Blood Money

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 9, 2017, Palm Sunday.

Text:  Matthew 21:1-17

 

Blood…Money…As I sat down to the computer to write today’s sermon, I found myself staring at the screen and the title I chose months ago:  “Blood Money.”  And I got to thinking about how those two words have been so closely related throughout human history.  I couldn’t help but think about this past week’s history and the fact that the U.S. bombed Syria on Thursday—a not-new occurrence by the way (the U.S. dropped more than 12,000 bombs in Syria in 2016 according to the Council on Foreign Relations[i]).  I thought about how—in the wake of an attack—ad revenues lead news agencies to become purveyors of what one writer described as “weapon porn,”[ii] showing image after image of weapons and violence—images that inspired a prominent reporter to describe the “flight” of Tomahawk missiles as “beautiful.”[iii]  I thought about the fact that the company who produces those bombs gets a healthy bump in market gains as a result of all that praise and free advertising.[iv]  I thought about the line about oil prices I read in MarketWatch:  “Prices often gain when tensions rise in the Middle East, where almost 40% of the world’s crude oil is produced.”[v]  All of this is to say that blood is a money-maker.  Blood money.

 

This is nothing new. Wars have fueled economies for centuries; people will line up and pay plenty to see a “good” fight—flashback to the iconic scene in the movie “Gladiator” when, at the end of a particularly bloody battle, Russell Crowe challenges the crowd saying “Are you not entertained?!”  Blood sells.  And—God help us—flesh and blood sells.  Slavery and sex trafficking (missing DC kids!) and black market transactions and prisons for profit prove that money and blood are intertwined in disturbing, death-dealing ways. 

Money doesn’t have to be so tainted, however.  In fact, money, in and of itself, is value-free.  Money can be (and often is) used to accomplish extraordinary good.  It is only when we become seduced by money and, therefore, willing to sell our soul—and, in extreme cases, the bodies and lives of other people—in order to get more of it that it becomes a problem. 

 

Throughout this Lent we have been naming some of the American idols that tempt our hearts, those realities of American culture that make it difficult to be a true follower of Jesus. 

The idol we confess today isn’t difficult to see all around us in America:  it is the idol of wealth, the god of the bottom line.  This god is an old god, an idol long revered across many continents and cultures.  And it took up residence early in American history.  Alexis de Tocqueville, French political philosopher, historian, and author of Democracy in America, wrote a letter in 1831 in which he said, “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”[vi]

 

I don’t intend to argue for or against free market capitalism or any other system of commerce today since, as mentioned last week, economics is not my area of expertise!  But as those who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, it is important to recognize that a possible pitfall in our culture is to be tempted to give our heart to the God of the bottom line, to fall in love with the idol of wealth. 

 

The tendency in America is to make everything transactional, for everything to become a product to be sold and everyone a potential consumer of products, a datapoint for a certain demographic.  Everything is fair game, and the more emotional or controversial, the better potential advertising can be. This past week we witnessed a Pepsi ad trivialize and coopt “the politics of protest, particularly as [those politics] surround race relations in America today.”  But as one article suggests, “Before it’s an ad for shampoo or cat food or cola, every advertisement is first an ad for capitalism.”  The author goes on to say the point of the Pepsi ad was “to put the consumer in a more important role than the citizen…to position Pepsi as a facilitator in the utopian dream of pure, color-blind consumerism that might someday replace politics entirely…” to offer “a hypothetical resolution to politics by a more powerful force in America—consumer capitalism.”[vii]

 

I don’t know why I was so startled by reading those lines.  After all, I know how powerful the god of the almighty dollar can be—and why wouldn’t that god want to become all-consuming by making “consumer capitalism” the most powerful force in America?  But I am just idealistic enough to still be caught off-guard and outraged by such a statement—and I’m determined to tell the truth:  When the life and death struggle for justice is co-opted for the purpose of branding a beverage to potentially increase someone’s bottom line, that is sin. And any profit is blood money.

 

William Sloane Coffin once said that economics are “politics in disguise.”[viii]  And we know (don’t we?) that budgets are moral documents.  We know that wherever our treasure is, our heart is too.  We know that Jesus was clear from the beginning that he came to preach good news not to the rich and powerful, but to the poor. 

 

And Palm Sunday is a day when Jesus rides into the streets and halls of power to face-off with the moneyed interests.  Jesus comes not in a limo, but on the back of a donkey.  And the story is that Jesus parked his donkey at the Temple—the center of both religious and economic life, the power center of Jerusalem.  Scholars debate whether the scene with the moneychangers ever actually happened; archaeological evidence and what we know of the way the Temple economy worked suggests that what we often see depicted in art as a room with some tables in it was actually a vast area covering many acres, bustling with thousands of people.  There was no way Jesus could have overturned all those tables!  But as is often the case with scripture, there is a kernel of history here surrounded by a story meant to capture the heart of what actually happened.  It’s like a novel getting turned into a screenplay—you have to edit and even create some new details in order to capture—in a smaller frame—the full, true story.  The presenting issue in this case wasn’t necessarily that the moneychangers themselves were doing something wrong.  One scholar points out that “Nobody was stealing or defrauding or contaminating the sacred precincts. These activities were the absolutely necessary concomitants of the fiscal basis and sacrificial purpose of the Temple.”[ix]  Rather, it is likely that Jesus was employing the prophetic tradition to do a very public, symbolic “sign” to make a larger point.  Jesus’s sign was to “overturn tables”—and that was only the beginning of his critique. 

