The Bible, Government, and Social Justice, Part 2: The ‘Menu’ Problem in Handling Jesus’ Words
In an earlier article (Considering the Words of Jesus for Social Justice and other Applications), I asserted that Jesus’ conversations during His earthly ministry fit into four general categories: “(1) dialogues – usually intended to challenge particular people to repentance (right thinking about who God was and how one could be justified by Him), (2) pre-rejection public discourses about the kingdom – usually intended for broad audiences with a view to promulgating and clarifying the details of the kingdom, so that the nation would understand clearly what was at stake, (3) post-rejection public discourse about the kingdom – usually in parable form, in fulfillment of prophecy, and for the purpose of hiding the truth from those who had already rejected, and (4) preparation of the disciples – often including private instruction so that those He had chosen would be prepared for the task of founding and leading the forthcoming church (assembly).”
With these contextual keys in view, let’s examine some passages often invoked to advocate for social justice. The goal here is (1) to discover what Jesus was actually advocating, and (2) whether or not government mandated social justice was on His agenda.
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 6:20 and Mt 5:3 and Jn 18:36).
Notice that Matthew uses the phrase, “poor in spirit,” emphasizing the spiritual humility necessary to enter the kingdom. In John 18:36 Jesus responds to Pilate’s questioning whether Jesus was the king of the Jews. Jesus explains that His kingdom is not (present tense) of this world. He came offering a heavenly kingdom to be brought to earth, and it was rejected. He was still king, nonetheless, but the kingdom of the heavens (as Matthew records it) is still yet future.
For two reasons, then, this is not a social justice passage: (1) spiritual poverty is not to be equated with physical poverty. Jesus comment was an extolling of spiritual humility; (2) Until Jesus returns to install the kingdom (i.e., Rev. 19-20), His kingdom is not of this world, thus present earthly benefits are not what He has in view.
Now, it should be noted that Jesus words certainly do not oppose kindness and compassion (of course His ministry epitomized kindness and compassion), but these particular words have a very precisely aimed meaning, and they are not addressing social issues in the present age.
Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons; freely you received, freely give (cf. Mt 10:8 and Lk 4:18-21, and 9:1-6).
Context is always very important. Matthew 10:5 sets the context for the statement: “These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them saying…” This is a record of Jesus’ commissioning of twelve specific men with instructions to be free in the use of abilities or gifts that confirmed their divine message. That message was, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Mt. 10:7).
In Luke 4:18-21 and 7:18-23 Jesus appeals to Isaiah 35 and 61, in asserting that He was the Anointed One – the Messiah. The signs accompanying the arrival of Messiah included healing (Is. 35:5-6) and would confirm the good news that He would proclaim (Is. 61:1-2ff).
The physical healing Christ brought served as a confirmation of His message. That He would likewise empower His disciples so that their message (His message) would likewise be confirmed was consistent with His program – which was a kingdom program (His heavenly kingdom come to earth in physical form as promised to David [2 Sam 7]).
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Lk 14:12-14)
These comments are described as part of a parable (Lk 14:7) about humility (14:11), and which concluded with a blessing and a reminder about the kingdom (14:15). Again, we see Jesus’ focus on the kingdom and the spiritual humility that would characterize it. Consequently, we can certainly draw social principles from His teaching – to show true love involves humility, and He commanded that His followers demonstrate love. If present day ethical mandates can be extrapolated from His teaching (and I believe they can), then we see they would be rooted in individual spiritual humility with a view to love one for another.
Sell your possessions and give alms; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Lk 12:33-34)
Addressing his disciples directly (Lk 12:22), Jesus challenges them to pursue heavenly rather than earthly treasure. He reminds them of the connection between the heart and its treasure. Earlier in the passage (12:1-12) he gave them specific directives regarding how they were to deal with their forthcoming persecution. Again, these are not broadly applicable admonitions, necessarily – we have to recognize the primary applications of Jesus’ private instructions to specific men.
