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We’ve been getting a lot of questions over the past few weeks about our articles on a more social reading of the gospels. Again, I’m not saying that Jesus never addressed an individual’s personal salvation. In the stories of the gospels, he does. But he also worked toward society’s salvation too.
Here in the West we are shaped by a deeply individualistic culture, and some Christian communities rarely address Jesus’ social salvation, if ever. The form of Christianity that most people experience focuses heavily on a person’s individual (personal) salvation and leaves the idea of social salvation unspoken. We must also be honest: many of those who lead this form of Christianity are those in privileged social locations and with a degree of power in our society. It’s very convenient for this part of American Christianity to focus on an individual salvation that leaves social injustice untouched and emphasizes attaining heaven after death rather than a more earthly focus of working for things now to be “on earth as they are in heaven” (see Matthew 6:10).
So where do we find examples of Jesus working toward social salvation in the gospel stories?
The most familiar story is of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we have labeled as Palm Sunday and his Temple protest the following day. Both of these events were public demonstrations calling for social change. His entry into Jerusalem that day competed with Rome’s entry into Jerusalem going on at the same time. (See chapter 1 of Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week.) Jesus was protesting Rome’s vision for society, the Pax Romana.
Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple courtyard was an even more pointed social protest. I want to be clear though: Jesus’ actions must be understood within Judaism, not outside or against it. Remember, Jesus was never a Christian. He was a Jew. Jesus was not against Judaism; nor was Judaism against Jesus. Jesus’ voice was one of many Jewish voices in his own society: there was a spectrum of positions among the Essenes, the Zealots, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. Each of these groups had ideas and interpretations about what it meant for Jewish society to live in faithfulness to the Torah. Christianity grew out of an early group of Jewish Jesus followers who resonated with Jesus’ vision for Jewish society. It was later, when the Jesus movement became populated by more nonJewish adherents and adherents from the upper classes of Gentile society that anti-Semitism enters the telling of the Jesus story. Originally the Jesus story was not read this way.
Let me also say, on the flip side, that the context Jesus was in was also not a uniquely Jewish story. The dynamics and social tensions of that society happen in all societies, Jewish and non-Jewish. When Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple (see Matthew 21:12) at the beginning of his final week, he was not protesting Judaism! Far from it. He was protesting political oppression and exclusion in his society. He was protesting the economic exploitation of the vulnerable in his society. And he was protesting the religious legitimization and complicity of the priests in the Temple. His actions were not against the Temple because it was the Jewish Temple. His actions were in solidarity with the Jewish poor in his Jewish society.
Political oppression and exclusion, economic exploitation, and religious legitimization are not uniquely Jewish by any means. They are universal social evils that take place in all societies. Christians should not rush to point fingers at their Jewish neighbors, because Christianity’s history and present offer many examples of these social sins as well. Elite Christians who benefit from these sins could have just as easily and surely executed a prophet of the poor, and they have. Rome executed Jesus because he threatened an unjust status quo. People have been removed from society in one way or another in every generation when they have stood up to an unjust status quo.
With this in mind, here is one more example of Jesus addressing social evils, not mere personal/individual ones:
“Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” (Mathew 12:9-14)
Plotting to kill Jesus seems like a pretty extreme response if we only read this story as Jesus healing one individual with a “shriveled hand.” But if we read this story as Jesus attacking a socially unjust power structure—a religious interpretation that was the foundation for a social evil that marginalized the vulnerable, and the authority of those who perpetuated this interpretive foundation—their response of feeling threatened and feeling an immediate need to silence or remove Jesus begins to make sense. Speaking of the healing stories in the gospel of Mark, Ched Myers points out:
“In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression. (Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14.)
In the Jesus stories, then, we see a Jesus who continually took a stand with the marginalized sectors of his society even when that stand pitted him against more popular religious teachers and their authority. (See Solidarity with the Crucified Community.) This should give us some pause today when we encounter ways of interpreting our sacred texts that either side with religious institutional positions that harm others or give a sacred foundation for inclusion, compassion, centering the vulnerable, and justice. For example, in Christianity today, there are multiple ways to interpret Biblical texts that have been applied to the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ youth who belong to non-accepting Christian families demonstrate disproportionately higher rates of suicide. It would be far better for these children to belong to a non-Christian family that accepted them than a Christian family whose interpretive lens does them such harm.
This is just one example. Interpretations of the Bible are also used to harm women as well, as we are seeing in the Southern portions of the U.S. presently.
Here not Heaven
Another contrast between personal salvation and social salvation is that personal salvation tends to focus one’s attention on the afterlife, gaining heaven, a pessimistic patience for how things are now, and a hope for change only at some point in the distant future.
However, notice how within the story of Lazarus in John’s gospel Jesus rejects this future focus and calls Martha to the present, now and not later. When Jesus finally arrives to Lazarus’ tomb, he assures Martha that her brother will live again.
“Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” (John 11:24)
Here Martha exemplifies this far distant future hope. Jesus contradicts her, calling her to focus her hope for change in the present.
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’” (John 11:25)
Individual salvation places a person’s hope in the future, either at death or in Jesus’ return to this earth. Social salvation says, no, “I am the resurrection and the life” now. Change can take place now. Another world is possible, if we would choose it, now. Jesus taught the meek will inherit the earth, not a post-mortem heaven (see Matthew 5:5).
And this leads me to my third contrast this week.
Today Not Later
Private and personal salvation focuses on a future hope while leaving the present’s social structures largely untouched. In Luke’s gospel, we read the story of Zacchaeus whose personal transformation or salvation came as a result his embracing Jesus’ vision for social salvation from the social evil of wealth disparity. Jesus had been preaching a more distributively just vision for society. Jesus envisioned a society without disparity, where everyone has enough and no one has too much while others are suffering and going without. In Luke, Jesus had also called his followers to sell their surplus possessions, and give them to the poor (Luke 12:18, 33; cf. Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:33-34).
Zacchaeus embraces Jesus vision and states, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).
Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9, emphasis added).
“Today.” Stop and ponder that. Some equate salvation with eternal life. Zacchaeus entered into what makes life eternal in the gospels that day Jesus spoke. He didn’t enter at his death. He entered that day, because eternal life is social. Societies can follow paths that will eventually bring about their own ruin and destruction, or they can follow the path of life. Humanity as a species has to choose between these options as well.
I’m reminded of Brock and Parker’s insight into how eternal life is defined in the gospels:
“The Gospel defines three dimensions of this eternal life: knowing God; receiving the one sent by God to proclaim abundant life to all; and loving each other as he had loved them. Eternal life, in all three meanings, relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 29)
That day Zacchaeus embraced an offer from Jesus, but it was not an offer of post-mortem bliss. Zacchaeus embraced Jesus’ social vision for societal change—Jesus’ social gospel.
Yes, Jesus engaged a person’s personal salvation, always in the context of that person embracing Jesus social teachings. This means that divorcing a person’s private salvation from their larger participation in Jesus’ vision for social salvation is being unfaithful to the story. Jesus didn’t just change individual lives. He changed individual lives when they chose to participate in Jesus’ challenge to the status quo and his call for social change.