Jesus and a Gospel of Economic Justice – Moral Economy Series Part 5

Jesus: Good News to the Poor

In the gospels we find that God’s concern for the conditions of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed has not changed. Neither has God’s demand for justice. Jesus’ teachings and manner of life indicate that resources must be shared more equitably by creating access to the necessary provisions for life. In fact, concern for, and service to, the poor and vulnerable of society was at the heart and purpose of Jesus’ ministry, as he announces in Luke:

“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.” (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2 NRSV)

The pattern of Christian life presented in the gospels has particular relevance today in the face of extreme poverty and the increasing chasm between rich and poor. In her Magnificat (the Song of Mary), Mary rejoices in God who scatters the proud, brings down the mighty, and lifts up the poor and lowly (Luke 1:51-53). Later Jesus proclaims that the poor will have good news brought to them (Matthew 11:5). So to, God reveals something of the purpose of Christ in the world through the narrative of his birth in Luke.

Jesus – the Messiah – enters the world not in power, wealth and prestige; and without pomp, circumstance and fanfare; but in complete and utter vulnerability, humility and poverty.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  (Luke 2:1-7 NRSV)

There is no one more vulnerable than a newborn infant who is birthed homeless, to a peasant couple in a remote town where they are refugees. The best that Mary and Joseph can do is to place Jesus in the animals’ feeding trough amidst the filth and stench of a stable.

From the very beginning of Jesus’ life, God sets the example by which compassion becomes Incarnate. God’s love is for all and, nonetheless, it is to the poor, vulnerable, outcast, and oppressed, to whom God most closely associates and for whom God’s compassion is most clearly revealed. Jesus is on the side of those who suffer discrimination (Luke 7:36-50, 15:1-2), and speaks out against religious people who avoid God’s demands of charity and justice for the poor and vulnerable (Matthew 23:23).


The Beatitudes 

In the Beatitudes (which means blessings) Jesus announces blessings on the poor, hungry, and meek – who are powerless and vulnerable (Matthew 5:3-6; Luke 6:20-21). God is not blessing material impoverishment, but showing Jesus’ favor with those who are trapped in poverty. In proclaiming that the reign of God is theirs (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20), Jesus is announcing that in a world that values power, wealth, and status, God’s favor is found among the poor and vulnerable and that God promises them mercy and justice. Jesus adds to the blessing on the poor a warning to the rich: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24)


Warning: The Rich Man & Lazarus

Jesus was often warning his followers against greed, loving money, obtaining abundant processions, and ignoring the needs of the poor (Matthew 13:22, 19:23; Luke 1:53, 8:14, 12:5-6, 21). He underscores this with the parable of the rich man who ignores the poor and sick Lazarus at his gate:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31 NRSV)

It is only after they both die when the rich man notices Lazarus after looking up from his torment and agony in Hades to see Lazarus being comforted with Abraham – by then it is too late. The parable ends with the stern warning that we should heed the Scriptures in our dealings with the poor, the sick, and the vulnerable. In our age, this should serve as a warning that we not be blind to poverty that exists alongside our great wealth.


Daily Bread: The Lord’s Prayer in Perspective

In the most foundational of all Christian prayers – the one that Jesus taught his disciples; The Lord’s Prayer, addressed the deep human need of release from oppressive debt and providing for literal bread to survive another day.i

“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13 NRSV)

The Lord’s Prayer was a petition for daily bread (a basic food staple for survival) and for the release from debt (“debt” being the original term) as debt threatened the ability to have dignity and material necessities for survival. It is a petition for a social order that will allow for the supply of basic needs as God is asked to participate in the removal of the oppressive powers that impoverish people.

Jesus connects this to the radical forgiveness and release that is available in God’s reign. Jesus advocates for release from oppressive economic conditions and perceives a moral obligation for a new social behavior of forgiveness and reconciliation (Matthew 18:12-25; Luke 7:42-43, 16:1-8).


God’s Justice and Our Generosity

Jesus teaches that we are to have a generous spirit in our giving by inviting the poor to our dinners (Luke 14:13); giving to the poor (Mark 10:21; Luke 19:8); and offering our gifts without abandon:

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” – Mark 12:41-44 (see also Matthew 20:1-16 and Luke 21:2-4)

In the gospel story of the widow’s gift, Jesus looks favorably on the widow who gave two coins, worth a penny, as it represented all she had. Jesus contrasts the widow’s gift with all the rich people who put in large sums out of their abundance. Why? Because the widow truly gave from her heart and offered a more generous gift relative to what she had (in fact, she gave 100% of what she had). Jesus taught his disciples that giving is measured as a percentage of what we have to offer, not the base dollar value. Sure, the rich people gave more in cash value, but they gave less money as a percentage of their wealth. Hence, their gifts were not all that generous.

Yet generosity toward the poor and vulnerable goes far beyond charity. Jesus teaches that our charity must also extend to social change that transforms oppression into a new kinship based on the equitable sharing of resources for the proclamation of the reign of God (Matthew 5:38-42, 7:2; Luke 6:27, 29-30, 38, 7:41-42, 10:35). Jesus wants society to look beyond self-sufficiency and concern for controlling land (and other natural and economic resources) and focus on the quality of relationships.