Now, of course, we can draw a secondary application. Should we pursue heavenly rather than earthly treasure? Of course (e.g., see Col 3:1-4). But whereas these disciples were commissioned literally to travel as missionaries, not being tied to one spot (Mt 28:16-20; Acts 1:7-8), church age believers are not encouraged to physically walk away from their families and livelihoods, but rather to be faithful stewards of them (e.g., 1 Thes 5; 2 Thes 3).
For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it (Mt 16:25).
Again, Jesus is specifically instructing His disciples (16:24), and concludes the discussion with a statement that some of those standing there would witness His glory (a prophecy fulfilled six days later). Nonetheless, in this passage also we can understand a universal principle is in view (as evidenced by the third person singular pronouns utilized here). As Jesus is preparing these men for their difficult paths ahead, He reminds all of the importance of spiritual humility and devotion to Him.
So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions (Lk. 14:33)
This is one of the rare occasions that Jesus spoke plainly to the multitudes after His kingdom was rejected (this is closer in form to a dialogue for plain instruction than veiled parabolic teaching). He explains to them the true cost of discipleship – the single-mindedness of following Him. To “give up” (Gr., apotassetai) is to forsake.
Importantly, to forsake all one’s possessions (not just some, but all), did not mean the disciple could not possess anything, but rather the disciple must understand that all possessions were from God, and for His use. Note for example 2 Corinthians 9:8 which describes that having an abundance is a blessing that is specifically purposed for “every good deed.” In other words, God doesn’t forbid possessions, rather He gives them for a purpose – His gratification, not ours.
If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come, follow Me (Mt 19:21, parallel in Mk 10:20-22 and Lk 18:12-23).
Whereas the previous reference (Lk 14:33) discussed with a broad audience the cost of discipleship, this one is addressing a specific individual. Here, Jesus challenges an individual who lacks spiritual humility. This man thought he could gain eternal life by his own good works (what good shall I do, ti agathon poieso). Jesus reminds him of the Law (which was given to show humanity’s inability to please God, and to show the need for grace, see Gal 3). Rather than understand the important lesson the Law was intended to teach, the man missed the point entirely and was filled with spiritual pride – asserting he had obeyed fully. In order to show the man he had not followed the Law, Jesus calls him to sell all (not some, Lk 18:21) his possessions and give to the poor. The young man’s response demonstrated that he did not have love for his fellow man, and thus, he had broken the Law of Moses. Still, the man seemed unwilling to humble himself before God.
Importantly, Jesus’ challenge to this young man was not a universal call for the selling of all possessions - He had already explained that the forsaking of all possessions was a part of true discipleship. To forsake does not mean to sell, but in this case, Jesus was challenging the young man to demonstrate or manifest that he had indeed forsaken his possessions. Also, recall the young man’s question was not about discipleship, but rather about eternal life. The man needed to recognize his need for the grace of God, and apparently, he was unwilling to value spiritual life over his temporal possessions.
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s (Mt 22:21, parallel in Mk 12:17 and Lk 20:25)).
Jesus makes this comment in the context of discussing the appropriateness of paying taxes. Jesus could have argued that He was a divine king, not obligated to pay taxes to a human king. Instead, He communicated an important principle, that government and rulers have the right to extract taxes to pay for the function of the state. After all, money is created by the state. Hence, render to Caesar.
Elsewhere, human government is described as bearing the sword and “a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom 13:4, also see 1 Pet 2:13-17). The only Biblically mandated universal cause for man to use the sword is in response to murder, in dealing with that great offense to the image of God (Gen 9:6). Whereas in these passages we see limitations on the scope of government, it is worth noting that Jesus was not focused on the proper function of human government, but rather, His program was the kingdom. He did not lay out a utopian pattern for human government, rather, He focused on His kingdom which would be inhabited by those who were divinely empowered to ascend to His prescribed morality (e.g., the recipients of the New Covenant, Jer 31:33). Nonetheless, in dealing with government, Jesus advocated submission and respect.
