We Built This

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Proper 26, Year 1 (Pentecost 23, 2015)

Matthew 13:58 ~ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

Jesus is in Nazareth, the town he grew up in, the town where his family still lives. After spending some time in a peripatetic ministry wandering about the countryside, visiting villages, preaching his gospel, healing the sick, and gathering followers, he has come home. Instead of a warm welcome for the “local boy done good,” the Nazarenes belittle him (“He’s just the carpenter’s son”) and take “offense at him.” Matthew ends his short description of this sad situation with this sentence: Jesus is unable to work any deeds of power “because of their unbelief.”

If nothing else, this sentence underscores and highlights the need of community support in any endeavor. For all of us, a major element of any success we may enjoy is the cooperation and assistance we have from others. We live in an interconnected, interdependent society in an interconnected and interdependent world.

In my humble opinion, one of the most surprising and offensive developments in America in recent years is the libertarian movement and, most especially, the phenomenon we witnessed a couple of years ago when our president said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” Instead of acknowledging the interdependent, interconnected truth behind that statement, inartfully stated though it may have been (and lifted out of context as it clearly was), his opponents opened a barrage of “I built that” stories, tales of small business owners who achieved success “entirely on their own,” of “entrepreneurs whose success came from hard work and personal creativity.” (I’m quoting one of the president’s political opponents.) The constant refrain was, “I built this without any help from anyone.”

Such claims overlook the enormous infrastructure of public roads, utilities, communications and postal systems, health care systems, insurance and banking economies, markets and trading centers, freight and shipping systems, and so forth which pre-existed the entrepreneurs’ start-ups, to say nothing of the work and effort of the employees on whose labor their businesses have come to rely. Not a single American entrepreneur can claim to have completely independently achieved anything given the huge foundation of the pre-existing economy. The president was correct, “Somebody else made that happen.”

The offensiveness of the “I built this” movement is found in its hubris. In this little story of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth we are confronted by the simple, but often overlooked fact, that even Jesus could do very little “entirely on his own.” In fact, he seldom, if ever, claimed to do any deeds of power by himself: again and again when working a miracle of healing he gives credit to the faith of the person healed or the faith of that person’s loved one. And when confronted with a community filled with unbelief, he is unable to “do many deeds of power.” If even the Son of God, the incarnation of the Word which has been with God from the very beginning of creation, of the Word which is God, is unable to do his work without the support and cooperation of others, how on earth can some business owner have the arrogance to claim “I built this” with no assistance from the society around them?

Only one Person, ever, since the beginning of everything can truly say “I built this,” and interestingly enough, even on the seventh day when that Person rested, there is no record of those words ever being spoken . . . instead when human beings were led to try and describe how all that is came to be, they were inspired write of a Companion, Holy Wisdom, who said:

“Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” (Prov. 8:23-31)

Nowhere does Scripture record God the Creator, nor God the Redeemer, nor God the Sustainer ever saying “I built this.” If the God whose incarnate deeds of power depended on the faith and belief of others were to say anything like that, it would most likely be “We built this.”