“Prophets hold out return as an invitation not to escape punishment, but to respond to the gracious acts that God has already performed. It is the journey to find our true self that holds within in the image of the Divine in relationship and action. Prophets promise return for those in exile, an end to God’s anger, and God’s desire for reconciliation and restoration among people. The theme of return also pervades the New Testament—here specifically that of Jesus who will, at some point, see right all that is wrong and establish a peace that will be both final and eternal.”
—Brad Lyons / Bruce Barkhauer
Note: Scripture quotations in this post are a combination of selections from The Jerusalem Bible (JB), the King James Version (KJV), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the Vulgate, sometimes combined in the same citation in order to amplify the meaning.
Several years ago, it occurred to me to undertake an extensive reading of the Hebrew prophets, to experience their message and insights in their own words, and with it, their judgment on Israel (and the rest of us as well). Upon reflection, one thing stood out: the prophets were not treading new ground so much as they were recalling the existing framework of Hebrew society which had been lost, back to the time when the Judaic culture was in its formation. The roots of this spirituality will be combined with the words of the prophets, along with the rich treasury of wisdom literature. This is a long and winding post, but I trust that at the end of the journey you will have found the effort worthwhile.
The Law and the Prophets, along with poetry and wisdom, continue to speak to us, and do so in a vitally important way. These writings form precepts which guide individual and the society in which they live. The writers from Genesis through Malachi provide the model for the outward expression of faith, continuing in the New Testament. Discovering exactly what they said and the themes of this teaching which sprang from the writers of the Old Testament was an exciting process, for so much of what was said has a vital relationship to today. The model, being a good model, is expected to change over time, as it did moving forward to the time of Jesus, then to the establishment of the first Christian community, and on to the current age. We should remember that an evolution is taking place here, from the earlier tribal conceptions of group loyalty (with a differing view to “strangers” and “aliens” outside the group) to a more universal conception of inclusiveness which reached its flowering in the life and work of Jesus and the early Christian community. And so, the message may shift in topic and emphasis over time, but is still the model and it all starts here. Searching the scriptures for these vitally important precepts is time well spent. I have spent a considerable amount of time with the Law and the Prophets and would like to share some of what I discovered.
It should not be so surprising that the people of Israel underwent cultural regression as their society changed: the commonly shared values which held them together to ensure their survival became subverted by more individualistic pursuits. This is true of nearly all societies who departed from the original social structure which held them together, our own included. In the history of our own nation, one need only turn to the history of Plymouth Colony to see a parallel. The community spirit and value was there, but only for so long. The prophets issued a call to repent, to return to the social consciousness they once had. This post carries the message that the call is for us as well.
This social consciousness, surprising as it may seem, has its roots in the practice of Sabbath keeping. The Sabbath is now codified in Leviticus with the command to refrain from work on the tenth day of the seventh month, including “the native and the stranger who lives among you” (16:29). Other days of rest are added. Leviticus 23:15-32 describes the feast of Weeks, with a social component (having a modern counterpart) not to harvest to the end of the field, so that gleanings are available for the poor and stranger. An ecological component is introduced in Leviticus 25:1-7, citing the seventh year as a day of rest for the land, with its assurance that the Sabbath of the land will feed all people (including hired laborers and guests) and animals. This brings us in Leviticus 25:8-19 to Year of Jubilee. The calculation is “seven times seven years”, with the Day of Atonement on the fiftieth year. Here all the inhabitants of the land are to return to their ancestral homes. No sowing or harvesting will take place: what has been gathered will be the food supply. Possessions which have been taken as pledges will be returned to their owners. Verse 17 gives the command, “Ye shall not therefore oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the LORD your God”, ending in verse 19 ends with the promise that “the land will yield her fruit, and ye shall eat your fill, and dwell therein in safety. Deuteronomy 15:1-11 is more emphatic: “Let there be no poor among you.” And so, the Sabbath as a principle grew to encompass far more than its origin as a day of rest.
