In recent months something utterly fascinating to me has come to my attention on a number of occasions. It is the reaction of young people (and I am certain this applies to many who are older as well! I speak primarily from interactions I have had directly.) to Jesus’ comments to, and critique of, the wealthy in the gospels.
It is quite clear that Jesus shared in the prophetic tradition’s testimony to God’s deep love for the poor, oppressed, victimized and marginalized – God is mobilized when slaves cry out (Ex. 2) and even judges Israel with exile for it’s failure to care for the poor within it (Is. 58-59), as it forgot that it was not meant to create the conditions it had been rescued from in Egpyt.
As we follow Jesus’ ministry we quickly come to see that he didn’t think much of the startling injustice implicit within, and that maintained the existence of, Israel’s wealthy religious and monarchical systems. What we see is the God-in-man man Jesus take up solidarity with the poor, oppressed, marginalized and victimized in both life and death as he rallies against these systems proclaiming that God’s new world coming to earth – God’s kingdom of love, peace, equity and justice – looks much different.
Luke’s (Mary and) Jesus on the poor
Luke takes up recounting how God’s deep love for the poor takes form in Jesus and others, expounding it in various places,
[The Lord] has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. Lk. 2:52-53
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Lk. 4:18-21
Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” Lk. 6:20-26
I won’t quote any thing else at length but we see this again and again throughout Jesus’ life, in his parables and teachings and the impact they have: Luke 12:13-34, 14:1-23, 16:1-31 and 19:1-9; 45-46. All of which stem from and show us what Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom produced in challenge and healing as he went from town to town, to the synagogues announcing the coming of the kingdom of love, peace, equity and justice through him his life and work (Lk. 4:43-44, 16-21). (I envisage that the words of the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ were said everywhere were Jesus went.)
(This is not to mention other rightly disconcerting passages such as Matthew 25:31-46, and famous sayings such as, “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24) or perhaps even the glorious interplay of corrupted (Herod) and faithful (Jesus) kingship in Matthew’s feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 15).)
It would be rather disingenuous for us to try and conclude from these many recorded events and teachings from Jesus’ life, that Jesus did not have some kind of issue with the social repercussions of blatant accumulation and use of wealth to the detriment of the poor, hungry and oppressed. In fact, Jesus was an itinerant preacher, with no fixed home or income, from the deprived region of Galilee – the God-man knew what it was to be poor, hungry, marginalised and homeless because of the sickeningly wealthy national and religious leaders; who out of complete self interest for money and power would strip him of everything and orchestrate his death for his calling “bullshit!” in regards their priorities.
For example, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not at all trying to tell us of the details of any sort of post-death conditions but is a shockingly exaggerated warning to Pharisees who lived in excess like this rich man, who help create and maintain the extreme poverty of the divinely favoured poverty-stricken people of Israel, such as Lazarus. Why? Because “the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus” (Luke 16:14) and it was leading them to kill him and trouble of their own (not after death but before it – see below).
This admission is of course difficult for western Christians because we are so bloody rich. This leads us to the conclusion that we must be reading the cross-dead rural Galilean peasant wrong. We think Jesus couldn’t have actually been serious about calling the rich away completely from their wealth, as he spoke against them for subjecting his people to extreme and unjust poverty, which they didn’t even care about – and to this end we spiritualize our relationship to wealth and possessions, making our relationship to them one of an internal nature.
The context of a rejected elite
An awareness of the context and the very historic eschatology that Jesus employed when he spoke reveals the absolutely public and material sense in which he denounced the wealthy – this should instruct and rupture our privatization of how we think God thinks about our wealth.
When Jesus spoke of woe coming upon the rich and the lovers of money; or parabolized their situation, saying they would find themselves cast out from his conception of ‘God’s kingdom,’ into the darkness of (very historic!) divine rejection, where they would weep and gnash of teeth; or when Mary said the rulers and the rich would be laid low (we can just imagine Mary singing this around Jesus as he grew up fuelling his imagination, no?). The culmination of all of that was, for Jesus, 70CE when the politically and religiously dominant, who had accumulated so much, would be laid to waste by Rome, losing everything (dragging so many others with them).
It would be the wealth, possessions and position of Israel’s elite (so mistakenly aligned ideologically [think militaristic-Davidic Messianism restoring the kingdom to Israel] with the belief that this represented divine favour) that would blind Israel to, and help them create the conditions for, the coming, very historic, very real crisis in which Israel would lose its part in realizing and participating in God’s kingdom.
This kingdom hope would then be carried on after 70CE in the surviving collective of the Messiah Jesus, who spoke of himself ‘coming,’ or being vindicated by the destruction of Israel’s elite in 70CE, and as such giving his community (comprised of and existing for the poor, hungry, sick, struggling and socially ostracized) the key role of demonstrating to the world God’s love and justice – exactly what the exceedingly wealthy religious and monarchical elite did not, as they maintained their power and wealth.
This then is the task of the church and the Christians who meet together as it; to take up the prophetic call that Jesus saw in the OT and to embody ‘radical emancipatory egalitarianism,’ as it was proclaimed in the kingdom of love, peace, equity and justice and let that vision inform our imagination and practice in protest to the dominant culture.
Jesus did (and does), of course, love rich folk
As a note, we should not think that God did not love the rich, Jesus’ harsh words are (in part) correctly understood as the harshest kind of wake up call to the ideologically sold out. Jesus looks at a rich man, who falls on his knees looking for life, and “loves him” (Mk. 10:21). It is Zacchaeus’s house Jesus insists upon eating in. It is Jerusalem, the hub of religious and monarchical activity and power games that Jesus’ exclaims over in sorrow because of their commitment to destructive economic, political and militant ways of ruling (Lk. 13:31-35). And it is to those same religious and political fat cats, who condemned Jesus to death, that Peter and John stood in front of offering Jesus’ resurrected life, love, grace and forgiveness (as he had died just as much for them as anyone else), in Acts 4, saying
“Rulers and elders of the people! … Salvation [from your ideology driven road to actual historic death and destruction] is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved [because without him, if you were allowed to continue to rule, Israel would persist in deep injustice and utterly fail to showcase God’s love and justice to the world, and in the end wind up obliterated from the historical record by Rome].” Acts 4:8, 12
It is clear enough that God and Jesus loved these people but (like God loved Israel when it was exiled; God was resigned to the historical mess Israel landed itself in because) neither could stop the path the people would follow – and the life of Jesus is best understood as a counter-action to their life and rule which they were welcome, but did not seem inclined to enter, into.