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Jesus: social revolutionary?

30 November, 1999

Fr Peter McVerry SJ pushes us to take a look at Jesus and Christianity through the eyes of the poor, the sick and the marginalised. And this calls for some hard decisions, like, Who do you not want to live beside you?

142 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


Preface by Gerard W. Hughes SJ

  1. Introduction 
  2. Jesus and the outcasts
  3. Who is God? 
  4. Where is God to be found?
  5. God is unfair
  6. The new community of God
  7. Jesus, liberator – The New Moses
  8. Persecution of the community 
  9. Forgiveness within the community
  10. Reflections on a spirituality for the new community 





Many understand Christianity to be a religion that imposes certain moral obligations on its followers – understood to be the will of God – which, if we observe them, will win us a place, after death, in the Kingdom of God. For them, Jesus was a teacher, Who provided guidance for our moral lives. Christianity is thus seen as a personal code of morality, with love of neighbour, of course, at the centre.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
(John 13:34)

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:39)

Those, then, who are welcome into the Christian community, are those who are willing to live according to its moral norms. In this scenario, the distribution of wealth in our society and world, housing policy or budget decisions have little, if anything, to do with our following of Jesus in this community. The demands made on the members of this community are essentially moral, religious and personal, and not social, economic or political.

For others, often, but not exclusively, right-wing evangelical Christians, Christianity is a religion whereby if we ‘believe in’ Jesus, we will, after death, be given a place in the Kingdom of God. ‘Believing in’ can easily become ‘believing that’ Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour, the Truth, the Way etc. ‘Believing in’ comes to be understood as believing a set of facts about Jesus. Thus those who are welcome into the Christian community are those who are willing to affirm a set of beliefs about who Jesus was and is.

Here again, social, economic or political reform is irrelevant, or at least very marginal, to our following of Jesus, which is essentially a personal relationship with Jesus based on our belief in who he is.

Of course, these are not two totally divergent views of Christianity. Although the focus of each view is different, there is considerable overlap between them. Accepting the moral obligations of the Gospel involves believing in Jesus as Saviour, while accepting Jesus as Saviour has certain consequences for our behaviour.

However, they both emphasise a view of the Gospel and the Christian community as essentially involving personal belief and/or inter-personal moral obligations, with little or no economic, social or political consequences.

Both views see Jesus’ message as primarily about heaven and how to get there. Both views understand Christianity as inherently individualistic. Community becomes a gathering together of like-minded individuals who share a common belief or commit themselves to a common moral code. The invitation of Jesus to individuals, then, is not essentially an invitation to community, and the commitment of individuals is not essentially a commitment to community, but rather to a belief system or moral code. Community tends to become a support structure, rather like a club or society that has common interests and objectives.

For me, both views present a major problem – they both fail to explain the death of Jesus. Certainly, they both agree that Jesus died and rose again. They both explain why Jesus died – if Jesus’ message is about heaven and how to get there, then Jesus died for us, in order to make forgiveness possible, which is the prerequisite for entering heaven.

Both avoid explaining how Jesus died. Jesus didn’t die in bed of old age! After at most three years of public ministry – and more likely only nine months – Jesus was put to death by the religious/political leaders of his day. And not just put to death, but crucified. To understand the mission and ministry of Jesus, and therefore the mission and ministry of his followers, we have to explain why Jesus was crucified.

Jesus was not put to death by bad guys who couldn’t stand a good guy. They were sincere and devout people who believed they were doing God’s will.

Jesus was not put to death because his moral demands were at variance with those of the Jewish faith of his time. A person does not get executed for telling people to be kind, be nice, be good.

Nor was he put to death because he demanded to be recognised as the Son of God – the Christian community only understood this after Jesus’ death. To understand the meaning of the Christian faith, and the consequences of believing in Jesus for his followers, we have to explain not just that Jesus died, not just why Jesus died, but also how he died, the manner of his death.

This book is an attempt to find an answer to these questions: Why was Jesus put to death, by crucifixion, by the religious/political authorities of his day? What was Jesus doing or saying that was so threatening to them that they felt they had to take this action? What are the implications of this for the followers of Jesus and for the life and ministry of the Christian community?

I am neither a theologian nor a scripture scholar. Theologians and scripture scholars who read this book will probably agree! The understanding of God and of the life and ministry of Jesus presented in this book is shaped largely by my work with homeless young people. They have revealed to me who God is, much more than all my theology lectures. (My theology lecturers would argue that that is due to my frequent absences from class!) They have opened up the scriptures to me in a wonderfully enriching way.

