Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Revolutionary Message of the Gospel

Mark 1:16-20
As Jesus walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
When he had gone a little further, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Matt 8:19-22
A teacher of the law came to him and said “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first go let me bury my father.” But Jesus told him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Mark 8:1-4
During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called the disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.” His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

            There is something utterly profound about Jesus’ message. It was a message which prompted people to abandon the few comforts and securities to hear. These people were desperately poor. They lived hand-to-mouth, most of what they earned in a day’s wages was spent on feeding their families.  
The desperate conditions that these people were burdened under go to show what great lengths they took to find Jesus just to hear his message. Such great lengths which the above verses document can hardly be understated; they travelled to remote parts of the country without any food, abandoning their only sources of income to seek out Jesus. They gave up the promise of their inheritance to become his disciples, which left their parents heirless. Jesus even required them to break some of the most sensitive of customs of the day like burying one’s dead father.
These things would be difficult and risky enough for us to do in this day and age, but back in ancient times the lengths that people took simply to hear Jesus’ message were inviting both extreme poverty and social opprobrium.

So what on earth could have enticed people to go to such extremes? What revolutionary teaching caused people to radically change their lives after hearing it?

Matt 5:13-16
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill can not be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on it’s stand and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

            This passage gives a particularly significant insight into why I think Jesus’ message was so profoundly life changing to the poor and oppressed class. The passage is from The Sermon on the Mount, which was preached to the common people. There were probably some more wealthy people present as well, but Jesus’ statement about the people’s lack of food indicates that the majority of the people present were so poor that they had to walk days to find Jesus without any food, and then spent three days listening to him without anything in their stomachs, and without even a hope of having enough sustenance to get back home.
These people were the lowest of low, and they were treated as such by the wealthy classes in society. The class divide in these ancient cultures was extreme. The wealthy were not only rich, but they were also considered more spiritually righteous, simply by virtue of their wealth. Conversely the poor were considered cursed simply because they were poor. Certainly for the rich man of Mark 10:17-22 the very idea of abandoning one’s wealth and prestige and instead living a destitute life, even to enter into eternal life, was an anathema to him. The rich man thought that his fidelity to the Jewish Decalogue (Ten Commandments) made him right before God, and no doubt his great wealth was conformation in his mind that God saw him as righteous.
Many pre-modern cultures believed that God purposefully created such class systems in society, including Judaism. Wealth was seen as a blessing from God for one’s righteousness (Prov 10:22), and conversely poverty was seen as a curse from God because of one’s sinfulness. Deuteronomy 28 lays out the basis for the wealth/blessing and poverty/curse thinking. This was how Kings, rulers and priests justified their authority, they considered themselves to be God’s chosen rulers on earth. Your condition in life was seen as a judgment from God; The richer you were then the more righteous that God judged you to be, and the poorer you were the more sinful you must have been (the only teaching in the Jewish Scriptures that challenges this thinking is the message in Job, where God makes it clear that Job’s misfortune had nothing to do with sin).
The rich and powerful classes were also considered to be the light of the world. They validated this understanding from the biblical symbolism where the lights in the sky; the stars, the sun, then moon; were used as symbols of God’s divine guiding light shinning through the ruling elites (Gen 37:9, Dan 8:10). They believed that the unwashed, unlearned and cursed masses must be dominated and be subject to the wise and educated government of the elites whom God had blessed with wealth and power. Or so it was thought.
All of this type of thinking was typical of most ancient cultures, and also typically, the ruling classes would use this to legitimise the oppression of the lower classes. Even those among the elites who were not despotic and corrupt still felt that the if God had cursed the poor for their sin, then He must hate them. So if God hated them, then so should the ruling elite. 

So it was within this cultural context that Jesus preached his message to the downtrodden and oppressed class. Jesus preached a message that totally inverted the standard cultural thinking on it’s head. The key to understanding the significance of Jesus' teaching is found in Matthew 5:16 where God instructs the poor to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds”. Jesus not only assured the poor that they were not insignificant or accursed in God’s eyes, and that their poverty was not punishment for sin, but Jesus instead gave them the revolutionary truth; that they actually were the light of the world (Matt 5:13-16)! God actually considered these poor, mistreated and hated people to be His shinning light into this dark world!!

Jesus’ sermon on the plateau, Luke 6:20-26, further emphasizes this profound reversal of thinking. In this society where the rich were considered blessed by God and the poor were considered accursed, Jesus now called the poor and oppressed people the blessed ones, and to the rich and powerful Jesus now pronounced curses.
This passage in Luke also gives a clearer example that this reversal should engender love not hatred. So while Jesus turned the tables in regards to who was blessed and who was cursed by God, he didn’t teach that the poor should now hate their cursed oppressors as their self-righteous oppressors had hated them. No, Jesus then went on to immediately prevent the poor from thinking that it was now their right to return the hatred to their cursed oppressors. Jesus taught that rather than stooping to the hateful level that their oppressor did, instead they should love their oppressors, even though they had the right, from a worldly perspective, to hate those who held them down; “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn to them the other also….” Luke 6:27-31

God is love, as 1 John 4:8 states, and God shows His love to us even though we don’t deserve it, even though we act as his enemies. We are to emulate God’s perfect love by loving those to hate us (Matt 5:44). So then, who can imitate God’s radical humble love more fully than those in society who are the most hated and the most humiliated?
Our natural human instinct tells us that these people would be the most justified in returning the hate to those who oppress and mistreat them, just as God also has the most justified reason to hate us who constantly rebel against Him. Yet just as God’s love is perfected by Him choosing to love us when He has every reason to hate us, so also do we have the perfect opportunity to share God’s great love by loving those who show us such great hatred and mistreatment!
Love is perfected in loving those who hate us. Jesus emphasized this when he said “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Do not even the unrighteous do that?....Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:46,48.

          So how wonderful and revolutionary must this have been to hear in the ears of those who saw themselves as a class of society who God did not love? Rather than feeling like outcasts in God’s eyes, Jesus taught that they instead were God’s dearest and most blessed children, and that their wealthy oppressors were now the cursed one’s (Luke 6:20-26).

This revolutionary message also makes perfect sense of Jesus’ challenging teachings about joyfully embracing suffering and persecution, which seems entirely counter-intuitive to us. In fact it sounds just plain absurd. Yet this is precisely what the New Testament teaches (Matt 5:11, James 1:2, Heb 10:34, 2 Cor 12:10, Rom 5:3-4, 1 Thess 5:19). How on earth is it possible to love somebody that ridicules and insults you? How can we really joyfully embrace a slap to the face, or the theft of our hard earned money?
Well, to summarize the message of this article, there is no more powerful and perfect imitation of God’s love than to forgive the unforgivable, or to excuse the inexcusable, or love the unlovable. This is why Jesus tells us to strive for persecution, suffering and insult (Heb 12:1-13, 2 Cor 12:10, Rom 5:3-4, Jam 1:2, 1 Thess 5:19). We are to embrace the hurt and pain, and to receive it with joy. Why? Because when we do this, we are sharing God’s love. God’s perfect love can only be fully expressed when being perfectly hated.
Surely it should be a joyful occasion we get the chance to show God’s great love to those who show us great hatred? If the first Christians all found joy in loving those who so severely persecuted them, then to embrace hatred is something that I want to endeavor to do also.

Bring on the pain!

"Rejoice in the day that people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you. Jump for joy in the day that you are rejected because of the Son of Man."
Luke 6:22-23 (paraphrased)

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