It isn’t the poor who Jesus commends on the Sermon on the Mount, but rather the poor in Spirit, not the poverty stricken, but the morally broken. The Gospel Jesus preached was much more radical than the gospel of social justice.
April 1, 2014
Sometimes, knowing what Jesus did not come to do is almost as important as knowing what He did come to do because a wrong understanding of the first can lead to confusion on the second.
Two groups seem to go astray here.
The first are non-Christians enamored with Jesus for what they take to be His emphasis on the Golden Rule, love for one’s neighbor, concern for the poor and the outcast, and “tolerance” (the latter understood as accepting all and judging none)—broadly what has come to be called “social justice.”
The second group are Christians who, focusing on the “red letter” sections of the Gospels—the actual words of Jesus often rendered in red so they stand out—come to the same conclusion as the first group, on the main. These believers ask, “What if Jesus meant what He said?” in discourses like the Sermon on the Mount. Again, social justice.
For those tempted to summarize Jesus this way, consider for a moment the final record of Jesus’ life—the last testament of His purpose and mission—written by one of Jesus’ intimate inner circle, the “beloved” disciple John.
Surprisingly, from John 1:1 to John 21:25 there is not a single verse that advances the cause of social justice. Not one. Jesus’ only mention of the poor is this—“The poor you always have with you” (Jn. 12:8).
Check any major discourse of Jesus—the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), the Bread of Life Discourse (Jn. 6), the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24, Lk. 21, Mk. 13), or the Upper Room Discourse (Jn. 13–17)—and you will search in vain for emphasis on the social gospel. Why?
Indeed, check any Gospel. Yes, occasionally you will find a mention of the poor, but almost always when Jesus is making a point about something else—hypocrisy (Matt. 6:2–3), a widow’s generosity (Lk. 21:2–3), Zaccheus’s repentance (Lk. 19:8), the rich young ruler’s confusion (Matt. 19:21), or a lesson about the afterlife (Lk. 16:20, 22). Why?
Because proclaiming social justice was not Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ discourses focus on something else. The Gospels focus on something else. The Epistles focus on something else. Not on the works of Christians, but rather on the work of Christ.
It isn’t the poor who Jesus commends on the Sermon on the Mount (and elsewhere), but rather the poor in Spirit, not the poverty stricken, but the morally broken.
Picture the tax collector Jesus tells about—hardly destitute—beating his breast pleading, “God be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:9–14). This man proclaiming his spiritual poverty went away justified while the Pharisee, whose spiritual arrogance clouded his genuine spiritual need, did not.
The main divide for Jesus was not between the poor and the rich, but between the proud and the repentant. In His own words:
- “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Lk. 6:32).
- “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
- “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” ( Lk. 19:10).
- “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (Jn. 3:17).
I point this out not to deemphasize our obligation to the poor because certainly the Bible teaches us to be compassionate and help those in material need. I point this out to emphasize the centrality of the Gospel. Did Jesus care about the poor and downtrodden? Of course He did. He also cared about the rich and powerful. Jesus helped everyone and anyone who came to Him—poor beggar or prostitute, wealthy tax collector or Pharisee.
“Social justice”—a.k.a. the “social gospel”—is not the Gospel. It was not Jesus’ message. It is not why He came. His real message was much more radical.
“What if Jesus meant what He said?” Indeed. That’s my question, too.
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