The PBS NewsHour series “Brief but Spectacular” portrays Jacqueline Novogratz with her micro-lending development work. The interview begins this way.
JACQUELINE NOVOGRATZ, Founder and CEO, Acumen: When I was six years old, my first grade nun, Sister Mary Theophane, beat it into my head to whom much is given much is expected. And so, I always wanted to change the world.
I moved to Rwanda to help start the first micro finance bank and soon thereafter realized that most people don’t want saving. Most people want choice and opportunity, which is another way of saying dignity.
The “people don’t want saving” line naturally caught my attention. She’s right of course. Ever since we were toddlers we’d look up at those giant, godlike things we call parents and say “I do it myself!”
We like to be in control. We like options. We want our pride intact.
Visa Para Un Sueño
When I was a missionary in the Dominican Republic World Renew (then CRWRC, I always liked the palindrome) used to run a micro-business loan program for Haitian women. These are good programs. Women who might hear a dollar or two a day can strengthen their income, be able to feed their family better. They might be able, with some hard work and ambition work their way into a cement block home with a tin roof. They’d likely still have an outhouse and the kids might have to run to the river for water, washing and bathing.
These programs do good work and we certainly want to support them, but let’s not kid ourselves. Any of these women would drop their 50 dollar loan for a visa to the USA. When I first arrived in the DR in the early 90s the #1 hit song was “Visa Para Un Sueño” which talks about the dream of nearly every Dominican to get a shot a going to “Nueva York”.
In a recent article on a blog about global inequality the author suggest that if we really wanted to wipe out poverty world wide the best thing we could do would be to simply wipe out national borders. According to a Gallup piece such a move would likely empty some of the poorest countries in the world of 90% of their populations.
It doesn’t take much to have us imagine what such a move would look like in the US. Camps would pop up around every major city in the US, and many rural areas too. Cities in the US would quickly look like cities in the third world. Schools would be overwhelmed and sanitation would be an immediate crisis.
This, however, would not really break down all that much inequality. To do so we’d likely have to take further steps of outlawing locked doors and legal defense of personal property.
What would happen in such a world? Well gun sales would go through the roof and we’d see something like we find in dystopian movies. Americans wouldn’t stand for it but the masses of the would would likely celebrated their shot at una visa para un sueño.
Who went out to see John the Baptist? Why was he so upset?
For the last two weeks we’ve talked about John the Baptist. In Matthew 11 we find in locked up by Herod for denouncing him taking his brother’s wife, who was also his niece. I read John’s question as an honest one, one caused by the collision of his expectations with Jesus’ reality. It is easy to imagine that John expected Jesus to make quick work of the Herod family and move quickly with angelic power to purify God’s holy land of both foreign elements and their wobbly Jewish collaborators. Isn’t it true that all that is required to let injustice stand is apathy and inaction by “good people”?
Jesus’ answer is beautiful, contemporary Americans are at first taken by it, as they are by the PBS woman’s quote on dignity, but on deeper reflection might find it troubling. Jesus’ miracles seem more like some sort of medical brigade that swoops into town to do vaccinations, hand out eye glasses and pull teeth, when what the world really seems to need is something more like universal health coverage. The women who get their micro loans know this. A micro loan is great, if that’s their best option, but a visa to the USA is salvation at a whole other level. They’ll gladly leave their shack in a third world slum for a first world slum and the worst public school in Sacramento. John’s doubt is a on observant, religious longing in the same vein.
We all get this. If a doctor came to us and said “I can help you feel better from your cancer quickly for a short time or I can give you a chemo and likely cure your cancer, although you’ll lose your hair and hardly be able to keep your food down” most of us take the second.
The Irrelevant Risen, Miracle-Working Son of God
People I know who have either abandoned the Christian faith or reject it from the start are not unaware of these choices. Many will tell me something like “even if I grant you Jesus’ miracles, claims of divinity and perhaps even the resurrection, I see no way in which those events 2000 years ago pay out in what I want for my life today.”
The useful Jesus is the one that promises to provide to us the thing that we feel we need today. If you’re living in a third world slum that might mean a meal or a job. If you’re living in an affluent American suburb that might mean college entrance, a relationship or that your child leaves rehab permanently clean and sober. Even with a variety of Christian preachers, as well as hawkers of other religions promising these kinds of outcomes honesty usually forces us to acknowledge that classic Christianity finds the path to heaven considerably more circuitous. God seems to mercifully give atheists plausible deniability.
