|Jesus Spiritual Teacher or Social Revolutionary|
Cori Northern Ireland Conference in Omagh
13 October, 2013
“Jesus Spiritual Teacher or Social Revolutionary”
by Fr. Peter McVerry, sj.
Working with young homeless people over the years raised three questions for me. The first is: The Gospels tell us that “Jesus went around the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.” What, then, is the “good news of the Kingdom” which I have to bring to homeless people? What is the “good news of the Kingdom” that the Church has to bring to the one billion people on our planet who are living on the edge of destitution? What is the “good news of the Kingdom” that you have to bring to those who are struggling, to those who are lonely, to those who cannot pay their bills, to those who cannot find work? Is it that there will be place for them in the Kingdom of God in heaven? Well, that is certainly true, but it will hardly have them dancing and singing for joy in the aisles!
The second question was this. “Why was Jesus crucified?” After a very short public ministry, somewhere between 9 months and 3 years, we are not sure exactly, Jesus was put to death. We often present Jesus as a moral teacher who came to tell us how to live our lives, and if we obey his moral code, we will then be rewarded with a place in heaven? My problem with that understanding of Jesus’ mission is that you do not get crucified for telling people to love one another – you get awards for that!
The third question is: When Jesus travelled around Galilee, crowds of people followed him to listen to him. Five thousand people, not counting women and children, listened to him all day long, even forgetting that they were hungry. Every town he went into, the whole town, we are told, turned out to hear him. The poor man who was paralysed and wanted Jesus to cure him couldn’t get near Jesus because of the crowds. “Large crowds followed him, coming from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judaea and Transjordan,” the Gospel writers tell us. The message of Jesus was clearly not irrelevant to the people of his time. Yet today the message of the Church, which is supposed to be the continuation of the message of Jesus, is seen by so many people as irrelevant. Unlike two thousand years ago, they are walking away, uninterested. What has happened? Has the message changed?
Who were these people that followed Jesus to hear what he had to say? Few of them were rich; the rich lived in the cities and there is no record of Jesus ever going into the cities to preach; except once, he went to Jerusalem and we know what happened to him there! No, Jesus preached in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee, which is where the poor, ordinary people lived, people who struggled to feed their families, to pay their taxes – the nobodies of his society. Some of them were destitute, surviving by begging, and despised by the righteous in society. The people who followed Jesus, the people he preached to, were, for the most part, ordinary, poor people. After all he stated very clearly at the beginning of his ministry that he had come “to bring the Good News to the Poor.” Who were these ‘poor’ that Jesus referred to? Were they, as we sometimes hear today, the ‘spiritually poor’?
The rich and the powerful – the somebodies of his society - amongst whom were to be found the Pharisees, the scribes, the lawyers and the priests, also occasionally listened to what Jesus was saying. But their response was to “go away and plot how to get rid of him.” Clearly, what Jesus was saying was not irrelevant to the ordinary, poor, sick, and outcast people who came to listen to him in their thousands; they were enthused by what he was saying and couldn’t get enough of him. Clearly, also, what Jesus was saying was not irrelevant to the rich and powerful because they were infuriated by what he was saying and quickly had quite enough of him.
So what was Jesus doing and saying that generated such different reactions from different social groups?
Who is God?
The fundamental revelation which Jesus came to bring, and which caused such conflict, then as now, was the question of God: “Who is God?”
A God of the Law
For the religious authorities at the time of Jesus, God was a God of the Law. God desires, above all else, that the people of God should obey the Law.
The religious authorities had good justification for this understanding of God. Their faith told them that God had heard the cries of the people enslaved in Egypt, they had called on God to rescue them from their oppression by the Pharaoh. And God heard their cries and sent Moses to lead them out of Egypt. And God made a covenant with the people: on God’s part, God promised to protect them always and to lead them into the promised land; but on their part, they must obey the laws which God was giving them through Moses. These laws instructed them how to live in right relationship with God and with each other: God would be their God and they were to live in justice and peace with each other according to the Law of the Covenant. When Israel was invaded by foreign armies, and the people led off again into exile, they understood that this had happened because they had been unfaithful to the laws of the Covenant. Failure to keep the laws, as given by God, meant that the people of God would have torn up the Covenant and God might therefore abandon them. So the focus of all religious instruction was the Law, the meaning of the Law, the details of the Law. God’s passion was the observance of the Law. If the people failed to keep the Law of God, then dire consequences could be expected to follow.
