Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott recently complained about the lack of Christmas spirit amongst his Republican colleagues who threatened to vote against a further extension of unemployment insurance. McDermott said in a televised interview, “This is Christmas time. We talk about good Samaritans, the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff. And then we say to the unemployed we won’t give you a check to feed your family. That’s simply wrong.”
This inspired Bill O’Reilly to write an opinion piece. In his December 9, 2010 column titled “Keep Christ in Unemployment,” the Fox News commentator opined as follows:
By invoking the baby Jesus, Congressman McDermott puts an important question in play: What does a moral society owe to the have-nots? How much public money should go to those in financial trouble? Every fair-minded person should support government safety nets for people who need assistance through no fault of their own. But guys like McDermott don’t make distinctions like that. For them, the baby Jesus wants us to “provide,” no matter what the circumstance. But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?
O’Reilly’s column caught the attention of Stephen Colbert. On the Dec. 16th edition of The Colbert Report aired on Comedy Central, the faux news anchor sarcastically responded by saying:
Good point Bill. Jesus said we only have to love those who deserve it. Now what I like best about Bill’s argument is its complete factual inaccuracy, because it would be inconvenient to guys like us to repeat what Jesus actually said. For instance, if someone wants your coat, given them your cloak as well; rich people should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor…And I love how Bill closes with “The Lord helps those who helps themselves,” kind of implying Jesus said that, when it was actually Ben Franklin…
Colbert’s broadcast in turn irritated O’Reilly. On the Dec. 20th edition of The O’Reilly Factor, he devoted a number of segments to the discussion of Colbert’s remarks:
I am not a theologian, but I do have 12 years of Catholic school under my belt…As part of my learning experience we read the Gospel of St. Matthew, where Jesus tells the story of a man who gave three of his servants some money. Two of the servants went out and multiplied the cash, paying the man back with interest. But the third servant buried the money, doing nothing with it. That man was chastised, with Jesus saying, ‘cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ If Mr. Colbert takes time to read that parable, he might begin to understand the Judeo-Christian tenet of personal responsibility; Jesus saying people have a responsibility to develop their god-given talents, and if they refuse to do that, they will be held accountable. Charity is a cornerstone of a good life…but Judeo-Christian tradition does not require blind largesse. We are not mandated to buy people gin, or cocaine, or to pay someone else’s bills if they refuse to work.
Later in the program O’Reilly went on to say that according to Jesus, “it’s harder for a rich man to get into heaven than a camel to pass through the needle’s eye which was a gate in Jerusalem, and he was warning people that if you throw in with money as your God you’re going to have a tough time.”
Now, while it is not inappropriate for Christians to inquire about the implications of various biblical texts upon issues of public policy, it is dangerous to interpret these texts as if they are about these public policy matters directly. All parties in this debate have read politics into the various biblical narratives, and my task for the remainder of this blog piece will be to clear away some of the theological and interpretive mistakes that have been made.
1) Unemployment Benefits & Immorality
The way congressman McDermott framed the issue, those who oppose the extension of unemployment benefits are in the wrong. It is simply unethical to stop the checks from coming so that the unemployed can feed their families. But by this logic, unemployment checks should never stop; ever. Interestingly enough, I can’t recall a single text in which the baby Jesus (or the grown up Jesus for that matter) even hinted at his view of 21st century American unemployment insurance policy. This is where Christians need to be especially careful, whether we incline toward the right or the left. It is easy to label as immoral those who oppose our favorite public policy initiative. But there may be legitimate reasons for opposition, no matter how just the cause. Even if a person agrees with your view of right and wrong, they may refuse to support your bill because a) it is poorly written, b) it will cause more problems that it will fix c) it will cause us to go further into debt which could lead to economic catastrophe, etc, etc. It’s easy to say , “Problem X requires the immediate passage of solution A, and all those opposed to solution A are immoral.” But what about solution B, C, D, or non-governmental solutions E, F, and G. Therefore don’t be quick to call your political opponents immoral. Resist the temptation to be a pharisee, and work on becoming a good listener.
