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Monday, March 21, 2011

Whose wisdom, whose wealth, and whose might?

          We usually say that wisdom is a good thing. But there is a false wisdom. Paul says that the follower of Jesus should be foolish rather than wise. He says that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

          Some preachers these days say that if you are holy, you should get wealthy. Wealth is a sign of God’s blessing.

          Practically everybody in this country says that the U.S. should have bigger guns than anybody else in the world.

          Walter Brueggemann, a United Church of Christ theologian, compares Egypt under Pharaoh with our situation today (Journey to the Common Good, 2010). Pharaoh is the opposite of everything that God wants for the people. God led the people out of Pharaoh’s Egypt into a place of freedom, the desert.

          Pharaoh lived by an unholy trio of values. They are:

          Pharaoh had all the wisdom. He had his wise men, those who interpreted his dreams and performed miracles for him. That worked until God stepped in and sent him dreams that the wise men could not interpret and helped Moses to do things that those wise men could not duplicate.

          Egypt, with its seven years of famine, became a place of scarcity, and Pharaoh used that scarcity to get control of all the country’s wealth. He put Joseph in charge, and the story says that the people gave everything they owned to Joseph in return for food. Pharaoh, through his agent Joseph, ended up owning everything and making slaves of everyone. Pharaoh got all the wealth.

          That’s what happens in human societies. It is happening in our society. Fewer and fewer people are owning more and more of the wealth.

          God called the people out of the place of bondage, the place where scarcity kept the people under the control of Pharaoh, into a desert where they could begin to see past their scarcity. To do that they had to let go of their fear. Brueggemann uses the stories of manna and Sabbath to make that point.

          When the people ran out of food, God provided them food in the form of manna, “bread from heaven.” God forbade them to store up the manna. If they tried to store it, it became rotten and wormy. But on the day before the Sabbath they could gather twice as much as they needed. The extra they kept over was to be used on the Sabbath without getting rotten and wormy. God wanted the people to rest on the Sabbath.

          The kingdom of scarcity is a 24/7 kingdom. There is no rest. You can’t rest, because someone may be gaining on you. There won’t be enough if you don’t work every minute of every day.

          Pharaoh had his chariots and charioteers--he had all the might. The people who run the show in our country and around the world are careful to keep control of the military, the source of might. If we don’t have the big guns, someone else will come along with bigger guns and take away what we have.

          In the desert the people did not store up wealth, and God was their defense (look at what happened to the chariots and charioteers when they tried to pursue the Israelites across the sea).

          The Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt into the desert is one of the great stories of all time. It motivated the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the great nonviolent movements in history. It can motivate us today.

          We have to quit being so concerned with scarcity, and depend more on God and each other. We have to quit fearing possible attacks from the latest enemy (in the 1950s it was Russia, in the 1960s it was Vietnam, in the 1990s it was Saddam Hussein, and since 2001 it has been El Qaida). We have to demythologize the wise men of our time, those who tell us that our economy has to make more gadgets more and more efficiently and sell them to more and more people. That may create wealth, but it is not making us happier. We can’t see that because our wise men have sold us on Pharaoh’s wisdom.

          God wants us to be free just as much as God wanted the Israelites to be free. We have to get out from under the control of Pharaoh’s wisdom, Pharaoh’s wealth, and Pharaoh’s might.