…You shall love your neighbor as yourself…(cf. Mt 22:39 and Jn 13:34-35 and 15:12-13).
In dialog with a Pharisee, Jesus explains that this is the second greatest commandment. If this were simply a great commandment in the Mosaic Law, then we would draw no ethical mandate from for today’s church-age believer (since the Law itself was for Israel). But because Jesus describes it as a lynchpin to the Law and the Prophets (a phrase He used to reference the Hebrew Bible), it is an imperative that extends beyond the Mosaic Law, and thus applies to all who would follow Him (e.g., see Gal 5:13-24, noting that the first fruit of the Spirit is love).
In light of that universal responsibility (love) for believers, note that love is a fruit produced by the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer, rather than by behavioristic or external forces.
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in’ naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to me…to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me. (Mt 25:35-40).
In what is famously called the Olivet Discourse, Jesus addresses his disciples privately (Mt 24:3), instructing them regarding things to come. Interestingly, in chapter 25, Jesus emphasizes a principle that “to everyone who has shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he has shall be taken away” (25:29). The principle first appears in 25:3-4 contrasting the foolish (the unprepared) and the wise (the prepared). In both contexts the focus is on preparedness for Jesus’ coming and good stewardship with the resources He has given.
(Forgive a parenthetical thought here, but I must admit I find it ironic that so little attention is given to these passages by those who see a primarily social agenda in Jesus’ teachings. If we were to rip these verses out of context – suggesting they apply to tax policy, for example – then perhaps we should adjust things so that we increase taxes on the poor to redistribute to the rich. Wouldn’t that be consistent with Christ’s teaching here? Of course, I am trying to make a point in so badly misusing this passage. The point is that we can’t pick and choose which passages we will apply, and we can’t ignore context in applying them. If we are being true to the text and to its Author, then we should avoid the “menu” approach and let the text say what it says and let the chips fall where they may.)
As for the discussion of vss. 35-40, the context is a judgment that takes place after the return of Christ. All the nations of that current generation (25:32) are brought before Jesus to be judged for how they treated His “brothers” (probably believers – both Jew and Gentile) during the tribulation period. This is not a judgment for all peoples of all times, but rather a judgment for deeds done in a particular age – and not the one we are in now. Certainly, there are other passages that speak of judgment for deeds done in the present age. One for believers and not related to positional eternal standing (1 Cor 3:10-15), and one for unbelievers that is related to positional eternal standing (Rev 20: 11-15). This “sheep/goat” judgment is distinct from both. In any case, this would be a very difficult passage to connect to a present day social justice agenda for at least two reasons: (1) the rich get richer passages in the context, and (2) timing and distinctiveness of this particular judgment.
These are a few examples of how statements made by Christ, which might appear at first glance to have a social justice agenda, really don’t. Instead His focus is on His coming kingdom and on the redemption and deliverance only He can provide. In the meantime, while we await the installation of that kingdom, He has made the assembly – the church, His body, His instrument – divinely empowered with spiritual gifts for the common good (1 Cor 12:7ff). That body is to pursue, with perseverance and urgency, doing good “to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:10). Consequently, individual believers have tremendous responsibilities in demonstrating love to other believers and to unbelievers. Likewise, believers have a corporate responsibility – as the collective body of Christ, in this present church age, to do good to all men. Clearly the focus is on spiritual things, but the believers’ responsibilities of love are certainly not limited to spiritual expressions.
As James writes, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (Jam 2:15-16)
Again, he says, “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jam 1:27).
Jesus did not come to repair the human condition (sin and separateness from God) by recalibrating society, redistributing resources, or simply meeting physical needs. Rather He came announcing and providing for redemption and restoration through His own sacrifice on the cross. In His teaching, He showed adroitly that the ills of society are merely the symptoms of human lostness, and He provided the remedy if we will but believe in Him. For those who have believed in Him, He calls them to demonstrate His love to those who are suffering from the symptoms. Still, we must keep in mind that the endgame is not the alleviation of symptoms, but rather the eradication of the problem itself.