Was Jesus among the oppressed?

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).

Jesus was emphatically not a social reformer. He was an apocalyptic prophet predicting what God would do in the coming years to reform this wicked and adulterous generation of his people.

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.

Paul Prins | Wed, 06/24/2020 - 19:14 | Permalink

That Jesus lacked roman citizenship would seem to imply that he was not from the group of power and prestige. He was — at least — a second class citizen in his own homeland. How might his trial have gone differently had he been a true roman. In this regard he was a part of an oppressed group. His people, that he came to save, were on borrowed time in a land not anymore their own. Also, one can be oppressed without winning the oppression olympics.

Yes, he was a member of an occupied nation, and perhaps more could be made of that. But is that where he gets his “identity” from—if that’s not too modern a question?

The fact that he was not a Roman citizen is probably irrelevant. Do we know of any Palestinian Jews who were Roman citizens? Did the Herods have Roman citizenship? The Sadduccees and Herodians took the course of collaboration, but even that does not become an issue.

The “oppressed” whom he does hang out with are oppressed not by Rome in any obvious way but by the leaders of the Jews. He has remarkably little to say about Israel’s state of subjugation. Perhaps it’s represented in the widespread demon possession.

On the whole, isn’t Jesus actually treated with remarkable respect, even by those who sought to destroy him? The Pharisees would eat with him but were offended by his low caste friends.

I understand that Jesus does not seem to be the recipient of much direct oppression in the gospel narratives (though he is notably run out of his hometown for his prophetic work). 

But coming back to the issue of being an occupied people I am not sure how everyone of those occupied is not oppressed in some way. They are denied the same rights and protections of the state. While yes Jesus is not disabled, destitute, or *gasp* a Samaritan, he was a part of a group of people who were living in occupied land. I’m not sure people from colonial India would agree with your assessment that they weren’t oppressed. Wasn’t Gandhi treated with respect, yet we understand he was oppressed by the British. Even those who were internally respected were still subject to the same second-tier status, and institutional/systemic oppression.

Even some of the periods of historical foreign oppression of the people of Israel were due to them being subjected to a non-jewish leader. Just like they were when Jesus was active. I find it far more likely, and compelling, that the audience of the gospels in the late first century would have just understood the second class nature of the jewish people had. 

I don’t think the question of oppression has anything to do with “Identity”. Roman histories show how poorly they viewed and treated the conquered peoples. It is that same distain and lack of respect for the jewish people that fueled the level of destruction Jesus predicted in 70ce. To me it seems that he was very well aware of his people (and therefore himself) being oppressed. Even his comments to Pilot during his trial sound to me like the defiant words of an oppressed being wrongly accused (showing that the whatever power Pilot has doesn’t come from him or his system, but from above and from Jesus himself).

While you may choose to reserve the use of the term oppression to a select group of outsiders (or the most visibly oppressed) it seems to me a very privileged distinction to make. If ones understand of being oppressed is if they have their peers respect — I believe that says more about ones understanding of oppression than not.

Excellent, Paul. Thanks. The problem I have with your analysis, though, is that while it may be valid in general sociological or historical terms, I don’t think it helps us to understand Jesus. That’s the frame of my point about “identity”. What sort of person or agent is he identified as in the story?

As you say, Jesus was run out of his home town “for his prophetic work”. That’s precisely my point. A persecuted prophet is not an oppressed Jew. Perhaps there were ways in which he and his family or his followers were “oppressed” (high taxation? forced labour? unjust imprisonment?), but it never becomes part of the story.

To make a modern political point by saying that Jesus was among the oppressed seems to me to make it part of the story in a rather misleading fashion. He is not “identified” in the story as an oppressed person (he is not harassed by Roman soldiers, he is not excluded from civil society, he is not subjected to stop and search, he doesn’t rail against absentee landlords, he doesn’t get arrested for leading a peasants’ revolt, and so on). He is identified as an opposed prophet who calls his people to righteousness.

When we read, say, mark’s Gospel, how often are we reminded that Israel is under Roman occupation? Not at all, I think, until we get to the question about paying taxes to Caesar oil chapter 12, a practice of which Jesus approves.