In Jeremiah the “Sabbath rest” is found (6:16) in “the ways of long ago…the ancient paths”. In a passage (50:6) harkening back to the Sabbath, the people have “forgotten their restingplace” (Jerusalem Bible “forgetful of their fold”). The Lamentations of Ezekiel document the captivity, which he sees as the punishment of the Lord who has “caused the solemn feasts and Sabbaths to be forgotten”.
A foundational principle is that the root of “righteousness” (or “judgment”, or “justice”, among commonly used terms) is not one of human conception alone but comes from a righteous God. Any righteousness we claim or seek comes first from a righteous God. Throughout the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, an ethical commandment frequently concludes with the statement, “for I am Yahweh” (or “God”). This is elaborated in Deuteronomy 10:16-20: “For Yahweh your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, “mighty and terrible, never partial, never to be bribed. It is he who sees justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the stranger and gives him food and clothing.” So, it is not our motivation alone but that which expresses the nature of God.
The quality of equanimity, or to not “respect” or “consider” persons is applied to human conduct in Deuteronomy 16:19-20: those to whom the power of judgment is given, the “decision makers”, are not to pervert the law. They must be impartial. They must take no bribes, “for a bribe blinds men’s eyes and jeopardizes the cause of the just. Strict justice must be your ideal.” And to this is added an important outcome: “so that you may live in rightful possession of the land that Yahweh your God is giving you.” Justice, we can see, is the glue which holds the social fabric together. In our era we see what happens when justice is perverted and that glue falls apart. We need name only the cities and the memories will come to us: Watts, Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Minneapolis. This fairness extends to those who are non-citizens as well as those who are native-born: in Deuteronomy 1:16-18: “You must give your brother a fair hearing and see justice done between a man and his brother or the stranger who lives with him.” And the conditions of this justice are stated: “You must be impartial in judgment and give an equal hearing to small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for the judgment is God’s. Should a case be too difficult, bring it to me and I will hear it…” This is amazing—Yahweh, from whom all justice and righteousness comes, will make the decision if we can’t! And we have seen this: in the long arc of history justice has eventually triumphed even when in the short term it is denied. This is none other than the will of God and the triumph of righteousness. The Psalms echo this demand: “No more mockery of justice, no more favoring the wicked. Let the weak and the orphan have justice, be fair to the wretched and destitute, rescue the weak and needy, save them from the clutches of the wicked!” Leviticus 19:13 commands, “You must not steal nor deal deceitfully or fraudulently with your neighbor. I am Yahweh. You must not exploit or rob your neighbor”, and further in verse 15: “You must neither be partial to the little man nor overawed by the great; you must pass judgment on your neighbor according to justice.” Exodus 23:5 warns us to “keep out of trumped-up cases”. All of this is underscored by the command which echoes throughout the Old and New Testaments that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. Using this as the key and touchstone for just conduct, we cannot stray.
The “humane legislation” of Deuteronomy is a landmark in ethics. Deuteronomy 24:14-15 addresses justice in the workplace. It is shocking how little we have learned in two millennia. One might think that the following came from the labor or immigration agenda if its source was not the Bible: “You are not to exploit the hired servant who is poor and destitute, whether he is one of your brothers or a stranger who live in your towns. You must pay him his wage each day, not allowing the sun to set before you do, for he is poor and anxious for it; otherwise he may appeal to Yahweh against you, and it would be a sin for you.”
Far in advance of concerns of the modern community of nations on immigration issues, there existed an entire body of scripture dealing with this reality in Hebrew society. This concern, no doubt, came to the forefront because of the Hebrews’ own history as strangers, guests, and slaves. Exodus 22:21-27 commands, “You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt. Leviticus 19:33-35 continues in this vein: “If a stranger lives with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You must count him as one of your own countrymen and love him as yourself—for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God. The prophet Ezekiel directs in Chapter 47, verses 21-23, “You are to divide it into inheritances for yourselves and the aliens settled among you who have begotten children with you, since you are to treat them as citizens of Israel [KJV: “as born in the country among the children of Israel”; RSV “native-born sons”]. You must give the alien his inheritance in the tribe in which he is living—and again concluding as we have heard many times before—“it is Lord Yahweh who speaks”. Blind Willie Johnson reminds us of this in his well-known 1930 gospel song, “Everybody ought to treat a stranger right, long, long way from home.”
