The teachings of Jesus are those of a first century, Palestinian Jew, who subscribed to the current apocalyptic view, that a great ‘reversal’ in world history was imminent. God was about to intervene dramatically to finally deal with the powers of evil, and all people who hadn’t been loyal to himself. The dead would be raised and likewise judged, some to be accepted into the newly established earthly Kingdom of God, and others to be forever rejected.
The time available for getting ready was short. The crunch would come, said Jesus, within the lifetime of “this generation”. Because his focus was short-term, and because he believed the eternal destiny of his hearers was at stake, his teaching had a sharp edge, a radicalism, even a ‘hyper’ quality. It does make sense to ‘take no thought for tomorrow’, and to give away wealth and property, if there are few tomorrows left before this present world order ends. It makes sense even to risk family breakup, if a day of final judgement is about to dawn. We need, however, to ‘reinterpret’ such teachings from our non-apocalyptic viewpoint.
An example is Jesus’ anticipation of a ‘reversal in fortunes’. Those currently at the top of the socio-political-economic pile would be replaced by those at the bottom. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “Happy are you poor; the Kingdom of God is yours. Happy are you who are hungry now; you will be filled. Happy are you who weep now; you will laugh.” BUT “How terrible for you who are rich now; you have had your easy life. How terrible for you who are full now; you will go hungry. How terrible for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep.”
It’d be a mistake to interpret this from our 21st century viewpoint, and regard Jesus as a 1st century, revolutionary, left-wing firebrand. The logic here is apocalyptically simple and straightforward. The present age is governed by the powers of evil, therefore those who have achieved status, wealth and power are ‘on their side’, whereas the disadvantaged and deprived, the poor and the outcasts, are not, and it’s they who’ll enter God’s new Kingdom.
You and I are not, I trust, apocalyptically minded, but that needn’t mean that this aspect of Jesus’ teaching has nothing to say to us. In the UK, the gap between rich and poor is widening. A recent study by the Office for National Statistics found that the poorest 10% of households had debts three times greater than their assets, compared with the richest 10% whose wealth pile is 35 times larger than their total debts. According to the Equality Trust, the wealthiest 100 people have as much money as the poorest 18 million. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 4.3 million children are living in poverty, and lacking in food, warmth, clothing, good housing and health.
God is not about to step in and sort this out, but you and I, if we are comfortably off, can commit to sharing some of what we have with others in need, and we can support politicians and political parties that acknowledge, and have credible and effective policies aimed at addressing, this unnecessary and unforgivable state of affairs. This is especially so, if we claim to respect and value Jesus’ teachings.
Associated with ‘the great reversal’ is the following : “If anyone wishes to be first, he will be last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 10), and, “whoever is least among you, this one in fact is great”. (Luke 9). Once again, in the apocalyptic context, to pursue status, wealth, and power over others, is to be ‘in cahoots’ with the evil world powers that are soon to be destroyed, along with all their supporters and the hangers-on who’ve benefitted as a result.
And also once again, even if we don’t subscribe to an apocalyptic outlook, we can heed this warning against seeking, for their own sake, and for personal advantage and gain, status, wealth and power over others. To be a leader, says Jesus, is not to be a self-important, self-seeking, crony-favouring, avaricious, domineering, power freak, but someone who sets an example of collaborative leadership, which values the contribution of all involved, and seeks to meet the interests and needs of the many rather than the few. A fresh look, and reinterpretation, of Jesus’ teachings has much to offer our world today.