Jesus certainly sounds defiant at his trial, but Pilate exonerates him. It is the Jews who want him dead, not Pilate, who in the end yields to the wishes of the occupied people. (And doesn’t the statement about his authority coming from above rather legitimise Pilate’s power (Jn. 19:11; cf. Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13, 27?) It is the Council that will see him vindicated when the imperial power (sent by the owner of the vineyard, by the king whose invitation to a wedding feast was spurned) destroys the city and the temple.

Another concern might be the blanket assumption that a people is automatically “oppressed” if they are part of an empire. An empire is simply a system of government, and much imperial governance has been quite friendly. Empires were often seen as a civilising and stabilising force, and the most localised regime can be exploitative and repressive. Israel’s own kings were as bad as Rome’s emperors.

Finally, we have to factor in the peculiar reluctance of the Jews to tolerate a pagan overlord. They were oppressed for a particular theological reason, grounded in biblical convictions about Davidic kingdom and the rule of God. Perhaps in this rather precise sense we can talk about Jesus spear-heading an “anti-imperialist” movement that would climax in the acknowledgment of his lordship above all gods and kings across the Greek-Roman world.

Just a short response, but this idea — “Empires were often seen as a civilising and stabilising force” — is rooted in white supremacy. It is wrong, and I won’t engage with it.

Paul, I note the brevity and the reluctance to engage, so I won't be offended if you don't... but isn't that statement itself rooted in a particular historical perspective—a post-colonial western perspective?

This is hazardous territory to get into, but there have been many non-western, non-white empires: Mongol, Mughul, African, Ottoman, African, and of course Babylonian and Persian. White supremacy is a fact of modern history, but it has not always been that way.

In fact, it seems to be the case that empire was normal globally until the modern era, presumably for good socio-economic reasons. Ferguson is probably a bit too far to the right to quote safely, but the basic point seems correct:

Empires... can be traced as far back as the recorded history goes; indeed, most history is the history of empires... It is the nation-state—an essentially 19th-century ideal—that is the historical novelty and that may yet prove to be the more ephemeral entity. (N. Ferguson, "The Unconscious Colossus: Limits of (Alternatives to) American Empire", Daedalus, 134/2, (2005): p 24)

From that point of view the question of whether empires were historically good or bad is complex and cannot be decided just on the basis of our own modern experience of, and regret for, exploitative western imperialism. Empires were not just oppressive military powers. Empires were how human societies developed and civilisation spread....

Or you might prefer this version.

Anyway, the question raised in the post is whether we should evaluate Jesus' status, outlook and agenda according to modern political standards or ancient ones. I presume that he would have endorsed the view expressed in the Old Testament by Daniel (Dan. 2:37-38) and in the New Testament by Paul and Peter (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13, 17) that these eastern and western imperial systems were divinely instituted and should be respected—unless they attempted to obstruct Jewish religious practice. Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's.

This is not a defence of imperialism, it is defence of historical perspective, which I think is critical for understanding Jesus and his mission.

I just came across this article by Michael Nazir-Ali, bishop of Rochester,  formerly bishop of Raiwind, Pakistan, who is rated highly by the left-leaning Guardian (well, that’s a little misleading) as a prophetic voice. On the matter of empire he says:

This also reveals the ambiguity of Empire: some have undoubtedly been bad, even evil, in intention and result. Others, like the British Empire, have been both good and bad. No one can doubt, for example, that some of the “white nabobs” of the East India Company enriched themselves at the expense of the Indian population at large. On the other hand there are the wide-ranging reforms, including education, particularly female education, the emancipation of women, especially ending the evil practice of widow burning, the marginalising of the odious caste system and much else which were acknowledged by the Indian reformers themselves as beneficial.

The building of roads and railways was, of course, to benefit the British but it also revolutionised the mobility of the Indian population and assisted in giving rise to the notion of a united India. Sir Charles Napier, whose statue is on the list of activists for demolition, was undoubtedly an imperialist. But he was also the one who abolished slavery in Sind after it had been annexed to British India. General John Jacob, not only founded the city of Jacobabad in what is now Pakistan, but created the irrigation system which makes the area fertile. He chose to be buried in his adopted land. Sir John Lawrence was called by Punjabis themselves the “saviour of the Punjab” because of the vast public works projects he undertook there. The list is long but I hope the point is made.

In addition to these, there was also the introduction of democracy, even if it was patchy and partial, a vigorous press, judicial process and the institutions of civil society. As to the last, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin used to say that things were never hopeless in South India because you could always form an association to address any particular social problem!