I offer this book as an attempt, in the context of an Ireland which has become unbelievably rich but where many feel uncomfortable at the levels of homelessness and poverty that continue to exist in our society, to open a debate about the meaning of our faith and the obligations that belonging to the Christian community imposes on us. It suggests that Jesus was put to death by good people, acting for good reasons, because the God that Jesus revealed had radical consequences for the ordering, behaviour and structures of society, consequences that threatened the existing order of society. It suggests that Jesus was crucified because the leaders of his time understood that the economic, social and political consequences of the personal transformation that comes from becoming a disciple of Jesus were revolutionary. The religious authorities believed that the society they lived in was ordered according to the will of God and they were acting in accordance with the will of God in handing Jesus over to be executed. The Gospels describe a clash between two very different understandings of God, with two radically different implications for our personal lives and for the structuring of our world. Jesus lost and died; but he, his understanding of God and his vision for our world were vindicated by the Resurrection.





Jesus and the Marginalised
Reading the Gospels for the first time I think what is most striking about the life of Jesus is that, again and again, he healed the sick, associated with ‘undesirables’ and ate with social outcasts.

Stories of Jesus healing people abound.

They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching -with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
(Mark 1:21-34)

Again and again, the religious authorities were scandalised by his association with outcasts, particularly by his eating with them, which was a sign of respect, friendship and acceptance. In the culture of Jesus’ time, sharing a meal was more than just about food – it was a form of social inclusion; while refusing to share a meal was a form of social exclusion. Meals reflected the social boundaries of a group.

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples – for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Mark 2:13-17)

All who saw it [Jesus inviting himself to a meal at Zacchaeus’ house] began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ (Luke 19:7)

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Matthew 11:18-19)

In the story of the life of Jesus, there were three groups to whom he reached out in a preferential way:

  1. The sick, the lame, the blind, the deaf, the dumb – those who were afflicted with some infirmity.
  2. The poor – the majority of the population of Israel, whose life was hard and who struggled to make ends meet, many of whom survived from day to day.
  3. Public sinners, notably tax collectors and prostitutes.

What these three groups had in common was the attitude of society towards them and the way they were treated by the society in which they lived. They were all despised, looked down upon, treated as second-class citizens, not wanted, kept at arm’s length.

They shared this attitude for different reasons:

  • The infirm were looked down upon because it was believed that they (or their parents) had committed some sin and they were therefore being punished by God. God was angry with them; they were no friends of God. And so, those in society who were righteous believed that if the infirm were out of favour with God, then they should also be out of favour with God’s friends. They were, therefore, consigned to the margins of their society.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ (John 9:1-2)

  • Similarly, the poor were despised because they didn’t keep the Law. They didn’t keep the Law because they didn’t know the Law. The Law, by the time of Jesus, had become complicated, consisting of thousands of minute prescriptions governing every aspect of everyday life. Some of these rules are described in the Gospels.

At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:1-2)

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ (Mark 7:1-6)

In order to know the complex details of the Law you had to study the Law. To study the Law, you had to have the education and money to do so. The poor had neither and so could not know the Law or keep the Law in all its detail. But because observance of the Law was the primary demand and desire of God, then, again, the poor were not in God’s favour and so were outcast by God’s people.

Then the temple police went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law — they are accursed.’ (John 7:45-49)

  • Public sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes were despised because of their way of life. God could not possibly want anything to do with them. Therefore God’s friends should want nothing to do with them either.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ (Luke 18:9-12)

The groups that Jesus preferentially reached out to had in common that they were all marginalised in the society to which they belonged. They were marginalised because their society believed that God had also marginalised them. The attitudes of society towards them and the way society treated them ensured that they were kept apart, at arm’s length.

But why did Jesus reach out to these groups in a preferential sort of way? Perhaps it has to do with dignity. One way of summing up the whole revelation of Jesus is to say that, as God is the parent of us all, every human being has the same dignity of being a child of God, no matter who we are or what we may have done.

when Jesus found someone whose dignity as a human being, a child of God, was being undermined or denied by the attitudes of society and the way in which they were treated, then he had to respond, if he was to be true to the revelation of God that he came to bring. And he responded in three different ways:

He affirmed their dignity by the way in which he herself related to them. By reaching out to them in a respectful and dignified way, he communicated to them a sense of their own dignity, in the face of the contrary message that they were continually receiving from society. It was as if he said to them: ‘Society may not want much to do with you, society may look down on you, but I, and the God from whom I come, we acknowledge your dignity, the same dignity as any other human being in this society.’

