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If the Rich Won't Work, Let Them Starve! (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; Ps. 98: 5-9; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 5-9. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/111713.cfm ;   

Today's readings appear to centralize "the end of the world."   So you can expect your preacher this morning to focus on the after-life, pie-in-the-sky, and all the "Left Behind" nonsense that has become the staple of Christianity ever since the 4th century.

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Expect them to point to natural disasters, "plagues" like the AIDs pandemic, and the wars of choice so near and dear to our politicians -- as signs that the end is at hand, that God is pissed, and we'd better repent and accept Jesus as our personal Lord and savior.  

And, Oh yes, there's Paul's dictum in today's reading from Second Thessalonians ". . . if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat." Expect that one to evoke anti-welfare themes of bootstrap self-sufficiency, references to God-helps-those-who-help-themselves, and easy references to "welfare queens."

I'm not kidding, 2 Thessalonians 3: 10 is a favorite of the Christian right. North Dakota congressman, Kevin Cramer, used it recently to justify his vote to cut nearly $40 billion from the Food Stamp program that keeps the children of poor families from starvation, along with the elderly and disabled.   Tea Party darling, Michelle Bachman, did the same thing. When trying to get her party's nomination for president, she said, "Our nation needs to stop doing for people what they can and should do for themselves. Self-reliance means, if anyone will not work, neither should he eat."   

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It's all so tiresome and predictable.    

The right loves embracing Paul's out-of-context remark. Tea Baggers love ignoring Jesus' feeding thousands free of charge. It's as if Jesus' parable about sheep and goats in Mt. 25 didn't base everything on a practical recognition of his identification with the hungry, thirsty, homeless, imprisoned, and ill-clad. The right loves "tough love." It loves apocalypse.   

But, of course, there's not a trace of "tough love" in Jesus' treatment of the poor. And "apocalypse" is not about the end of the world. It's about unsustainability. The word apocalypse means "unveiling."   It's about "revelation" in that sense -- making evident what's hidden about the world and who's in charge. Apocalypse affirms the unsustainability of empire. Radical change is inevitable.   

Apocalypse emerged a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. To convey its message of impending radical change, it employed stock images of natural catastrophe, plagues, wars, earthquakes, and portents involving the sun, moon, and stars. The change would be cosmic.    

The audience of this strange literary form was empire's victims. It was meant to encourage the poor and dispossessed, the unemployed, sick, widowed and orphaned -- not the rich and well-off. Apocalypse assured the poor that all systems of oppression end in flames whether they're Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman. (Those are the global giants that oppressed Israel at one time or another in its history.) Where are they today? They've been swept away by the tide of history. And the apologists for "Eternal Rome" find themselves somewhere in antiquity's dustbin.   

So it's ironic that apocalypse should be embraced by conservatives and their rich patrons -- by those who want to keep things as they are. Things do not have to be that way. And "by God," they won't be! That's the message of apocalypse. A new era is dawning, and you'd better be on the right side of history or you'll lose out. Being "left behind" means supporting the old order that's doomed.    

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The problem is that right from the beginning, believers took literally the cosmic and highly poetic symbolism of apocalypse. (We always get in trouble for being too literal.) That's the attitude that caused Paul to tear his hair out in today's second reading. Some in the early Christian community took the imminence of this expectation so seriously that they even stopped working.   

What was the point of work, they reasoned? Everything was about to change profoundly by God's intervention. That made human work meaningless. All believers had to do was sit back and wait for Jesus' triumphant arrival. Eat, drink, be merry, and whistle past the graveyard in the meantime.   

Those are the people Paul addresses in this morning's excerpt from Second Thessalonians.   He's clearly exasperated. He says, "Look I'm working. And I'm the one responsible for your believing in Jesus' Second Coming! Get real, people. Go back to work. Stop sponging off the community. Instead, be like me and do your part to bring about the new order we all expect. "   

Paul's words bring to mind the people who refuse to work today because they deem apocalyptic expectations divinely ordained or "natural." And I'm certainly not referring to welfare queens.    

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs (more...)
 

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