Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories

Social Sins, Social Justice, and the Jesus Stories April 19, 2019

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Neon lettering through a window spelling Jesus Saves.
Photo Credit: Jason Betz on Unsplash

 


“Understood in this light, Jesus’ story offers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be ‘a good person,’  but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus . . .”


 

Last week we compared the social focus of Jesus’ kingdom theme with the individualized, private, personal gospel that characterizes much of Christianity today. Preparing for Palm Sunday last week, I ran across this statement from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan on how Jesus rebuked the social elite in his day: “The issue is not their individual virtue or wickedness, but the role they played in the domination system. They shaped it, enforced it. and benefited from it.” (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem, p. 22)

Jesus’ life and teachings do far more than save us from personal sins. They also provide an alternative social path that addresses social sins and so provides social salvation. In the words of Walter Rauschenbusch, “If our theology is silent on social salvation, we compel [people], to choose between an unsocial system of theology and an irreligious system of social salvation.” (A Theology for the Social Gospel, p. 7).

Consider how each of the gospels begins, not by emphasizing a person’s personal salvation from their private/public individual sins, but by emphasizing Jesus as a catalyst for addressing social sins and social change.

Let’s look at each of the synoptic gospels beginning with Mark.

Mark

In Mark, the Jesus story begins with Jesus calling fishermen to a different kind of fishing.

“As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” Mark 1:16-17

Ched Myers’ work reveals that, although evangelical Christians have largely interpreted this saying to be about saving individual souls for heaven after they die, a look at the Jewish prophetic tradition suggests that this language would have had a much different implication and meaning in Jesus’ 1st Century Jewish culture.

“An apt paraphrase of Jesus’ invitation is: “Follow me and I will show you how to catch the Big Fish!” (1:17). In the Hebrew Bible, the metaphor of “people like fish” appears in prophetic censures of apostate Israel and of the rich and powerful: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch [the people of Israel]…” (Jeremiah 16:16) “The time is surely coming upon you when they shall take you away with fishhooks…” (Amos 4:2) “Thus says God: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt…. I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales…” (Ezekiel 29:3f) Jesus is, in other words, summoning working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world!” (in Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 10, emphasis mine.)

From the very beginning, then, Mark’s Jesus is focused on overturning tables: overturning social structures of power and privilege. Mark’s gospel is a social gospel.

Matthew 

To the best of our knowledge, Matthew’s gospel was the first gospel to begin with a birth narrative about Jesus. It’s remarkable to me that Matthew seems to have been shaping his birth narratives about Jesus based on popular midrashim about the birth of Moses. (See Borg and Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth. United States, HarperOne, 2009.) If this is true, then Matthew was painting Jesus to be a new Moses: not a replacement for Moses, but one who stood in the Jewish prophetic lineage of Moses. The images of Moses that Matthew chose to emulate in his Jesus story were those related to themes of liberation from the oppressive domination of Egypt. Again, the liberation in Exodus is not a concern for individual Israelite’s personal salvation without a changed their social situation, but for the social liberation or social salvation of the community as a whole as the Exodus narrative states:

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’” (Exodus 5:1)

Characterizing Jesus’ work as similar to Moses’, Matthew points to a social understanding of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus addresses the social sins of his own time and place and offers an alternative path for his Jewish society. The social liberation characterizing Jesus’ teaching from the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel (See Matthew 5) lays the foundation to understand everything that is to follow in the stories. Including the social liberation found in Jewish folk stories of the Exodus from the very beginning of Matthew’s telling is purposeful for Matthew. Like Mark, Matthew’s gospel is first and foremost a social gospel announcing social salvation. Any personal or private view of salvation in Matthew only adds to this foundation.

Luke

If Mark and Matthew have a social emphasis, Luke does even more so. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel that we read Mary’s Magnificat:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He 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. 

He has helped his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful

to Abraham and his descendants forever,

just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:51-55)

This is not a prayer/proclamation of personal change for individuals within a society that is left untouched. These words communicate society-wide change from the bottom up and the outside in. 

Just three chapters later, when Luke has Jesus begin his teaching ministry in a synagogue near Nazareth, Jesus finds these words in the scroll of Isaiah to read:

“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.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Out of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures the author of Luke’s gospel could have chosen to summarize Jesus’ ministry, the choice of these words from Isaiah helps us to understand the entirety of the rest of Luke’s gospel. This is the story of an itinerant Jewish teacher, a prophet of the poor from Galilee, calling out social sins, and offering a path of social salvation, social reparations, and social redemption. (See Luke 6.)

In the early 20th Century, the Social Gospel movement recaptured attention for these larger social themes in the gospels. In the 60s and 70s in both North and South America, liberation theologians adopted a more global context and focused on those who faced oppression and exploitation across each continent as a result of the gospel’s social themes.  

During that same time, Black Liberation theologians took these social themes in the gospels seriously, as well, and from their context called White Christians to take action in the context of white supremacy and racial justice. 

Today, some contemporary feminist and womanist Christians also see deep harmony between this social emphasis in the Jesus story and their work today of survival and liberation. This vision encourages them as they strive for social change. 

Today, too, many LGBTQ Christians find a wellspring of wisdom in the gospels’ emphasis on social salvation from social sins, and that wisdom keeps them going as they work toward inclusion and equality in their faith communities and the wider secular society.

The call to hear the gospel stories as naming social sins and systemic injustice is being heard in our time. Today, the gospel stories tell of a Jesus whose teachings and solidarity with the oppressed in his day led him to the political demonstration we now call “the triumphal entry” (which many Christians today religiously and ritually celebrated last weekend). Jesus publicly demonstrated and overturned tables, he cried out for social change and social salvation. And that call is being heard more and more.

Understood in this light, Jesus’ story off ers rich fields for exploration and discovery as we learn to hear a gospel that calls us not to simply be “a good person,” but also to stop shaping, maintaining, enforcing and benefiting from socially sinful systems. The gospel stories call us to follow this social Jesus, as we, too, in the words of Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, refuse “to be consoled until the justice that is God’s is made real in the world.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 229)

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice [social justice] through to victory.” (Matthew 12:20)

About Herb Montgomery
Herb Montgomery, director of Renewed Heart Ministries, is an author and adult religious re-educator helping Christians explore the intersection of their faith with love, compassion, action and societal justice. You can read more about the author here.

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