2) The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves
Colbert was right, this phrase does not actually appear in the Bible, but comes from the pen of Ben Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1757). Interestingly enough, few people seem to know that this is actually an ancient proverb that Franklin merely passed along. It actually originates with Aesop in his famous fable “Hercules and the Waggoner.” The moral of this tale as Aesop tells it is, “The gods help them that help themselves.”
The point is that the proverb is pagan rather than Christian. In the Bible, God is depicted as a helper of the helpless. Lazarus did not help Jesus with his resurrection (John 11), and similarly, we who were dead in sin have been made alive in Christ (Eph 2:5-9). In this respect, God is in the business of helping the helpless (Matt 9:36, Rom 5:6). This is why Christians insist on salvation by grace, because grace itself means “undeserved favor.” But I concede the fact that this was not actually O’Reilly’s point. He was not thinking in terms of salvation before God in heaven, but of earthly blessings here and now. In other words, he suggested that God helps those here on earth to be more successful and prosperous, if they work hard at it. So what of this idea? Is it compatible with Christianity? Well, with regard to earthly wisdom, Proverbs 10: 4 does state that “A slack hand causes poverty but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” However, proverbs are general truths that should not be applied to all circumstances of life. This verse does not apply, for example, to the diligent work of a slave. And it does not apply to the circumstance in which a person is reduced to poverty due to theft, fire or calamity. But in general, if you work hard and if you’re not lazy, you’ll be better off than the next guy.
So this is basically the point at which Colbert sarcastically asserts, “Good point Bill. Jesus said we only have to love those who deserve it.” Caricature is of the essence of good comedy, and clearly this particular exaggeration is intentional, but to be fair, it’s also not exactly what O’Reilly was arguing. The point he was making was that, again from the perspective of earthly wisdom, sometimes you can make a problem worse by rewarding bad or self-destructive behavior. The Apostle Paul says that “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2Thes 3:10), because feeding a person who refuses to work only encourages further sloth. So is the Apostle Paul guilty of Colbert’s charge of choosing to love only those who deserve it? No, because actually the loving thing to do in the case of a person unwilling to work would be to exert some discipline. “God disciplines those whom he loves,” and therefore so should we (Heb 12:5-11).
3) If Someone Wants Your Coat
In order to show that O’Reilly is out of step with Jesus, Colbert cites a verse from Matthew: “For instance, if someone wants your coat, given them your cloak as well…” The line is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and in context has nothing at all with giving to the poor. Rather, it’s about a court case: “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, don’t resist a toilsome person. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matt 5:38-40). When Jesus mentions “an eye for an eye,” he’s quoting from Exodus 21 which deals with the accidental injury or death of an unborn child. If the accident was due to negligence or irresponsibility yet the child is unharmed, then a fine may be settled upon. “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Ex 21:22-24). So in other words, Jesus is not giving general advice for getting along with people, but has in mind our obligations to those who we have injured or wronged in some way. Moses had set a limit. If I have injured someone’s foot, I should not be hung for it, but the punitive damages should equal the value of my own foot. In this text Jesus is teaching his own followers that they should go above and beyond the call of duty. So if someone slaps you on the right cheek (which would be a backhanded slap for most people) “turn to him the other also.” Based on the context, the assumption here is that you deserve the slap, just as the person deserves the punishment coming to him in Exodus 21. We find further proof of this in the next line, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic…” The context is not of a homeless person asking for your coat; it’s a lawsuit. Here’s what to do when you’re being sued by someone you have wronged. Followers of Christ are told to voluntarily go beyond what Moses called for. If a person you have wronged sues you for your tunic, give him your cloak as well. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matt 5:41). Amazingly though, what Jesus demands of us in this text, he also provides. He played the role of the lawbreaker for us on Good Friday. He never retaliated when he was slapped, and he walked the extra mile to Golgatha. He took our sin, and we receive his righteousness as a free gift.