Modern societies have statutes regulating the times at which workers must be paid for services performed. This was no secret to Hebrew society. Of course there were no checking accounts, automatic deposits, electronic transfers, or debit cards. Leviticus 19:13 gives us the standard which must be met: “You must not exploit or rob your neighbor. You must not keep back the laborer’s wage until the next morning.” Similarly, in Tobit 4:14-16: “Do not keep back until next day the wages of those who work for you; pay them at once. If you serve God you will be rewarded. Be careful, my child, in all you do, well-disciplined in all your behavior. Do to no one what you would not want done to you.
Does this not speak to us today, when the force of not only corporations but the agencies of government trample over the rights of the poor and powerless? As an example the labor history of the Salinas Valley over more than a century bears witness to the struggle of each succeeding group of immigrants from the Chinese to the Japanese to the Filipinos to the Okies to the Braceros to the fight to establish the United Farmworkers Union. Without “just judgment” the system of law quickly collapses. Habbakuk warns, “And so the law loses its hold, and justice never shows itself. There are many who wish to bend it to their own advantage, and many who will collaborate with them to this end. Yes, the wicked man gets the better of the upright, and so justice is seen to be distorted.”
The “true sacrifice” we make to a righteous God is one of righteousness. As in other religious traditions, movement has taken place from the blood sacrifice to one of a more spiritual nature, though a great period of time would pass before the former would disappear. The prophet Isaiah signaled this change in chapter 1, verses 11-17: “ ‘What are your endless sacrifices to me?’, says Yahweh. ‘I am sick of holocausts of rams and the fat of calves. The blood of bulls and of goats revolts me. When you come to present yourselves before me, who asked you to trample over my courts? Bring me your worthless offerings no more, the smoke of them fills me with disgust. When you stretch out your hands I turn my eyes away. You may multiply your prayers, I shall not listen. Your hands are covered with blood, wash, make yourselves clean. Take your wrong-dong out of my sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good, search for justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan, plead for the widow.” Amos 5:21-24 continues the theme (God is speaking): “ ‘I hate and despise your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals. When you offer me holocausts… I reject your oblations, and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fatted cattle. Let me have no more of the din of your chanting, no more of your strumming on harps.’ This could serve as a critique of our own worship practice—does it only entertain, or does it seek the deep communion which God also seeks? The passage ends in a quotation used by Martin Luther King: “But let justice flow like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” These are the demands of a righteous God.
Wisdom literature plays an important role in the discussion. Sirach 35:12-20 repeats the often used phrase that God is “no respecter of persons” and admonishes the spiritually minded believer to “offer him [God] no bribe”. Not only will God not accept it; there is neither any value in placing faith in “an unvirtuous sacrifice”—in other words, do not expect a sacrifice, which here could be construed as a bribe, to do for you what the sacrifice of yourself in conversion to righteousness can and must do. For the righteous God not only hears the cry of the afflicted but will deliver judgment on their behalf “…to the detriment of a poor man, he listens to the plea of the injured party. He does not ignore the orphan’s supplication, nor the widow’s as she pours out her story. Do the widow’s tears not run down her cheeks, as she cries out against the man who caused them? The man who with his whole heart serves God will be accepted, his petitions will carry to the clouds. The humble man’s prayer pierces the clouds, until it arrives he is inconsolable, nor will he desist until the Most High takes notice of him, acquits the virtuous and delivers judgment.”
