And from those who have nothing…

Tuesday, July 19, 2011 — Week of Proper 11, Year One

Macrina, Monastic and Teacher, 379

To read about our daily commemorations, go to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 976)

Psalms 45 (morning) 47, 48 (evening)

1 Samuel 25:1-22

Acts 14:1-18

Mark 4:21-34

“For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mark 4:25)

I saw two economic charts yesterday. Each of them started in the 1980’s during the Reagan era and tracked to the present. One chart measured wealth in dollars. The next chart measured after-tax income. The line-charts tracked first the wealthiest 1%, then the next 10%, then several lower levels of income from the 90% percentile down. (I don’t recall the specific percentage breakouts.)

Here’s what they showed. Beginning in the ’80’s there was a very large gap between the top 1% and everyone else. The top 1% have a lot more wealth than everyone else. There was also a significant, but smaller gap between the 90% and everyone else. Below the 90th percentile, the lines were all pretty close together. The amount of wealth was pretty close together for the rest of the percentile categories.

What the first chart showed — wealth in dollars — was that wealth has increased dramatically for the top 1% from the 1980’s until now, with a few spikes up and down. Wealth for the top 90% has also increased significantly, but not as sharply as for the top 1%. The rest of America’s economic world has been flat. The lower 90% haven’t progressed.

But the chart on the right showed after tax comparisons. That’s where you would imagine the lines getting a little closer. From those who have, more is expected. To those who need, there is some support. But no. The income gap after taxes is even greater. The top two lines tracked a bit more steeply upwards. And all of the other lines went from flat to sliding slightly downward.

The scripture has been fulfilled, it would seem. Since the 1980’s at least, to those who have, more has been given; and from those who have less, more has been taken away. That’s the way our economic system seems to have been working.

But that’s not quiet the context for the observation from Mark’s gospel. Jesus first tells his listeners, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you will get, and still more will be given you.” Then he says, “For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

I’ve always been perplexed by the passage. But within it’s context, Jesus seems to be exhorting his listeners to abundant generosity. Give extravagantly and more will be given you. Your receiving is connected to your giving, he seems to say.

I don’t know what to think about the last phrase — “from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Is it a commentary on the injustice of life?

Luke’s version of this passage expands on the command “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Luke omits the taking away from those who have nothing. (Lk. 6:37-38)

Mary’s song imagines the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted, the hungry filled and the rich sent away empty. (Lk. 1:52-53) Not so for the most recent proposed strategy for lowering the Federal debt — making most of the burden fall on the poor and vulnerable by cutting programs important to them while protecting the wealthy from any increased taxation. It seems that somebody believes in it is right for those who have to be given more and from those who have nothing, let it be taken away.

I hope God is underneath it all sowing seeds of generosity and justice. I hope somewhere out of the headlines, out of sight, there are mustard seeds, small and invisible, germinating, rooting, growing. Seeds that someday will give shelter for all of the birds of the air.

I worry at the signs, though. Will it be that what little generosity and justice we have as a nation will be taken away?

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