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 [email protected].
Not sure what relevance the past will have on the future. Think we need a new belief system, should be global, psychological, political and if it is to be spiritual then that would require some significant event or proof. Religious ideas worldwide are always radical, support the poor against the rich and are assimilated by the rich and turned into systems of oppression. An anarchistic religious idea where people are directed to follow their own truth and taught how to do that and how to cooperate from a place of owning that inner truth might work with a bit effort. Smart people don’t trust charismatic leaders or their followers so it needs to be rational, cognitive and behavioral and quite possibly insidious. In fact it might already be happening.
I dont see a ‘right wing’ majority. I see a bunch of animals who hate the Constitution
It is really bizarre how some folks one the right equate Christianity with capitalism. They make claims such as: Success is the will of God. Did Jesus ever say this? Is it in the Old Testament, in the church tradition, did any of the major theologians advocate this?
The Jewish Covenant was for material prosperity. Christinity purports to inherit this Covenant.
That Jesus was a pacifist and ascetic is ancient hasbara meant to influence Greeks and Romans, to convince them that Jewish Messiahs were not ethnosupremacist seditionists who longed for apocalypses against them, but were more like friendly Socrateses.
The fact is Jesus was a Jewish rebel leader living under Roman rule and with a Temple which in his view was polluted by Jewish collaborators with the Romans. If his uprising had been sccessful, he and his faction would have controlled the Temple and its vast income, and there would have been no more living in poverty for them.
Once one understands that Jesus was a sort of Messianic Freedom-Fighter who wanted to evict Romans and have his faction in charge of the Temple– and that all the ‘universalist, pacifist, ascetic Jesus’ stuff is essentially ancient propaganda– the gap between what Jesus supposedly said and did and the behavior of actual Christians is immediately resolved.
President George W. Bush told French President Jacques Chirac in early 2003 that Iraq must be invaded to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bibleâ€™s satanic agents of the Apocalypse. see here……
A Christian Crusade (Iraq) with the Bible as its Military guide book led the way
You forgot the Neocon cabal who undoubtedly personally despised those delusions but exploited them, since they made Mr. Bush a useful idiot for said Israel-firsters.
Jesus was no social reformer. He was a Jewish fundamentalist who led an uprising against Roman occupation and Jewish quislings. He tried to re-take the Temple for Yahweh, failed and was executed. That he was a pacifistic wandering rabbi who loved all mankind is ancient hasbara, which became a religion for foolish Gentiles who, once given enough time, turned him into a Graeco-Roman god-man.
moses got his stuff ie 10 comandments from the Egyptian books of the dead except for 3 of them .Don’t forget that jews wrote the bible after they had him arrested and crucified.Do you really believe that the advanced Egyptians wouldn’t have known the kings sister is pregnant or not and that moses was really a bastard child from a slave and the kings sister.Like the 4 or 3 kings or wise men who believed that the messiah was coming the jews religion was stolen from them
The thing is, life goes on. Life takes its course. Once in a while you get a Jesus, Moses, Buddha, or Mohammed, but whatever effect they have soon dilutes into a weak broth we preserve in jars. Nature is what it is. Attempts to change nature are sometimes fun and exciting like extreme sports, but can also horrifying and painful like extreme sports. I say let’s go on, and see what happens next.
I cannot believe this! On this great informative site. Mr Christ’s existence is as spurious as the fabricated Torah. To even consider this terrible phantasy is beyond reason. The ancient Hebrews consider it their duty to bow down [and all life in the universe] to the Master thereof. Christianity wants to destroy at End Times the world, hand it over to Lucifer [about time] and let evil reign for a thousand years or so; just to save the Chosen. I am speechless. We need a sane future not an insane one.
A sad attempt to reduce Jesus to a social reformer. Howard Bess sounds more like a merchandiser, determined to sell the idea that Christ’s mission was to function as a social worker and political activist whose goal was to improve the lot of “the underprivileged”, after having been inspired by Old Testament prophets. Nice try. But no cigar. JESUS CHRIST IS THE ALPHA AND OMEGA. HE IS THE WORD MADE FLESH. HE IS THE LIVING GOD, who revealed himself through HIS HOLY SPIRIT in the form of HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON. Thus, the TRINITY. CHRIST made very clear that HIS Kingdom was not of this world. Any literate high school student readily can comprehend that the consistent emphasis throughout the NEW TESTEMENT is personal salvation through faith in CHRIST, and his primary focus on spiritual development – as opposed to material concerns – as the pathway to the Heavenly Kingdom. He was rejected by the tribe that chosen by God to reveal Himself to humanity, because they clung to other priorities. Priorities more in line with those who share the views of Howard Bess.
Small God, small message.
Love God? Love the cosmos. Love thy neighbor? Every living thing and every atom and molecule is thy neighbor every light and darkness, every form of energy is not only thy neighbot, but you yourself.
Only the ignorant, the fearful and the paranoid believe in a greater God, an unknown something that interferes with and perverts the inevitableity of Nature.
What greater love is there than the directive to be the caretaker for the cosmos?
We began as competiters for food and shelter. The lesson of survival is part of our genes. Our evolution to sensient humans must take the next step – to serve our neighbor for our own sake.
Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual one, not a political one. We are to individually be transformed to do those things Rev. Bess cites. We are not to organize politically to use the government to steal the wealth from others to fulfill the commandments.
We are to try to persuade the wealthy to accept Jesus as the Son of God so they can be transformed to share their wealth. But as Jesus said, it is harder for a wealthy person to enter God’s kingdom that for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
Pray for the poor and pray for the wealthy.
“The eye of the needle” was a low, narrow gate in the wall around Jerusalem. In order for camels to pass through this gate they had to be unloaded — get it? Jesus was the greatest moral teacher in history whose lessons were in parables and metaphors. He directly challenged the Jewish leaders and cast the money changers out of the Temple. Almost all of his ministry was in the hinterlands of Galiliee and Judea. When he entered Jerusalem (remember Palm Sunday?) he was provocative, called a heretic by the Pharisees and Saducces — they begged Pilate to crucify Jesus because Jewish law had no death penalty.