One of the biggest questions Christianity has had to face in modern times is why Jesus did not address any of the societal inequities of His time. Jesus lived at a time when slavery was common, but yet He said not one word against it. In fact, not only did He not speak against it, He used it in situations in His parables without ever even indicating in any way that it was wrong.
Jesus lived at a time when people did not have what we would consider basic human rights. The criminal justice system of His day was crooked. Barbaric and inhumane punishments were common. Yet Jesus said not one word against it.
Jesus lived at a time when poverty was common, when society was structured to protect the position of the rich elite at the top, while consigning most people to dirt poor status on the bottom. But yet Jesus said nothing against that.
Jesus lived at a time when women were assigned an inferior place in society, and yet He said not one word against it.
Many of the issues related to inequality, injustice, and basic human rights that have consumed society in our lifetimes were things that Jesus said not one word about. That has created problems for Christianity in the modern world. It has laid Christianity open to criticism. Critics of Christianity ask why Jesus did not address those issues, and they use Jesus’ lack of addressing those issues as a weapon against Christianity.
Many Christians have simply ignored criticism like that. They’ve gone on their way as if it didn’t exist. But yet these are issues people wonder about, and they are issues that sometimes can cause people to be turned off to Christianity, cause people to reject Christianity. After all, people reason, how could Jesus have been such a great person if He didn’t even oppose slavery? How could Jesus have been such a great person if He didn’t even stand up for women’s rights?
In the face of that, some Christians have tried to address the issue. The most popular way Christians have addressed the issue of why Jesus didn’t confront the various societal problems of His day is to say that Jesus didn’t have time. They say Jesus was of course upset about all those things, He knew they needed to change, and would have liked to have gone on a campaign to change them all, but He didn’t have time. He knew He only had a short time, so He had to stick to just His basic mission. But Jesus knew that His followers, those who came after Him, would tackle those problems later. Jesus left them to us, in other words, not because He didn’t think they were important, but because in the short time He had, He just couldn’t get around to everything.
I don’t think that’s a satisfactory answer. So I thought it would be good to step way back and look at the broad overview of what Jesus actually did and said in the Gospels and see if we can come up with a better answer.
If you look in the Gospels at what are portrayed as the teachings Jesus that are directed at people—things like the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, and the various parables—you see that what Jesus talked about most of all was what you do in your personal life. Jesus aimed His teachings at individuals, and His teachings were about things you would encounter in your daily life.
For example, Jesus talked about prayer. Where are you to pray? Out in public so everyone can see you? No. At home, in private. Another example. Jesus talked about what you are supposed to do when someone wrongs you. You’re supposed to forgive them. Another example. Jesus talked about what you’re supposed to do when you see someone in need. You’re supposed to help them.
In general, if you go through the Gospels and look at all the teachings of Jesus, that’s what you’ll see. It’s stuff directed to individuals in their daily lives. It wasn’t stuff directed to society, directed at changing society. Jesus never really criticized society at all, and His teachings weren’t directed at society.
There was really only one aspect of society in Jesus’ day that Jesus criticized—the Jewish religious leaders. He never criticized slavery, never criticized the structures of society that created poverty, never criticized injustices in society. Jesus reserved virtually all of His criticism for one group—the Jewish religious leaders.
Now, if you stop and think about that, it can seem really odd. Jesus did not criticize the Romans, with their oppressive government, inhumane punishments, and society that created poverty. And neither did Jesus go on a campaign against “sin.” Jesus did talk against adultery a few times, but He didn’t go on a campaign against it. He didn’t go on a campaign against drinking, or against gambling, or against any of the things so many Christians today consider to be “sins.” And you better believe if people are doing those things today, they were doing them at least as much back then, if not more.
In the face of all that, Jesus went on a campaign against only one thing—the Jewish religious leaders.
And so, Jesus did two main things in His teachings. He taught people about how to live their personal lives, and He went on a campaign against the Jewish religious leaders.
But, why would He have gone on a campaign against the Jewish religious leaders, but not on a campaign against the Roman authorities? Why would Jesus have gone on a campaign against the Jewish religious leaders, but not on a campaign against slavery?
