I saw this comment in a Facebook thread about Black Lives Matter. The relation to its context was a bit obscure, but I think that the point being made is clear enough: “even though God’s kingdom is for everyone, Jesus’s ministry was principally devoted to the oppressed. A group of which He was one.”
It’s a powerful statement to make in the current climate. If Jesus was firmly on the side of the oppressed, the church has little choice but to throw its weight behind progressive movements for social and political reform. Is that right? Is it a fair representation of the agenda of the historical Jesus, who is the only Jesus who ever actually existed?
A very rough guide to oppression in the Old Testament
Going by the occurrence of the “oppress” word group in the English Standard Version, it immediately becomes apparent that this is overwhelmingly an Old Testament concern. Apart from a reference to Isaiah 61:2 in Luke, which we will come to, Stephen’s reference to Moses’ defence of an oppressed (kataponeumenōi) Israelite (Acts 7:23), and James’ statement about the rich who “oppress” (katadynasteuousin) poor believers (Jas. 2:6), “oppression” in the New Testament is demonic (e.g., Acts 10:38). Paul seems not at all interested in the “oppressed”.
- Oppression in the Old Testament effectively begins with the experience of Israel in Egypt. “Masters of forced labour” are set over the people to “oppress them with heavy burdens…. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Ex. 1:11). The point is that such brutality and humiliation would not stop the fulfilment of the “new creation” mandate given to the patriarchs (Gen. 22:17; 48:4).
- There are numerous warnings against oppressing the widows, fatherless, hired workers, the poor and needy, and the sojourner in Israel (Ex. 22:22; 23:9; Deut. 24:14). A wealthy and powerful Israelite was not to oppress his weaker neighbour (Lev. 19:13).
- If Israel does not keep the commandments and walk in the ways of YHWH, the people will find themselves “oppressed and crushed continually” (Deut. 28:33). On many occasions Israel was “afflicted and oppressed” by surrounding nations (Judg. 2:18). The Canaanite general Sisera “had 900 chariots of iron and he oppressed the people of Israel cruelly for twenty years” (Judg. 4:3).
- This passage from Ecclesiastes is not the last word on oppression in the Bible, but it captures an aspect of the abiding paradox at the heart of Jewish experience, that even the best theology could not eradicate injustice:
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. (Eccl. 4:1–2)
What, then, is the last word on oppression?
This rough guide has suggested that oppression in the Old Testament runs along two axes: the powerful oppress the weak within Israel, and powerful nations oppress Israel locally and regionally. The responsibility of the king was to put right these two basic forms of injustice, the one internal, the other external—to judge oppression in Israel and to defend Israel against oppression from outside. There shall be “a king over us,” the tribal elders demanded of Samuel, “that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20).
Because the political process was flawed and bound to fail, sooner or later God would have to act in spectacular fashion to remedy the situation. He makes himself “a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Ps. 9:9). He redeems the lives of the weak and needy from “oppression and violence” (Ps. 72:13). “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Ps. 103:6).
But he will also give unrighteous Israel into the hands of enemies who oppressed them (Ps. 105:40-42). A siege mould will be thrown up against Jerusalem; the city just be punished because “there is nothing but oppression within her” (Jer. 6:6).
Then at last he will bring Israel’s captivity to an end. The taunt against the king of Babylon will be:
How the oppressor has ceased, the insolent fury ceased! The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked, the sceptre of rulers, that struck the peoples in wrath with unceasing blows, that ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting persecution. (Is. 14:4–6)
Indeed, foreigners will voluntarily join themselves as servants or slaves, and in effect Israel “will take captive those who were their captors, and rule over those who oppressed them” (Is. 14:2). They will represent the subjugation of the oppressor; Israel will be the head and not the tail (Deut. 28:13).bAnd when the oppressor is no more, “a throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness” (Is. 16:5).
This is how oppression becomes a kingdom issue.
Was God’s kingdom for everyone?
In Mark and Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry with the declaration, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt. 4:17; Mk. 1:14-15). But according to Luke, he returns to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, reads at least Isaiah 61:1-2, perhaps a much longer passage, in the synagogue at Nazareth, and says that the text has been fulfilled in their presence:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed (tethrausmenous), to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Lk. 4:18–19)
This announcement about the liberation of the oppressed, etc., is not different from the proclamation about the nearness of the kingdom of God (cf. Lk. 4:43-44). The kingdom of God happens when YHWH acts in history to judge and deliver his people from their enemies (cf. Is. 52:7). Two ways of saying the same thing.
