “brand” or their “public image”. But does this increasing control by organisations over the mechanisms of society and individuals within society reflect a trend consonant with human dignity and flourishing?
This will always be contested ground, as it reflects the tension between individual “rights” and their “responsibilities” toward wider society. However, where this control is exerted for self-interest – especially commercial self-interest – the likelihood is ever increasing that it is power that lacks righteousness and justice, and is merely oppressive. This is not a structure of power that models the responsibility of the powerful toward the powerless; it is not a model of power that emphasises relational co-existence over self-interest.
In this light, this brief excerpt from Psalm 72 is a reminder that the priority of all power structures must be justice and righteousness; only under such circumstances can power be legitimate. Moreover, that justice and righteousness must not be the constructed, self-interested “justice” of those in power: it must reflect the wider sovereignty of God and its claim for human dignity and flourishing. The power of corporations and institutions, exercised through modernity’s construction of work and economy, is all too often oppressive because it is power that seeks preservation of the status quo, rather than the more challenging and difficult task of preserving the covenantal binds of relational life.
Romans 15: 4-13
Paul is in the middle of a lengthy discussion about the need for the community of Christians in Rome to live in peace with itself, whether Jews or Gentiles. There were clearly disturbances and distractions within the community’s members on the question of whether or not Gentiles should submit to the Mosaic Law and the ritual of circumcision before they were admitted into full communion. There is even some evidence that this dispute at times turned violent: the Roman historian Suetonius mentions that the emperor Claudius expelled the Jewish community (or members of the Jewish community) from the city of Rome on account of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus”. Whether this is a reference to “Christ” or an otherwise unknown individual is disputed. Evidently, however, there were ructions among the Jewish community in Rome, at least some of whom had become Christians – the Acts of the Apostles mentions Jewish converts arriving in Corinth due to the Jewish community having been expelled from Rome (Acts 18:2).
In any event, Paul clearly felt the need to issue a call for unity and peace within the Jewish/Christian community of Rome. And to do this he expounds on one of the key themes of his ministry: the inclusion of the Gentiles in the promise of covenant. Drawing on his rich knowledge of Scripture (a product of the Pharisaic tradition in which Paul stood, and of which he was deeply proud), Paul argues firstly that the promise of covenant was made to the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in order that not only the Chosen People, but also all the nations of the earth, might be included in its blessings. Secondly, Paul cites those passages of Scripture that witness to the wide range of this promise; passages which mark God as the hope of the Gentiles, as the one who will be made known to the world through the sacred history of Israel. As a result, Gentiles will also be able to acknowledge God as Lord and celebrate their incorporation into relationship with the divine through the covenant with Israel.
The point of this argument is Paul’s contention that Gentiles, heretofore marked as “outsiders”, those excluded from the blessings of covenant, are to be welcomed as participants in covenant – because that is part of the redemptive, inclusive purpose for which covenant exists. Covenant itself is a form of welcoming, of divine hospitality through which the people of Israel have been drawn into relationship with God. The point of being the Chosen People, therefor, is not to hold that “special status” in exclusivity from others, but to extend the welcome to others, to make it available to Gentiles.
Moreover, that inclusion was not, for Paul, a function of submission to the Law; the Law was the covenantal framework between God and Israel which, through human sin, had become ineffective for the fulfilment of God’s purposes. Rather, it was through faith in Christ that covenant was fulfilled, that Israel’s witness to God’s faithfulness was realised. Because of the “Christ-event”, the external markings of the Law, though important to an observant Jew like Paul, were no longer pre-requisites for inclusion in the community of the faithful; rather, that inclusion came through recognition of who Jesus was, and what his life, death, and Resurrection signified.
So Paul’s call for unity and peace is also a call for the removal of distinctions, for the removal of the labels of “us” and “them” that demark the lines of difference between the “righteous” and the “sinful”, between the “included” and the “excluded”, between the “forgiven” and the “condemned”. We are all one in Christ, and it is through faith in Christ that our boundaries are not only dissolved, but our humanity redefined. This isn’t to say that Paul pretends that differences don’t continue to exist as part of human reality; rather, what changes is the significance of those differences for how we understand one another. Whereas previously, difference formed a barrier to relationship, through our common inheritance in Christ difference ceases to be both divisive and definitive. We join hands across the barriers of difference, despite the difficulties in doing so; and when the lines of relationship break down, it is by remembering our shared humanity in Christ that they are restored.
Modernity’s construction of work and economy have produced many lines of division: between capital and labour; between the rich and the poor; between the successful and the struggling. Of course, difference is not new to humanity; division along socio-economic lines is (at least) as old as urban civilisation, and possibly as old as humanity itself. But what modernity has done is to push those divisions to the extreme: to entrench them as both normative within human life and to establish them as the markers of human worth and legitimacy.
