Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. His descriptions of this kingdom make it clear that it involves an overturning of the established order. He links the new order he announces with prophetic messages of liberation for the poor and oppressed, and he issues warnings to those who are wealthy and powerful. His message has been described as a “great reversal” in which those who are benefitting from privileged status lose their benefits and those who are weak and vulnerable are elevated. In this “upside down” kingdom Jesus announces that one achieves greatness not by advancing to the top of the social hierarchy, but by acts of service to the community. Given this kind of message, it is not surprising that the wealthy and privileged of Jewish society opposed Jesus and ultimately killed him. He was a danger to a social order in which they were deeply invested and wanted to preserve. While his message might have been good news to those at the bottom, it was not good news for them.
What might be surprising, however, is that the New Testament message is often understood today in ways that have removed any threat to the established order. For many, it is understood as a message about preparing for the next life, not about our present lives. They read what Jesus says through the lens of a particular understanding of the writings of Paul that took shape around the time of the Protestant Reformation. Paul is taken to be focused on a transaction through which individuals receive justification in God’s sight, leading to life in heaven. When those who have understood the New Testament message in this way read the gospel accounts, they assume that Jesus must also be focused on life after death. The kingdom of God is understood as something other-worldly. Whatever reversals are involved are taken to be shifts in status between earthly life and the next life.
In evangelical churches today, you are likely to hear a message of individual salvation that does not involve social transformation. Sometimes it is said that the only way to change society is by transformation of individual hearts, but the idea that Jesus intended any significant transformation of our social lives is treated as a distraction from the main issue. For those who are comfortable with their own places in society, this individualistic message is not a threat. In fact, when the Christian message is taken to be primarily about individual decisions that determine our fate in the next life, people can think that all that is required of them is some level of common decency as they live out their social roles. This kind of religious view is often combined with a type of conservative politics that exalts individual freedom and makes attempts to alter the established power structures a threat.
Jesus came into conflict with those who wanted to protect the existing order. In his time, it was the most religious people, the Pharisees, who assumed that they were doing what pleased God and wanted to take a hard line on the poor and uneducated people at the bottom of the social structure who weren’t living in the right way. They were sure that God shared their point of view. Jesus offended them by associating with marginalized people and welcoming them into his kingdom. It is worth asking whether the church’s position toward those who seem less respectable is more like the attitude of the Pharisees or the attitude of Jesus. Is it more one of condemnation toward those we deem beneath us or one of love?
An unbiased reading of the gospel story shows Jesus to be on the side of victims of abuse of social power. He takes a position that is continuous with the prophets of Hebrew Scripture. The wealthy and privileged are called to account, and the weak and vulnerable are the focus of God’s concern. Just as the prophets critiqued a form of religion that was indifferent to the plight of the poor and oppressed, Jesus criticized uses of power by the religious exemplars of the Jewish community that victimize the most vulnerable.
What Jesus urges is very different from an insurance policy to guarantee a good place in the next life. It is a new way of living in which people are willing to give up power that could be used for their own aggrandizement in service to the community. It’s a misunderstanding of the story of Jesus, as well as a misreading of Paul, to think that the message isn’t about this life. The New Testament message is about transformation of the present order through a witness to the world of a different way of living that exhibits what God intends for human life. Of course, the message is also about the eternal consequences of adopting this new way of living, but that is very different from saying that only what happens after death really matters.
A truncated gospel about saving souls allows us to preserve our positions of power even when that power is part of a system that oppresses others. But a message about healing and restoration of the world calls our attention to victims and invites us to take their side. The story of Jesus shows us what it is like to live a life that gives priority to those who are suffering, even at the cost of suffering ourselves. If we ask whether this message is good news, the answer depends on whether we think that hanging onto our own benefits is more important than participating in a reconstruction of standard practice in which God’s blessings are available to everyone.
For a fuller discussion of issues discussed here, see chapter 14 of Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (God’s New Order: Welcome News for the Excluded).