Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Poverty, oppression and the Incarnation in the Kingdom of God

And the Word became flesh and lived among us 
John 1.14 NRSV

 The incarnation and Jesus’ teaching on the perils of wealth are two inseparable concepts. The narratives surrounding His birth (The Annunciation, The Visitation, and The Nativity) show that even before He became flesh, His mission was for the poor and the oppressed. By looking at the implications of God becoming man for society and what Jesus taught about the social equality of the Kingdom of God, we can see that the incarnation is ultimately linked to social justice.

The incarnation is the central and unique principle of Christianity;[1] God took our common nature to himself.[2] Without assuming human nature, the Son of God could not have lived and realised a truly human history.[3] A Jesus who is not truly divine implies a God who was unwilling to assume our condition, therefore not placing a high value on humanity.[4]

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
John 3:16 NRSV
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. 
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. 
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

By the Word becoming flesh, the brotherhood of all men became a reality for humankind.[5] By the incarnation, the Son of God claims the Kingdom for God over the whole of human life; this goes beyond transforming conditions, but to transforming the whole meaning of all life.[6] It is the manifestation of divine goodness in the flesh, in Jesus as Son of God first, then through the Holy Spirit in members of his mystical body.[7] It is the redemption of the physical body, therefore also of the social relations of the life lived in the body, and of the whole social, economic and political structure.[8] In Christ all men become brothers.[9] The unity of the whole human race was proclaimed. Every human being was declared to be an infinitely sacred and precious thing, with transcendent rights to the fullest development.[10] The separation of the sacred and secular was broken down. The will of God comes to us through our relationships with common humanity which God has taken on himself. It is impossible for those who don’t love those they have seen to love God which they haven’t seen; it is impossible because of the incarnation.[11]

We can see the importance of the socialist message of the incarnation by looking at the texts that deal with Jesus before His earthly ministry. In the Gospel of Luke, where hear that God is to become flesh at the Annunciation, when Gabriel says to Mary: 

And now,
you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,
and you will name him Jesus. 
He will be great,
and will be called the Son of the Most High,
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 
He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever,
and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
Luke 1:31-33 NRSV
 This is the news of the incarnation; God in midst of Gods people. While it may not have any socialist message, it is interesting to note that the annunciation takes place to a young woman in a house, not to a person of power in an important place.[12]

Mary then goes to visit Elizabeth at her home to serve her. (Luke 1:39-56) Like the previous annunciation, this idea of home reinforces the idea of commonality.[13] In the Magnificat, the socialist ideal is strong and irrefutable. Mary thanks God for what is about to occur with the incarnation:

He has shown strength with his arm;
Luke 1:51-53 NRSV

The Magnificat has been called a 'Christian Manifesto,' Stuart Headlam called it “the hymn of the universal social revolution" and the “Marseillaise of humanity."[14] In it, we hear God's new deal for the poor and oppressed, His special concern for the poor.[15] It tells us that we must embrace all humanity; the social doctrine of the church should begin at “he has bought down”.[16] The Magnificat shows us that God himself takes up the cause of the poor. We are to be on their side; to struggle against exploitation and oppression.[17] It calls for an end to dictatorship, or of money being a master. Most of all, it expects solidarity to the poor.[18] “A Pope has declared that the Blessed Virgin is the great foe of Socialism. If the Magnificat be her song, it would be far more reasonable to call her the Mother of it."[19]

The Nativity also belies the socialist nature of the incarnation. Jesus was born in a stable, not a palace or temple:

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth,
and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke 2:7 NRSV

The first people to be informed of His birth were shepherds; common working men, not religious or political rulers. (Luke 2:8-20) Jesus could have been class He chose; the Jews expected the Messiah to appear as a great Prince.[20]  Judaism had invented its own ideologies concerning the saviour. Jesus’ life and teaching was a radical challenge against this. [21]

Within Jesus’ teaching, there is constant criticism of materialism.[22] He was not a social reformer who produced a “socio- economic blueprint for society”.[23] His incarnation is concerned with the whole of life.[24] In our competitive capitalist culture indifferent and selfish masters promote limitless economic growth, and oppress the men who work within it.[25] Mechanisation has either robbed labour of its dignity or has made many people surplus to requirements. But a worker is more than a worker; he is an individual and a citizen. [26] His ultimate value is not merely his value to himself or to society; it is his value to God. Everyone is a soul that God created as act of his love, and every human being is unique and irreplaceable, because they are a child of God.[27]

The first public speech of Jesus proclaimed a social revolution,[28]

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Luke 4:18-19 NRSV

He announces the dawn of a new era. This is echoed later in the Beatitudes, where money is a central issue:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
Luke 6:20-21 NRSV

The Kingdom will belong to the poor, the hungry, and the sorrowful and the persecuted, while the comfortable, well-fed and successful are the targets of the mirror image woes. [29] The rich are then condemned for their indifference to the sufferings of the poor and their profiteering.

Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again.
Luke 6:30 NRSV

If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
to receive as much again.
Luke 6:34 NRSV

The highest expression of love is free surrender of what is truly ours; our life, property, and rights. A lower level is the surrender of any opportunity to exploit others. [30] This is not a condemnation of wealth, it is more that the pursuit of wealth will numb all sense of spiritual reality,[31] creating “a permanent barrier to complete surrender to God's will and the demands of the Kingdom” [32] The pursuit of wealth breeds arrogance, self satisfaction, smugness and indifference to others’ needs. [33] Jesus wanted to put material matters into perspective, to encourage his followers to trust God, to store up their treasures in heaven, not on earth.[34] The service of God is incompatible with mammon.[35] The pursuit of wealth is seen as an obstacle of entry into the Kingdom of God.[36]
 The Kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ mission. He expresses the idea over 100 times in the Gospels. [37] The Kingdom is “spiritual and historical, eternal and temporal, outward and inward, visible and invisible, both a system and an energy”. It is not constrained by the conditions of present existence, but is manifest under them.[38] It is not of this world, but very much in it. [39] The Kingdom of God is not confined to church; it embraces the whole of human life[40]. It is humanity organised to the will of God.[41] The event of the incarnation tells us what the will of God is, and is told to us through the infancy narratives: to help the poor and oppressed. By God becoming man, He was showing us His love and the value He places on humankind, and making the brotherhood of all men a true reality. Jesus’ teaching throughout His earthly ministry is consistent with the ideals stated before His birth, and reinforced those ideals of social justice and equality.


 Coste, Rene; The Magnificat (1988) Claretian Publications: Quezon City 
Dearmer, Percy;  Socialism and Christianity (1907) The Fabian Society:London

Dowell, Graham;  The Magnificat. A Christian Manifesto? 
Gebara, Ivone; and Maria Clara Bingemer; Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor (1989) Orbis: New York

Gore, Charles; The Incarnation of the Son of God (1898) John Murray: London 
Griffiths, Brian;  Morality and the Marketplace (1982) Hodder and Stoughton: London 
A.G. Herbert; Liturgy and Society (1956) Faber and Faber: London 
O’Collins, Gerald; Incarnation (2002)Continuum: London 
Orens, John R;  Dancing the Magnificat” 
Ramsey; A.M.; From Gore to Temple (1960) Longmans: London
Rauschenbusch, Walter; A Theology for the Social Gospel (1978) Abingdon: Nashville 
Temple, William;  Essays in Christian Politics and Kindred Subjects (1927) Longmans, Green and Co: London 
Walker, W.L.; The Spirit of the Incarnation (1907)  T&T Clark: London 
Westcott, B.F.; Social Aspects of Christianity (1888) MacMillan & Co: London 


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