I will not paint John the Baptist, however, with that venal brush. John hungered and thirsted for righteousness and he, in the Herodian lock-up did not feel himself satisfied and wondered if Jesus would really do it. John has never been alone in this.
The Genesis of Jesus
The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy running from Abraham to Joseph the father of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke has its own genealogy that goes from Adam to Jesus and the selection of starting points is important. Luke, who wrote a Gospel directed to the mixed masses of the Roman empire could claim that Adam was the father of all. Matthew writes to the Jews where he focuses on God’s mission beginning with Abraham. This comes after God’s mission through Noah fails to fix the world by picking the very best man and his family and drowning all the rest.
This is what Matthew has to say.
Matthew 1:18–25 (NIV)
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Marriage for a different world
We should note that Matthew’s account, unlike Luke’s account, keeps Joseph at the center of this story. While we don’t know a lot scholars have long assumed that Joseph was likely a middle aged man, quite possibly previously married and Mary possibly a teenager. Marriage was often, throughout most cultures and most of human history a matter more of money, survival, family, status and business than romance. The “betrothal” between Joseph and Mary was likely something agreed upon between Joseph and Mary’s family. The betrothal would have been an agreement, a legally binding one between the parties. Mary would continue to live with her family until the wedding where she and Joseph would consummate the marriage. As Matthew says, however, before that date Mary was found to be pregnant, according to Matthew “from the Holy Spirit”.
Joseph, a Righteous Man
This story places Joseph in a difficult predicament. On one hand he feels betrayed. He feels that Mary and her family has let down their end of the deal. In that cultural context he feels under no obligation to raise a child that isn’t his and marry a girl who couldn’t be faithful even during their engagement. He choose to break it off.
At the same time he believed the law required that he not do so in a way that would cause Mary any undo damage. This was potentially a very hazardous for Mary and part of what Joseph assumed to be following the law was not to be unduly harsh, so he decided to quietly break off the relationship.
Angelic Message in a Dream
After Joseph makes up his mind to do this an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
The command to not be afraid is interesting. What should he be afraid of? Ridicule? Getting in a messy relationship with someone else who might make a claim on his property via a paternity challenge?
We might also realize that the assertion that there is no other human father doesn’t necessarily relieve Joseph of much of this. Who will believe such a thing? Won’t he simply be seen as a dupe or a fool to be raising a bastard?
The angel also tells Joseph what to name the baby. Joseph doesn’t even get that privilege.
Then the angel tells something to Joseph that doesn’t phase us a bit but would have the second biggest surprise of the conversation. While the expectation of a messiah was common, that expectation was mostly in line with what John the Baptist was disappointed by. The Messiah was supposed to set the government straight, or the religious performance of the people and the temple straight, but “to save the people from their sins”?
Mixed Feelings about God and Sins
When the Angel focuses our attention on “saving people from sin” things get complicated indeed.
John the Baptist was all about God punishing sinners. It was the lack of punishing sinners that seemed to be upsetting John. John, in that sense, stands in the tradition of Jonah who stewed outside Ninevah because God would would hear their prayers of repentance. John was better than Jonah because he did actually seek repentance, both from Jews and soldiers. He was, in that sense, a greater prophet.
We should also not so quickly discount John’s knowledge of the connection between this world’s sin and its injustice and pain. John condemned both social injustice but also personal, private injustice which was what landed him in Herod’s jail. John understood that for the world to be set right, for heaven and earth to once again come together, the public/private distinction too would need to fall. Justice and holiness were one in the same.
Jesus clearly saw justice and holiness as one in the same but it was his seeming lack of immediate retributive zeal. Wasn’t the bar set by Phinehas grandson of Aaron who in Numbers 25 speared the conjugal couple to stop the wrath of God? John probably would have liked a bit more spearing and a bit less eating with sinners.
Hearts that will never be satisfied
I’ve known some people with enough money in the bank that they will likely never want for anything. They don’t worry month to month about paying bills. They’ve got enough until the day they die.
I’ve known others that literally don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They have no roof over their heads and no table for their food.
What both groups have in common is that they look at their lives and always see something lacking. Both can read the book of Ecclesiastes and see that no amount of stuff, or the lack of it really determines our happiness or can address the quality of our lives in this world.
