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 History/Culture: Are There Limits on the Gospel of Christ?

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

According to the Luke gospel, after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptizer, he withdrew for 40 days to think, ponder, and pray. His next stop was a synagogue gathering in his home community, Nazareth. Jesus read from an Isaiah scroll, and then laid out his four point agenda. First, he was going to take up the causes of the poor. Second, he was going to work for the release of the people, who were incarcerated or oppressed. Third, he was going to bring sight to the blind. Fourth, he was proclaiming The Year of the Lord.

That was a huge agenda for a thirty year old from a tiny village, who had no experience, no following, and no formal training. Particularly challenging was the fourth proposal. The Year of the Lord was a reference to an Old Testament law that required a complete redistribution of wealth. According to Old Testament law, every 50 years all land holdings were to be abandoned and redistributed among the Israelites. It had never been done, but the law was still on the books. ...

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The Jesus agenda was tough. Taking up the causes of the poor meant challenging the Roman tax system and the fee system of the Temple in Jerusalem. He decided to challenge the greedy rich, who were heartless employers of the poor. From the beginning of his ministry, he became a healer.

I recognize that translating a stump speech from 2000 years ago into a meaningful action plan in 2010 is a tough job. However, abandoning the Jesus agenda is not acceptable to anyone who calls himself/herself a follower of the rabbi from Nazareth. Jesus was committed to building a just kingdom of God on earth. His followers cannot deny that he gave preference to the poor and gave no respect to the rich. Imprisonment of anyone was not on his agenda. Sight, hearing, and a working body for everyone was an important commitment. Fair wages and a fair tax system were all a part of his proposal.

How far should serious Jesus followers take his agenda into a modern world? Are his calls for social and economic justice to be taken seriously in 2010?

In the November, 2010, edition of Sojourners magazine, Editor Jim Wallis wrote an article that analyzes the Tea Party in America. I am writing having heard the results of the November 2 elections. According to pundits and political analysts the Tea Party has had a powerful influence on the election results. I have been mulling over the significance of the Tea Party impact. Wallis does not see the Tea Party as having a religious base, and I agree. The Tea Party appears to be a rebirth of the libertarian views of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand was an avowed atheist and saw the altruism of Jesus as an expression of weakness. In recent months Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged” has again become a best seller. Something significant is happening in the soul of America.

The Tea Party is based on values that run headlong into conflict with the agenda of Jesus. The supreme value of the Tea Party is the rights of individuals. It sounds good when first heard. The cry “take back our freedoms” sounds great until it is set along side of the Jesus vision of the kingdom of God on earth.

Implicit in the Jesus vision of justice is the accepting of responsibility for one’s neighbor. Just as Jesus expressed a special interest in the poor, Tea Party members make no secret of their conviction that the strong have a right to dominate and control the weak and the poor.

With the immergence of the Tea Party, Christians are faced with a growing number of elected officials who believe the government ought not to be involved in retirement programs, education, and health care. Privatization is the Tea Party proposal for everything.

America was designed by our founders to be a secular society, but one in which religion was freely exercised. We are a society that has struggled with justice for all, but ultimately we have embraced the ideas of common good, equality and opportunity for all. Christians are only one part of the mix of people that make up our society. We have a right and a responsibility to participate fully in the great debates of our nation. Is it appropriate for us to bring with us the commitments of Jesus into the public arena?

If we truly care for those who are poor, those who are sick, those who are disenfranchised, those who are in prison, those who suffer discrimination of any kind, without hesitation we will bring the Gospel of Christ with us to the public square. For Jesus his religion was more than a private matter. It was a public matter that demanded expression. Our religious convictions should be no less.



The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]


[06 November 2010]

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