One lens through which we can look at the human condition is that of the socio-economic landscape. What did Jesus have to say about how the socio-economic classes should interact?
There are basically three classes of people in the world, when observed through this simplistic lens: The poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy. Of course, this is a continuum, and there is a wide range within each class. However, there is a distinct wall of separation between them.
The wealth–measured in money and resources–is distributed unevenly amongst the human population. 10% of the people own and control 90% of the wealth. 40% control the rest, and 50% have essentially nothing.
One’s place within each of these classes affects one’s perception of reality and orientation toward time. The wealthy are oriented toward the past. The middle-class are oriented toward the future. The poor are oriented to the present.
This time orientation has to do with power, privilege, and potentiality. The wealthy are oriented toward the past and seek to conserve that which has brought them wealth, safety, and security. They are pure agency in the world. The middle-class are oriented toward the future. They have enough resources, power, and privilege that they believe they have the potential to become wealthy and gain security and power, if they only work hard enough. The poor are oriented to the present because they have no power, no privilege, and thus no hope or potential of changing their situation. They must survive each day, for that is all they have.
…or so Aristotle, and most of Western Civilization has imagined it to be…
This picture is the way the world systems view reality. This ideology has led to the justification of slavery and various extreme abuses of power. These abuses have most often been perpetrated by the church.
What does Jesus have to say about this?
In Matthew chapters 23-25 Jesus discussed “the end” with his disciples. One of the common narratives of Jesus’ day, regarding how things would come to an end, said that God would return to exalt Jerusalem on the day when everyone in Israel correctly obeyed the Law. The Messiah-King would return and reward all the righteous and punish all the sinners.
Jesus used this commonly accepted narrative and turned it on its head. He told his disciples that, first of all, Jerusalem and the temple would be completely destroyed (that happened in A.D. 70 at the hands of the Roman Empire).
Then he said that when the King comes he would separate the righteous from the unrighteous, like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Here’s where he turns it on its head.
The righteous ones were not who you would expect. There are two important things to note about the “sheep” in this passage:
- They were counted righteous because they dwelt with the poor and used their resources to care for those who could not help themselves.
- They didn’t realize that this would give them reward!
Which of these two points is the more noble? Is it the act of serving the poor, or is it the purity of heart that led them to serve the poor because it was the right thing to do, period?
Who were the goats? They were the ones striving to get into the Kingdom of Heaven. Why did this make them goats? I believe it is because their motives for entering the Kingdom were selfish and blinded them to the true needs of their fellow humans.
Notice that the shepherd did not say, “since you treated the poor nicely I’ll grant you access to me for eternity.” The shepherd said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Loving the poor and helpless generously is loving God, and that is the reward.
Ultimately, I believe God is not about rewards and punishment. That is not the point of this text, in my opinion. The point is really about the heart of God and the location of the Kingdom of Heaven. We were created to be in community with one another where there are no walls. This is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers.