24 Feb Jesus the Social Revolutionary
Jesus the Social Revolutionary
Matthew 10:34-49 and Luke 19:1-10
February 18, 2018
Calvary Presbyterian Church
This morning we continue our Real Jesus series by looking at Jesus the Social Revolutionary. This view has had and continues to have a profound impact upon the church and how we understand our place in the world as Christians.
The Gospel story makes it clear that those who understood Jesus and his message the best were those who most wanted him dead. Jesus’ contemporaries saw him as a usurper of institutional religion, a blasphemer, a heretic, a drunkard, a glutton and a false teacher. He was an unschooled rabbi from the God-forsaken north who had run amok and begun to stir up trouble among the equally uneducated masses. In his enemies’ minds, he was an extremist, a radical, a revolutionary.
And, indeed, Jesus conducts his ministry as something of a fugitive. Luke 4 records Jesus in Nazareth delivering his inaugural sermon in the synagogue. After he gives his message he is manhandled toward a cliff in an attempt to get rid of him by the worshipers-turned-mob. And in John 7 Jesus is a wanted man on the streets of Jerusalem. As he is teaching, some of the people ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill?” Then later in that same chapter the Pharisees send temple police to arrest him. In both instances, he evades capture, but his personal safety will continue to be tenuous throughout his public ministry.
Jesus doesn’t fare any better with his family and friends. In Mark 3, when Jesus returns to Nazareth, the neighbors are repulsed by his teaching, declaring him to be insane. Even his family is embarrassed by his wild ideas and so outraged by his behavior that they attempt to restrain him for his own good. This is, after all, the Jesus who makes such declarations as, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Matthew 10:34-35)
Then there’s the issue of his disciples. Jesus had some controversial folks among his followers. There was Simon the Zealot who was part of an underground movement dedicated to driving the Romans out of Israel. The Zealots wanted political freedom but also wanted a purified, traditionalist, theocratic Jewish state free from interference from pagan Rome. And some of Jesus’ disciples had first been disciples of the ascetic and ferociously anti-social John the Baptist. Having attracted these disaffected radicals to his side, Jesus was seen as a threat to society.
Public opinion among the masses wasn’t so great either. When Jesus asks his disciples what people are saying about him, they reply that some think he is a resurrected John the Baptist or even Elijah (Luke 9:18ff). They’re not saying they think he is a big, soft guru of love and goodwill; they’re saying he is a resurrected wild man.
He did not endear himself to the religious leaders, either, when he called them “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs.” (Matt 23:27) The effect of all this was to put Jesus squarely on the radar screen of the political and religious leaders of his day—not a good place to be.
Fast forward nearly 2000 years when an entire theology developed around this idea of Jesus as a social revolutionary. It’s called Liberation Theology and it grew out of the oppression in Latin America in the 1970’s. Rubem Alves and Gustavo Guiterrez are best known as the founders of Liberation Theology. They interpreted the teachings of Jesus in terms of freedom for oppressed people from unjust social, economic and political conditions. Guiterrez called the church to a “more evangelical, more authentic, more concrete and more efficacious commitment to liberation.” In his writings he frequently quoted Karl Marx’s famous dictum that, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world…the point, however, is to change it.” Liberation theology sees the process of freedom and transformation as a “quest to satisfy the most fundamental human aspirations—liberty, dignity and the possibility of personal fulfillment for all.” Defined this way, all Christians should surely be equally committed to liberation.
The concern with Liberation Theology is not in the broad brushstrokes; it’s in the details. Liberation theology is often practiced by placing a priority on the social “text,” the surrounding reality and our experience of it. The biblical witness takes a backseat, with a danger of being relegated to such a distant backseat that it is neglected. “Salvation” comes to be understood, not primarily as freedom from sin and death, but rather as being freed from corrupt and oppressive political systems. And Jesus becomes the savior from those corrupt systems. But, is that the best understanding of how Jesus saw his own mission?
Without question, the church’s mission includes serving the underserved, those on the margins, and those who are oppressed. It can be easy to “do” a lot of stuff—good and important stuff—to serve our neighbors, but if that activity becomes disconnected from Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, we are on perilous ground. Jesus must be source of the life, energy, joy and imagination that we bring to the work of liberation. It is imperative that we allow Jesus to go ahead of us, leading us in what to do and say, so that we avoid the trap of us coming up with great ideas that we then expect Jesus to bless. It is equally imperative that we maintain our rootedness in the Word of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit by which we accomplish the activities we are led to give on behalf of our community. To lose that primary connection sets us up for burn-out and much worse, easily turns us into busy church-going folk in whom there is little or none of God’s Spirit.