Much of the teaching of the prophets, as we have seen, focuses on our attitude toward possessions and wealth. Special emphasis is placed on almsgiving. Although it may seem paradoxical to say so, a generous society is a prosperous society. If this is not universally recognized as a law of economics, it should be. I call it “the reciprocity of wealth”. It enables the widest number of people to purchase the necessities of life, thus driving the engine has taken us a long time in the history of capitalism (and many still don’t get it) to discover that the foundation of a prosperous society is to enable the widest number of people to purchase the necessities of life, thus driving the engine of prosperity by an invigorated consumerism. If we had only enquired more seriously into the scriptures, we would have discovered what the prophets did. This was not just a theory; it was tested by the experiences of Hebrew society. They, or at least most of them, were not deluded by the speciousness of “trickle down” economics where the assumption, wrongly so, is that many will eventually benefit from what leaks out from the accumulations of the rich. The prophets did not erroneously overestimate the importance of the 1% at the expense of the other 99. There is an innate psychology behind this greed which explains why this system does not and can never work, as we shall see shortly.
Tobit 4:7-10 provides its advice: “Set aside part of your goods for almsgiving. Never turn your face from any poor man and God will never turn his face from you. Measure your alms by what you have; if you have too much, give more; if you have a little, give less, but do not be mean in giving alms. By doing so, you will lay up for yourself a great treasure for the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers from death and saves men from passing down into darkness.” As you can see, there is an internal benefit as well as an external one alone. Tobit 12:9-10 (spoken by Raphael the angel) provides additional insight: “He who gives to the poor shall never want, he who closes his eyes to them will bear many a curse.” Similarly, in Proverbs 29:7: “He who gives to the poor shall never want, he who closes his eyes to them will bear many a curse.” And in the much-loved and poetic passage from Ecclesiastes, chapter 11, verses 1-2: “Cast your bread on the water; as long last you will find it again. Share with seven, yes with eight, for you never know what disaster may occur on earth. Sirach 29:8-13 reads, “Nevertheless, be patient with those who are badly-off, do not keep them waiting on your generosity. For the commandment’s sake go to the poor man’s help, do not turn him away empty-handed in his need. Better let your silver go on brother or friend; do not let it go to waste, rusting under a stone. Invest your treasure as the Most High orders, and you will find it more profitable than gold. Deposit generosity in your storerooms and it will release you from every misfortune. Better than sturdy shield or weighty spear, it will fight for you against the enemy.” This is a surprisingly modern concept and is truly the key to the prosperous society we seek. Money which moves triggers economic activity; money which is “parked” somewhere acts as a drag. In 2008 and again today, Federal stimulus has rescued us from far greater disaster. Sirach 34:21-22 is brutally honest: the denial of economic justice is an act of violence. “A meagre diet is the very life of the poor, he who withholds it is a man of blood. A man murders his neighbor if he robs him of his livelihood, sheds blood if he withholds an employee’s wages.”
There is a power of association with ideas and habits, with what you love, and who you prefer to be with. The Spanish proverb says, “Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres”, “Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.” Our parents most likely warned us of the same, and concerned themselves with this problem. It is not that we should shun those whose values are different, but rather seek out and learn from those with whom we can make our life journey. Sirach 9:16 instructs, “Have virtuous men [people] for your table companions, and let your pride be in fearing the Lord.” Likewise, the Hindu and Buddhist traditions attest to the power of the satsanga, the “assembly of persons who listen to, talk about, and assimilate the truth”. This is why the community of faith is important. It is not the assembly of those who say that they are saved and others are not; it is a group of believers who seek encouragement and strength as they walk the path from which they often stray and struggle to enter through the narrow gate. This, then, is the power of the gathering and its power to shape the social consciousness.
The teaching of wisdom literature moves on to deal with possessions and a critical view of one’s resources in creating an ethical and spiritual life. Among these topics are (1) the proper minimizing (or balance) of possessions conducive to a spiritual lifestyle, as well as the means of judgment to deal with them; (2) the impermanence and arbitrary nature of wealth; and (3) the ethical and spiritual importance of almsgiving and just conduct, its power to generate prosperity both for oneself and others, and its importance in maintaining and regulating the social order.