Until modernity and the emergence of industrial civilisation, power and class difference was essentially the product of two factors: the seizure of power through political machination and/or armed coup; and the establishment of a line of succession through which power might be transferred by generations of a ruling/aristocratic elite. These elites also exercised economic control, but that control was a function of their socio-political control. With the emergence of industrialised technology, however, economic control became a mechanism for rule in its own right: the emerging mercantile and capitalist classes first challenged, and then overtook, the traditional hereditary aristocracy as the primary influencers in social and political life.
This is evidenced today by the power of corporate lobbyists in the political sphere. Lobbyists such as these, and the influence through economic means which they exert on the body politic, have used their power to entrench and grow the control exercised by corporate institutions over human life. They have also used that influence to not only protect the harmful activities of corporations, but to prevent their being made accountable for that harm.
At the individual level, modernity’s narrative of the autonomous individual, the “self-made man” who through sheer will-power overcomes obstacles and shapes the world according to their own preferences, has become the model of human worth and authenticity. Entrepreneurs are lauded as prime examples of “contributors” to social welfare. Successful sporting and entertainment personalities are eulogised as “inspirational” figures. Wealthy individuals (and companies) utilise their sponsorship of charitable events and organisations to “market” their “brand”. At every level, the acquisition of wealth, the attainment of success, and the conspicuous demonstration of status are upheld as markers of moral worth and legitimacy.
The dark side of all this, however, is illustrated in the consequences for those who don’t fall into any of these categories. Employees are regarded as a “necessary evil”, a cost on production dragging down profit margins, to be replaced by cheaper workforces – or even automation – wherever possible. Those whose careers in sport or entertainment turn out to be less than successful are deemed not to have had “the right stuff” to “make it”. Those who rely on welfare programs or whose economic security is precarious are demonised as “bludgers” or “losers” or “parasites” who warrant the implementation of punitive social policies. Modernity’s construction of work and economy, its buy-in to the myth of individual autonomy, and the elevation of achievement to the status of primary determinant of human worth, everywhere excludes and divides.
Today’s reading from Romans, however, articulates a different understanding of human worth and legitimacy. That worth is not vested in power or wealth or achievement. Rather, it is located in the person of Christ, through whom the whole of humankind is drawn into the redemptive life of God. The standards and distinctions that previously applied to human life no longer apply; what matters is that, in Christ, God has entered into human life in order to stand in solidarity with human suffering, to experience the reality of injustice, and to overcome the violence of oppressive power with the helplessness of grace. In the events of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, God decisively redraws the map of human existence: we are sanctified, not by what we acquire or achieve or inherit, but by what God completes in Jesus and continues in the Holy Spirit.
This rewriting of the human story calls on us to reconsider our understanding of work and economy. Work is not an end in itself that defines and demarcates human legitimacy; wealth and influence and achievement are not the repositories of human flourishing. Rather, work becomes a means to an end, a part of that suite of human realities through which we express what it means to be relational beings co-existing in relationship with one another and with the non-human ecology. This does not mean that work will suddenly cease to contain elements that are arduous, or dangerous, or even oppressive; what changes is our understanding of our own relationship with our work, and with one another as workers. What is valued is the humanity that performs work, and the human flourishing to which work is but one contributor. Nor will this flourishing be in either consumerist material terms, or in the “self-actualisation” preached by modernity’s myth of the autonomous individual. Rather, it will be in the innate dignity which humans bring to work; a dignity that is concomitant with their creation in the likeness and being of God.
Likewise, today’s reading from Romans calls on us to understand economy in its relational terms: as a web of human relationships contributing to our collective well-being, rather than as a network of contacts and contracts fashioned by exclusive self-interest. Trade and commerce and industry and production and consumption will no longer be regarded as the hallmarks of economic activity; instead, we will understand economic activity as the work of human inter-relatedness, of negotiating our shared space with one another and with the world. Again, this does not mean the sudden emergence of a utopian state of being; rather, it points toward the purpose for which economy exists. And that purpose is nothing less than the full expression of our shared lives together as a reflection of our shared life with God.
In just the same way that Paul called upon the Christian community in Rome to overcome the divisions of power and faction and live in peace with one another, so today’s reading from Romans calls on us to extend the shalom of God into the world of work and economy, so that instead of being the engines of division and exclusion, they become part of the expression of our fullest humanity. “Haves” and “have nots” will no longer become the markers of rejection and humiliation; rather, difference in socio-economic status will be the basis upon which we engage and affirm our human dignity, seeing each other through the new relational vision into which God invites us to dwell. The stigma and degradation which modernity’s construction of work and economy impose will no longer apply; rather, it is our shared humanity which will be decisive, redefined by the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of Christ. Difference will remain; but it will no longer be a disruptive barrier. The decisive, defining condition will instead be the reconciliation achieved in Christ – between one another, and between ourselves and God.
