What did social justice mean to Jesus? A clear-eyed reading of the gospels reveals that it meant to be more equitable access to wealth, resources, security, authority, and power. The gospels portray relief for the impoverished masses in Israel to be his primary concern. We know this because he spoke about poverty and the impoverished more often and more passionately than any subject except God. His concern was so great that he spoke of the poor even in the sublime heights of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
It is estimated that between the vagaries of weather and climate, the taxes paid to their Roman overlords, and mandatory religious obligations, some 95 percent of the people of Israel were poor, with hunger widespread. Rabbinic writings tell of bands of homeless poor people roaming the countryside, so desperate that when the poor tithe was distributed they sometimes stampeded like cattle. The sad observation of a second-century rabbi could just as easily have been made in Jesus’s day a century earlier: “the daughters of Israel are comely, but poverty makes them repulsive.”
So great was the poverty and hunger that the gospel portrays the expectant mother of Jesus thanking God that among the acts of salvation to come from the Messiah in her womb was that he would “[fill] the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53). The gospels record Jesus feeding the hungry on several occasions. He intoned to those without enough food to eat, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (Luke 6:21). He even acknowledged the people’s hunger as he taught them to pray for “daily bread” (arton epiousion, Matthew 6:11), the dietary staple of the poor.
In metaphors, parables, and direct assertions Jesus issued denunciations of inequitable treatment and the traditions and structural barriers that stood in the way of people’s material well-being. He said, “Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full now” (Luke 6:24–25) and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 9:24). He commended a rich tax collector for pledging to give half of his fortune to the poor and repay fourfold anyone he might have defrauded (Luke 19:1–10). There is the poignant parable of the haughty rich man who ignored the desperation of a beggar “covered with sores” and ends up in hell (Luke 16:19–26). And, again, in the parable of the sheep and the goats he declared that people who do not respond to the hunger, thirst, and nakedness of those in need “will go away into eternal punishment” (see Matthew 25:31–46).
Jesus railed against the rich without compromise or qualification. But because his social justice pronouncements concerning poverty and wealth are so extreme, they are usually ignored or dismissed as quaint and unrealistic. But when viewed in the context of Jesus’s setting in life, what might appear as quaint or unrealistic in actuality offers valuable ethical guidance.
It is true that Jesus judged all material riches as immoral, without exception. But his pronouncements had a different meaning in his time and place. They reflect a perspective that cultural anthropologists call “limited good,” a cultural worldview prevalent in ancient Near Eastern peasant societies that held that every material good was in finite supply. Late antiquity was a world of rudimentary technology with no real economies of scale. Upward socioeconomic mobility was almost nonexistent. Most persons were peasants, virtually powerless against the vagaries of nature and the will and whim of the powers that be. In such a setting the notion of the world as containing only a finite amount of goods was a fully reasonable conclusion. As anthropologist George M. Foster explains, “Broad areas of peasant behavior . . . suggest that peasants view . . . their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life . . . exist in finite quality and are always in short supply.”
Given their belief in a limited amount of available goods and resources in the world, coupled with the cultural belief that, because everyone was created in the image of God, everyone was entitled to their own fair share of those goods, it was a small step to the conclusion that anyone who accumulated more wealth than others did so by unjustly depriving their neighbors of their own rightful portion. Thus, all accumulations of wealth beyond that of others in their communities were considered un-justly gained by greed, deceit, exploitation, or theft. As cultural anthropologist, Bruce J. Malina explains, “That every rich person is a thief or the heir of a thief was a truism based upon the perception of limited good. If all goods are limited and people were created more or less on equal footing, then those who have more must have taken it from those who now have less.” That is why Plato (428–348 BCE) declared, “The very rich are not good,” and eight centuries later the indictment of St. Jerome (Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, ca. AD 347–420) could be even more biting: “Every rich person is a thief or the heir of a thief.”
Because of the immense technological advances since Jesus’s time, his indictment of every rich person and all accumulations of riches as sinful and unjustly gained does not hold in today’s world. One can become rich in technologically advanced societies with their economies of scale from innovations and inventions without stealing from others. But that doesn’t change the moral and ethical character of Jesus’s sayings; he still railed against ill-gotten wealth that is unjustly obtained and maintained. So, when Jesus’s words are applied to today’s world of technological and industrial advances, they carry the same character of judgment and indictment against greedy, dishonest, unscrupulous, unjust economic elites as they did in his day. In other words, no matter the time or the setting, wealth is unjust for Jesus whenever it is gotten and used in an unjust fashion, or for unjust ends, or when it is greedily accumulated and not shared with those in need. In a real sense, Jesus offers a profound judgment of America’s capitalist ethos.