We are taught that riches can mislead. Sirach 11:1-6 presents the attitude of poverty as a means to apprehend God’s wisdom: “The poor man’s wisdom keeps his head erect and gives him and gives him a place with the great. Do not praise a man for his good looks nor dislike anybody for his appearance. Small among winged creatures is the bee but her produce is the sweetest of the sweet. Do not preen yourself on your fine clothes, nor be swollen headed on your day of glory; for the Lord’s deeds are marvelous, though hidden from mankind. Many monarchs have been made to sit on the ground [JB notes: “Literally, ‘have sat on the ground’, which could possibly be taken to mean: ‘have been destitute before they came to the throne’.”], and the man nobody thought of has worn the crown. Many influential men have been utterly disgraced, and prominent men have fallen into the power of others.” We are counseled in applying the critical attitude toward possessions and upholding the value of poverty that this need not be abject poverty—there is a question of balance, as in Proverbs 30:7-9: “Two things I beg of you, do not grudge me them before I die: keep falsehood and lies far from me, for fear that surrounded by plenty, I should fall away and say, ‘Yahweh—who is Yahweh?” or else, in destitution, take to stealing and profane the name of my God.” We are admonished, however, that the rigors of self-imposed poverty, if not judiciously applied, may actually make one mean and bitter, far from the path of wisdom he or she seeks. Sirach 14:4-14 provides us with this judicious advice: “A man who hoards by stinting himself is hoarding for others, and others will live sumptuously on his riches. If a man is mean to himself, to whom will he be good? He does not even enjoy what is his own. No one is meaner than the man who is mean to himself, and this is how his wickedness pays him back. If he does good at all, he does it without intending to, and in the end he himself reveals his wickedness. Evil is the man who has a grudging eye, averting his face, and careless of others’ lives. The eye of the grasping man is not content with his portion, greed shrivels up the soul. The miser is grudging of bread, there is famine at his table. My son, treat yourself as well as can afford, and bring worthy offerings to the Lord. Remember that death will not delay, and that the covenant of Sheol [JB notes: ‘Probably the decree assigning the date of death. Cf. Is 28:15; RSV “the decree of Hades”] has not been revealed to you. Be kind to your friend before you die, treat him as generously as you can afford. Do not refuse yourself the good things of today, do not let your share of what is lawfully desired pass you by.” There is so much real-life, practical advice in these passages. Centuries before, Buddha discovered that asceticism by itself is not an end value, and in fact can be a deterrent to the spiritual condition one seeks.
The irony of the elusive nature of wealth is that it not only does not remain but may, in fact, pass to one who has not labored for it. Clearly, this underlies the teaching that we should be critical toward the importance of attaining wealth. The scriptures are rich in supporting passages maintaining this view: Proverbs 23:4-5 advises, “Do not weary yourself with getting rich, and have nothing to do with dishonest gain. [JB notes: “Text correction ‘refrain from dwelling on it’ (Hebr.); RSV ‘Do not toil to acquire wealth; be wise enough to desist.’ ”] You fix your gaze on this, and it is there no longer, for it is able to sprout wings like an eagle that flies off to the sky.” The book of Sirach provides many such insights, for example 11:18-19: “A man grows rich by his sharpness and grabbing [RSV “diligence and self-denial”; Vulgate “by living sparingly”], and here is the reward he receives for it: he says, ‘I have found rest, and now I can enjoy my goods; but he does not know how long this will last; he will have to leave his goods to others and die.” Chapter 14, verse 15 asks, “Will you not have to leave your fortune to another, and the fruit of your labor to be divided by lot? Sirach 31:1-8 reveals that wealth can actually be an impediment to a deeper, richer life: “The sleeplessness brought by wealth makes a man lose weight, the worry it causes drives away sleep. The worries of the daytime interfere with slumber, as a serious illness drives away sleep. The rich man toils, piling up money, and when he leaves off, he stuffs himself with luxuries; the poor man toils, his livelihood dwindling, and when he leaves off, is destitute, The man who loves gold will not be reckoned virtuous, the man who chases after profit will be caught out of it. Many have gone to their ruin for the sake of gold, though their destruction stared them in the face; it is a snare for those who sacrifice to it, and every fool will be caught in it. Happy is the rich man who is found to be blameless and does not go chasing after gold.” Ecclesiastes 5:10-17 tells us, “He who loves money never has money enough, he who loves wealth never has enough profit’ this, too, is vanity. Where