By Barbara Shelly
'Tis the season to mix politics and religion.
Republican candidates are working fervently to stake out their free-market credentials in advance of the inconveniently scheduled Iowa caucuses. "Occupy" protesters are refusing to come in from the cold. You knew it was only a matter of time before somebody brought Jesus into the argument.
This week, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, kicked up a bit of a storm on CNN's "Belief Blog" by declaring that "Jesus was a free marketer, not an occupier."
"Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy - equal outcomes for inequitable performance," Perkins wrote, after chastising the Occupy contingent for being "unproductive." "There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual."
To make his case, Perkins cited the New Testament parable in which a nobleman goes off on a trip and entrusts some of his wealth to his servants. Upon his return, the nobleman rewards the servants who have used his money to make him more money, and he threatens dire consequences for the lone servant who has merely held the money to give it back to the ruler when asked.
"The parable of the king and the servants endorses the principles of business and the free market when properly employed," Perkins wrote.
I am no theologian (and neither is Perkins), but I think the former Louisiana state legislator and current self-proclaimed guardian of America's culture stepped in it here.
Perkins cherry-picks his conclusion from an odd parable that appears on just about every pastor's list of the most troublesome Bible passages. True, the story rewards initiative. But the nobleman is described as both abusive and crooked. He himself asks the unfortunate servant, "Didn't you know that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow?"
This poor servant has been belittled over the centuries as a slacker. But looked at another way, he is the hero of the story - a brave soul who would rather face the nobleman's wrath than help the boss make money for his nefarious ends.
In any case, it's silly to label Jesus a "free marketer" based on an isolated parable. This is, after all, the man who charged into the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers who were ripping off travelers with dishonest exchange rates. He sounds more like an Occupier.
And what of Jesus' declaration that a camel would have an easier time passing through the eye of a needle than a rich man through the gates of heaven?
Then there's the parable in which a landowner insists on paying all of his workers the same wage, whether they went on the clock early in the morning or an hour before quitting time. There are winners and losers in that story, but "diligence and determination" aren't the deciding factors.
And let's not forget the parable of the loaves and fishes, which seems more like an embrace of collectivism than a rejection of it. A true free marketer would have told everybody to go fish.
Sometimes I miss the old "What Would Jesus Do?" craze, in which people sported "WWJD" bumper stickers and T-shirts. It made for good speculation.
The creator endowed humans with an endless ability to conscript Jesus and his words to their own ends, so we will all come to our own conclusions. But I think it's pretty clear that Jesus would resist a system in which the rich use their clout to get richer, while politicians reel in campaign cash and tell the poor, the sick, and the unemployed that everything would be OK if they would just get off their duffs and show some initiative.
Winners and losers, indeed.