Volume 12 - Issue 2
A call to revolutionBy David Wenham
Jesus announced the arrival of a revolution—not a military revolution, not a man-centred or humanly engineered revolution, but a God-given, God-centred revolution. The revolution of which he spoke—he used the expression ‘kingdom of God’—was the revolution looked forward to in the Old Testament: God had promised through the prophets a new day when his rule over his world would be total, when evil, sickness and sadness would be eliminated, when God, man and the world would be in harmony, and when God’s blessing and peace would be universal (see such passages as Is. 61, Je. 31, Mi. 4, Zc. 14).
Jesus explained that he had brought this glorious revolution: he pointed people to the signs of Satan being overcome in his ministry, of sickness being healed; he brought people back into fellowship with God; his ministry led to the breaking down of social barriers (e.g. between Jew and Samaritan) and to the inauguration of a new community of love and sharing (see, e.g., Mt. 9:10–13; 11:4–5; 12:28; 12:50; Lk. 10:29–37; 19:1–10). His ministry was a real revolution: it was new wine bursting the old wineskins, something powerful and exciting and disturbing (Mt. 9:17; 11:12).
Although Jesus claimed that the promised revolution of God had come in his ministry and his person, he did not suppose that the arrival of the revolution meant the immediate end of the old order. His disciples hoped that things would work that way and that they would shortly get top seats in the kingdom (Mt. 20:20–28). Jesus, however, was conscious that the revolution of God would face intense resistance and opposition from Satan, the ‘ruler of this world’, and his allies. The revolution had really come, but there would be a period of hard, painful struggle (including the decisively important suffering of the cross) before the forces of Jesus’ revolution would finally conquer the forces of satanic reaction; only at the Second Coming would the enemy be finally ousted (e.g. Mt. 13:36–43; 16:21–28; Jn. 14:30; 16:33; cf. 1 Cor. 15:25–28).
Like most revolutions, Jesus’ revolution was good news for some and bad news for others. In particular it was good news for the poor, the oppressed and the needy, to whom it offered hope, but bad news for those with vested interests in the status quo, notably the rich (e.g. Lk. 6:20–26). Not that it was poverty in itself which qualified people for a place in the revolutionary kingdom; it was rather a consciousness of need, an openness to Jesus and a willingness to commit oneself to his revolution (so ‘believe in the gospel’, Mk. 1:15; Lk. 15:18;18:13–14; etc.). Such a commitment was relatively easy for the poor (though only relatively so, cf. Mt. 7:14), but for the comfortable and often complacent rich it was terribly hard—harder than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle—because Jesus required a total commitment (Mt. 19:24). This meant, first, giving up everything for the revolution: it was not just the rich young ruler who was called to such costly commitment, but every would-be disciple (see, e.g., Mt. 13:44–46; 19:16–30; Lk. 14:25–33). It meant, second, living out and working for the revolution practically, for example by sharing one’s goods with the poor and needy, as well as by seeking to bring others into the revolutionary experience of God’s love (see, e.g., Mt. 28:19–20; Lk. 12:32–34; 14:12–14). The early church was not perfect, but it was such a revolutionary community when people shared their goods with others—see Acts 2:44–45; 4:32–37: Luke wants us to see their sharing as exemplary Spirit-inspired behaviour (compare also 2 Cor. 8)—and when it opened its doors to Gentiles as well as Jews.
What does this message of revolution mean to readers of Themelios? Many of us live in relatively wealthy and comfortable circumstances, and we will constantly be inclined to dilute or to ignore the revolutionary dimensions of Christian discipleship. One way we tend to do this, consciously or unconsciously, is by spiritualizing the notions of the kingdom of God and of renunciation in such a way that they make few demands on us, whether in terms of social attitudes or financial sacrifices and commitment. But that is quite as much a distortion of Jesus’ revolutionary message as is the sort of ‘socialist’ Christianity which reduces Christian mission to social reforming without emphasizing reconciliation with God as Father through the death of Christ. It is to call Jesus ‘Lord, Lord’ and not to do what he asks (Lk. 6:46).
Exactly what it means in practical terms to ‘renounce all’ that we have and to live for the poor may not be easy to work out in our complicated modern world. But we must not comfort ourselves with the argument that the situation is complicated and use that as an excuse for doing nothing! Even if there are difficult practical questions—and there certainly are—we must constantly be seeking to work out as individuals and as churches what it means to live out Jesus’ revolution in the world.
In this context a document like the Church of England’s recent report, Faith in the City (Church House Publishing, London, 1985), deserves to be taken very seriously by Christians. It is a vivid exposé of the real deprivation of many urban areas in Britain and a call to take action to meet the needs of such areas. The report leaves some things to be desired: for example, in its theological outlook it seems to favour broad ecumenical Christianity rather than committed evangelical faith, despite a recognition of the relative effectiveness of some evangelical and Catholic ministries in deprived areas. But, although it is right to recognize such deficiencies, and although we may not agree with all the report’s specific recommendations, it would be quite wrong for such reasons to allow the challenge of such a report and its call to action to go unheeded. It would be wrong, because the call for practical and caring action comes ultimately not from an Archbishop’s commission, but from Jesus himself. In a world where we are surrounded by poverty and oppression, we need to listen very carefully to his parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus’ followers are committed to a total revolution. Is his question to us: ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” and not do what I tell you?’?