Jesus was playing a different game…
When it comes down to it and people want to know what I believe or what kind of church Downtown Faith considers itself I simply answer…”we follow Jesus and help others do the same.” That’s it. There’s enough there to keep me transforming for the rest of my life. Enough love to give and grace to extend.
When it comes to cultural conversations that often get divisive I tend to go back to this statement. I want to follow Jesus. I want to see situations and people like he did and does. So, what does that mean when talk about systems of power and oppression. Whether it’s a conversation about Colin Kaepernick, Botham Jean, or Serena Williams, the discussion about power and oppression is at the forefront.
These are nuanced, complex matters when you really get into them. They are important and there are people on both sides of issues with good hearts. But the truth is, we can’t ignore abusive power structures in our government, society, and our own hearts. We must do the work of honest evaluation and transformation. Especially if we follow Jesus. It’s what he has taught us.
Let me explain further by sharing a story from the gospel account of John, a close disciple of Jesus.
John passed on a story about Jesus, a well, water, and a woman. But not just any woman. A Samaritan woman. Cultural norms pitted the Jews against the Samaritans. The Jews considered anyone not them as unclean, but even more so was the impurity and depravity of the race of Samaritans. Knowing this, and being a good Jewish man, Jesus insisted on breaking down this wrong thinking based on hundreds of years of faulty thinking.
He once made a point about loving your neighbor and fulfilling the law by making the hated Samaritan the hero of the story. This would have been outlandish and upsetting to his listeners. But even more so would be his interaction at the well with a woman.
Jesus was hanging out by a well just outside of a Samaritan town when a woman came to draw water. She was late. Early in the morning when the sun was low and the day beginning was when the women in the village would draw water. But she wasn’t like other women. She was an outcast, even in Samaria.
Jesus asks her for water, throwing her for a loop. Why would a Jewish man talk to her, a Samaritan woman? This was counter-cultural. This was more than frowned upon. The Jews were an oppressed people, but the Samaritans were even lower. And a woman? Not in this culture. I’m trying to help us all understand just how outside of “normal” or “acceptable” this interaction was in that day.
Jesus goes on to explain that if she knew who he was she would be asking him for something. But she would know not to. Jewish men didn’t even have a context in their thinking for giving a gift to a Samaritan woman. The conversation continues and Jesus explains who he is and the gift he had for her. Life. A new life. Life to the fullest. A life worth trading her other life. And she believed him. Why? I think it was his willingness to engage with her at the well.
You see, most people use their power and position to benefit those who are most like them. For those associated with their dominant self-identification. Like attracts like. And like tends to support, elevate, and structure systems for the benefit of like. I could give a dozen examples I’ve seen in just the last few weeks. This type of thinking permeates human societies all over the world. It’s natural.
But Jesus was playing a different game.
Jesus used his power and position for the benefit of those most unlike him. He was doing something new. Something different. Something supernatural. And if you follow Jesus, he’s showing you how to change the game in your home, neighborhood, city, society, and community.
The expectations of the Messiah…
The term Messiah ran deep in Hebrew consciousness. It meant the happy ending God had promised. To most Jewish people the Messiah was the “one” who would right the wrongs, defeat the oppressors, and place the nation of Israel on “top” of the global powers. And if Jesus was really the Messiah, this is how he would prove it. Not just miracles. Power. Authority. Military takeover.
But Jesus was playing a different game. The true Messiah would bring victory and liberation to all people, not just one family nation. All nations would benefit from this Jewish man. The promise was that a blessing for all nations would come from this nation. But many times Jewish people were more concerned with their power and liberation rather than that of the world.
Don’t get me wrong, Jesus was a Jewish man with a Jewish message for Jewish people. But his ultimate work would be for everyone. The Apostle Paul, missionary and author of most of the New Testament put it this way in his letter to the church in Rome…
“For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile.This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life.'”
Many times throughout Jesus’ life and ministry his closest followers asked about sitting atop the power structure set up by the Messiah. Jesus would assure them that meant serving people. They would ask him about when he would overthrow the Roman government. Jesus would assure them that he didn’t come for a violent overthrow. He even went so far as to teach about the wisdom of paying taxes.
You see, Jesus was playing a different game. He wasn’t interested in power structures. He wasn’t interested in elevating one nation over another. He was passionate about elevating all people into a relationship with God, thereby transforming their relationship to power.
When we follow Jesus well we play the game differently as well.
Petty social media arguments no longer matter. Asserting our natural views and perspectives no longer matters. Pitting one tribe against another no longer matters. What matters? Love. Grace. Leveraging any power or position we do have for the benefit of those most unlike us and most oppressed.
I think the prophet Isaiah said it well as he pleaded with the nation of Israel to put first what God puts first…
‘Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath and your special days for fasting— they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings. I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.’ Isaiah 1:13-17
I believe that if those who follow Jesus began to actively help the oppressed instead of trying to argue that people aren’t oppressed, they would make the Good News of Jesus irresistible.