4) Rich People Should Sell Their Possessions
Colbert also alluded to the story of the Rich Young Ruler when he said that “rich people should sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor.” Here is the full citation from Matt 19:16-26:
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
First of all, you will notice that Jesus did not tell all rich people to sell their possessions. Rather, he told one man in particular to sell all that he had, and he was making a point. This wealthy young man claimed that he loved his neighbor, but Jesus knew this was not the case (for he had just finished explaining that God alone was good). So the point was that if the man had really loved his neighbors, he wouldn’t have had a problem sharing his possessions with them. And so after hearing Jesus’ remarks, the man went away sad. This was Jesus intention for his earthly ministry was to humble those who exalt themselves, and to exalt those who humble themselves (Luke 18:9-14, Luke 14:7-11).
Jesus then goes on in the passage to say, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” At this point, even the disciples begin to get a little nervous, saying to Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” Bill O’Reilly, like many people today, tried to argue on his broadcast that “the eye of the needle” was the name for the gate in Jerusalem where camels were forced to kneel if they wished to pass through. As O’Reilly put it, “he was warning people that if you throw in with money as your God you’re going to have a tough time.” In this interpretation, rich people can make it to heaven, but if they do so, it will be with great difficulty due to the power of wealth and pride. But this is far from the true meaning of this text. First of all, there is no proof that such a gate in Jerusalem was ever called by this name. Secondly, when the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?,” Jesus does not say only the poor, or the poor along with only a few rich men. Rather he says “With man this is impossible.” In other words, he’s not talking about a gate that camels must kneel through, but an actual needle. Just as it is impossible for a camel to go through that small needle hole, it is impossible for any man to be saved. At first it was only the rich young ruler who was sorrowful, but now with these words the entire listening audience begins to feel a little uncomfortable. Jesus didn’t leave it there however. He hinted at something gracious and wonderful to come when he concluded “…but with God all things are possible.” Though man cannot save himself, God can save, and “he will have mercy on whom he will have mercy” (Rom 9:15-16).
5) The Parable of the Talents
Another biblical story that was misinterpreted was the Parable of the Talents (or Minas). According to Bill O’Reilly, “If Mr. Colbert takes time to read that parable, he might begin to understand the Judeo-Christian tenet of personal responsibility; Jesus saying people have a responsibility to develop their god-given talents, and if they refuse to do that, they will be held accountable.” So is this really the point of the parable? Let’s take a look at Matt 25:14-30:
For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In the first century, a talent was the name for a coin of high value. In Luke’s version of this story, the word used for the coin is a mina, which is why this parable is sometimes referred to as the Parable of the Minas. O’Reilly’s first mistake is to assume the parable is about us. But the Parables of Jesus should not be read as timeless eternal principles like Aesop’s fables. They are riddles and cryptic words of judgment spoken to the unfaithful shepherds of Jesus’ own day (see Matt 13:10-15). Jesus regularly confronted these religious leaders about their self-righteousness (Luke 18:9), and hypocrisy (Matt 23:13-39). Another illustration he often used was that of fruitlessness. For example in Luke 13:1-9, Jesus tell the story of a man who planted a vineyard but found that it produced no fruit. This parable is almost identical to Isaiah chapter 5, which itself is about the unfaithfulness of Israel before the time of the Babylonian Captivity. Because of their unfaithfulness, God allowed the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem in 586 BC, and this is exactly Jesus’ point. If the vineyard continues to remain fruitless in his day, he will let it be raided again, this time by the Romans (70 AD). The Parable of the Talents should be read in this same light. Those who invested the money and produced various kinds of returns were commended by the master because they were “producing fruit.” But the man who buried his coin and failed to produce a profit for his master is like the fruitless vineyard of Isaiah 5 and Luke 13. Just as the vineyards are given over to be destroyed, the unfaithful servant is cast into outer darkness.
So as you can see, this is not a parable about taking “personal responsibility” or “developing your god-given talents.” Those ideas are not absent from the Bible, but this text in particular is not about these things. Rather, this parable is a word of judgment against the unfaithful and fruitless shepherds of Israel.
If you’re interested in reading further about some of the cultural forces involved in our misreading and misinterpretation of the Bible, I’ve written an essay for Modern Reformation that explores this topic at some length (“Reflecting on Scripture: You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This Text Is About You“).