The Occupy LSX camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral has meant that that the church’s relationship with causes of political and economic justice has been front page news in recent months in an unprecedented way. It has lead to a politicised renewal of the phrase What Would Jesus Do?
This makes sense – any discussion of Christian ethics need to consider how the person at the centre of the faith would respond. But in order to consider what would Jesus do we need to be clear about what did Jesus do. What was his relationship with the powerful institutions of his day? What was his attitude to the rich? How did he treat the poor and marginalised?
Years ago, John Smith, speaking at the Greenbelt festival, challenged his hearers to go through one of the gospels and list all of Jesus encounters with individuals and groups that we found. He asked us to note whether they were people who could be considered powerful in terms of wealth, social standing or politics or whether they could be considered on the margins. Then we were to note whether the encounter with Jesus had a positive or negative outcome.
So what Jesus did do in the Matthew’s Gospel?
Being keen, I went and did this and below I have re-produced my list. I used Matthew’s gospel as it contains the longest account of Jesus’ life.
It is obvious to see the pattern that emerges: In the vast majority of cases, Jesus’ encounters with the powerful are negative and his encounters with those on the margins are positive.
Where the outcome fits with this pattern is recorded in green in the last column and where its does not it is marked with red. For two encounters the outcome is not recorded in the gospel so these have been left blank. Obviously the judgement around whether someone is powerful or marginalised is simplistic – I am aware that some would be powerful in some contexts and marginal in others.
What the pattern tells us
But the pattern that emerges is strong and clear enough to show us the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ values. Sure, Jesus was compassionate. He comforted the disturbed – bringing hope, healing and joy to people in need. But his mission cannot be just framed in the positive – for Jesus also disturbed the comfortable – especially challenging those who were rich, religious and complacent. In short, Jesus shook the religious, political and economic status quo to its core. His actions angered the powers that be and they put him to death.
The way of Jesus is an ‘upside-down kingdom’ which turns the selfish and unjust values of the world on its head. Where economic, social or religious systems embody selfishness and injustice, Jesus calls us to turn over their tables. We have to remember that there is nothing more biblical than a concern for poverty and economic justice. As this list shows, if we are following Jesus, we are following a God who has ‘brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble’ who has ‘filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:52-53).
3 thoughts on “The way of Jesus: comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable”
Good homework JK! But this is great. Just to add another level: I wonder if it is less to do with the actual status and power of the individual but more to do with what that has a tendency to do people?
If one were to go back and assess Jesus’ comments with many of the individual’s he never says ‘its your low status that has healed you’ or ‘you are forgiven because you are marginalised’ but in many if not most (no Excel imports here) it is faith that impresses and pleases Jesus. I have come to understand faith as (perhaps too) simply – dependency (amusingly, the GK word used is often Pistis). So many demonstrated utter dependence on Jesus. Such ‘pathetic’ child-likeness moved Him to act. And of course, many of those were the outsiders.
Perhaps therefore, the converse displeases Him and the rich and powerful felt (with their dependency on intellect, money, position) that they have no real need of Jesus and their actions demonstrated that (through arrogance, injustice, abuse etc) and to greater or lesser degrees – Jesus reacted. And still does today. Through us.
Thanks Doug – I agree with what you have written. Its not about glamourising low status or poverty – and you are right and its not simply their low status which is the basis of God’s favour. But we cannot get away from the fact (if we take the Bible seriously) that it is the poor and marginalised who respond positively to God’s love and grace and its no wonder when you see what Jesus was doing and saying – for example is how much he spoke about the dangers of wealth and was concerned for those most excluded. I believe that the church has developed clever ways of reading this challenge out of the message – we have developed doctrines and a Christian culture which allow someone to appear committed when actually very few of their life choices (beyond 2 hours on Sunday morning and what is done ‘in church’) have actually been shaped by the person they are following.
My concern is how we have screened far too much of Jesus’ challenge out – the news is no longer a threat to the rich and powerful, no longer really good news to the poor as we have re-shaped, privatised and spiritualised the message so much that actually it gives permission to people to not challenge the ways things are and encourage a spiritualised approach to what in the gospels is so practical and earthy and real.