He challenged the attitudes of the society that looked down upon such people, and he challenged the structures that kept them in their marginalised place.

Thus he challenged the attitude of Simon, who showed himself to be embarrassed and offended by the presence of a woman who was a sinner and came into his house to wash the feet of Jesus and dry them with her hair.

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,” he replied, ‘Speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7:36-50)

He broke the Law, and supported his disciples who broke the Law, when that Law did not allow him to reach out in compassion.

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham -whom Satan bound for eighteen long; years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ (Luke 13:10-16)

The third way in which Jesus affirmed the dignity of those on the margins of his own society was not of his own choice. It was imposed on him. His affirmation of their dignity, by his own association with them, led Jesus himself to become marginalised. This was, in fact, the ultimate affirmation of their dignity. As the opposition from the religious authorities grew, and Jesus, too, came to be rejected and pushed to the margins, he did not pull back or change his mind but continued, even to death, to stand up for and accompany those who were despised.

A political act
The challenge that Jesus posed by eating with sinners lay in the simple, but deeply profound, act of looking at a human being whom society considered of little value, of little use, of little worth and recognising that person’s extraordinary dignity as a child of God – indeed, as we shall see, recognising their privileged place in the mind and heart of God. That simple, God-like act of reaching out and caring for someone whom most people considered of no value reflected God’s vision of humanity and the compassion of God. In reaching out to them, Jesus revealed the nature of God and, in doing so, fulfilled the mission that God had given to him.

But it was not just Jesus’ choice of company that annoyed and alienated the religious authorities. Why did this apparently simple act of compassion bring out the anger and hostility of the religious authorities? Why did they find it so threatening?

The religious authorities, in their conventional wisdom, believed that excluding the poor, the sinner and the tax collector was the right and moral thing to do. It was what God was asking of them. That conventional wisdom believed that those who, through their sinfulness, had made themselves enemies of God had to be rejected and set apart from the People of God. In sinning, they had defiled the Covenant that God had made with the people. It is difficult for us to appreciate the enormous significance of this. Conventional religious belief held that holiness consisted in separation from all that is unholy, impure. If the People of God failed to exclude these sinners, the People of God would become, like them, impure. Then the wrath of God would be visited on the whole People of God, and the unique relationship that the Covenant created between the Chosen People and God would be at risk, and therefore Israel’s very existence as a nation, which was founded on that Covenant, would be in jeopardy.

It seems to me that only one person in the Gospels understood the significance of what Jesus was doing. It wasn’t any of the Apostles, or his mother, or any of the women who followed Jesus – it was Caiphas, the High Priest, when he said:

It is better that one man should die than the nation perish. (John 11:50)

You didn’t have to be a prophet to foresee that Jesus’ fellowship with those whom his society wished to exclude would lead to his death.

‘Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.’ This simple act of friendship was at the same time a profoundly political act. And Jesus knew it. And the religious leaders knew it. It led to a confrontation between them, and Jesus lost. The crucifixion was another political act, the inevitable consequence of that political act of eating with tax collectors and sinners.

Ireland today
The poor, then, are those groups who, in our societies, are pushed aside, unwanted, rejected, marginalised. We can identify them with the question: ‘Who do you not want living beside you?’

Living the Gospel is to affirm the dignity of every human being as a child of God. Affirming the dignity of travellers, homeless people, drug users and offenders is often a challenge to the conventional thinking of a society that feels insecure and often afraid, and so wants to keep them apart, at arm’s length. The more we have to protect, the stronger the tendency to insulate ourselves from those on the margins whom we may perceive as a threat to our security. Thus, although prosperous to a degree that we could never have dreamt of a decade ago, there are more homeless people on our streets than ever before, our prisons are more crowded, hospital waiting lists are longer. There is less tolerance for those with addictions, mental health problems, personality disorders and the adult effects of child sexual abuse.

Affirming the dignity of those on the margins today may also be a profoundly political act, just as it was in Jesus’ time. It may involve a challenge to the political authorities if they fail to provide for their basic needs. Caring, today, is often a political act.

We are sometimes told that religion and politics should be kept apart, but that was not Jesus’ way. His caring and insistence on the dignity of every person as a child of God had political implications for the ordering of his own society – and still has today for the ordering of our own society. It also had personal implications for himself and his life, turning many of his contemporaries against him and mobilising the authorities to get rid of him. So, too, our caring may demand political changes in our own society and may also have personal implications for our own lives.

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