Offending the Good; Applauding the Bad
We overturned a few passages of Scripture in the last article and we’ll continue doing so here. In a moment, I think you’ll nod your head a little more firmly to this sentiment: Jesus disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. He afflicted the settled and settled the afflicted. (Okay, I’ll stop now.)
Let’s watch as Jesus interacts with two very different men, within a relatively short space of time. He pulls no punches in these encounters as He offends the good guy and applauds the bad guy.
We’ll then wrap up this article overturning Jesus’ perceived dig at the poor. Told you this would be interesting.
This is the fifth article in our series on Messy Dogma. We’re grappling afresh with the Message and Mission of Jesus. In this third of four parts, we’re searching the Scriptures to unwrap the Substance of Jesus’ Message. You might find it helpful to start at the beginning of the series if you’ve just joined us, Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded. You may also want to peruse the explanation to this series with all its disclaimers.
1794 words (c. 5 pages) = 25 minute read
Good Offended; Bad Applauded
In the previous article, we looked at Jesus’ Declaration of Intent (Mark 1:14, 15) and His first words that turned a synagogue on its head (Luke 4:16-30). Let’s have a look at a few more scandalous passages.
Jesus offends an all-round great guy (Luke 18:18-30)
A rich young ruler with a glowing C.V. and a sterling track record for good behaviour asked Jesus a question about inheriting eternal life. Jesus began to answer him by quoting the Ten Commandments, to which the man smugly announced that he scored full marks in all the areas mentioned since, well … since his first pimple.
Jesus then poked at his core: “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Yikes! Jesus exposed and confronted the idol of his heart; his self-reliant pride harnessed in the school of fine privilege and considerable affluence. I don’t think, based on the next incident we will look at in a moment, Jesus necessarily meant that he should bankrupt himself financially.
The point was that for all this man’s religious piety, he had profited from a system in which he placed his dependence; using his privilege for his own advancement and gain. The man, an all-round good guy, felt entitled, and his vested interests in the system blinded him from what he genuinely sought.
Jesus called him to defect from the system, renounce his self-profiteering orientation to life … and to give himself to advance the Kingdom, which meant (given the context we’ve seen) contending for those oppressed by the system, the very system that afforded him status and opportunity.
Dejected, he could not give up his addiction to the system: he “became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.” It is extremely difficult to give up our dependency to a system that has enriched us for so long; having, in large part, made us who we are.
Jesus concluded the incident by saying, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!”
This is certainly not a statement extolling the virtues of poverty … for there are none! For me, Jesus is teaching us the necessity of smashing our dependence on the systems that enrich and profit us. And indeed, if we don’t demolish our allegiance to the systems in which we’re enslaved, it is “impossible” to follow Him (not because of any unwillingness on His part, but because of the disabling nature of this dead-weight alliance).
And notice, Jesus did not say that the man wasn’t saved; that he would miss heaven, or that he would go to hell. Only, that he wasn’t able to embrace the Kingdom of God and enter what Jesus intended for him. (Yes, the man asked about inheriting eternal life, but we’ll look at this phrase in The Words We’ve Fudged later. Jesus Himself equated his request about eternal life as a question about the Kingdom of God; compare Vv. 18 and 24. Suffice to say here, he wasn’t enquiring about post-mortem blessings.)
From this passage, we can only conclude that he didn’t experience salvation from his systemic entrapment. If you’re uncomfortable with this conclusion, I’m afraid we’ll see it surface in the next example too.
By the way, some speculate that the man was Barnabas, and he eventually saw the light and embraced the Kingdom way (Acts 4:36, 37). That would be a great ending to the story.
Jesus saves an all-round bad guy (Luke 19:1-10)
Shortly after His encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus meets a detestable little rich guy named Zacchaeus. In contrast to the ruler, Zacchaeus does defect from the system he has profited from, declaring: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”
Jesus obviously considered his repentance and restitution integral and declared: “Today salvation has come to this house.” First, notice that the issue is not necessarily about quantity; in Zacchaeus’ case, half of his goods were enough. The issue is about renouncing the systems from which we profit; and instead, choosing to use the advantages we’re afforded for the good of others. (That’s the recurring theme of Jesus’ message.)
Second, notice this phrase: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Salvation from what? Of course, we might presume that Zacchaeus got saved (as we like to say it); however, that is an assumption we read into the passage. It doesn’t actually say this, and it is not the point of the passage. What? Someone’s eternal salvation is not the point?
