Occupy Wall Street: A Movement of Modern-Day Pharisees

When I first thought of comparing the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its slogan “we are the 99%,” to Jesus’s famous parable of the Lost Sheep, I decided against it, thinking it would surely be a misinterpretation the parable and unfair to those involved in the movement. However, I have been drawn back to this idea upon closer examination.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it can be found in the Gospel of Matthew (18:10–14) and in the Gospel of Luke (15:1–7). The context in which the parable is told is different in each account, and it is Luke’s that I would like to focus on:

Then all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Jesus to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes grumbled, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told this parable to them, saying, “Who of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” (Luke 15:1–4)

As the story goes, some Pharisees and scribes (religious leaders and scholars) complain that Jesus would associate with “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors at that time were not well regarded in society. They were known, whether fairly or not, for corrupt business practices—charging more than they were owed—and were especially despised for their ties to the Roman government. They were generally economically well-off, by the standards of the day. Jesus tells the parable of the shepherd who seeks out his lost sheep in order to encourage those who despised the marginalized in their society to adopt a more compassionate attitude. Among these he included tax collectors.

The OWS movement has labeled anyone in the same income bracket “the 1%,” based upon the claim that 1 percent of Americans own 40 percent of our country’s wealth. The causes and usefulness of this statistic are debated, but, nevertheless, it is commonly cited without qualification among OWS protestors. The movement itself has been diversely characterized, from those seriously concerned about its either anarchist or socialist founders to those who claim that John Calvin or St. Francis would be standing with them.

Whatever the case may be, OWS claims to represent the other 99 percent of Americans. The parallel to Jesus’s parable is actually quite striking: if we’re being consistent, then we should include “the 1%” among those whom Jesus would have reached out to. And the question is the same as it was 2000 years ago: would those in the OWS camps seek out the modern-day “tax collectors” to include them in the flock or would they grumble at seeing such a thing?

One of the effects of OWS rhetoric against the “1%” is to cast the wealthy as morally suspect. At the same time, many are upset over the practices of crony capitalists who have used government connections to their advantage. Crony capitalism is indeed a transgression against the common good, but that does not justify tarring indiscriminately everyone who happens to fall in the same income bracket. At the same time, it is a dubious solution to turn to politicians for answers when they may be complicit in the same crony capitalist schemes. People may pity the rich for carrying the burden of wealth with so many temptations to misuse it. But we cannot envy them, not without prejudice.

It is better to focus on human dignity. Even “the 1%” are made in the image of God, and by his grace capable of reforming any corruption they may have, apart from government coercion. Furthermore, is it just to assume that all wealthy people have gotten there by unjust means? Is it right to put all the blame for our country’s economic woes on these people, labeling ourselves the “ninety-nine righteous who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15:7)? Indeed, prejudice against “the 1%” will only make matters worse.

According to a March 2009 United Nations University Wider Angle article, “More than half of the richest 1 percent of US households are entrepreneurs.” In the Entrepreneurial Vocation (2001), Fr. Robert Sirico writes, “Despite the laudable attitude of popular culture against prejudice of any form, there remains one group upon which an unofficial open season has been declared: entrepreneurs.” If this was true in 2001, it is all the more so today. By crying out against “the 1%,” many good-intentioned people are unintentionally dehumanizing the “tax collectors” of our day, not all of whom are actually to blame and half of whom are in the business of wealth and job creation: entrepreneurship. Indeed, by creatively meeting the needs of society, they are the people who best provide the very things that OWS is demanding. To demonize them and hamper their ingenuity through further regulation is to effectively shoot ourselves in the foot.

Lastly, I want to be clear that I do not write thinking that those who hold “I am the 99%” signs are one homogeneous mass who do not also deserve to be honored. Indeed, though I am comparing them to the Pharisees, I would be a poor student of theology if I believed that all Pharisees were prejudiced in their day (see John 3, for example). Moreover, while the parable of the Lost Sheep is meant to rebuke their prejudice, it is, therefore, also an invitation. Jesus tells us that after the man finds the sheep, “He lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’” (Luke 15:5–6) How much more ought we to avoid driving such divisive labels between one another, endorsing an “us and them” attitude, when, in truth, there is only “us”?

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