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Life and Teaching of Jesus
We move next to the life and teaching of Jesus as presented in the gospels. Much of the material is so familiar that we fail to duly note the radical nature of the narrative. The earliest gospel, Mark, was put in final form about 70 ce, about 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, with Luke and Matthew following 20-25 years later. They were not created out of the blue. They had oral and written material upon which they based their story, so let’s remember that acts and words attributed to Jesus come to us at least second-hand. But if the words are not literal, the meaning is often clear, and spells out a severely critical attitude toward the rich and powerful, a fundamental dimension of the life and words of Jesus not always fully appreciated. Let’s use Luke as our guide, which contains material from the earlier Mark, and end with a section from Matthew that has its origins in an apocalyptic source.
Lest the first-century reader, most likely a second/third generation Christian in a community greatly removed from the original disciples, – lest these folks forget that the time with the Baptist was critical for Jesus, Luke specifically says that his recollections come from eyewitnesses [hardly true, but an attempt to present reliability], after which he points to the divine authority present in John, an authority John displayed as he castigated the rich and powerful even as he influenced Jesus. It’s as though Luke is saying: if you want to understand Jesus, remember John.
The reference to John is immediately followed by the co-called Magnificat, the acceptance by Mary of her role as the servant of God. Luke is setting the context for the role of her son.
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.”
These words attributed to Mary are not literally from her mouth, but do represent the thinking of the early church. They are based on Psalm 146:
‘He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.”
To repeat, we must think here not of a young woman thanking God for her role in birthing Jesus, but of a young and expanded congregation of disciples who are understanding their leader through the eyes of Deutero-Isaiah. This is how Luke begins his story of Jesus, and he continues the story of Jesus’ birth with the scene in the manger, surrounded by animals and visited by the poor shepherds of the field. These are not images of wealth and power.
Luke then turns to the life and words of John, words we have previously discussed, words scathingly denouncing the abuses of wealth and power. And this is followed by Luke’s having Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah. Remembering that Jesus was most likely illiterate, this reading is more a symbol of what the sources found in Jesus rather than an actual historical event. And what did those earliest followers see in Jesus?
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Again, not idle words. What the disciples are telling Luke, who in turn is telling us, is that Jesus was one who, inspired by the Spirit of the Lord, is sent to set free those who are oppressed and bring good news to the poor.
The gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus healing the sick. Given the psychosomatic nature of body and spirit, it is no surprise that one who brought good news to the poor would heal broken bodies and bent spirits. Healing, therefore, is a taking pity on the poor but even more so an attack on those who perpetrated the system that made people poor, broken, and bent in the first place. The healing dimension of Jesus’ life is a protest of major proportion.
The same is true of his constant breaking of the law. Here we have to differentiate between the social law that sought to create a society of compassion, and the law that dehumanized. When the Pharisees confront Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, healing being considered work and therefore prohibited on the Sabbath, Jesus will have none of it. The purpose of God’s law is to create a just society, and when the moralists of the day twist and distort this intent, Jesus becomes a flagrant lawbreaker. We must remember that the High Priest, and therefore the whole Temple bureaucracy were appointed by the emperor and did his bidding. They were at the center of wealth and power.
Healing and lawbreaking are then followed by Luke’s version of the so-called Beatitudes.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.”
“‘No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus in like manner evil things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
I believe neither that Hades exists nor that anyone would be sent there even if it did. But as a critique of the manner in which wealth neglects the poor, this is pretty powerful.
A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother.’ ” He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” But when he heard this, he became sad, for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
These words and the attitude presented by them seemed even too much for some in the early church, inasmuch as some are said to have asked Jesus, who then can be saved? And the answer was, well, God can do anything. Hardly a retraction. But, yes, God can do anything, but so can the rich and powerful change their ways, should they choose. This story exemplifies that choice:
“He [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.””
What we see then, is that at least the source that gave us the Zacchaeus story represented one early community that believed the rich could and must change their ways. No doubt there were others beside Zacchaeus; some of whose names are given in the Writings.
But self-deception by the wealthy was and is always a danger with drastic consequences. The following is found in the 25th chapter of Matthew.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.”
I want to end this review of the teaching of Jesus with the warning with which I began. The material before us is second and third hand. The early church was not monolithic, and the words and stories about Jesus spread in different directions and were received differently by different groups of people. Some of the scathing criticism of the wealthy was softened [eg, the “blessed are the poor” of Luke appears as “blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew]. But generally speaking, oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful is basic to the Jesus story. It is not a story that says “blessed are the rich”.
Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, The Void and the Vision and The New Matrix: How the World We Live In Impacts Our Thinking About Self and God. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife Margaret in Norwich, VT.