10/23/2014 9:01:00 AM WORD OF FAITH The Roosevelts and Jesus
BY REV. ROGER KARBAN
FROM A READING FOR OCT. 26, 20TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR 'You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind....You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.' - Matthew 22:37-40.
Biblical followers of God are known not only by how they relate to God, but also by how they relate to others. They do so from a completely different perspective than those who do not share their faith.
Ken Burns' recent PBS series on the Roosevelts pointed out how each of these three persons dramatically changed how the United States government related to its citizens. Coming from a concept of government which basically stayed out of the way of individuals, permitting them to rise or fall according to their own talents and industriousness, Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt approached politics with the conviction that government should also help those who, through no fault of their own, found themselves in dire straits.
Franklin, especially, pushed through legislation which guaranteed such now-accepted programs as social security, unemployment insurance, union recognition, maximum working hours and minimum wage. By 1940, our government was involved in areas no one could have foreseen just 50 years earlier. Not only were people being permitted to become what they wished to become, they were actually being helped to become what they wished to become.
In many ways, our American government became what our sacred authors presumed every authentic follower of God should become: a person who would daily give themselves for all around them.
Pagans and Jews
Even when the Jewish monarchy came into existence during the last part of the 11th century BC, its kings were quite unlike their pagan counterparts. The latter were normally chosen because they guaranteed security for the powerful. Jewish kings, on the contrary, were chosen to help the powerless. They were expected to defend the rights of those who couldn't defend themselves.
German Protestant theologian Hans Walter Wolff frequently reminded us that there were three groups of people who could knock on the palace door 24/7, and the king was obligated to grant them an audience: widows, orphans and resident aliens. Jewish kings knew that one of the main reasons Yahweh put them on the throne was to champion their rights in a world in which many people ran roughshod over them.
These are the same three categories of people mentioned in Sunday's Exodus (22:20-26) passage. How Yahweh's people deal with the helpless is how the ancient Israelites expected Yahweh to deal with them.
"If [the poor man] cries out to me," Yahweh declares, "I will hear him; for I am compassionate." Those who follow God are presumed to imitate God.
The reform the historical Jesus preached was rooted in the same idea of social justice. Not only are His followers to love God, they're also to love their neighbor as themselves.
From another perspective
As we hear in Sunday's Gospel (Mt 22:34-40), Matthew's Jesus takes for granted that our love of one another concretely demonstrates our love of God: "The whole law and the prophets [the biblical way of talking about the Bible] depend on these two commandments."
Having referenced the Roosevelts above, there's a significant line in our I Thessalonians (1:5c-10) reading: Paul reminds his readers that they initially "received the word in great affliction."
Though we don't know exactly to what he's referring, it's important that, from that point of suffering, they committed themselves to imitate Jesus' dying and rising. On several occasions during the seven-part PBS series, Burns asked some well-known historians if the three Roosevelts would have accomplished what they accomplished if each hadn't undergone great physical and/or psychological pain at some point of their lives. The consensus was, "No." It was their suffering which most made them conscious of the suffering of others.
It's only when we're helpless that the helpless enter our field of vision. Loving others always make us helpless. It's the one action which is guaranteed to give us the same perspective on others that Jesus of Nazareth had.