If Christ and his kingdom are all that matters, we find money and material possessions put in their proper place. They are not rejected as evil, of course, but they find their orbit around Christ as the true treasure. This kingdom framework helps us in understanding the challenging things Jesus says about wealth and also about caring for the poor.
In Luke’s reproduction of the Beatitudes, we learn that Jesus had alternate versions to the clause on poverty. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Matthew’s Gospel, written primarily for a Jewish audience, focuses on a poverty of a different kind (Matthew 5:3), but Luke, writing primarily for Gentiles, wants us to know that the kingdom’s coming has real implications for the materially poor too. And yet, the gospel for the poor is still not money.
As we’ve seen, there is plenty in the Scriptures to commend the need for social justice initiatives as implications of the gospel, but almost nothing to commend them as the gospel itself. The gospel for the materially poor is not financial justice, although that is a valid implication of the kingdom’s coming to bear in the world, but instead the same gospel to the poor in spirit—eternal life in Christ Jesus. Why must we hold this distinction between gospel content and gospel entailments as it relates to poverty? Here are nine reasons:
1. The gospel is the news of the work of Christ—sinless life, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection—which is to say, the gospel is not the news of anything we’ve done or can do. The gospel is also “the kingdom” that was coming in and through Christ’s ministry, inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection. But whether we use the gospel definition of 1 Corinthians 15 or the kingdom gospel framework of the synoptic Gospels, the gospel is still news of something that Christ has done or is doing. Therefore, anything that happens now and done by us—including, but not limited to, what we might call social justice—is not the gospel message itself, but the Christian’s living as if that gospel message is true. I maintain that the gospel’s content ends and the gospel’s implications begin when we start doing stuff.
2. Secondly, if the gospel’s content includes economic justice for the poor, it means that the gospel includes work that Christians do, and if the gospel includes work that Christians do, we end up “preaching ourselves” and stealing the glory of the gospel that is due God alone. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:5, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” We are the servants of others—including in the work of caring for the poor—but we preach as the gospel Christ only, and this distinction is held for Jesus’ glory.
3. Economic justice is a sign of the good news, but not the news itself, in the same way that Jesus’ miracles of the healing of the blind or raising of the lame were not the good news, but signs pointing to the gospel of redemption of creation. We see this delineation perhaps most starkly in John 6 when the crowds were eager to eat the signs (bread) but demurred on eating the signified (Christ’s flesh).
4. Economic justice is temporal justice. This is perhaps the most crucial point to be made. The gospel’s justice is eternal. None of us gets to take money with us. Loving our neighbor in the way of providing for the poor demonstrates that our treasure is not monetary. But to argue that social justice is gospel content, not gospel implication, is to muddle the eternal treasure of Christ with treasure that rusts and decays. The miracles were not permanent. Those who were healed still died. Those who were raised died again. Those given food and money were hungry and in need again. Even marriage, one of the most glorious and direct representations of the gospel, gives way at the consummation of the kingdom into the wedding feast of the Lamb. We won’t need marriage or sex to have happy lives when heaven takes over earth, and we certainly won’t need money or possessions or medicine for that reason either. Given all that Jesus says related to earthly treasures rusting and decaying, we do the gospel of eternal life no favors by making money and material possessions part of its announcement.
5. Related to that, interpreting “good news for the poor” as economic justice is to misdirect focus off Christ as the super-fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and make the same mistake as most of Jesus’ Jewish audience whose messianic expectation pictured him literally overthrowing the Roman occupation and establishing political kingship in Jerusalem. Now of course, Jesus did do that. He was proclaiming his Lordship—and in effect denying Caesar’s—but as we have said, the way he was doing that was not immediately literal. That Jesus is Lord has profound effects on how Christians live, including economically, but those are effects of Christ’s Lordship, not the content of his Lordship. Or, to put it another way, a poor person can have eternal life while remaining poor. Some would suggest this view merely “spiritualizes” the promises of God, and while there is a way some do that in disharmony with the Scriptures, we should at least reiterate that what the Bible calls “spiritual” is not un-real.
Further, I would not go as far to say Jesus merely spiritualized the kingdom; he was really there, he was really Lord, he really offered his tangible self to follow and trust and to die, and this incarnational reality and sacrifice and resurrection is not un-real at all. Indeed, there is nothing un-real about the promise of a risen Lord securing new bodies for us in a new heavens and new earth to come.
But if we reduce the gospel to its implications, we will have to make sense of how the gospel proclaiming “liberty to the captives” would have encouraged John the Baptist while he languished in prison, awaiting execution. And we must ask how it could encourage any believer struggling financially or materially. To force the issue gives way to the perniciousness of the prosperity gospel.
6. The “good news for the poor” Jesus preaches is not economic justice, or else his own ministry was fairly a failure, as we don’t see too many examples of the disciples providing money for the poor, and in fact they were occasionally lacking for things like food and money themselves. It also makes James and John’s gospel encounter with the blind man in Acts 3 a consolation prize. They had not silver and gold, but they had something far better.
7. “Good news for the poor” necessarily meaning “economic justice for the poor” is an eisegetic reading. Take a look at Luke 7:22 for instance:
And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “the poor receive finances.” The blind get sight back. The lame get mobility. The lepers get restored flesh. The dead get life. But the poor don’t get un-poor. They have the good news preached to them. This good news is not money, but the treasure of Christ, the satisfaction of Christ. We will always have the poor with us, in fact (Matthew 26:11).
8. Justice for the poor is in realizing that poverty is no hindrance to gaining the treasure of all-surpassing worth. This is not out of step with the larger paradigm of “the gospel of the kingdom.” It makes perfect sense of the Beatitudes, for instance, which promise “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). How does it promise the kingdom to the poor? Not in giving money, but in turning the tables on how the haves and have-nots are regarded. No, the promise to the poor is not that they will be rich monetarily but that they will receive the far greater blessing of eternal life in Christ, the approval of God, the status of co-heir with Jesus. In the world’s fallen economy, the poor are at the bottom of the barrel because they have not the power of money. But in God’s economy, money is not power, and therefore the rich, the powerful, the lords of the earth are humbled, and the humble are exalted.
If the gospel for the poor is economic parity aren’t we preaching the gospel of middle class-ness? Or a wealth gospel? The reason the gospel of the kingdom is good news for the poor is not because the Son of Man comes handing out cash and prizes but because it upturns the economic values of the world. In God’s kingdom, the rich man has his reward now and he will perish later, but the poor are elevated, saved, made “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).
9. If the gospel’s content includes economic justice, it makes little sense to say we believe in this gospel with the gift of faith. I don’t need faith to believe I will receive money, but merely an open hand. The requirement of the spiritual open hand of faith for grasping of the gospel demands that the gospel promises something immaterial (as of yet).
With all that said, we must reiterate that care for the needy (whether poor or hungry or naked or ill) is a command of God binding on his people and to be obeyed as joyful gospel witness. Like all good works, seeking justice for the poor or otherwise underprivileged is a worshipful response to the gospel of Christ’s finished work; our good works are not the gospel itself. This is a supremely important point, because the danger persists among those who insist that social justice is the gospel of “seeking to justify themselves.” As we see again, Jesus really is bringing good news to the poor, but he is at the same time subverting our concept of good news. He brings the richness of himself and holds nothing of himself back, and in doing so redefines wealth for us.
(from The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables)