Jesus Was NOT a Social Justice Warrior

“Jesus is the most famous Social Justice Warrior of all time.”  — misguided gamer on Tumblr

I thought that title might get your attention. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of you are already formulating your objections. I mean, isn’t it obvious that Jesus was a SJW, given all his attention to and instructions regarding the poor, sick, orphans, widows, etc.? EVERYbody knows this! Well, hold your horses for a minute and consider what Mr. Koukl has to say, alright?

I am referring, of course, to Greg Koukl — Christian apologist, speaker, author, radio show host — who just came out with a terrific new book called The Story of Reality: How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between. In the chapter titled “The Rescue”, Koukl begins to answer the question “What did Jesus come to do?” by clarifying what He did not come to do.

“[L]et us be clear. Jesus did not come to help us get along or teach us to take care of the poor or to restore ‘social justice’.¹ To some, this assertion is a bold stroke, since they have been told just the opposite. This is because there are many noble people who are drawn to Jesus for his moral excellence (as they should be). However, often their admiration of his civic virtue has distracted them from a more important matter.

Their mistake is thinking that Jesus came principally to teach us how to live a better life. He did not. God had already sent many before with the kind of advice we need to hear, and there was no point in his personally coming down merely to repeat what had already been said. No, Jesus came for a different reason.

What I am going to say next will come as a shock to some, but here it is. You can eliminate every single thing Jesus ever said in his life about the poor and social justice, and still you will not undermine his main message one bit. As severe as that may sound, this is precisely what one of Christ’s closest followers actually did.

The Gospel of John is the last biography written on Jesus, and it came to us from his last surviving apostle, the ‘beloved’ disciple John, a member of Jesus’ intimate inner circle. Many think it the most elegant summary and most definitive statement of who Jesus was and what he came to do. Yet you can read from John’s first sentence to his last and you will not find a single word about helping the poor or restoring social justice. Not one. In John’s lone reference to the poor, Jesus is actually somewhat dismissive of them.² That is not because he doesn’t care about them, but because he is comparing their situation with something far more important.

This observation about John’s account in itself seems enough to make the point about Jesus’ focus, but let’s go a bit further. Jesus gave four major discourses — the Sermon on the Mount, the Bread of Life Discourse, the Olivet Discourse, and the Upper Room Discourse.³ Only in the first does he mention the poor at all. Yet even here there are two qualifiers you must keep in mind.

First, in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus commends not the poor per se but rather the poor in spirit. To them, he says, belongs the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a reason the Kingdom belongs to them — not because they are poverty stricken (their income is irrelevant to Jesus), but because they are morally broken and they know it.4 That is what ‘poor in spirit’ means. Picture the tax collector in Jesus’ parable — hardly a destitute man — beating his breast pleading, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’5 This man proclaiming his spiritual poverty goes away justified, Jesus says, while the Pharisee, whose spiritual arrogance clouds his genuine spiritual need, does not.

The second qualifier I want you to keep in mind about Jesus’ comments on the poor is this: In the vast majority of cases where Jesus mentions the poor, he does so not to commend the poor as such, but to make a point about something else — hypocrisy, a widow’s generosity, Zacchaeus’ repentence, the rich young ruler’s confusion, or a lesson about the afterlife.6 Even when he mentions them, the plight of the poor simply was not the focus of Jesus’ teaching.

Now, we must not conclude from this that Jesus didn’t care about the poor and so we need not care either. He cared very much about them, and the Story has much to say about their situation. Do not miss, though, that he also cared about the rich and powerful. Jesus helped everyone and anyone who came to him — poor beggar or prostitute, wealthy tax collector or Pharisee. The divide for Jesus was not between the poor and the rich, but between the proud and the repentant, regardless of income or social standing. Miss that, and you miss everything.

These are the facts we must face if we are to get Jesus right. ‘Social justice’ is not the Gospel. It was not Jesus’ message. It was not why he came. His real message was much more radical. Jesus’ teaching — and the Story itself — focuses on something else. Not on the works of Christians but rather on the work of Christ. That is what the Story teaches.”

Make sense? Man, I wish I could write as clearly and insightfully as Koukl does. If you want to read more about “the Story”, follow the above link to get the book. (Note: Yes, that link has my affiliate code, as do most of my links to books on Amazon, so I’ll get a few cents if you purchase through it.) Plus, you can visit STR.org to read Greg’s articles and listen to his podcasts. And, of course, Greg and I both highly recommend reading the Bible, too. Check out the NET translation, free online over at lumina.bible.org. (It has the most footnotes of any translation out there, which is awesome, if you’re into that sort of thing — especially in re textual criticism.)


Footnotes:

1. The term social justice is misleading. The poor only need justice if they have been wronged in some way. Otherwise, the Story teaches charity and mercy toward those in need. The view that all poor people are victims is a recent invention. It is not what Jesus taught, and it is not part of the Story.

2. The single reference in John to the poor is found in Jn. 12:8: ‘You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have Me.’

3. Find the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5-7; the Bread of Life Discourse in Jn. 6; the Olivet Discourse in Matt. 24, Lk. 21, Mk. 13; and the Upper Room Discourse in Jn. 13-17.

4. Jesus makes a reference to the poor in Lk. 4:18-19 NASB: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.’ Even here, though, it seems clear that, in light of the rest of the verse and everything that follows about Jesus’ teaching on ‘the Gospel,’ He is making reference to spiritual benefits, not material benefits.

5. Lk. 18:9-14

6. Hypocrisy (Matt. 6:2-3), a widow’s generosity (Lk. 21:2-3), Zaccheus’ repentance (Lk. 19:8), the rich young ruler’s confusion (Matt. 19:21), a lesson about the afterlife (Lk. 16:20,22).

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