Matthew 3: 1-12
The period immediately preceding Jesus’ public ministry was a time of considerable ferment within Judaism. There was widespread disillusionment among the Jewish population about the religious leadership centred in the Temple in the Jerusalem, who largely seen as collaborators with the Roman imperial power. Likewise, the house of Herod the Great, which had supplanted the Jewish Hasmoneans, were reviled both as puppets of the Roman Emperor, and as foreigners who had usurped the throne of David. Even before the ascension of Herod and his successors, the Hasmoneans had come into disrepute for what was widely regarded as their dissoluteness and betrayal of the legacy of David and the role of the Jewish kingship.
With this disillusion came various forms of activism. One form of activism manifested itself in communities of dissenters who withdrew from Jewish society and established their own self-sufficient communes; one such group, the Essenes, possibly produced the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which documents both the daily life and the religious practices that were probably widespread among such break-away communities. Another were the Zealots, who advocated armed resistance to the Romans, including their expulsion from Judea by military force.
One feature of this ferment was the proliferation of prophets of various kinds and varieties. Many of these prophets were “apocalyptic” in nature, predicting the promised day when the Messiah would come to restore the Kingdom of David and expel foreigners and their political and cultural influences. Others were more or less charlatans, seeking to build a cult of personality to use as a base for political power or financial gain. Still others called on the people as a whole to repent, to return to a way of life that was focused on God and on the covenantal relationship between God and humankind.
In that sense, there was nothing particularly unusual about John the Baptist. His description in The Gospel According to Matthew strikes modern audiences as redolent of the wild-eyed fanatic; but to audiences of the time, the notion of a prophet speaking from the wilderness would not have struck them as especially noteworthy. There was, afterall, a prophetic tradition which today’s passage references: Isaiah’s voice crying from the wilderness. Moreover, the wilderness itself was viewed as a place where spiritual powers dwelt, and from whence they irrupted from time to time into human life. In that context, John is less a crazed half-human (as modern audiences might suppose and be wary of) than he is an embodiment of a recognised and understood religious trope.
Nonetheless, there was clearly something unusually compelling about John, something that drew such large crowds to him that even the leaders of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the two largest sects within Second Temple Judaism, came to see John and try and get his measure. It’s hard to tell at this remove precisely what that something might have been – and certainly Matthew doesn’t give any indication, except insofar as to identify John as the “voice” about whom the prophet Isaiah spoke. But perhaps it was the novelty of John’s message, a novelty that resided in the fact that he quite deliberately and consciously pointed away from himself and toward the One who was to come. Unlike many of the other prophets of his time, John specifically denied that he was the Messiah, or that he had some inside knowledge about the Messiah and their advent. Rather, driven by the spirit of prophecy that sought to alert the people to God’s presence and activity among them, John is calling on their repentance – their turning back toward God – as a preparatory step that would enable them to eventually recognise and receive the Messiah.
In that context, John’s belligerent attack upon the Pharisees and Sadducees fits neatly within the biblical witness wherein the prophets of God condemned those prophets of Israel whose allegiance was to the powers of the day, and to their own social standing and financial reward. Just as Jeremiah, for example, contended against the court prophets whose main concern was to flatter and ingratiate themselves with the king, rather than speak difficult truths to power, so John confronts the Pharisees and the Sadducees with their own failure to be true shepherds of the people. As noted above, there was widespread disillusionment with what was seen as their complicity with the Roman imperial power; and this disillusionment was further sharpened by what was seen as the presumption of the Temple leadership, by the claim that their righteousness and authority was vested in the fact of their leadership, from which position they could dictate to others who was righteous and unrighteous, who was central to the community of faith and who was peripheral.
John articulates this presumption in his rejection of their claim that they have Abraham as their ancestor. Lineage is not, John counters, the hallmark of righteousness: God could make “children” of Abraham from the stones of the desert, all of whom would be no less worthy than they. Rather, righteousness resides in the production of “fruit” worthy of repentance – that is to say, in a re-configuration of life away from self-serving claims and toward the necessary humility involved in relationship with God. This humility is not an abject humiliation but an opening of the self toward the greater claim of God, and toward the kind of relational life with others that this claim calls us into. If the Pharisees and Sadducees were true shepherds of the people, they would be less concerned with their own status and privilege, and more concerned with embodying for the people what relational co-existence with God and with the world involves.
For the Baptism which John declares is drawing near, is not the “cheap grace” (to borrow Bonhoeffer’s phrase) of membership to a club or an elite. Rather, it is the confronting grace that challenges us to re-imagine the purpose of human life, and which demands of us the often uncomfortable realisation of that life in the face of the interests of oppressive power, and the demands of our cultural norms and expectations. This is the Baptism of “Spirit and fire”, which burns out of us all that which is degrading and dehumanising, and which separates us from God and from each other.
