The Occupy LSX camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral has meant that that the church’s relationship with causes of political and economic justice has been front page news in recent months in an unprecedented way. It has lead to a politicised renewal of the phrase What Would Jesus Do?
This makes sense – any discussion of Christian ethics need to consider how the person at the centre of the faith would respond. But in order to consider what would Jesus do we need to be clear about what did Jesus do. What was his relationship with the powerful institutions of his day? What was his attitude to the rich? How did he treat the poor and marginalised?
Years ago, John Smith, speaking at the Greenbelt festival, challenged his hearers to go through one of the gospels and list all of Jesus encounters with individuals and groups that we found. He asked us to note whether they were people who could be considered powerful in terms of wealth, social standing or politics or whether they could be considered on the margins. Then we were to note whether the encounter with Jesus had a positive or negative outcome.
So what Jesus did do in the Matthew’s Gospel?
Being keen, I went and did this and below I have re-produced my list. I used Matthew’s gospel as it contains the longest account of Jesus’ life.
It is obvious to see the pattern that emerges: In the vast majority of cases, Jesus’ encounters with the powerful are negative and his encounters with those on the margins are positive.
Where the outcome fits with this pattern is recorded in green in the last column and where its does not it is marked with red. For two encounters the outcome is not recorded in the gospel so these have been left blank. Obviously the judgement around whether someone is powerful or marginalised is simplistic – I am aware that some would be powerful in some contexts and marginal in others.
What the pattern tells us
But the pattern that emerges is strong and clear enough to show us the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ values. Sure, Jesus was compassionate. He comforted the disturbed – bringing hope, healing and joy to people in need. But his mission cannot be just framed in the positive – for Jesus also disturbed the comfortable – especially challenging those who were rich, religious and complacent. In short, Jesus shook the religious, political and economic status quo to its core. His actions angered the powers that be and they put him to death.
The way of Jesus is an ‘upside-down kingdom’ which turns the selfish and unjust values of the world on its head. Where economic, social or religious systems embody selfishness and injustice, Jesus calls us to turn over their tables. We have to remember that there is nothing more biblical than a concern for poverty and economic justice. As this list shows, if we are following Jesus, we are following a God who has ‘brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble’ who has ‘filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty’ (Luke 1:52-53).