By Raj Nadella.
A recent study published by the Pew Research Center offers some interesting data about economic inequality in the United States. In 1982, the top 1 percent families took in 10.8 percent percent of all the pretax income. The bottom 90 percent got 64.7 percent. By 2012, it was 22.5 percent for the top 1 percent and 49.6 percent for the bottom 90 percent. In a more disturbing trend the top 1 percent owned 35 percent of all the personal wealth in 2010. The bottom 50 percent owned just 5 percent.
The effects of such upward movement of income and wealth are dire for many sections of the society. In their recent book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer discuss our current economic reality wherein more than 1.5 million American families live on $2 a day. The number was half that before the congress passed the TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families bill) in 1996. Edin and Shaefer highlight how disadvantaged families are often forced to rely on extreme measures such as selling plasma to make their ends meet. Their work, as well as the Pew study, shows how our current economic system consistently benefits the rich and leaves millions in a perpetual state of increased poverty.
John 5 tells the story of Jesus encountering many sick people, who were lying by the pool of Bethesda in hopes of getting healed. The pool, that was opposite Fortress Antonia, had a reputation for healing the sick. According to a tradition, an angel stirs the waters occasionally and the first one to enter the pool after that would be healed. The pool was deep, and those wishing to be healed needed knowledge of its layout and some assistance to enter it. Jesus meets an “invalid” man who spent thirty-eight years there in hopes that someone would assist him into the pool.
On the face of it, Jesus’ question, “Do you want to get well?” seems unnecessary. The Greek word “hygieys” has the connotation of becoming whole. Who would not want to become whole? Perhaps the “invalid” man has gotten so accustomed to his predicament that he had seemingly given up any hope of becoming whole. On a different level, Jesus’ question should be seen in the context of a paradoxical reality in the story. The story presents an image of numerous disabled people possibly getting healed. At the same time, the most vulnerable and helpless are denied healing because they lack access to the pool. Bethesda, which literary means “House of Mercy” is inaccessible to those who need it the most.
Despite waiting for many years with no results, the “invalid” man did not seem to have doubted that the system would work for him. He must have heard numerous stories about the pool’s healing powers and believed that he just had to wait patiently. The presence of great number of disabled people suggests that the society at large bought into, perhaps even promoted, the myth that everyone could benefit from the pool. Seen in this light, the subtext of Jesus’ question might be, “do you really think you can get well and become whole in this system?”
Rather than helping the “invalid” man into the water so he could be healed, Jesus asks him to get up, pick up his mat, and walk. His action has the symbolic significance—both then and now—of bypassing and challenging systems that seemingly grant equal opportunity to everyone but do not ensure equal access. Without the latter, the former seems meaningless, especially when coupled with the obstacles that prevent some from becoming whole. Why design the pool so deep with the result that only a few have the means to get to it?
The story in John 5 exposes how social and economic systems—in Jesus’ time as well as ours—that purportedly assist the needy often keep them in perpetual poverty. Even as income and wealth disparities increased rapidly in the last thirty years and the structures that accentuate such inequality have been strengthened, there has been a perpetuation of myths that potentially weaken attempts to address those problematic structures. One such myth is that if one worked hard and long, s/he would make it and that economic mobility is an option for everyone. The myth of the American dream continues to ensure that millions of underprivileged Americans unquestioningly invest significant time and energy into an economic system that rarely serves their interests.
There is insufficient moral embarrassment, on the part of the wealthy and the powerful, about the fact that many people who work hard can rarely make ends meet. Perhaps we—those without access as well as those with—have gotten so accustomed to our current economic realities that we have lost the capacity to envision alternative realities.
In encouraging the man to pick up his mat and walk, Jesus empowers him to move past his unquestioning faith in the system. The story suggests that if one wants to become whole, a healthy dose of doubt about the system might be in order. In picking up his mat and walking away from the pool, the man symbolically critiques the system that called itself “the house of mercy” but was solely lacking in that respect. Yet he continues to participate in the larger community, as evident in his going to the temple.
The man’s actions—and those of Jesus—highlight the inherent structural problems in the system, and they pose some pertinent questions: Is it possible to become whole within the system? What does it mean to turn one’s back on oppressive economic structures without completely excusing oneself from the larger community? How might it look like?
Bible Study Questions:
1) How do we address the problems inherent in our economic system while continuing to participate in them?
2) What are some effective ways of challenging unhelpful myths about our economic system?
3) How can faith communities play a prophetic role and help build a society that can make people whole?
For Further Reading:
Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
Richard Horsley, Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All (Westminster John Knox, 2009)
Drew Desilver, “5 Facts About Economic Inequality,” Pew Research Center
Dr. Raj Nadella serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. His research and teaching interests include Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Studies and Postcolonial Readings of the New Testament, especially the parables of Jesus. His research focuses on New Testament perspectives on issues of economic justice and their ethical and theological implications for the church and society today. His first book, Dialogue Not Dogma: Many Voices in the Gospel of Luke, was published in 2010. He is currently working on his second book that juxtaposes Matthew’s response to the empire with Mark’s response to the empire. Dr. Nadella is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
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