 

In the days between this moment and his death, Jesus continually teaches in the Temple and takes the Temple leaders to task.  Jesus calls out those in power for tying “up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[ing] them on the shoulders of others” but not being willing to “lift a finger” themselves to help (Mt 23:4).  Jesus zeroes in on the way that those with money and power throw their weight around to get special treatment at all the trendy spots and ignore matters of justice and mercy and faith. (Mt 23:6-7, 23)  The “moneychangers” are at the center of the current system, changing money from foreign pilgrims so that they could purchase the various animals used for blood sacrifices in Temple ritual.  And “those who sold doves” were taking the money of the poor, because doves were the sacrifices of the poor (Lev 5:7).  These represent “the way things are,” the status quo. And Jesus is having none of this system in which every transaction is to the benefit of those with wealth and power and to the detriment of the poor.  That is what Jesus comes to overturn: the injustice of whole system.  

 

The new economy is made plain in Jesus’s words recorded in Matthew 25:  whoever is hungry is fed, whoever thirsty is given a drink, the stranger is welcomed, the naked clothed, the sick and imprisoned visited and cared for.  In the economy of God’s Kin-dom you don’t make life harder for the poor; you don’t blame them for their suffering; you don’t mock them by suggesting they make the hard decision to give up their iPhone so that they can pay for healthcare when you yourself make a $174,000 base salary and enjoy high-end healthcare provided by the government.[x] (Ok, that part isn’t exactly in the Bible…).

 

I wonder where Jesus would park his donkey were he to ride into Washington, DC today.  The Mayor’s office?  The White House?  The Capitol?  K Street?  Our own back doors?  What words would Jesus have for us?  Do those in positions of power lay heavy burdens on the backs of others but do nothing to help?  Do the wealthy and powerful take advantage of their privileges to get special treatment and gain more wealth?  Do our leaders attend to matters of justice and mercy and faith?  Do we?

 

In the biblical tradition, blood symbolizes life.  Where we invest—or withhold our money—can be a matter of life or death for real people.  One concrete example:  On any given night in DC, approximately 1,800 individuals and 130 families are chronically homeless—meaning they have been homeless repeatedly for years and have at least one—and often many—disabling conditions.  Chronic homelessness has a high human and financial cost—disease and mortality rates increase among these vulnerable neighbors and the cost of emergency services required at each crisis point is high.  There is solution that has been tested and proven to save both lives and money called Permanent Supportive Housing.  As Pastor Ben says, “The solution for homelessness is housing.”  And it costs almost half as much per year to house someone than it does to pay for emergency services.  But while some Permanent Supportive Housing has been created in DC, the system remains largely unchanged because it would require an upfront investment of money to turn things around.  What would Jesus have to say about that, do you suppose?  What creative prophetic “sign” might he perform to make the point?

 

It is difficult for us to return to God the parts of our heart so devoted to the god of wealth.  It is difficult to disentangle ourselves from the ways that the quid pro quo economy and the drive for a “healthy bottom line” get their hooks into us.  It is difficult to release the fear of “zero sum” living, the fear that there isn’t enough, that if someone gets what they need, I will lose what I need.  It is difficult for us to truly align our resources with our values, to make investment decisions based on care for the most vulnerable, based on justice, mercy, and faith.   

We have a choice to make; because we can’t worship both God and money (Mt 6:24).

 

The god of money is a god that delights in competition and power plays, that doesn’t care who or what is destroyed as long as there is a healthy bottom line, and whose goal is to consume us even as we consume more and more.  The god of money is a hungry god.  // Jesus rides into town and offers an alternative.  Jesus embodies the God of grace who delights in humility and justice and whose goal is to give life and to inspire generosity and love.  In the economy of God’s Kin-dom, the poor no longer have to pay for forgiveness—in fact, no one does.  God’s economy is grace.  Not a cheap grace that expects nothing.  But a costly grace that offers everything.  Later in the story, Judas goes to those in power to see what they will pay him to deliver Jesus into their hands.  They give him 30 pieces of silver; blood money.  How could he have known?… Jesus’s blood was free.  Judas saw the truth too late.  Will we?

 

 

 

[i] http://blogs.cfr.org/zenko/2017/01/05/bombs-dropped-in-2016/

[ii] user on Twitter

[iii] Brian Williams, https://www.usnews.com/news/entertainment/articles/2017-04-07/brian-will...

[iv] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/tomahawk-maker-raytheon-leads-premarket...

[v] Ciara Linnane, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/tomahawk-maker-raytheon-leads-premarket...

[vi] Tocqueville, Alexis de; The Tocqueville Reader, Olivier Zunz, Alan S. Kahan, eds., Blackwell Publishing, 2002, p. 41.

[vii] Ian Bogost, “Pepsi’s New Ad is a Total Success,” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/pepsi-ad-success/522021/

[viii] William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, p. 56.

[ix] http://www.michaelturton.com/Mark/GMark11.html

[x] http://www.cultofmac.com/470911/poor-people-give-iphones-healthcare-cong...