A Community of Disciples

Jesus calls his followers to a new way of living that exhibits God’s reign (Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 11:29). Christian communities across the ages are to proclaim and continually build the reign of God in all areas of life. Following Jesus involves imitating his pattern of life in service to others (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus emphasizes an interdependence (see Mark 4:25, 10:29-30, 12:1-2; Luke 12:3-9, 13:3-9) based on the ethic of family. Jesus is inviting people to experience a new community that walks in the love of God, cares for one another’s needs, shares abundantly with the suffering, and turns on its head the socio-economic-political order of the day. In bringing forth this new social behavior, Jesus calls his followers to a new way of life as exemplified in the narrative of the Rich Ruler:

A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” Luke 18:18-30 [see also Mark 10:17-31 and Matthew 19:16-30] NRSV)

Jesus tells the rich ruler to sell all he owns and distribute the money to the poor. The rich ruler, as we know, is unable to sell his processions and goes away from Jesus. Biblical scholars and theologians comment that this story is part of an overarching and central message about what Jesus demanded of Christian discipleship. As Bruce J. Malina writes:

Jesus’ injunction to give one’s goods to the poor is not about self-impoverishment but about redistribution of wealth; and motives for giving to the poor are not rooted in self-satisfying charity but in God-ordained, socially required restitution.ii

Jesus plainly tells us that in entering into the new community of interdependence, we need to get our priorities straight and that we cannot serve both God and wealth (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13).

Jesus’ purpose is to draw the human family together in a way where the quality of our relationships opens us to sharing the abundance that God provides for all. The Feeding of the 4000 (Mark 7:31-37; Matthew 15:29-31) and 5000 (Luke 9:10-17) is a miraculous offering of Jesus to ensure that the large crowd does not go away hungry. It offers a powerful image for Christians not only of Jesus’ divine power, but of how Jesus delivers a message that God provides an abundance of food for all who hunger.


The Love Commandment

Jesus teaches his followers that we are to imitate his love and compassion in service to others. When asked, Jesus states that the great commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34, Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-28 ; cf. Leviticus 19:18). Loving neighbor as oneself is exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan who comes to the aid of the man who has been robbed and left for dead:

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29-37 NRSV)

This parable has become the basis for Christian morality as it exhibits the love and compassion of Christ for another and that love and compassion are revealed in our response to suffering. We all know the story of the Good Samaritan as we have heard it many times in church, but the parable itself stands as Jesus’ reminder that love is about action – we are not to merely be hearers of the Word, but doers (Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 6:47-49). The Samaritan responds to the suffering and dying man along the road even though he did not know him and did not live in his community; he responded because there was a person in need.

We ought not to restrict our definition of love and neighbor to those close to us. If anything, the Good Samaritan exemplifies Jesus’ love commandment precisely because it shows the concern and care simply for another human being in need – no questions asked. The parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ command to love through action calls us to see human suffering wherever it is found and respond to the best of our ability to any child of God in need.


Christian Proximity to the Poor

Being doers of the Word and not merely hearers requires a commitment to follow Jesus in close proximity with the poor. This is often difficult for many Christians (particularly in America and other wealthy nations) to fully appreciate given how far we have traveled from the community of Jesus’ first disciples. Probably one of the best known Bible verses on the poor is Jesus’ comment that you always have the poor with you from Mark 14:7. While it is one of the best known verses; it is also one of the most misinterpreted.

Jesus’ comment was not a prediction of the inevitability of poverty. Neither was it offering an excuse for Christians to simply “throw up our hands” and do nothing because we may think “there is little we can do to change the state of poverty,” or that Jesus was excusing responsibility to care for the poor. Nothing could be further from Jesus’ expectations of his followers.

Jesus and his disciples are at supper with a leper – already an indication of the proximity Jesus and his followers have with the vulnerable and outcast of society. A woman anoints Jesus with ointment of nard as an acclamation that he is the Messiah. Jesus uses this to foreshadow his death when he states that she has anointed his body before his burial (Mark 14:9).

He defends the woman’s actions by saying that she has done nothing wrong in wanting to honor him as that does not exclude generosity toward the poor. Jesus is reminding his disciples of the duty described in Deuteronomy 15:11, to continue serving the poor after his death. Taken in the context of God’s desire for distributive justice and the totality of Jesus’ ministry, it is extremely difficult to interpret Jesus’ statement of “you always have the poor with you” as anything other than his expectation that Christian’s are to be with the poor in order to serve them.


Christ’s Justice and Judgment

There is, perhaps, no more powerful image that Jesus presents about caring for the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed than his vivid picture of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Those who are blessed are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited the imprisoned. Such action is at the heart of God and living as a follower of Jesus. We represent Jesus and God’s love when act as the heart and hands of Jesus in the world.

The amazement is not that judgment is rendered according to the response to those in need (the biblical tradition has made this quite clear), but learning that in either caring for or neglecting them, they were either caring for or neglecting Jesus himself. Jesus makes it quite clear that he is one with the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed and we show our love and devotion to him in their care:

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’(Matthew 25:40 NRSV)

Our true love for Christ is revealed in how we treat the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.

i  Numerous biblical scholars have commented on the original context of the Lord’s Prayer. Some particularly helpful discussions can be found in: Douglas E. Oakman, “The Lord’s Prayer in Social Perspective”, in Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (Editors), Authenciating the Words of Jesus (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1999); Douglas Oakman, Jesus and the Economic Questions of His Day. Queenston, Ontario: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986; Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospels. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992.

ii  Bruce J. Malina, “Wealth and Poverty in the New Testament and Its World,” in Interpretation, Vol. 41: October 1987, p. 366.

About the Moral Economy Series

The Moral Economy Series looks at the faith tradition of proclaiming economic justice, economics’s roots in moral philosophy, and how we might restore a sense of ethical economics toward building a moral economy that works for all. The Rev. Jay Lawlor draws on over twenty years of exploring the intersection of faith and economics in this new blog series on the Moral Economy. You can follow the Rev. Jay Lawlor’s blog – including the Moral Economy Series, by subscribing to updates via email, and/or following post updates on Facebook, and Twitter.