The immigrant that secures their visa para un sueño will find whole new challenges and wants and frustrations in their new world and their children for whom they fought so hard will become cultural aliens to them.
Is it a failure of Jesus to not knock down the Herods and the Caesars or is he in fact way ahead of John. Is the good he does by his miracles the main deal or just samples of the direction his larger ministry is moving towards? The Gospels are filled with miracles but the stories are written in a way that points to a climax someplace else. Micro-finance loans are good but our hearts long for a salvation that is far larger than the best home to found in North America. Our hearts know this but hardly dare ask our heads to believe it.
The Shape of the Path
What should not be missed in this story is just how much God asks of Joseph and Mary and just what the beginning of Jesus’ redemption will cost them. Mary’s excuse of a pregnancy by the Holy Spirit gets partly matched by Joseph’s justification of marrying her because of an angelic pronouncement. Neither cover story could really make up for the reputational and social status hit they would take by raising their bastard son. Their path, like the path of their son would be a path of suffering, it goes in quite the opposite direction to the rest of the herd. Jesus’ irrelevance to our venal natures isn’t a function of time, it’s a function of the nature of Jesus’ ministry.
On one hand John might imagine that Jesus is a coward, or afraid to be the bad guy like he’s been, or that Jesus was soft or unable to do the dirty work of cleaning up a sinful world through guilt, punishment and spears through a tent. The truth, if John had lived long enough to see, would be quite different.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus pay the price of love. You can’t read the Sermon on the Mount and imagine Jesus is soft in private sin or public sin yet you can’t see his mercy to imagine he doesn’t understand what exactly the wagers of sin are. Jesus will not bring punishment for sin, he will bear punishment for the sins of others.
Matthew concludes his genesis with a prophesy.
I was watching the Disney version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe last night and noted Mr. Beaver asking the children if they didn’t believe in the prophesy, the one that said that the Witch’s long winter would end when for Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve came to Narnia to sit on their thrones at Cair Paravel.
Prophesy, virgin birth, it all sounds so primitive and so magical, especially compared with the reality of Herod’s prison, gripping poverty, human suffering, and hopes that real poverty and injustice will be banished.
CS Lewis makes an important observation about the world and our lives in it.
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). The Problem of Pain (p. 116). New York: HarperOne.
We shouldn’t mistake micro-finance or the miracles of Jesus for home either.
When I was watching the movie part of my heart said “oh why don’t they believe in the prophesy?” and then I thought “why don’t we?”
In a story we lay scorn on the unbelief of the characters in the power and goodness of Aslan to achieve for his own happiness and the joy of Narnia the good he wants to do, yet we are skeptical when it comes to the story we are living in now.
What am I asking of you?
First that you accept the miracles of Jesus, the micro-finance of well meaning development workers, and all the half-measures we can accomplish in this world to help one another not as our final end. We should listen to the misery of our hearts and know that even if we lived for another hundred years, or won the lottery, or married the most self-less, beautiful, wealthy, powerful individual on the face of the earth our hearts would still not be satisfied. Our hearts keep pulling us to a salvation beyond anything we’ve ever known in our short lifetimes. Embrace that misery and that hunger. Don’t despise John for hungering and thirsting after righteousness, public and private, here and now.
The Prophesy, the Virgin Birth, and the surprise intrusion into the ordinary life of a betrothed couple in the first century highlights the heart of the Christian story. Salvation is of the Lord. God comes into our mess and rescues us from ourselves. He saves us from our sins. He is the actor. We are the blessed recipients of his mercy and his power.
The shape of that rescue is clearly found in the lives of Joseph and Mary. Mary and Joseph’s lives are pre-echoes of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Their lives are at once seemingly senseless/irresponsible in this world and beautiful. We love out they sacrifice themselves in service to their God and their Son yet when those kinds of calls come to us we balk. Gratitude and belief in the prophesy can move us forward to not imagine we can, as CS Lewis says, build our lives on brief gifts of happiness we are given. We realize that we are never safe in this world so we lay up our treasures where moth and rust don’t consume.
Joseph and Mary hardly receive their reward in their short lives. Joseph likely died before Jesus even started his public ministry. John is beheaded before Jesus’ resurrection. Mary sees her son killed and then raised but will herself die.
We are invited to believe the prophesy of God with us, that heaven and earth will again be one and that the even our best dreams of the shape of a renewed world fall short of what is actually to come.