The Needs of the Many


Here are my thoughts for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures are Esther 7: 1 – 6, 9 – 10, 9: 20 – 22; James 5: 13 – 20; and Mark 9: 38 – 50.

I encourage you, the gentle reader, to read Allan Bevere’s thoughts in “On Why The Church In America Cannot Speak Truth to Power”, “Are We Being Too Clever By Half?”, and “Political Visions and Illusions: Preface”. In those thoughts and the following, we have the possibility of a new dialogue.

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If I were to ask him, Mr. Spock would reply that it was a logical assumption to say that the needs of the many outweigh the wants and desires of the few. I am aware that that is not the basic tenet of Vulcan philosophy but it is the phrase that came to mind as I was thinking about the Scriptures for this week and what is transpiring throughout this country.

The actual line is “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” and come from one of the final scenes in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where, in order to save the Enterprise and its crew, Spock has sacrificed his life.

But someone, in response to a question asked in the vastness of the Internet, replied that the originator of the phrase was not Spock (or the writer who wrote the phrase) but rather Caiaphas, the High Priest, who said,

Then one of them—it was Caiaphas, the designated Chief Priest that year—spoke up, “Don’t you know anything? Can’t you see that it’s to our advantage that one man dies for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed?” He didn’t say this of his own accord, but as Chief Priest that year he unwittingly prophesied that Jesus was about to die sacrificially for the nation, and not only for the nation but so that all God’s exile-scattered children might be gathered together into one people. (John 11: 49 – 52 – The Message)

Whether or not, we are quoting Spock or adapting something that Caiaphas said so many years ago, it seems to me that our discussion these days is not about the many but the few and we have put the wants and desires of the few over the needs of the many.

Let me first state that I am not arguing for a government-run or private enterprise form of health care. That debate has taken on the nature of “what I want and what I should have”, not “what does everyone need.” And as George Barna pointed out in his recent editorial, “Jesus’ Health Care Plan”, the people of America have taken on the attitude that each one of us should have certain government services but that someone else should pay for them.

His survey data points out that two-thirds of the adults in this country look to the government to solve the problems related to poverty (include health care deficiencies) but only one out of very five adults believe that they should be involved in the process and a mere 1 out of 25 assign that task to non-profit organizations and another 1 out of 25 assign the task to the church. In other words, we may pray about it but we do very little to make sure that the prayers are put into action.

Secondly, we want it done in such a way that it does not involve us, does not cost anything, and does not hinder our lifestyle. Barna writes, “It’s not my fault and it’s not my job, so let the paid professionals deal with it.” I can almost hear Bart Simpson and his plea for leniency, “I didn’t do it, no one saw me do it, there’s no way you can prove anything.”

And yet, when someone does something and comes to us for help, we are like the disciples in the Gospel reading for today, angry that someone usurped what they felt was theirs and theirs alone. We willingly and quickly proclaim that we are one nation under God and we will fight anyone who would suggest anything else. Yet are more a collection of individuals living in communities and we do not want others intruding in our community.

We see any suggestion that we can be one community as somehow a usurpation of our individual self-identity. But we were never expected to discard our own identity in becoming this country and we are not expected to cast aside our uniqueness when we enter God’s Kingdom. God’s kingdom is for all, independent of race, color, creed, or lifestyle; yet our own notions of Christianity make such things (race, color, creed or lifestyle) the basis for entering God’s kingdom.

The readings from the Old Testament for today and for the next three weeks are part of what has been called the “wisdom” literature of the Bible. It offers a different insight as to the path we walk. With these selections, we are given an alternative way to see the world around us and the path we may walk. This literature offers us two paths, the path of society and the path of God.

The book of Esther is a very interesting book to read; for it is the only book in the Bible in which there is no mention of God at all.

On the one hand, the author of this book may have wanted to explain the meaning of the Jewish celebration of Purim. This celebration reminds the people of Israel of God’s presence in the community of believers, even when the believers are far away. And for the believers far away from Israel, such as those in exile in Persia, to be far away from God was to be cut off from God.

But the absence of God or even God’s name may have also been a way for the author to express God’s distance. But, at the same time, the book clearly reveals God’s surprising protection. In the end, the people are saved because it is clear that desires of the one cannot outweigh the needs of the many. And it was not simply the Jewish community in Persia acting against the intentions of a government but the community and the government against the intentions of one whose only goal was power for himself.

The community of believers may take many forms. We know that members of the early church were not all identical in heritage, economic status, or identity. Yet, they all believed in Christ. They were a community of believers and together they worked for the betterment of the community.

But today, we proclaim that anyone who is not a part of our own self-proclaimed community is somehow against us and working against us, even if their own beliefs mirror our own. If nothing else, the discussions that have ripped this nation apart should show us that we have no coherent definition for “church”, “state”, “nation”, or “society”. We are much more willing to proclaim that ours is a society where we are free to believe, free to choose, and free to do our own thing. And we argue that someone else should pay for these freedoms.

But the essence of the Bible, from the very days of Genesis to the visions of John the Seer, spoke of a community of people united in one vision and one belief, of a people working together for the good of all people. When I read what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, I cannot help but think of the words that I hear spoken in today’s society. They are words that put stumbling blocks in front of those in need; they are words of anger and hatred, not love and compassion. They are words that belittle and humiliate. They are designed to build up walls, not tear them down.

How can we enact the words we read in James, of praying for those who suffer or celebrating the successes of others if we are not a community of believers? How can we sing songs of praises when we speak words of hatred and exclusion? And how can we pray for one another when we reject God’s children from our own community?

There is a great challenge before us today. It is not to say that my way or your way is the right way; it is not to argue that only one of us knows the way to and into God’s Kingdom. It is not to say that one is not welcome in our community when Jesus Himself welcomed all who sought Him into His. It is to say that we who believe must open up the community and bring the true message of the Gospel into play. Yes, we may disagree with how this will be accomplished; that is the nature of our being. We are not asked to lose our individual identity in Christ when we proclaim Him as our Savior; on the contrary, we gain a new identity.

If we treat the least of those among us with disrespect, how can we expect to be treated when we stand before the gates of heaven? If we put the wants and desires of the one before the needs of the many, how shall we answer when we are asked that final and ultimate question?

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