Commentary: Let’s Be Honest: Paul Ryan Would Fire Jesus as House Chaplain
As a scholar of the life and teachings of Jesus, I am frustrated when I hear some “Christian” politicians hijack and, in fact, mutilate his teachings. A recent example involves House Speaker Paul Ryan’s firing of the House chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy, which apparently occurred, in part, because Conroy had the audacity to pray for the fair treatment of the poor during the tax debate last fall.
Although the speaker’s office denied that the chaplain—the second Catholic to serve in that position and the first chaplain to be fired midterm—was forced to resign because of a specific prayer, Conroy reports that he received complaints from the speaker’s office (“We are upset with this prayer; you are getting too political.”) and from the speaker himself (“Padre, you just got to stay out of politics.”).
If Jesus himself were House chaplain, Paul Ryan would most certainly fire him. That’s assuming, of course, Jesus would want the position, which, despite his spending time with tax collectors and other sinners, he most certainly would not, since he preferred the powerless to the powerful.
Jesus of Nazareth was an impoverished, first-century, peasant-artisan Jew who was a member of a politically, militarily, and economically oppressed minority. The New Testament Gospels portray Jesus as speaking against the oppressors of his people with prophetic words of judgment that focus extensively on issues of money and power. When Christians such as Conroy express concern for the poor and concerns about the behavior of the rich, they are simply trying to follow Jesus’s example.
Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor and release of the oppressed. Jesus proclaimed blessings on the poor and woes on the rich, commanded his followers to give alms to everyone who asks, and called on his disciples to leave everything behind to follow him. Jesus’s parable of the sheep and goats proclaims that God will judge human beings on how they treat the “least of these”: the hungry, thirsty, stranger, immigrant, ill-clothed, and imprisoned. Likewise, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the parable of the rich fool, the wealthy are condemned because of their conspicuous consumption and neglect of the poor.
Jesus told a wealthy man to sell all his possessions and to give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus then told his disciples how difficult it was for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God (as likely as a camel going through an eye of a sewing needle).
Jesus does offer one way for the wealthy and powerful to avoid this judgment: He told a group of wealthy men not to invite their friends or rich neighbors to dinner, but instead to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” If such elites would help the poor without expecting anything in return, God would reward them “at the resurrection of the righteous.”
In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some politicians today still cite sayings of Jesus as evidence that he would approve of their neglect of the poor. John 12:8 is the most common example: “You always have the poor with you …” Left out of that (mis)interpretation is the fact that Jesus is actually quoting a passage from Jewish Scripture that makes the opposite point: The continual existence of the poor serves as the fundamental reason for God’s command to assist them, to give “liberally and ungrudgingly”: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Jesus condemned the oppression and marginalization of his impoverished people by the Romans and other ruling elites who sought through their unjust system of taxation to extract as much wealth as possible from the majority of people to benefit the rich, powerful, ruling elites. In his first-century context, Jesus engaged in active, non-violent, political resistance against that oppression, and he died on a Roman cross because of it.
In reality, Paul Ryan doesn’t just have a problem with Father Conroy; Ryan has a problem with Jesus of Nazareth.
David B. Gowler is the Dr. Lovick Pierce and Bishop George F. Pierce chair of religion at Oxford College of Emory University and a senior faculty fellow at the Center for Ethics at Emory University. His most recent book is The Parables after Jesus: Their Imaginative Receptions across Two Millennia.