Jesus Justice: Learning and Living the Resurrection

Peter Goodwin Heltzel: "Christ’s kingdom was based on emptying oneself into shalom justice, emptying oneself into practical pacifism and emptying oneself into neighbor love."

Shalom Justice: The Song of the Kingdom of God

Jesus, the Jewish prophet, proclaims and embodies the message of shalom justice. He understands his identity and mission as a continuation of the prophets of Israel (Mark 8:27-28; Luke 24:19; 13:33-34). While the song of Israel anticipated God’s coming reign of righteousness, Jesus announces that God’s reign is here and now.

“The basileia of God has come near to you,” proclaims Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 10:9, 11). In the Greek, basileia was the word for kingdom. In empire-critical studies of the New Testament there is a growing consensus that the term basileia tou theou, “kingdom of God,” was intentionally deployed as a critique of the imperial pretensions of the Roman monarchical kingdom. Because “kingdom of God” has monarchical and patriarchal connotations in modern English, some theologians suggest replacing this language with “reign of God” or “kin-dom.” I maintain the translation “kingdom of God” because of its explicit critique of any earthly empire’s claims to absolute power; however, I repudiate the language of the “kingdom of God” being used in patriarchal and monarchical ways to oppress women, people of color and the poor.

The kingdom of God is the righteous reign of God, on earth as it is in heaven, unveiled in the presence of Jesus Christ. This reign is God centered, rooted in the Hebrew notion of malkut shamayim, which literally means the “sole sovereignty of the heavens,” expressing the sovereignty of God. Throughout his ministry, Jesus improvises on malkut shamayim through his teaching of the kingdom, arguing that God’s “sole sovereignty of the heavens” has claimed “sole sovereignty on earth.”

Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom unveils that what is coming to pass from heaven is overtaking what is passing away on earth (1 Cor. 7:31). In the life span of Jesus of Nazareth a new socioeconomic order is born. Jesus’ earthly life offers a promissory presence for the coming of a fundamentally just and compassionate future.

Jesus’ song of salvation hearkens back to the prophets’ songs of Jubilee. Jesus sang the song of Israel for his solo in the synagogue:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
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 favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

After he reads the scroll of Isaiah, he rolls it up and sits down. All eyes are fixed on him. The Jews gathered want commentary, they want an explanation and they want a sermon. But after a pregnant pause, Jesus tells them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).

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This first “sermon” demonstrates many things. First, we see Jesus unveil his messianic identity through arguing that Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled in that very moment of its reading. Jesus proclaims and embodies the year of God’s favor to the poor, the oppressed, the sick and the imprisoned. With echoes of the trumpet of Jubilee justice of old, Jesus blows the horn of justice inaugurating a new socioeconomic order. Through enacting this Isaiah vision Jesus’ prophetic song echoes Mary’s Magnificat and John the Baptist’s song of repentance. His proclamation is heard as good news by the poor who have been longing for release from their captivity. Jesus’ ministry of release entails forgiveness of sins and economic debts, as well as freeing the afflicted from the demonic and social chains that bind them.

When Jesus reads this scroll he is not merely reading words, but is performing a personal reception of the Spirit of the Lord that is anointing him in that moment. In hearing Jesus sing his first public solo, the Jews gathered in the synagogue that day experience the first messianic performance. The difference between Jesus and the Hebrew prophets is that Jesus is the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy in his very person. Jesus Christ “is the Prophet who knows and proclaims the will of God which is done in his existence.” Jesus fulfills Hebrew prophecy not simply because he says he does, but because he concretely acts out the prophecy in an improvisational performance of the shalom justice of God.

Jesus proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor, choosing the Isaiah scroll as his first sermon to announce the apocalyptic realization of Jubilee justice (Lev. 25:8-10). I follow André Pascal Trocmé’s notion that Jesus’ proclaiming the Year of Jubilee in his first Nazareth sermon should be taken seriously as characterizing his message as socioeconomic “good news.” Trocmé described Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom as a “nonviolent revolution” that was a particular kind of eschatology in realization. The kingdom of God was no longer seen as a theocracy “out there” in the future, but as a socioeconomic order that was coming into being “here and now.” Jesus was calling the people of God to follow him in establishing love and justice “on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom had concrete political and economic consequences.

Within Jesus’ historic context, his teaching of the kingdom was heard as good news to the poor but bad news to the Romans. Given the history of the Davidic kingdom within Judaism, Jesus’ kingdom teaching was heard as politically subversive—the kingdom of God was greater than the kingdom of Rome. Jesus announced that God’s reign was becoming manifest amidst the Roman claims of complete imperial control. In contrast to the Roman Empire’s focus on the wealth and power of the elite, Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom advocated an egalitarian vision of economic justice for all people. Throughout his ministry Jesus continually identified with those on the underside of the Roman Empire—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger and the naked (Matt. 25:40). His teaching of the kingdom tells a story of an economic order where all people’s basic human needs will be cared for.

The politics of Jesus challenged the politics of Rome. Jesus commandeered the language of the Roman Empire and redirected it to the divine Son of God, the source of true, ultimate authority. Titles used of Jesus like “Son of God,” “Lord” and “Savior of the World” were used of Caesar Augustus within the Roman Empire. Jesus’ taking on the titles of the emperor would have been seen as a political threat to the Roman Empire. In our contemporary American context, it would be like saying Jesus is president.

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Jesus’ messianic identity placed him in conflict with the ruling authorities of Rome and the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Through encounter with Jesus’ interpretation of the kingdom, as the basileia tou theou, Jesus’ early disciples were forced into an identity crisis. They had to discern how to live their lives completely aligned to the vision and values of Jesus, while also fulfilling their responsibilities to both traditional Judaism and the Roman government, which increasingly colluded with each other. One of the ways the Roman government and the Jewish temple colluded was through demanding excessive taxes that forced most of the Galilean Jews into severe debt. When asked if the Jews should pay their taxes to Rome, Jesus retorted, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17a). While encouraging the Jews to pay their taxes, Jesus was clear that it was the living God, not mammon, who should be given ultimate and ongoing allegiance. While Rome sought to possess the Jews’ money, Jesus exhorted the Jews to guard against Rome possessing their soul. That so many of Israel had been possessed by the power and authority of Rome, be it with seduction or violence, shows why Jesus would begin to disclose his messianic identity with such a strong emphasis on exorcisms and healings. Believing that he was dealing with authentic supernatural powers, Jesus saw them as active not merely in the individual lives but also deeply nested in the politico-economic and religious structures of his day.