A God of the Law is, necessarily, a God who is a Judge, a God who rewards and welcomes those who keep the law but punishes and condemns those who do not keep the law. A God of the Law is a God who therefore excludes the sinner.
A God of Compassion
Then along came Jesus. Jesus, as he walked the streets of the towns and villages of Galilee, saw the poverty and the suffering of so many people and the rejection by the religious authorities of those who were considered sinners. This state of affairs was justified by the religious leaders by reference to their God, the God of the Law, the God who judges according to the law and who rejects those who fail to keep it.
And Jesus proclaimed a different God, a God of compassion.
There is a lovely story in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He notices a man with a withered hand. Interestingly, the man with the withered hand does not ask Jesus to cure him; in fact, he does not attract Jesus’ attention in any way. It is Jesus who takes the initiative. He says to the man: “Stand up out here in the middle.” Now Jesus is going to cure the man, but the Law forbids him from curing the man for that is to do work, and work was forbidden on the Sabbath. Why does Jesus say: “Stand up out here in the middle” and ask for trouble? And gets trouble. We are told at the end of the story that the Pharisees met at once and made plans to kill Jesus. So why does Jesus say: “Stand up out here in the middle.” If I had been Jesus, I would have been smarter: I would have said to the man: “Around the back afterwards, we won’t cause any fuss.” And why not? The end result would have been the same – the man goes away cured. No, Jesus cures the man in full view of everyone, and breaks the Law, because what he is doing is at the heart of the revelation which Jesus came to bring, namely, that God is a God of compassion, and not a God of the Law.
The God of compassion and the God of the Law are incompatible. Jesus had no time for legalisms. He was telling the people that in certain circumstances, God actually required them to break the Law. This was heresy. Jesus was seen as a threat to the faith of the people of God, a threat to the very existence of the people of God, which was conditional on the keeping of the Law of the Covenant. Caiphas, the High Priest, understood this when he declared:
“It is better that one man should die than the nation perish.”
How do you preach a God of the Law? Why, you get scholars to study the Law, and examine all the different situations in which the Law might apply, and then you tell people what they are supposed to do. You can preach the God of the Law from an ivory tower, surrounded by your learned books. Any resemblance to the Roman Catholic Church is purely intentional!
But you cannot preach the God of compassion in that way. To reveal the God of compassion, you have to be the compassion of God. You cannot just preach the God of compassion from a pulpit. You can only preach the God of compassion if you are immersed in the poverty and suffering, the homelessness and hopelessness of people around you. It is that real poverty and suffering, homelessness and hopelessness that the God of compassion addresses. And so to understand the revelation of Jesus, that God is compassion, we cannot disconnect Jesus from the society into which Jesus was born, and in which he lived and died. We have to look at the suffering of the people of that time, and the economic, social and political conditions which caused that suffering, just as we have to do today, if we are to preach a God of compassion. Perhaps we have disconnected Jesus from the real, concrete suffering of the people of his time, because it challenges us, even threatens us.
The Kingdom of Herod
So what was that society like?
Jesus was born into the Kingdom of Caesar. Now Caesar had appointed Herod as Tetrarch (or King) of Galilee to keep control of that territory on behalf of Caesar, which Herod did with utter ruthlessness. Herod had no problem slaughtering all the male children under the age of two, one of whom, he had been told, would become King of Israel and was therefore a threat to his own position. Child protection policies were not a priority in Herod’s kingdom! A few years before Jesus was born, Herod had burnt forty Jews to death for trying to lead a protest against Roman occupation. When Jesus was three or four years old, still learning to walk, two thousand Jews were crucified in the city of Sepphoris, only about five miles from Nazareth where Jesus was living, and its inhabitants led off into slavery, as a reprisal for an attempted revolt against Caesar. Life had little value in Caesar’s Kingdom; it was totally dependent on the whim of Caesar or his representatives.
