There is much religiosity in the U.S., with the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority even approving Christian prayers at the start of government business. But there is little appreciation of the radical political and economic message at the center of Jesus’s teachings, writes Rev. Howard Bess.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
The time is ripe for Christians to make a major refocus and become serious about the kingdom of God on earth, which Jesus set out to establish and which was the reason for his arrest, trial and execution by Roman officials. They saw Jesus as an insurrectionist and a threat to the established order.
Anyone who studies Jesus’s life and teachings cannot be ignorant of the essentials of his kingdom on earth, goals that were not of his own origination but were derived from the words of Moses and the great prophets of Israel.
At the beginning of the Matthew, Mark and Luke gospels, Jesus is presented as making a speech declaring the arrival of the good news of the Gospel. The Luke gospel is most specific, identifying Jesus’s concerns as poverty, sickness and people imprisoned or enslaved.
The tools for accomplishing Jesus’s insurrectionary vision were simple and straight from Moses and the prophets. First was a radical love and devotion to God (not Caesar). The second was love of neighbor, which was an old and honored standard embraced by devout Jews whose debate was not about their obligation to love their neighbor but about who was to be considered a neighbor.
Jesus argued for an enormous expansion of the definition of neighbor. Jesus made masses of people uncomfortable with the way he understood the meaning of neighbor, including those who lived in poverty and sickness, who were in prison, who were enslaved, and those of differing ethnic and racial heritages.
Even more difficult for the rich and the powerful were his views on wealth and taxation. Jesus lived and taught in an area of extreme poverty. The people were victims of the super-rich, who lived in large cities such as Sephorus and Tiberias, and of the politically powerful who kept them impoverished with the demands for tithes and taxes.
But Jesus did not only tell stories about the kingdom of God on earth, he recruited disciples to help him bring it about; he prayed for it to happen; he taught others to pray for it.
In the ensuring centuries, however, many followers of Jesus have distorted his message by focusing on a personal salvation that will allow the devout believer to escape the earth and enjoy life forever in a faraway, remote and poorly defined kingdom of God in heaven. But the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are best understood in his efforts to bring the kingdom of God to this earth.
In Jesus’s declaration at the beginning of his teaching ministry, he announces the coming of the Day of the Lord. This announcement is conveniently ignored by most Christians. It is the most radical of Jesus’s proposals.
In Old Testament law, it is clearly stated that no individual was to see himself as the owner of land. Land belonged to God and was to be distributed among the tribes of Israel for use and stewardship. The role of a faithful Jew was stewardship of the land, not ownership.
The responsibility of stewardship was extensive and was carefully spelled out. The Old Testament law required that land was to be redistributed among the tribes every 50 years. However, in an advanced agrarian society, such as the society in which Jesus lived, land ownership was the key to acquiring wealth. Wealthy Jews never wanted to give up their land for redistribution. So, this portion of Old Testament law was never practiced.
Thus, a huge gap had developed between the poor and the rich. Jesus (probably naively) called for the redistribution of land for purposes of stewardship. It was Jesus’s plan for the eradication of poverty.
I maintain that the Bible should be read seriously, not literally. Unfortunately, most Christians read the Bible literally but not seriously. If a serious student of the Bible reads the Bible seriously, Jesus comes to life with a radical definition of neighbor that leaves no one outside looking in. Plus, he was an advocate of radical economics that would allow no one to be left behind in poverty.
Of course, two millennia later, we live in a very different world than the one in which Jesus lived and taught. Vast changes have occurred in our social, religious and political institutions as well as our financial systems. To advocate the establishment of the social and economic systems that are spelled out in Old Testament law would be absurd.
However, to advocate for the goals of Old Testament law is a vital discussion that needs to be taking place in the U.S. Congress, in state legislatures, in every political campaign, in classrooms, in churches, Rotary clubs and coffee houses.
So, what would the kingdom of God on earth look like in 2014? If we take our cues from the life and teachings of Jesus, two realities are a must: Every person on earth must be included in the definition of neighbor, and the gap between the rich and the poor must be radically altered. No person can be left in poverty without basic needs satisfied.
Christians should recall that Jesus taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.