Modernity’s construction of work and economy have created their own lines of lineage and power, all of which confer authority and legitimacy, and which determine who is “in” and who is “out”. In part, this is a product of modernity’s myth of the autonomous individual, of the “self-made person” who, by dint of sheer willpower, makes the world and reality conform to their preferences and purposes. However, the exclusionary paradigm established by modern notions of work and economy also rest in the creation of self-recognising categories of “reliable” and “worthy” people, of a “club” of “in people” who are seen as fellow travellers who can be trusted to promote the self-interest of the elites to the exclusion of wider society.
In modernity, this in group is represented by the owners of capital, by the class of “super-managers” (to borrow a phrase coined by the French economist Thomas Picketty), by the tech entrepreneurs, and by the inheritors of the vast stores of wealth controlled by the privileged “10%” of the world’s population. But this is more than a mere “club” of self-interested people; their claims to authority and legitimacy rest in the fact of the resources they control, and of the social, economic, and political power they wield. It is because they are wealthy and powerful that they are authoritative and legitimate; the fact of their wealth and power confers upon them a moral sanctity that, at the same time, condemns the rest of society to powerlessness and de-legitimacy, and which demands their compliance with the dictates of those who control the world’s resources.
But this economic aristocracy is supported by a substratum of professional economists, media personalities, and politicians who sanctify their privilege in the legitimising ideology of neoliberalism, and who embody its claims and demands on human life in the institutional form of the corporation. The ideology of neoliberalism has the effect of sanitising the processes by which economic inequality is facilitated and exacerbated, thereby enthralling the population to the purposes of the elite by conflating – and thus colonising – the needs of the poor and the powerless with the self-interest of the economic “insiders”. It is only by conforming oneself to the dictates of corporate obedience and the demands which its construction of waged labour impose on human life that one can hope to “flourish” and liberate one’s-self (or one’s descendants) from social and economic dependency. It is only by accepting the essential “correctness” of neoliberal ideology that one can appreciate both the legitimacy of those by whom it is espoused, as well as understand the moral necessity of the manner in which it distributes resources and wealth to different sectors of society.
In other words, if the privileged “10%” can be compared to the imperial Roman power that ultimately rules, those who support their rule can be compared to the Pharisees and the Sadducees: the supposedly legitimate guides of the people who are actually complicit in the injustice of oppressive power, and who reap a subsidiary reward for their complicity. But just as the Pharisees and the Sadducees were confronted by a groundswell of discontent and disillusionment, so the powers of imperial neoliberalism are confronted by a restive population that is all too aware of the inequality of economic benefit, and who are starting to chafe under the intrusion of the corporate imperative into every sphere of human life.
But just as in Jesus’ day, this discontent is fragmented and atomised. It is expressed in various ways and means, often taking the form of parochial nationalism or explicit racism. Moreover, the ruling powers, through their control of media and other communications resources, are often able to appropriate the language of economic struggle in order to direct public anger at the victims rather than the perpetrators of economic violence: at the unemployed, for example, who are demonised as “bludgers” and “parasites”, or at refugees and immigrants (“they’re stealing our jobs”). But perhaps more troubling than these are the various “false prophets” who serve a function analogous to the court prophets of ancient Israel: instead of speaking truth to power, they seek to legitimate that power by linking the purposes of God to the purposes of economic ideology.
This is illustrated by those theologies of work which seek to align the ethos of corporatist capitalism with the ethos of Christianity, and which equate the redemptive purpose of God with neoliberal ideology’s construction of work and economy. These theologies are often articulated from the perspective of the entrepreneurial, manager, and capital-owning class, and express both their privilege and self-interest. In doing so, they silence the voices of those who are harmed and marginalised by modernity’s construction of work and economy, and reduce pastoral care to a matter of consoling people for the circumstances in which they find themselves, rather than prophetically critiquing the oppressive structures of power and articulating a different vision of human flourishing.
Today’s reading from Matthew reminds Christians that they cannot be complicit in the powers of oppression and exploitation, nor must we seek to justify our own advantage by appeal to self-serving ideologies. In its own employment practices, the Church must identify with the humanity of its employees, and not with the prevailing modes of organisational management. Likewise, it must speak prophetically to the world about the structures of privilege and oppression that are built into the corporation as an institutional form, as well as the sanctifying ideology of neoliberalism. Moreover, the Church must not use theology as a mechanism through which to equate its own ministry with the prerogatives of any system of economic organisation; rather, it must critique those systems from the standpoint of the Gospel, and from John’s call to bear fruit “worthy of repentance”. The entrenched powers of economic privilege will no doubt seek to portray Christians who do so as “fanatics” or “utopians”; but just as John attracted the unfavourable attention of those whom he challenged, so we must also be prepared to risk the disfavour of those who benefit from the status quo in order to serve those who are harmed and marginalised by modernity’s construction of work and economy.