Jesus came to a people who were cruelly oppressed by Caesar and his representatives.
He also came to a people where the vast majority lived at a subsistence level. They lived from day to day, never sure where tomorrow’s food would come from. When Jesus asked them to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” this was a real prayer for them, as it is today for those millions living on the edge of starvation. For most of us, however, it is a prayer whose meaning is purely metaphorical.
Many also lived on the edge of destitution: those with infirmities, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the dumb, the lepers. They had no life, they simply survived from day to day, forced to beg just to stay alive, a very precarious existence.
Others were rejected and unwanted and marginalised: those who were considered to be sinners, with no regard for the Law. They were despised and ostracised.
A small minority, perhaps 7-8%, lived lives of ostentatious wealth, living in mansions, with no concern for the poor and the hungry around them. These were the royal court, the priests and religious aristocracy who became wealthy through the buying and selling of sacrificial offerings in the Temple, the rich landowners, many of them Herod’s friends, who had accumulated large tracts of land by the simply policy of confiscating land from small landowners, often on the pretext that they were unable to pay the exorbitant tax that Herod demanded of them. But Herod didn’t need much pretext, he had absolute power to do whatever he wanted, and there was no court of appeal.
This was God’s chosen people, oppressed both from without and from within, people struggling to survive and to maintain any sense of their own dignity: rejected by their leaders and told that they had also been rejected by God. This was not what God had in mind when God liberated the people from Egypt and led them into the promised land. This was not a people over whom God could happily reign. This was far from the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God
The Messiah – Kingdom here on earth, vanquish their enemies, rebuild temple, God would make his home there, and peace in the world – Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah.
And Jesus came proclaiming a new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, over whom God would happily reign. The dominant spirituality tells us that the Kingdom of God is to be found in Heaven, that is where we – hopefully – will go after we die. However, the people that Jesus was talking to did not understand the Kingdom of God to be in another world, another place. They were awaiting the Messiah, sent by God, who would come and vanquish their enemies, bring peace to the world, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and God would come to live there amongst God’s own people – God would be their King. While this Kingdom would continue for ever, it was most definitely to be found here on earth. And Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah who had come to make God’s Kingdom a reality here on earth. Jesus gives us his mission statement in the prayer he asked us to say, the Our Father: “Thy Kingdom come ....on earth, as it is in Heaven.” And Jesus told people stories about this new Kingdom of God that was coming.
Jesus talked about the rich man  “who feasted sumptuously every day and was dressed in the finest linen” and who couldn’t even be bothered to gather up the crumbs that fell from his table to give them to the poor man at his gate. The people Jesus was talking to knew exactly, some from their own experience, what he was talking about. This was not a made-up story; those in the cities, walking to work or to the market place, passed the beggars sitting at the mansions of the wealth just as those today who live or visit Dublin pass the beggars sitting on the streets. And when Jesus went on to say that the rich man would be cast down to Hades and Lazarus would be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, you can imagine them looking at one another and nodding their heads in approval. Their own religious leaders were telling them that there would be no place for them in God’s kingdom because they had been rejected by the God of the Law, and here was Jesus telling them about a God, a God of compassion, who would welcome them into God’s Kingdom. When Jesus declared that in the Kingdom of God that was on its way: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” they thought of the rich and respectable who considered themselves better than the poor and the infirm, and they were overjoyed. No wonder they could listen to him all day. This was indeed good news to the poor and rejected.
And when Jesus talked about the rich landowner who had a massive harvest and said to himself: “What I am to do? I know, I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones” without any consideration for those around him who were hungry, the people Jesus was talking to knew exactly what part of town these guys lived in. And when Jesus said that God is going to require his soul tonight, you can imagine them smiling with approval. This was indeed a God they would want to believe in.
And when Jesus talked about the large landowner who sent his servants to collect his share of the produce from his tenants (often demanding as much as half of the produce of the land) and the tenants beat the servants and sent them off, they must have applauded loudly. (Now the Gospel writers have made this story into an allegory, where the large landowner is God, the servants are the prophets and the son, whom they put to death, is Jesus, but almost certainly the original story that Jesus must have told many times was the story of the exploitation of the tenants by the large landowners).
