Psalm 133, the Psalm appointed for the lectionary, offers a compelling vision of a community that is in glad harmony and solidarity.
The newer translation, “kindred,” amends the older (more familiar and therefore, more convenient) translation of “brothers.” The Psalm includes all members of the community in solidarity, all brothers and sisters. This brief poem offers two suggestive images for such social solidarity.
On the one hand, “precious oil” (olive oil) is a luxury; but here it is in such abundance that careless wastefulness is in order. Community solidarity is like that, overflowing in celebrative abundance. That is how good community solidarity can be! On the other hand such solidarity is as welcome as dew, reassuring sight on the mountain while the land below is always under threat from draught.
It is possible to read this Psalm as simply a “nice statement.” It may be like surface-level camaraderie without too much required or expected. The Psalm might be no more than generic “thoughts and prayers” that we extend to each other without inconvenience. The Psalm can be read in such a trivializing way.
If, however, we pay close attention, we will notice that “kindred” (brothers) is quite expansive and inclusive in the horizon of Israel’s Torah. On the one hand we may notice that in Amos 1:9 it is remembered that Israel has a “brotherly” “covenant of kinship” with Edom, a notion rooted in the old Jacob-Esau narrative. On the other hand I notice that in the provision for debt cancellation, the “brother” is the target of generosity, most especially the poor brother (Deuteronomy 15:1-18):
Every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the *community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed … you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your **community owes you … If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor … Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought … and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing … If a member of your community, either a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free.* (Deuteronomy 15:2-3, 7, 9, 11-12)
It is important to notice that in this Torah context concerning economic relief, the “brother” who receives relief by the cancellation of debts in the seventh year is the target of generous justice for the sake of the wellbeing of the comity. In the NSRV, the many uses of “brother” are variously translated:
-v. 2 brother: The phrase “the brother” is deleted in an editorial judgment;
-v. 3 brother=”member of the community”;
-v. 7.brother= ”member of your community”;
-v. 9 brother: is deleted is a preference to “neighbor”;
-v. 11 brother= ”neighbor”;
-v. 12 brother= ”member of your community.”
If we are to understand the gravitas of “brothers together in unity” in the Psalm, then we must see that “brother” is a quite expansive notion, especially when we remember that even the non-Israelite sojourner was a recipient of generosity commanded by the Torah. This awareness of brotherly social solidarity is much more expansive than familial bloodlines, comprehending all those who inhabit common ground. In verse 3 of the Psalm, moreover, it is asserted that as a brotherly society Israel is where God has “ordained” a blessing of life forever more.
In Deuteronomy 15 concerning debt cancellation, Moses declares:
There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy. (v. 4)
The interface of “brother” and “blessing” in the Psalm is an echo of the Torah assurance. God’s blessing is upon the economy of the community when neighborly generosity is practiced. That practice is more than “thoughts and prayers,” but concerns active economic engagement on behalf of the wellbeing of all the neighbors through the redress of debt.
When the Psalm is read in light of the Torah provision of Deuteronomy 5:1-18, it is evident that Torah teaching places a weighty mandate upon those with resources to make those resources available to those in the community who are without resources. Such a mandate, in a covenantal context, requires a significant reformulation of economic guidelines and measurements. The Psalm is thus far from being a “nice” superficiality.
The material dimension of “kin dwelling together in unity” is even more unmistakable when we read this Psalm in the light of the lectionary. It is a happy happenstance that on this Easter Sunday the Psalm is juxtaposed to a reading in the Book of Acts that concerns community resources:
Now the whole group of those who believe were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, that everything they owned was held in common. (Acts 4:32)
While this simple verse has often been read as “early Christian communism,” it need not be read in such a particular way. Rather, with a little evangelical common sense the text portrays a community in which economic resources were willingly shared in common need and glad generosity. This sharing, according to the text, is without any distinct economic theory in play.
In this Easter season it is important to notice that in verses 32 and 33 our reading juxtaposes common goods and resurrection faith.
The good news of Easter is not some esoteric other worldly secret. It is, rather, the empowerment of the faithful to live differently in the world, differently in a way that refuses our common habits and impulses of greed, and that sees other “members of the community” as those who share and participate in the common resources of the community.
It is telling that in Acts 4:34 it is asserted of the early Christian community that “there was not a needy person among them.” This verdict is surely an echo of the expectation of Moses noted above that when debts are cancelled, poverty is overcome:
There will, however, be no one in need among you because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy. (Deuteronomy 15:4)
It is worth notice that this remarkable promissory verse in the mouth of Moses is an important qualification of verse 11 in the same utterance of Moses:
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (v. 11)
These two verses together consist in a realistic acknowledgement of socioeconomic facts on the ground, and the Easter mandate that the faithful may impinge upon socioeconomic reality in transformative ways. And if one has the thought that such radical redefinition of socioeconomic reality is impossible, the church has ready at hand the conviction of resurrection, a claim that plunges us into a new practice of social reality.
This juxtaposition of texts invites the pastors, teachers, and interpreters of the church to serious engagement with the economic crisis that our society faces.
The bold initiative of President Biden in the American Rescue Act Plan suggests that the old rules of individualized parsimony need not be the order of the day, rules that Moses declared to be “hard-hearted” and “tight-fisted” (Deuteronomy 15:7). It is neither necessary nor appropriate that church interpreters should be advocates for Biden’s policy. But even without such overt advocacy there is ample room for sharing the ways in which faith reasons differently about resources and needs, about brothers and sisters and neighbors, about the stubbornness of poverty, and the Easter prospect of acting differently.
It turns out that “kin dwelling together in unity” is not simply a sweet phrase. It is, rather, an evangelical vision of acting differently in policy and practice whereby creditors and debtors share a common social destiny.
The mandates of Easter are not easily convenient. Interpreters of the lectionary reading in Act 4 might legitimately take a peek at the next narrative in Acts 5:1-11, a text that seems deliberately juxtaposed to our lectionary text. In the narrative of Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira are featured as two members of the community of faith who find the mandates of Easter commonality too demanding and, conversely, found the old habits of private security irresistible. The sin that caused their death was that they cheated on the community by holding back resources. Their conduct is profoundly in contrast to that of the community members featured in our lectionary text.
It is time in the Easter season of the church in the powerful grip of the resurrection to see that our conventional economics that withholds resources needed by the neighbors is a deathly sin.
It is a deathly sin even if it is accepted (since Adam Smith and John Locke) as ordinary practical economic sense. Easter is an opportunity to recognize that our old economic practices are anti-neighborly and have failed. It is a time in the presence of the risen Christ to speak differently about property, possessions, resources, and debt.
Imagine: no one in need! The text asserts that there was “great grace upon them all” (Acts 4:33). Great grace invites neighborly generosity that empowers both local acts of neighborliness and public policies of generosity. There is in fact no other way for “kin to live together in unity.”
We may draw these conclusions about the way in which the Easter church thinks about economic resources:
...The Easter church no longer finds our conventional celebration of capitalism to be compelling.
...The Easter church no longer finds dire warnings about socialism to be persuasive.
...The Easter church has no commitment to any abstract ideology of either capitalism or socialism; it is, rather, committed to an economics of neighborliness.
Easter is the good news that God’s power for life has defeated death; this is matched by the good news that God’s power intends the defeat of poverty.
That is how sisters and brothers dwell together in unity, with enough oil for every beard and enough dew for every mountain. This is solidarity that counts resources for the community. When solidarity does not count, it does not matter.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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