goods abound, parasites abound, and what is the good of them to their owner? That he can feast his eyes on them. The laborer’s sleep is sweet, whether he has eaten little or much, but the rich man’s wealth will not let him sleep at all. There is a great injustice that I observe under the sun: riches stored and turning to loss for their owner. One unlucky venture, and those riches are lost; a son is born to him, and he has nothing to leave him. ‘Naked from his mother’s womb he came, as naked as he came he will depart again; nothing to take with him after all his efforts. This is a grievous wrong, that as he came, so must he go; what profit can be show after toiling to earn the wind as he spends the rest of his days in darkness, grief, worry, sickness and resentment?’ The cynical but true observation of Ecclesiastes 6:1-6 add a sense of finality to this consideration: “There is a an evil I observe under the sun, that weighs men down: suppose a man has received from God riches, property, honors—nothing at all left him to wish for. Yet God does not give him the chance to enjoy them, but some stranger enjoys them. There is vanity here, and grievous suffering. Or perhaps a man has a hundred sons and as many daughters and lived for many say, better the untimely-born than he: in darkness arriving, in darkness departing; even his name is wrapped in darkness. Never seeing the sun, never knowing rest; the one no more than the other. Even if the man had lived a thousand years twice over, without deriving profit from his estate, do not both alike go to the same place?” And concluding with verse 12: “Who knows that is good for man in his lifetime, in those few days he lives go vainly, like a shadow he spends? Who can tell a man what will happen under the sun after his time?”
The natural and inevitable result of spiritual practice is that it must move outward—it cannot be retained solely in the individual and must seek expression in actions of compassion, social justice, and honoring others in order to love and serve the world. Emphasis on its outward aspect is the model for society, exemplified by the teaching and work of the great ones, the mahatmas, who have lived (and continue to live) among us. It is manifested by qualities such as equal treatment of others, sharing of resources, seeking justice for those at all levels of society, and standards of human treatment. These not only transform our relationship with others with others but are expressive of the nature of God’s justice as attested to by the writers of the Old and New Testaments.
The New Testament stands in line of succession to the earlier prophetic insights. In James 2:1-9: “My brothers and sisters show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit down at my feet”, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself’, you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
The Apostle James was right when he claimed that faith without works is dead—to be a living, vital entity the practice of religion cannot and should not stop there. Faith is like that: if good works do not go with it, it is “quite dead”, or, as translated by the Jerusalem Bible, “it is dead by itself”, and in the King James Version, “if it hath not works, is dead, being alone”. An outward expression of faith is needed in order to achieve completeness.
James, as we know, was the brother of Jesus and the head of the church in Jerusalem. These were the followers of Christ who still identified themselves with the Jewish tradition. For them the teachings of the Law and the Prophets, in addition to the Psalms and wisdom literature of the Old Testament, were very near indeed. Jesus sought not to remove one thing from the Old Covenant but only to build upon and refine it into a higher righteousness. He, like his brother James, was deeply aware of it and worked within it.
Moving on to the current age, those nineteenth and twentieth century captains of industry did not build their empires alone. They were built on the backs of workers—poor , struggling, and often mistreated. Several were motivated, perhaps to balance this acquisitiveness, to leave charitable foundations as their legacy (Nobel, Rockefeller, Ford, Gates, to name a few). Yet Sirach 44:7-15 teaches that one’s primary memorial and legacy is the name one leaves, which is in many cases (Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Chavez, King, Schweitzer) not tied to wealth: “Some of them left a name behind them, so that their praises are still sung. While others have left no memory, and disappeared as though they had never been, and so too, their children after them. But here is a list of generous men whose good works have not been forgotten. In their descendants there remains a rich inheritance born of them. Their descendants stand by the covenants and, thanks to them, so do their children’s children. Their offspring will last for ever, their glory will not fade. Their bodies have been buried in peace, and their name lives on for all generations. The peoples will proclaim their wisdom, the assembly will celebrate their praises.”