These were not “made-up” stories; Jesus was telling it as it was. And he was telling them that, in the Kingdom of God that was coming, their lives were going to be very different.
And when Jesus talked about the labourers who waiting in the market square all day, hoping to get a few hours work, they knew exactly what Jesus was talking about: some of them, no doubt, had “been there, done that”. And when Jesus said that even those who were given work at the eleventh hour also received the same wage, one denarius - enough to feed their family for the day - they were astounded; they never heard of any rich vineyard owner doing such a thing. A rich landowner who actually cared whether his workers had enough food or not! And when Jesus tells them that the rich vineyard owner is like God, they are filled with wonder; could God really be a God that cares, that cares about them and whether their families will get fed? They want to hear more about this wonderful God.
But Jesus didn’t just tell people about the God of compassion. When Jesus healed the blind and the lame and the lepers, who were told by their own religious leaders that they were cursed by God, in the very act of being healed they experienced the God of compassion that Jesus revealed. This was a God beyond all their expectations. No wonder those who were cured went off and told everyone what Jesus had done, even when Jesus had instructed them to tell no-one. How could you not go and tell everyone about this God of compassion and love?
And when Jesus ate with sinners, who were told by their own religious leaders that they were forsaken by the God of the Law, in their table fellowship with Jesus they experienced the unconditional forgiveness of the God of compassion. This was not just “Good News,” this was extraordinary news, beyond all their expectations.
And when Jesus reached out, in friendship, to the unwanted and marginalised, who were told by their own religious leaders that God had rejected them, they experienced God’s acceptance of them. This is what they had not even dared to hope for, and now it was becoming a reality for them.
Jesus did not preach a God of the Law. If Jesus came to give the people new laws, or to reinforce the laws that the religious authorities of his time were preaching, the crowds would not have followed him to listen to him. They were, in fact, sick of being oppressed by a multiplicity of laws that they were told they had to obey. No, they listened to Jesus all day long, thousands of them, because he preached a different God, a God who was Good News, a God of compassion.
This conflict between the God of the Law and the God of compassion is a fundamental conflict in our Church and spirituality today. We have to admit that our Church has often preached a God of the Law. You were identified as a good Catholic by your adherence to a variety of laws and regulations: going to Mass on Sunday, not getting a divorce, not using condoms, not using contraceptives and so on. Your fidelity to the Church’s laws and rules was the proof of your fidelity to God. Your relationship to God was defined by your observance of laws – if you do as you are supposed to do, then God is pleased with you and will reward you; if you do not do as you are supposed to do, then God will be angry and punish you. Thus, our relationship with God is controlled by us, by our behaviour. But we cannot control our relationship with anyone, still less God!
The dominant image of God, in this spirituality, is that of Judge. The Church, like the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, excludes those who do not obey the laws which the Church has declared to be the laws of God. The Church has preached a God who will reward the just with eternal happiness in Heaven and punish the sinner with eternal punishment in Hell.
Is this why today the message of the Church, which is supposed to be the continuation of the message of Jesus, is seen by so many ordinary people to be irrelevant to their lives? Unlike the thousands of people who followed Jesus, enthused by what he was saying, today thousands of people, especially the young, are walking away. Are they, like sheep without a shepherd, looking for a God of compassion and being fed a God of the Law?
Jesus is telling those who came to listen about a Kingdom where those on the margins of society will be welcomed, respected, and valued instead of being rejected, and unwanted; where people will reach out to the poor, and share what they have, so that their needs will be met, instead of being ignored and despised by those who had the resources to meet their needs. In this new Kingdom, people will live in a totally different way to the way they now had to live, people will live by totally different values to the values of the society around them. In this new Kingdom, their King will be, not the brutal Herod or the warmongering Caesar, but God, a God of compassion, a God who cares.
The God who liberated the people from their oppression in Pharaoh’s Kingdom is now coming, indeed has already come, to liberate the people once again, this time from their suffering in Caesar’s Kingdom, which oppressed them with the collusion of the priests and religious aristocracy.
