During this season of Lent, some of my writings focus on what Jesus’ life, teachings, and death mean for us today, especially in the context of the great global challenges we face: climate change, economic distress, food and fresh water shortages, species extinctions, violence, terror, and war. If humanity is to meet these challenges, we will need the resources of the world’s great spiritual traditions, including Christianity.
Sadly, in its dominant forms, Christianity has often been used to support the ruling powers, pacify the masses, and justify the right to rule by the 1%. How ironic, since Jesus introduced his mission as bringing “good news to the poor.” He not only nonviolently resisted the ruling powers of his day, he created an alternative model for human community, one which we, who care about the future, can emulate today. As Walter Wink said, “To free people from the powers that possessed them was central to [Jesus’] struggle to undercut the domination System in all its forms, spiritual as well as physical, personal as well as political.”
At the time of his baptism, Jesus had a vision of “the heavens opened,” the Holy Spirit descending on him as a dove, and God claiming him as a beloved son (Matt. 3:16-17). Immediately after this revelation, the Spirit led him (or “drove” him, according to Mark 1:12) into the wilderness, where he was tempted to follow a calling that would allow him to gain worldly comfort, status, wealth, and power. In other words, he was tempted to take on the role of the Messiah for whom people were waiting. They were expecting a powerful king, along the lines of his ancestor David, who would oust the Romans from their land and establish a worldly kingdom with God at the apex of political, economic, and military power. Instead, Jesus chose a path of voluntary poverty, relinquishment of worldly power, and nonviolent resistance to the Powers.
Jesus emerged from the wilderness strong and clear about his vocation. He announced his public ministry in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, where he had been raised as a faithful Jew, by reading from the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:18-19):
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Note that this message, which is essentially Jesus’ mission statement, is strikingly political. The people were delighted and amazed to hear him—at first. But their perception of him quickly soured when Jesus challenged them on their racial prejudice and their expectations of privilege. They turned against him and tried to kill him, foreshadowing his death (Luke 4:28-30). Jesus then moved on and began to share his message of personal and social transformation throughout the region.
Jesus lived simply. He refused to seek wealth, status, or worldly power, and was homeless by choice. He lived close to the earth and used metaphors from nature in his parables. He used common elements such as bread and wine to demonstrate God’s grace. He enjoyed simple food and drink. Jesus was not an ascetic, however. People even accused him of being a glutton and drunkard. He enjoyed a good party—he celebrated life.
Jesus also sought solitude, spending hours alone in prayer. His life, ministry, and message were based on an intimate relationship with God and he called others to a similar relationship.
Jesus’ ministry took place when Israel was under occupation and rule by the Roman Empire. The stability of the Roman occupation of Israel depended upon the collaboration of the elite Jewish religious establishment. Rather than risk their privileged positions or the security and continued existence of the Jewish nation, the religious leaders accommodated to and cooperated with the empire, as religious institutions often do.
But Jesus’ response was different. He proclaimed and demonstrated the coming of an alternative “kingdom,” where the sick would be healed, the hungry would be filled, those in bondage would be freed. He created a new community, “not of this world” (John 18:36 RSVa)—that is, as Walter Wink says, “not of the systems of this world”—that embodied a different set of values and demonstrated the egalitarian, nonhierarchical kingdom of God he was talking about. This community was largely made up of marginalized, poor, outcaste, sick, sinful, and demon-possessed people who were seeking or had found healing through their relationship with him. Jesus challenged the patriarchal structures of his day, crossing gender boundaries in order to include women. He even welcomed children, who in that culture had no status at all.
Jesus taught and demonstrated a view of economics based on radical trust and dependence on the God who cares for all parts of creation, including the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. People in his community and in the early church shared everything in common and gave to those who were in need. It may be that the miracles of feeding several thousand people with a few loaves and fish were not miracles of multiplication, but miracles of sharing that took place when, through Jesus’ example, people who had provisions shared with those who had none.
His teaching on economics was radical, directly opposed to the general understanding of the majority of people of his day and ours. He did not simply tell people to stay spiritually unattached to their worldly treasures, but not to store them up in the first place. When a rich young man who had followed all the religious rules asked what more he needed to gain eternal life, Jesus advised him to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21) According to Luke, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20), then goes on to say, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). The parables of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) harshly condemn those who refuse to share what they have with those who are in need.
Good news to the poor? Oh, yes. But it’s been said that “good news to the poor may sound like bad news to the rich.”
The ruling authorities were irritated and enraged by Jesus’ vision, teachings, popularity, and the community he created. The political and religious leaders, though often at odds over other issues, were united in their opposition to him. They considered Jesus and the movement he led to be a very real threat, and they considered various ways to discredit or eliminate him in order to stop it.
The rich and those who aspire to be like them may not support peoples’ movements for justice and equity, not in Jesus’ day and not in our day. Those who support the ruling powers may not appreciate those who resist. But some of us are inspired by the vision of a world of peace, justice, and ecological healing. Jesus’ message and way may encourage us on.
(This posting includes an excerpt from “Jesus, Resister” in Shaking the Gates of Hell.)