If we read the passage honestly, Jesus made this incredible declaration simply because Zacchaeus defected from a system that he had profited from at the expense of others. Being a tax collector, he had snuggled up to Caesar’s Empire and benefited from its oppressive rule and exploitation. (Remember, the four responses to the Empire in Year Zero: The World Jesus Invaded?) Furthermore, he had, by his own admission, used this position of authority to falsely accuse others; defrauding them. His repentance (defection) thus saved him personally from the vices of greed, cruelty and fraud and just as importantly, if not more so, it saved numerous others (past, present and future) from being exploited by him.
Without answering an altar call or saying the sinner’s prayer, the man experienced salvation, and in that real, raw, glorious moment, the Kingdom of God had come.
As we see in Jesus’ encounters with these two men…
Jesus’ message spoke first and foremost of salvation and deliverance from the dominant framing reference of His day, and the sin He confronted was transgressions related to the misuse and abuse of this false frame story (and its related corrupt systems).
Jesus called both these men to repentance, a rejection of the Empire and a renunciation of Caesar as the framing reference (and a defection from the corrupt systems of Rome’s societal machine), re-aligning with a new King, the promise of which was freedom in this life (deliverance from systemic injustice) and the power to bring deliverance to others still trapped in the system.
Defecting from the Empire’s corrupt frame story required a personal acknowledgement of the deceitful power of self-interest; admitting how much of their identity was derived from their vested interests in the system, renouncing their self-serving, self-advancing behaviour.
Jesus and the poor (John 12:1-8)
A fair deal of Jesus’ message spoke of the poor, those disenfranchised by societal dysfunction. However, whenever mention of the poor is made somewhere along the line someone pipes up and says, “But didn’t Jesus say we’ll always have the poor with us?” The implication is that dealing with the poor, and these kind of earthy matters, are secondary to the real issues, which are perceived as more ‘spiritual’ in nature.
Jesus actually quoted Moses in this incident in Bethany, when the disciples expressed their shock that Mary anointed Him with “costly oil,” rather than selling it and giving the proceeds to the poor (John 12:1-8 c. Matthew 26:6-13). The statement Jesus used, “for the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always,” is from a critical passage in the Mosaic Law dealing with the poor.
In this download from heaven, God revealed the principle of debt relief and generosity that would drastically limit the number of poor in the geopolitical nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 15:1-8). It was a strategy that, along with other instructions such as the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-17), built into the fabric of society a core value and practical policy to ensure justice for the underprivileged and opportunities for all; and what’s more, making certain that the disenfranchised were treated with dignity and respect rather than being patronised and dehumanised. (This is something that we, the privileged, need to consider in our relief efforts towards the underprivileged today).
And for those still marginalised in geopolitical Israel, God said: “the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Knowing well the human condition and its dysfunctions, God commanded His people to go beyond the framework of a brilliant God-initiated ‘welfare system’ to ensure that those who ‘fell through the cracks’ fell into the safe place of their overwhelming generosity. There is no doubt that God was, is and will always be desperately concerned about the poor, and He places the responsibility of the poor on us, His people.
Thus, in the episode in Bethany, Jesus did two things; first, He challenged the disciples’ claim and sentiments. Actually, John makes it clear that it was Judas who got the insinuation going around, and then makes this remark: “not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it” (John 12:6). Jesus saw through his shallow pretence and challenged his carnal intentions.
The second thing Jesus did was chide Judas for his criticism of Mary’s worship. However, His rebuke of Judas’ complete lack of devotion and inadequate grasp of true worship in no way belittles or further marginalises the poor, nor should it be used as an excuse for inaction and apathy. In rebuking Judas, Jesus might have actually been reminding him of how serious God was about helping the poor. For the message of Jesus consistently urges us to be actively open-hearted and “open handed” concerning those who are poor.
Jesus inspired His audience with a faith to move the mountains of opposition of their day; to live by an entirely different narrative that superseded the Empire, to tackle the societal dysfunctions and systemic injustices of the Empire. He called them to believe the impossible, to believe for society-sweeping change. That is, for the Father’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
When Jesus spoke of moving mountains (Matthew 17:20; Mark 11:23), His audience would have immediately thought of the societal problems and disparities of their day. They may even have pictured Rome itself, the city built on seven mountains.
The early church certainly caught this message as they sought to heal the social ills that festered in the shadow of the Empire. The apostles themselves were “eager” to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10), and James went so far as saying that true spirituality contended for the most disenfranchised of society (James 1:27).
Still with me? We’ll look at more Bible passages in the next article.