Why “The First Shall Be Last” Is a Practical Economic Obligation

Outstretched hand 2

By Derek Penwell

Choosing is the prerogative of the wealthy and powerful. In my neighborhood if I want food, for instance, I can choose to shop at one of several grocery stores, each competing to provide me the greatest selection of food available. If I feel like something different, I can eat at one of the many restaurants nearby. Or I can eat fast food.

However, if I lived on the wrong side of town, I often wouldn’t get to choose between bad food and good food; generally speaking, I could choose between bad food and no food—which is to say, I wouldn’t get much of a choice at all.

  • The wealthy and the powerful choose where to go on vacation; the poor and the powerless often just “choose” to stay home.
  • The wealthy and the powerful choose which health plan, which doctor, which hospital they want to patronize; the only choice the poor and the powerless usually have to make is whether to go to the clinic or to the emergency room.
  • The wealthy and the powerful choose politicians who look and talk like them; the poor and the powerless get to “choose” politicians who look and talk like … the wealthy and the powerful.
  • The wealthy and the powerful choose upon whom to lavish their charity; the poor and the powerless get to “choose” if they’ll take it or do without. Not much choice.

We like the idea of charity because it allows us to maintain the illusion that the haves and the have-nots are a result of virtue or vice, and are therefore a product of choices. Charity, a mechanism for voluntarily deciding who gets a portion of what we have, is an especially apt exercise of choice, since it reinforces the modern American notion that only the stuff we choose has any value. To choose to give charity is to take advantage of the power and resources at your disposal for those whom you think are worthy of your attention.

I’m not trying to suggest that charity is evil, or that we shouldn’t do it. Historically, it’s been an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to making sure everybody has enough. I’m only trying to point out that even in the seemingly basic decision about who gets charity, or even about whether to give charity in the first place, you’ve already exercised an enormous amount of power unavailable to everyone.

Because, here’s the thing: Even though people may be endowed with the capacity to make choices, it doesn’t mean they have the wherewithal to choose. Presumably, at least in the abstract, everyone can “choose” to buy a Maserati. But because only a few people have the means to buy one, having a choice is but a theoretical conceit.

Saying to an unemployed single mother on Food Stamps, “You should just get a job and buy food for your kids with your own money,” may very well be like saying, “The Lottery’s an option you seem not to have explored very seriously. You should just win the lottery if you want your kids to eat.” The response to which is, “Great plan, Einstein. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“But if charity underwrites current power arrangements, what’s the answer?”

I like the Jewish vision of giving. Hebrew doesn’t have a word that equates to the English word “charity” (with its assumption that giving is done from a position of power, that is, relying on the generosity of the giver). The word used for helping the poor and the powerless in Hebrew is tzedakah.

Tzedakah comes from the root צדק, which we translate in English justice orrighteousness. On this account, giving is an act of justice, not charity.

What I find especially interesting, though, is that in Judaism tzedakah is an obligation. In contrast to modern American assumptions about charity being done as a favor to those who don’t have, Judaism views giving as somethingowed by those who “have” to those who “have not.” Viewed as an obligation to act justly toward those who don’t have the means to make the choices modern Americans value, giving takes on a completely different tone: Giving is something the “haves” are a responsible to do in virtue of their having.

So, here’s the irony from where I sit: According to tzedakah, the people who have the means to help others, the people whose ability to choose what they want to do and with whom they want to do it it tracks the amount of money they have at their disposal, are the ones who have the least amount of choice when it comes to giving. That is to say, in the pursuit of justice the more you have, the less choice you have about giving.

Viewing giving as an act of justice to which the giver is obliged, it seems to me, helps correct the imbalances of power by enjoining those who are first to be last, so that those who are last may be first.

Wait a minute … Because, Jesus.

Oh yeah, he was Jewish too.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

2 thoughts on “Why “The First Shall Be Last” Is a Practical Economic Obligation

  1. Derek,   Good words, but does the notion of tzedakah also include responsibility for righting the wrong of poor distribution of wealth? In other words, shouldn’t we all work eliminating root causes of povery?   Sue

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