From Jesus’ point of view, though, the kingdom of God was not for everyone. It might have “political” ramifications for peoples beyond the borders of Israel, but it was in principle God acting with sovereign power to rectify the situation in Israel. The kingdom of God was not something that happens in a person’s heart when they believe in Jesus. But it was also not the theologically sanctioned movement for social justice that it is often taken to be.
Jesus’ puts himself forward as the prophet, upon whom the Spirit of YWHH has recently come, who announces to a downtrodden group in the nation (the poor, meek, “captive”, blind, oppressed, those who mourn in Zion, etc.) that this is a time of “God’s favour”, and to the various elites (religious, political, economic) that “the day of vengeance of our God” is at hand (cf. Is. 61:2).
In other words, the announcement sums up the beatitudes, on the one hand, and (implicitly) the woes pronounced against the scribes and Pharisees, on the other (Matt. 5:2-12; 23).
Was Jesus’ ministry principally devoted to the oppressed?
In that respect, we can say that Jesus’ prophetic ministry was principally devoted to a diverse community in Israel that included the socially, politically, economically and religiously “oppressed”—the victims of the characteristic Old Testament internal injustices. These were the lost sheep of the house of Israel, so sorely neglected by the wicked shepherds (Matt. 10:6; 15:24; Lk. 15:4; cf. Jer. 50:6; Ezek. 34:1-24).
It was in this social context, on the margins of national life, that the coming deliverance and restoration of Israel would begin to show itself. This was where repentance, reconciliation, healing, freedom from the demonising forces of Satan would be found in advance of the terrible coming day when YHWH would destroy the wicked tenants of the vineyard and transfer responsibility for its management to new tenants (Matt. 21:41; Mk. 12:9; Lk. 20:16).
Jesus was emphatically not a social reformer, not even within Israel. He was an apocalyptic prophet—or at least he was doing the work of an apocalyptic prophet—predicting what God would do in the coming years to reform this wicked and adulterous generation of his people.
The kingdom of God was not what people did. It was what God did.
Was Jesus one of the oppressed?
I think the answer to this question is probably no. Obviously Jesus associated with and identified with the prostitutes and tax collectors, the pariahs, the sick and demon possessed, the poor and ill-treated, the innocent victims of systemic injustice. But nothing is said by him or by anyone else in the Gospels to suggest that he belonged in one of those categories.
He was not one of the oppressed in Israel needing salvation and the sort of catastrophic justice that only YHWH could deliver. He was the righteous “son of God” who was opposed, and in the end killed, by the wicked in Israel.
The prototype for Jesus was the servant of the Lord, ideal Jacob, who was “deeply despised, abhorred by the nation” (Is. 49:7; cf. 53:3), or the persecuted prophet like Jeremiah, or the “righteous man” who reproaches the wicked for their sins against the law and claims to be a child of God, who is insulted and tortured and put to a shameful death (Wis. 2:12-13, 19-20), or the pious martyr whose suffering would be an atonement for the sins of the nation (cf. 4 Macc. 17:22).
So if we say for modern political-religious reasons that Jesus was one of the oppressed, we are likely to miss the point of the Gospel story.
Fortunately, it doesn’t stop there….
The end of oppression that Jesus didn’t foresee
The fall of Babylon the great described in Revelation 18 was an act of divine judgment against Rome as the powerful sponsor of idolatry, “sexual immorality”, injustice, decadence, economic exploitation, slavery, and violence against the prophets and saints.
This was beyond the horizon of the historical Jesus, but it was grounded in the Old Testament conviction that from time to time God acts in history to put things right, on a massive scale, for the sake of his reputation and for the sake of his people.
The difficult question is whether it makes sense to say that the God of history still does this sort of thing. We are a prophetic community and we must hallow the name of the Lord among the nations, defend his reputation for righteousness and justice in a post-biblical western world, by our words and actions. But I don’t know if we can say on behalf of the oppressed, as Jesus did, that the kingdom of God is at hand.