Jesus Justice: Learning and Living the Resurrection

Excerpted from Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation
By Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Eerdmans)



And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col. 2:15 NIV)

Jesus was a Jewish prophet whose message transformed the Judaism of his day. Improvising like a jazz musician, Jesus took the prophetic call to love God and neighbor to a new level. As a jazz musician takes a standard and makes it new, Jesus sang a new song within the framework of another melody, the song of Israel. While his preaching style was familiar to the Jews of his day, Jesus’ vision was big, bodacious and beautiful, pushing Judaism to a renewed and deeper faith in the living God.

Jesus’ ministry constantly flowed with the rhythm of call and response. Wherever he went, he would always respond to the call of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit called, Jesus responded, completely surrendering himself to the will of his Father. He marched through the Galilean countryside with his disciples—teaching about the kingdom in the synagogues, exorcising demons, healing the sick and feasting with the hungry and sinners. When Jewish teachers tried to ensnare him with the rules of Moses, Jesus improvised through reflexive antinomies: “You have heard that it was said,” followed by “But I say unto you.” Jesus took a standard (“love your neighbor”) and deepened it (“love your enemy”). Like John Coltrane took My Favorite Things and made it his own, Jesus took Israel’s love song and sang a love song to the whole community of creation.

Mary’s Protest Songs

God demonstrated the divine love for creation through the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. An angel arrived and spoke with a young Jewish woman named Mary. She was to have a child named Jesus, a child who would be “called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33 NIV). As Mary listened attentively to this angelic song, she may have heard echoes of former kingdoms and messianic prophecies of her Jewish faith; her heart was full of questions. Could she really be the one to bear a child whose “kingdom will never end”?

Although Mary had faith in the divine promise declared by the angel, she was curious about how this conception would take place. The angel explained that she would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit: “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:35 NIV). Like the ruach that blew through the turbulent waters of creation and the shadow of the glory cloud of presence that led Israel through the wilderness to a land of promise, the angelic song expressed that her life would become another beautiful verse in the song of Israel.

After the angel reassured Mary that “nothing is impossible with God” (1:37 NIV), Mary boldly and graciously responded, “I am the Lord’s servant … May it be to me as you have said” (1:38 NIV). She responded to God’s Word as a true disciple, with attentive listening, theological imagination, humble obedience and prophetic courage. She heard the Word of God and obeyed it in an attitude of prayer and praise, courageously fulfilling her role in the history of redemption. She heard the call of God and responded, expressing her courageous faith in concrete prophetic action.

During her pregnancy Mary paid a visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, the baby John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit (1:41). After Elizabeth addressed Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (1:43 NIV), Mary burst forth in song, in one of the most poetic portions of Scripture. Mary sang:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (1:46-55)

While Mary’s song has often been heard as a sweet song of praise, in reality it is a passionate prophecy, a song of divine victory that threatens the current social order. Though Mary’s song reflects the history of God’s mercy and faithfulness to the covenant with Israel, it is also a sharp social critique.

Mary’s song is a prophetic rebuke to those who are proud in the “thoughts of their hearts.” The rich and powerful have built a way of life that excludes God and the love of neighbor, isolating themselves into lives of nihilism and self-annihilation. Through isolating themselves in corners of comfort, the proud and affluent disrupt the shalom justice of the community of creation. In contrast, Mary holds up the poor and oppressed, including herself, as examples of God’s compassionate concern for the weak and the marginalized.

She begins her song with

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” (1:46-48)

Peter Goodwin Heltzel
Peter Goodwin

Peter Goodwin Heltzel is associate professor of theology and director of the Micah Institute at New York Theological Seminary. Author of "Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race and American Politics" (Yale 2009) and codirector of the Prophetic Christianity series, he is also assistant pastor of evangelism at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City.