We grapple with the same issues in our own era. I will begin with “wealth tax” crusader Abigail Disney, daughter of Roy Disney, Walt’s brother. Having come from wealth, she delivers stern judgment on the super-rich and their ways, concluding that dynasties are bad for democracy. It is not vast wealth alone—it is their methods and practices: offsetting income with losses in unrelated businesses; structuring assets to grow rather than generate income, then borrowing against those growing assets for cash needs; and deducting interest payments and state taxes from taxable income. These are so common that most rich people don’t even see them as unethical. The social damage comes from their motivation to withhold as much of this money as possible from the public’s reach. The common ideology that underlies all of these practices is that the government is bad and cannot be trusted with money. As one of her uncles said to her during the Reagan administration, it’s best to leave the important decision making to people who are ‘successful’, rather than in the pitiable hands of those who aren’t.” She observes, “If you were to get a hold of my tax returns, you would find a record of a person who has adhered scrupulously to the law and, in doing so, has also taken advantage of the many holes our legal system has left wide open.” She concludes with this judgment: “As time has passed, I have realized that the dynamics of wealth are similar to the dynamics of addiction. The more you have, the more you need. Whereas once a single beer was enough to achieve a feeling of calm, now you find that you can’t stop at six. Likewise, if you move up from coach to business to first class, you won’t want to go back to coach. And once you’ve flown private, wild horses will never drag you through a public airport terminal again.”
At one time, the conservative political view was a far cry from where it is now. When you read the following it may appear to come from the progressive agenda, but it did not. It appeared in the 1956 platform of the Republican Party and included these elements:
- Federal assistance to low-income communities
- Extension of Social Security
- Asylum for thousands of refugees, expellees, and displaced persons
- Extending minimum wage protection “to as many more workers as is possible and practicable”
- Improving the unemployment benefit system
- Protection of the right of workers to organize into unions and to bargain collectively
- Assure equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex
This is certainly not what one might expect, but that is what it was.
I recently chanced upon research which may possibly connect the communal values proclaimed by the prophets with the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s well-known “hierarchy of needs” and “self-actualization” theories. Briefly, these form a pyramid, with the four “deficiency motivations” forming the base. These must be satisfied in order for self-actualization, at the top, to occur. They are: (1) psychological: food, water, sex, sleep; (2) safety: security of body, employment, resources, family, property; (3) love / belonging: friendship, family, sexual intimacy; (4) esteem: respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom. Once these are satisfied, according to the prevailing model, self-actualization occurs, “achieving one’s true potential”: morality, creativity, spontaneity, achievement, problem solving, respect, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts. But what if the pyramid were flipped over, with self-actualization as the base? New evidence has arisen that the roots of this approach were influenced by the tribal life of the Lakota Sioux nation and, over time, may have influenced his theories to take an entirely different shape. In 1938, Abraham Maslow visited the Blackfoot Nation. There is evidence of Maslow’s work there and the Blackfoot people’s influence on him. According to Dr. Cindy Blackstock, self-actualization was on the bottom, as the starting point. The self was only the beginning for the Blackfoot, who placed community actualization and cultural continuity above the individual. Maslow’s western thinking flipped it around to prioritize the individual. The “flipped” version provides a re-orientation toward societal values. Here, people (children included) were assumed to already be self-actualized, with the social network working from wealth instead of deficiency to further develop this realization. The potential of this approach is promising, indeed.
There are, of course, prophets which have arisen in our own day. Rest assured that they will continue to arise as well. A righteous God wills that it be so. Judgment and justice may be delayed, but they will not be denied. Even in the failure of the prophets’ mission, or in their obscurity, or even in their death, there is something which carries on to inform and invigorate the social fabric into which they and their teaching have been woven. It comes from the Bible as well. There is much in the teaching of the Law and the Prophets that relates directly to our lives today. It is the firm foundation we need for ethical thinking that we need. The model may evolve at it should, but its building blocks are indeed sound. Using the Bible to seek out, discover, and apply these teachings is, indeed, a “prophet-able” experience.