For as long as there has been ‘civilisation’ there have been systems of class inequality. Many in working-class movements have concurred with the view that the history of society is the history of struggle between oppressor and oppressed.
When we study the Bible, there’s little doubt as to Jesus’ economic position. In common with Joseph, his paid work is as a tekton – a word that can be read both as carpenter and low paid labourer on construction sites. Later in life Jesus recalls having been hungry, thirsty and in need of clothes. His mother Mary describes herself as a servant-girl. We learn something about her beliefs when she describes God as one who brings down rulers from their thrones, lifts up the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.
Jesus’ first major speech begins “Blessed are the poor” to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. Translating directly from Aramaic into English, Palestinian priest Elias Chacour points out that in Jesus’ native language the word rendered into English as ‘blessed’ means something like ‘get up, go ahead, do something, move’. Today perhaps he’d say “Rise up and take action, fellow people of the working class: the revolution is yours”.
The first recruits to Jesus’ team are fishermen who lack formal education. Matthew is something akin to a bailiff, collecting taxes to be sent back to Rome. Like Jesus’ mother, Joanna is part of a servant family, albeit one earning enough to donate some money to the movement. Others in the movement are rumoured to be sex-workers.
It’s notable that while Jesus critiques the system, he doesn’t blame working class people for the jobs that they do and declares that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom of God long before rich lawyers and priests. Meanwhile he describes the rich as a “brood of vipers” who are “full of greed and self-indulgence”. When a privileged man asks to join the movement, Jesus tells him to sell all he owns and give it to the poor. When he doesn’t, Jesus tells his followers that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.
There’s also a realistic assessment of how difficult winning this change will be. One of Jesus’ last parables tells of a servant who stands up to his boss and refuses to be complicit in making unearned wealth for his cruel master. For this he is thrown out into obscurity. Sometimes in rich countries preachers have suggested that the master in the story represents God and the servant is to blame for his poverty. Increasingly though, especially in the Global South, Christians are seeing it from the servant’s perspective.
After Jesus’ crucifixion (a punishment reserved for rebels), the struggle continues led by James, Jesus’ brother. The New Testament letter that carries his name – possibly a transcription of a sermon (or sermons) he made – is full of challenge to wealth and power: “Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you”, “the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you”, “the rich will fade away”. To communities who perpetuate inequality by giving a good seat to rich visitors while telling poor visitors to sit on the floor, James asks a series of rhetorical questions: “doesn’t this show your judgments are led by evil motives? Hasn’t God chosen the poor to inherit the Kingdom? Isn’t it the rich who oppress and slander you?”
The movement in Jerusalem that followed James were called the Ebionites which translates into English as ‘the poor’. As proudly working-class Bible scholar Alan Saxby points out, this raises some tantalising possibilities. When Jesus says ‘blessed are the poor’ could he be talking about an organised working-class political movement? When he suggests the rich man gives all his money to ‘the poor’ did he mean he should donate it to the struggle? And when James says ‘the poor’ will inherit the Kingdom is he making a revolutionary declaration?
It’s impossible to be certain in our answers to these questions, but there are some things we can be sure of: When Jesus describes what the Kingdom is like he depicts labourers earning an equal wage, people’s debts being cancelled, and the first being last and the last being first. In the light of such a vision, the words “your Kingdom come”, recited in churches around the world, have profoundly radical implications.
At his trial Jesus said “my Kingdom is not of this world”. Some have understood this to mean that it exists only on a celestial plane. That’s not how I read it though. I hear it echoed in a cry that brings hope all around world:
“Another world is possible, another world is necessary, another world is coming”.
Tim Gee is the author of three books about social change. His fourth book ‘Open for Liberation: An Activist Reads the Bible’ will be published in late 2021.