When Economic Reversal Catches the Elite by Surprise

When Economic Reversal Catches the Elite by Surprise March 23, 2020

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approaching storm clouds

As we continue our journey through the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the next passages in common we meet reads:

“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:37-39)

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.” (Luke 17:26-30)

Dehumanizing Oppression and Re-humanizing Liberation

Marcus Borg’s and John Dominic Crossan’s book The First Christmas shares a little background on the phrase in this week’s saying, “The Son of Humanity.” The phrase comes from the revolution literature of Daniel 7 where the prophet’s vision includes four fantastic creatures, each representing a historical empire:

“What is at stake in Daniel is this: the first four empires are inhuman beasts; only the fifth and final empire is truly human.” (Borg, Marcus J.; Crossan, John Dominic, The First Christmas, p. 68)

In Daniel 7, all the oppressive empires are represented as violent beasts. Yet there comes after them a final kingdom that is human.

Let that register for a moment. The last community represented is human. Paulo Freire wrote,

“The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own ‘effort,’ with their ‘courage to take risks.’ If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all is their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the ‘generous gestures’ of the dominant class. Precisely because they are ‘ungrateful’ and ‘envious,’ the oppressed are regarded as potential enemies who must be watched. It could not be otherwise. If the humanization of the oppressed signifies subversion, so also does their freedom; hence the necessity for constant control. And the more the oppressors control the oppressed, the more they change them into apparently inanimate ‘things.’ This tendency of the oppressor consciousness to ‘in-animate’ everything and everyone it encounters, in its eagerness to possess, unquestionably corresponds with a tendency to sadism.” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition, p.59)

Freire’s point is simple: Oppression dehumanizes. As they called Jesus “the Son of Humanity,” the earliest community of Jesus followers saw in his teachings the re-humanizing liberation identified in Daniel 7. In Jesus they saw Daniel’s Son of Humanity ending the violent oppression of all other empires.

An Element of Surprise

The central point of the above passages in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels is that this re-humanizing liberation would include an element of surprise or unexpectedness for oppressors. Most scholars agree that both Matthew and Luke’s gospels used Mark’s gospel as an outline for their own, editing and adding to Mark’s gospel. In Mark, our saying this week appears in a parallel passage about surprise:

Mark 13:35-37: “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

We’ll discuss what it means to “watch” in just a moment.

The Great Reversal of Economic Injustice

In both Matthew and Luke the surprise that catches those presently benefited by the way our world is a great reversal of economic injustice. The tables are turned upside down. For his Jewish readers, Matthew mentions those who were surprised in the Hebrew Noah story. Luke, addressing non-Jewish Christians, includes the stories of Noah and Lot. The inclusion of Lot makes sense when one understands Sodom’s “great sin” and remembers that Luke, out of all the gospels, has the strongest economic justice theme. The Jewish prophetic tradition defines Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin as the economic exploitation of the poor:

Ezekiel 16:49: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

Both Noah’s and Lot’s narratives are stories where destruction comes unexpectedly. In the Noah story, the surprise falls on the violent. In Lot’s story it falls unexpectedly on rich, exploitative oppressors who lived at ease at the expense of the vulnerable. Luke emphasizes not just the violence surprised by God’s kingdom but also the economic elements of oppression. His gospel begins with Mary’s song:

Luke 1:52-53: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

The above passages make this point: Those who create and benefit from a world where a few benefit at the expense of the masses will not experience Jesus’ gospel as good news. The announcement of the kingdom proclaims a radical reversal of exploitative comfort (compare with Luke 6:24-26): their way of life is cast down while those presently scratching out an existence and fighting to survive injustice are lifted up, liberated, and restored.

Conclusion

The language of “keeping watch” for the arrival of this re-humanizing liberation, whether it be in Daniel’s imagery, Jesus’ teachings, or the Jewish prophets’ pronouncements, drew from the experiences of night watchmen who could not fall asleep.

The message was, “Stay awake!”

In our world today, this wakefulness means possessing a continuing awareness of issues related to marginalized people and their struggle for justice. It requires an intersectional awareness of racial, gender, economic, LGBT, and other social forms of justice. Jesus-followers staying awake will characterize God as Jesus did: as being on the side of people who daily face oppression. We will live and work in solidarity with God and marginalized communities as we choose a world marked by re-humanizing liberation instead of dehumanizing oppression.

Our passages in Matthew and Luke warn against being on auto-pilot and just going along within the present status quo.

Stay awake and keep working for change!

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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