Moreover, Jesus’s sense of social justice was quite politically radical. He mounted bold public demonstrations against the temple’s economic apparatus and its money changers. He fed thousands of poor people which, on at least one occasion, moved an assembled crowd to commit the seditious act, punishable by death by Roman law, of attempting to crown him king in a land already ruled by Caesar (John 6). He fearlessly denounced the agents of the temple’s reigning status quo as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33), “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27), and excoriated them as enemies of God: “You are from your father the devil” (John 8:44). He even highlighted the exploitation of landless workers (Matthew 20:1–16).
The New Testament gospels testify that Jesus’s deep concern for the plight of poor people was ever-present. Today he would be considered a radical, perhaps even a socialist, for preaching good news to the poor and woes to the rich; for explicitly and implicitly denouncing the unjust, inequitable distribution of wealth and abuse of economic power in his homeland; for staging disruptive public demonstrations against an exploitive, nonresponsive political-religious establishment at the central site of their power (Mark 11:15–19); and for traveling his country for three years disturbing the status quo. It is important to note, however, that his radical stances were not just political in nature. The gospels attest that prior to beginning his ministry of activism, Jesus spent an ex- tended period in the wilderness engaged in spiritual ministrations that included solitude, fasting, meditation, and contemplation.
The gospel of Luke makes clear that there was a direct relationship between his spiritual preparation and his activism, for it is only after his extended wilderness sequestration that he publicly declared the messianic (“anointed”) role he was to play in the lives of his people (Luke 4:16–18). Thus, the social radicality of Jesus was a function of his holistic spirituality. That is to say that his vertical spiritual relationship with God defined his horizontal spiritual relationship with humanity. The point at which the vertical and the horizontal spiritualities meet and interact is what we may call holistic spirituality. It is his holistic spiritual attunement that fuels the activist urgency of his social and political ministry.
For right-wing evangelical Christians, it is the foregrounding of their evangelical identity in opposition to other modes of Christian belief—especially progressive Christianity—that is important almost to the point of constituting a political litmus test. They routinely largely regard anyone who does not subscribe to their beliefs to be morally unfit for political office. It does not matter how much others attempt to love their neighbors or respond to the needs of the weak and vulnerable; for evangelicals, anyone who does not condemn same-gender-loving people, opposes a woman’s right of sovereignty over her own body, or rejects the government’s responsibility to care for the welfare of those in need is not a worthy person.
Yet nowhere did Jesus suggest dogmatic religious litmus tests as necessary requirements for following him, or even for going to heaven; not once in his Gospel pronouncements does he say that God would judge anyone based upon adherence to any particular creed. In fact, in the entirety of the gospels, he says virtually nothing about what to believe. What he did teach were ethical precepts about serving and honoring God by treating our neighbors in ways consistent with the just and loving will of God or, as I have articulated it elsewhere, treating the people’s needs as holy. Jesus’s words in Matthew 25:31 testify that what ultimately determines whether people are bound for heaven or condemned to hell is not what they do in the privacy of their bedrooms, or the regularity of their attendance at church or synagogue, or their degree of diligence in performing table blessings and bedtime prayers, not even what they profess to believe.
According to Jesus here, what determines whether a person’s path leads to heaven or to hell is the way they treat others: whether they have endeavored in their own ways, no matter how large or small, to remove obstacles to the satisfaction of others’ real needs; whether they have tried to ease the systemically imposed suffering of those unjustly held in the hellish depths of prisons, and so on. In other words, people will be judged by whether they have endeavored to live lives leavened by the divine imperative of social justice, again, as articulated in the parable of the sheep and the goats:
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. . . .
Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [“the just”] to eternal life. (Mat- thew 25:41–46, NIV)
Excerpted from Christians Against Christianity: How Right-Wing Evangelicals Are Destroying Our Faith and Our Nation by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. Copyright 2021. Excerpt with permission from Beacon Press.