Today is Christmas Eve. There are only hours left for trips to the mall. Services have already begun across the globe. Tomorrow we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But what is it we celebrate? What I celebrate is the birth of a child of God who comes to Earth to proclaim the Kingdom of Peace to a world – much as our own today – that is filled with war and poverty. There is still hope alive in that message and so I celebrate the birth of the messenger and give thanks to God.
Jesus called on us to radically transform the world. In Luke 6:24-26 Jesus is said to speak these words:
Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Oregon State University professor and Biblical historian Marcus Borg recently commented on this passage:
The contrast between those who are rich and full and those who are poor and hungry underlines that Jesus is talking about material wealth and material poverty.
Why does Jesus indict the rich? To understand, we need to ask who the rich were in that society. They were not simply people who had worked hard and acquired a comfortable standard of living. Rather, the rich were the economic and political elites of the day. They were the wealthiest 1-2% of the population as well as the ruling class. The rich were the power elites at the top of a domination system. Into the hands of the wealthiest 1-2% flowed somewhere between half and two-thirds of the annual production of wealth of the society. How did that happen? The answer is simple: The people on top structured the economic system (taxation, debt and foreclosure, acquisition of land, and so forth) so that the system worked in their own narrow self-interest. Elites in every society have been very good at doing that.
Thus, in the world of Jesus, the poor were poor because the rich were rich. In a very direct way, the rich--the power elites at the top of an economically exploitative and politically oppressive domination system--were responsible for the destitution of the poor.
The issue is therefore politics and economics, not individual ethics. Jesus did not indict the rich because they lacked virtue as individuals; elites can be very fine people. Nor is the issue charity, as if the rich should simply have been more generous in sharing their bounty. The issue is neither individual virtue nor charity, but social justice. The issue is the domination system itself.
Thus, for Luke, Jesus is the Spirit-anointed prophet who announces the Kingdom of God as good news for the poor. If God were king and the domination systems of this world were not, the poor would be blessed and the hungry fed.
Few services on the globe will promote this vision of Jesus tonight. Maybe it is fair that on this day we should celebrate the blessings that we have and set-aside for a moment our concerns and fears. The problem, however, is that the message of Jesus the Radical Reformer who asks for justice has been replaced in contemporary Christianity with a more passive image of a Jesus who has somehow been manipulated into an advocate for the status quo - or even for a conservative political ideology that ignores the poor. In many churches parishioners will even be told that following Jesus will bring wealth and comfort.
Wealth is meaningless when the majority of the world suffers in someway from how that wealth is created and hoarded.
So tonight and tomorrow let us give thanks for Jesus the Reformer, the son of God.