Published on Wednesday, August 15, 2001 in the Boston Globe
If Jesus Were Invited to a Lunch with Bush
by Allen Callahan
WHEN EVANGELICAL Christian kids began broadcasting their behavioral ethic on their sweatshirts - ''WWJD'' - they raised a question useful to church people as they debate faith-based initiatives: ''What Would Jesus Do?'' Would increased partnering in social programs between government and churches merely facilitate the delivery of social services, or would it make churches servile clients of a government with diminishing passion for social justice?
Luke's Gospel in particular advances what theologians call ''the preferential option for the poor.'' It begins with Mary's Song in the first chapter: ''He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree./He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.'' As one Latin American theologian put it, God takes sides in the struggle of haves and have-nots we call history. God sides with the least, the lowest, and the left-out.
Later in Luke, Jesus uses the compassionate act of a Samaritan - the racial outcast of his day - to illustrate what one must do to fulfill God's great commandment of love. He then tells his hearers to imitate the hated Samaritan, to ''go and do likewise.''
But for all that, the kingdom Jesus described was radically inclusive. Jesus, as God's son who goes from the uttermost to the guttermost, wants to expand the franchise to everyone, even those unlikely to buy in. Some of Jesus's stories about the kingdom make precisely this point: a net capturing different kinds of fish, fields with different crop yields, laborers with different pay scales.
Moral: In the kingdom, it takes all kinds. Even the Pharisees. Luke makes a point of showing that Jesus refused to write off those arch-villains of Sunday School lore. Luke tells of several dinner invitations Jesus received from the Pharisees. He accepts them all. Each, however, ends in social disaster: Jesus never fails to offend his host.
In the 11th chapter of Luke, a Pharisee invites Jesus to a power lunch, which he attends without hesitation. As the guests sit down, the Pharisee is outraged that Jesus has not washed his hands before dinner. In that time and place hand washing was a matter of holiness, not hygiene: It was a ritual that signified the sanctity of the meal, and was observed scrupulously by religious folk. So Jesus is caught in a faux pas.
Instead of offering an apology, Jesus launches a verbal attack. He berates his host for being obsessed with clean exteriors while being filthy inside with greed. He goes on to say that clean hands come by the purifying act of feeding the poor, that the Pharisees leave the hard work of justice undone. These insults were in earshot of other guests whom the Bible calls ''scribes'' or ''doctors of the law,'' ancient Israel's equivalents of today's policy wonks.
The scribes are put off by Jesus's rudeness and tell him so. But he has a few choice words for them, too. He says that their policy directives harm more than help, and that they polish the monuments of great leaders of the past while betraying their principles. They use their insider knowledge to keep people locked out, and they use their expertise - the buzzwords, jargon, and doublespeak - not to illumine but to confuse. By the time Jesus finished his harangue the Pharisees and scribes were steaming and planning revenge.
So we know what Jesus would do sitting at the table of the decision-makers in Washington. He would tell the truth about how their fiscal conservatism and corporate welfare have further enriched the wealthy and impoverished the wretched. He would tell them how the wealth of our nation makes the poverty of children a greater obscenity than any four-letter words they might learn from their desperate music. He would describe how the worst offenses are committed through policy-regulating, deregulating and otherwise legislating the bread right out of the mouths of the victims by perpetrators who go to Congress, not to prison. He would note how the power-brokers are now trying to persuade faith-based organizations to become branch offices of a kingdom that offers less and less, too little, too late.
That's what Jesus would do if he were invited to a power lunch with Bush, his spin doctors, and his policy wonks. He'd go. He'd talk. He'd probably be invited to leave unfed.
Let the churches go and do likewise.
Allen Callahan is a faculty member of the Harvard Divinity School. He will soon become an associate professor of religion at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company