So, how should we understand the social transformation aspect of Jesus’ life and message? First, we need to be reminded that as wild and unorthodox as Jesus seemed to the religious and political leaders of his day, his ministry was grounded in the fulfillment of scripture, not in a human philosophy or political agenda. Scripture is the root system of his “revolution.” In some ways he redefined liberation. He came to bring freedom from anything and everything that inhibits men and women from being what God by creation and redemption intends them to be.
Consequently, the nature of Jesus’ liberation begins in the human heart. That is not to say the external systems that bind us are not part of what Jesus addresses; it’s just important to keep things in the right order. Transformation of society will not happen without heart transformation because the heart is where sin starts.
In John 8 Jesus is having an exchange with some Jews who claim that they are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves of anyone. Clearly, they are thinking in terms of being slaves in a political sense, to a governing authority not their own. Jesus’ response is very telling: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Zacchaeus was a man who experienced the freedom Jesus offers. Zacchaeus was well known in Jericho because he was wealthy, but he was also despised for the way he made his money. He was the Chief Tax Collector. He made his living by taking money from his own people on behalf of their oppressors—the Romans.
You know the story…because of Zacchaeus’s short stature, he climbed a sycamore tree to get an unobstructed view of Jesus as he came into town. Jesus calls Zacchaeus out of the tree and invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house. During the meal Zacchaeus stands up and says to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” This tax collector had committed all sorts of social injustice. He lied, cheated and stole to get rich. But when Zacchaeus put his faith in Jesus, his heart was transformed, a transformation that manifested itself in giving away a large chunk of his wealth.
The power of the gospel, the power of forgiveness and life in Christ, changes lives. And the power of changed lives changes society. That is the revolution Jesus is leading. It begins not with a direct assault on political and economic systems, but with a liberating the heart from sin.
Shane Claiborne tells of a time that he and another colleague named Michelle went out to get a loaf of bread. They are part of an intentional Christian community called the Simple Way located in a destitute part of Philadelphia. They walked under the El tracks just a block from their house, a strip notorious for drug trafficking and prostitution. They passed an alley and tucked inside was a woman, tattered, cold, and on crutches. She approached Shane, asking if he wanted her services. His heart sank, but he scurried on to get their bread. When they headed home, they nodded at the woman as they passed.
At home they opened the bread, noticing for the first time a large gash in the side of the bag. Not surprisingly, the bread had gone bad. They would have to go back and both of them knew what that meant. They would have to walk by the woman again. They walked past the alley and saw her crying and shivering. They went on to the store, bought another loaf of bread and began to go home. This time, when they saw the woman, they couldn’t just pass her by.
They stopped and told her they cared for her, that she was precious and worth more than a few bucks for tricks on the street. They invited her back to their home and she followed them, stumbling along on crutches. As soon as they entered the house, she started weeping hysterically. Michelle put her arms around her and held her as she cried. When she regained her composure, she said, “You are Christians, aren’t you?” Shane and Michelle were startled. They had said nothing about God and the Simple Way house had no religious objects displayed.
The woman said she knew they were Christians because they shine. “I used to be in love with Jesus like that, and when I was, I shined like diamonds in the sky, like the stars. But it’s a cold, dark world, and I lost my shine on the streets.” She asked them to pray with her that her light might shine again.
Days, weeks went by and they did not see her. One day there was a knock and Shane opened the door. On the steps stood a lovely lady with a contagious ear-to-ear smile. Shane didn’t recognize her but acted like he did. But, the woman called his bluff. “Of course you don’t recognize me, because I’m shining again.” She went on to explain how she had fallen in love with God again and to thank them for reminding her of who she was in Christ.
That’s what happens when we allow Jesus the revolutionary to be head of the church and head of our hearts. It will change us, and it will change the world. In the words of Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book, ReJesus, “the church needs to go back to the daring, radical, strange, wonderful, inexplicable, unstoppable, marvelous, unsettling, disturbing, caring, powerful God-man-Jesus.”
May it ever be so in our hearts and in our church. Amen.