Christ and Contemporary Culture

The Economics of God's Kingdom

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Artwork by Geoff Johnson

Many people within the Church, as well as those outside, have said that religion and politics do not mix. And for the most part, they are probably right. In recent decades the Church has been politicized. At least in America, it has been used as a pawn by different factions in order to secure more political power, which only serves to undermine the Church’s integrity and its witness. The polarization within our broader culture has seeped into local churches, creating disunity and drawing battle lines between fellow believers. But to say Christians should avoid politics altogether as a solution to the problem is an ill-drawn conclusion. Withdrawal from politics can lead to an abdication of responsibility. Inaction often results in maintaining the status quo. It simply is not possible to remain neutral.

The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek word ‘polis’ which means ‘city,’ so broadly speaking, politics has to do with life within human society—it is the art of living in community together. In a narrower sense, politics is the science of government. It is focused on developing policies, enacting laws, and gaining political power in order to create social change. 

Based on that narrow definition, many conclude that Jesus was apolitical. True, Jesus never ran for political office, formed a political party, organized a political protest, or wrote a political manifesto. But if one considers the aforementioned broader definition of politics, Jesus’ whole ministry was political. He came to introduce an entirely new structure for human society—the kingdom of God—and to turn the values and standards of our world upside down.

Blessed Are The Poor
In Luke 4 Jesus gives his first public address at the synagogue in Nazareth to reveal who he is and what he has come to do, saying he has been anointed by God “to proclaim good news to the poor” (v. 18). Later in Luke 6, Jesus expands his circle of concern within his Sermon on the Plain and reveals why he has good news for the most vulnerable members of ancient Near Eastern society. Jesus issues four promises or blessings (blessed are the poor, hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated) and four words of warning or woe (woe to the rich, the satisfied, those who laugh, and those who are esteemed). 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,“ but in the Gospel of Luke, Luke omits “in spirit” and simply says, “Blessed are the poor.” As a result, many have wondered if Jesus is addressing spiritual or material conditions. The answer is both. When Jesus issues these blessings, he is speaking of both the spiritually and materially impoverished. To be blessed by God means to be accepted and approved by him. God’s blessing is not a subjective feeling like happiness, but rather an objective state of being, independent of circumstances. To be blessed means to find favor with God. If that is the case, why does Jesus say the poor are blessed? If we look to the Old Testament context, we read throughout the Psalms and the prophets that the poor are the impoverished and the oppressed, who, in the midst of their plight, look to God alone by faith as their only hope for rescue. They recognize their spiritual poverty, and receive God's favor by faith alone. If the spiritually poor also happen to be materially poor, then they are doubly blessed because they find within the kingdom of God a new passion for justice and a new dignity as members who belong to the people of God.

Along with his four words of blessing, Jesus also issues four words of warning. If we fail to see Jesus for who he really is and if we fail to acknowledge our desperate need for him, then he can only offer us a word of woe. Jesus warns us now in order to spare us later, and therefore, we must pay close attention to his words. 

Kingdom Economics
As we see with Jesus’ blessings and words of warning, the kingdom of God ushers in a radical social inversion. Rather than suggesting that we should push down those who are in positions of power in order to lift up those who are powerless, Jesus focuses on the radix, the root of all of our problems—the human heart. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff puts it like this,

“Jesus did not mean, literally, that justice requires that beggars become kings and kings become beggars. The beggars would soon start acting like kings. The clue to the meaning of the theme of social inversion lies in this sentence, ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ The coming of justice requires the humbling of those who exalt themselves. The arrogant must be cured of their arrogance; the rich and powerful must be cured of their attachment to wealth and power. Only then is justice for all possible.”

In God’s economy, people from across the social spectrum—from the one living in the homeless shelter to the penthouse apartment, from the uneducated to the Ph.D.—are drawn into relationship with one another. Perhaps even more remarkably, in God’s economy, people give radically and sacrificially in order to meet the needs of those within their community so that no one is in need. This is not the forced redistribution of wealth by the government, but the voluntary redistribution by the Church. It is far too generous and sacrificial to call it merely capitalism, and far too free and voluntary to call it merely socialism. This is the economics of God’s kingdom. And it is not just about money. It is about providing food in order to keep people from going hungry and scrubbing floors in order to keep people from being evicted from their apartments. It is about providing counseling and support in order to keep people from feeling like abortion is their only option and about caring for one another's children in order to keep them from being forced into the foster system. It is about providing jobs, and visiting the sick, the dying, and the lonely, and rescuing people from abusive relationships. This is what happens when people become part of Jesus’ kingdom movement.

Jesus’ Social Inversion
It is only when we look to Jesus—who went through a radical social inversion of his own—that we desire and seek after God’s design for human society. As the second person of the Trinity—the one and only Son of God—Jesus had it all, yet he died in poverty without a penny to his name. Jesus was full and lacked for nothing, yet he emptied himself. He enjoyed perfect harmony with his Heavenly Father through the bonds of the Holy Spirit, yet his laughter and joy turned to tears as he cried out in the garden, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus basked in the glow of his Father's adulation, yet on the cross he was excluded as he bore the curse of our sin in our place. He did all of this, voluntarily, for us— to transform our poverty into riches, our hunger into satisfaction, our mourning into joy, and our curse into blessing. Only Jesus can humble us out of our pride in order to exalt us. Only Jesus can turn the standards of our world upside down. Or, perhaps more accurately, right side up.

From Jesus + Justice: The Political Jesus, adapted by Mary-Catherine McKee