So they wanted to know: where was this new Kingdom to be found? And what did they have to do to enter this Kingdom?
The early Christian Community
The early Church, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, understood that they were to continue the mission of Jesus, to reveal the God of compassion by being the compassion of God to each other and to the world. The way of life of this Christian community caused such astonishment to the pagans that their spontaneous response was: “See how they love one another.” Their leader and King, the one they followed, the model for their life together, was the risen Jesus, Son of God, who continued to be present amongst them. In this community, the Kingdom of God that Jesus had promised was close at hand, was now present in our world.
I read the Gospels now, not as instructions to me as to how I should live my life according to the moral laws of God which Jesus revealed, but as instructions to the early Christian community – and therefore to us, as the Christian community in our time - as to how we are to live together in order to be the Kingdom of God on earth.
A community of radical solidarity
And so I read the story of the feeding of the five thousand people. Five thousand people spent the whole day listening to him. In the evening, the disciples had to go up to Jesus and say: “Jesus, would you ever shut up! The people are hungry. Send them off to the towns and villages around, so that they can get something to eat.” The whole point of the story, for the early Christian community, lies in Jesus’ answer to the disciples:
“No, you give them something to eat yourselves.”
The Christian community understood that this was an instruction from Jesus to them. They were to ensure that they reached out to those amongst them who were in need and not leave their needs unmet.
The Kingdom of God is where God lives, where God is to be found. In the famous Last Judgement scene, we read:
“I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in hospital and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to see me. Welcome into the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Perhaps Matthew is not talking about judgement at all. Perhaps Matthew is describing a community where God is present. A community which reaches out to feed the hungry, to give water to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, in other words, to meet the needs of all, a community which expresses the compassion of God in its life together, is a community where you will find present the God of compassion. “Welcome into the Kingdom.”
But a community which fails to reach out to meet the needs of all is a community where God, the God of compassion, is absent.
“I was hungry and you did not give me to eat, I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink, I was naked and you did not clothe me, I was in hospital and in prison and you did not visit me...Depart from me.”
The early Christians understood that, to enter the Christian community, the Kingdom of God, a person took on the responsibility of being the compassion of God to one other. Hence, they were to live together in radical solidarity with each other, loving each other with a love that was willing to share everything for the sake of those in need. Just as Jesus had given up everything, including what was most precious to him, his own life, for our sake, so they, as followers of Jesus were to be prepared to give up everything, even what may be most precious to them, for the sake of their brothers and sisters. They understood that all they had were gifts, given to them by God, not so that they could have a good life and enjoy themselves, (like the guy in the Kingdom of Caesar who built bigger barns to store his harvest) but so that they (now living in the Kingdom of God) could use them for the benefit of others. They were, therefore, to share their resources, their time, their talents, their skills for the sake of those who needed them. And so the rich young man, a good young man, a young man who had kept all the commandments from his youth, whom, we are told, “Jesus looked on him and loved him,” nevertheless, he could not become a follower of Jesus, could not be admitted to the early Christian community, because his unwillingness to share what he had for the sake of those in need was a contradiction to everything that Jesus lived and preached, an obstacle to revealing a God of compassion by being the compassion of God.
A community of radical inclusiveness
One of the characteristics of Jesus’ life that was remembered and passed down from generation to generation of Christians in those early communities was the fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with sinners.
“Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.”
This caused Jesus endless difficulties. “How could this man be from God, when he associates with the enemies of God, those who do not keep the Law?” righteous people, good living people, asked. The God of the Law cannot tolerate the actions of the God of compassion.
How would the early Christian community understand these words when they heard them read at the Sunday Eucharist? Jesus they knew to be God; God eating would bring to mind the Kingdom of God in Heaven, which was often portrayed as a meal at which God presides.
“Master, who shall be at the feast in the Kingdom of God?” (Luke 14 v 15)
And who will be present at that meal? Why, those who were excluded and unwanted here on earth in the Kingdom of Caesar. And so they reasoned, if they will be welcomed amongst God’s guests in the Kingdom of God in Heaven, then they should also be welcomed in their community, the Kingdom of God on earth.
The early community understood that this radical inclusiveness, revealed by the actions of Jesus, was normative for their community and life together. In their community, no-one was to be unwanted, rejected or marginalised. Everyone has the same dignity of being a child of God and that dignity was to be recognised and affirmed by the way in which the Christian community reached out to them and accepted them.
A small child, Jesus of Nazareth, born two thousand years ago, was then, and is now, the revelation of God’s hope for our world. In this child, the human and the divine have become one, forever inseparable. Other religions might tell us that we encounter God in sacred places, in temples, places of worship, but we Christians believe that, because of this child Jesus, we encounter God in other human beings.
“In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Matt 25 v 40)
And while other religions might tell us to worship God with sacred actions, with sacrifices, and prayers, we Christians, because of this child Jesus, worship God by loving God in each other, by caring, reaching out, to our fellow human beings.
“A give you a new commandment, love one another; you must love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13 v 34)
God’s dream, God’s hope for our world then, is that we might love one another as God has loved us, by reaching out to those who suffer, the poor, the homeless, the lonely, the sick, the rejected and the unwanted.
Jesus came to make God’s dream for our world a reality. To transform the world from where it is today to where God would like it to be tomorrow requires a revolution. That revolution is the Community of Christians, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God. We, that Community, have a lot of soul-searching, a lot of hard thinking to do. Does the life of this community reflect the vision of God for our world? Or would Jesus find the same inequalities, injustice and marginalisation in this community as he once found two thousand years ago? Does the life of the Christian community, and the relationships within it, challenge the values and practices of the wider society in which it exists, in a way that brings persecution and rejection from that society? Or does the Christian community sit comfortably in society, indistinguishable from it? Have we betrayed the trust that God has placed in us, have we rationalised away the Gospel to suit our own interests and comforts? Are we prepared for the radical conversion that would transform our relationships with each other, particularly with the poor and marginalized?
We are called to listen long and hard to the Gospel, to the call of the King who invites us to transform this world through a radical solidarity with all others, to follow him who gave his life for us by giving our own lives, and everything we have and are, for our brothers and sisters.
A call to a radical personal conversion that would revolutionize our world.
This self-sacrificing love for others has such radical consequences for the way we live together, that it threatens many in our society today, just as it did 2,000 years ago. This self-sacrificing love is incompatible with the inequalities of wealth and power that exist in our society and in our world. In a community that loves one another, there should be no-one poor, unless all are poor; there should be no-one homeless, no-one lonely, no-one sick or alone without visitors, no one in prison who has been abandoned or written off, there should be no-one rejected or marginalised, if we truly loved one another as God has loved us .
God’s dream, of a world that loves with the radical unselfish love of God, is good news to some but bad news to others. Now, as then, there are those who seek to destroy God’s dream for our world. Then, Herod sought to destroy that dream by slaughtering the children; the powerful sought to destroy that dream by executing Jesus. Now, there are many who are attached to wealth and power, who feel threatened by God’s message of caring and sharing, of solidarity with the poor and the needy, of using power, not for self-serving purposes, but for serving others, who will resist – often with violence - God’s call to build a community of love.
Those who are poor, who are sick, in hospital, living alone, those in prison, or homeless, those who are unemployed, offer us, in their need, a great gift, in fact the greatest gift of all. They invite us to open our hearts to include them in our love. If we expand our hearts to include them in our love, we become more loving persons, and so we become more fully human, and therefore more fully divine. No greater gift than that can anyone offer us.
If Jesus Christ today is to offer hope to those who are struggling, who live on the edge, who feel unwanted, that hope is you and I. If we do not care and share, if we do not reach out, then there is no hope, and we will have destroyed, yet again, God’s dream for our world. A community where everyone’s needs are met through the caring and sharing of each one in the community, where everyone feels loved, valued and respected, would surely be the Kingdom of God on earth.
You don’t get crucified for telling people to love one another – unless you mean by love something so radical, so threatening to the rich and powerful that they want to get rid of you.