Well, consider what the Jewish leaders were doing. According to Jesus, their religious beliefs were wrong, and they were leading people astray. In what were they leading people astray? In their religion, their spirituality. The Jewish religious leaders were leading people astray in their spiritual lives. And that’s what Jesus was really concerned about—peoples’ spiritual lives.
In Luke chapter 12, we hear this, “In the meantime, when an innumerable multitude of people had gathered together, so that they trampled one another, He began to say to His disciples first of all, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops. And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!”
Jesus starts off here with criticism of the Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders. He tells people to beware of them. And then He goes on to tell people not to fear those who can only harm the body, who can only do something to your body. Jesus tells people to fear God, who can destroy not only the body but also the soul.
Here I think we have our answer, the answer to the question we posed earlier about why Jesus didn’t confront the societal problems and injustices of His day. Those things can only harm the body, and that’s all they can do. Their power is limited, so that in the long run, their power really doesn’t matter. They do their worst, and even then, they haven’t done anything that’s really significant in the long run, in the eternal sense, and the eternal sense is what Christianity really concerns itself with. They can just do things to the body, which is going to die anyway. But that’s all they can do.
Jesus is saying that what really matters is the eternal, the spiritual, not the physical. The physical, as the book of Ecclesiastes says, is like vapor; it fades away and is soon gone, but the spiritual is for all eternity. So why did Jesus consider the Jewish religious leaders so much more dangerous than the Roman government, the inequities of society, the drunks, the gamblers, and the prostitutes? Because the Jewish religious leaders were poisoning peoples’ spiritual lives, that which matters for all eternity.
When the Jews dragged Jesus before Pilate, and Pilate was questioning about whether He was a king, Jesus told him, “My kingdom is not of this world…My kingdom is not from here.” Literally, from the Greek, that is, “My kingdom is not of this universe.” So Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this universe…My kingdom is not from here.”
What Jesus came to do for us is infinitely beyond this life. Jesus didn’t come here to set up a certain kind of society; Jesus came to give us life that will continue forever, after everything here on earth is gone.
And that’s what should be the focus of our life. Remember how Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the nations seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
Jesus is saying, “Don’t be so concerned about the things of the world, the things that will pass away. Seek the Kingdom of God, that which abides forever.”
And where is the Kingdom of God? Well remember, Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this universe, not from here. At another time Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” The Kingdom of God is spiritual, not physical.
The focus of Christianity is not on our life in the world, it is on our spiritual life. But granted, we’ve already seen that many of Jesus’ teachings do relate to things of this world; specifically how each one of us as an individual lives our life, and most importantly, how each one of us as an individual treats other people.
Why is that? Why, if the spiritual is what’s really important, did Jesus place so much emphasis on how we treat others here, in this life? Well, remember, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” He did not say it is within society. He said it is within you. It is within you as an individual. And how we act as an individual affects us spiritually. In fact, how we act as an individual makes us spiritually, forms us spiritually. After all, Jesus said how we act as an individual will follow us after this life into eternity, and how we acted as an individual in this life will matter after this life is over. How we act as an individual makes us into the person we are.
Remember back several weeks ago, we were talking about the soul. We saw that the person we are here, the individual we are here today, is the same person we will be in eternity.
And so Jesus’ emphasis on how we act in this life, specifically how we treat others in this life, is not really an emphasis on the physical realm as opposed to the spiritual realm; it’s not really an emphasis on the here and now; it’s a recognition that how we live our life in the here and now makes us who we are at the very core of our being, and who we are at the very core of our being will stay with us for all eternity.
If you watch the news and see the things on the news, you see something that, at least to me, is very disturbing. Whether it’s people in politics, business, or anything else, it seems like that now, we have some of the meanest, uncaring, selfish, hateful, arrogant displays coming from people I have ever seen in my life. It’s like people have passed the point of any kind of decency and human caring, and it’s really disturbing, at least to me. Arrogance, haughtiness, selfishness, self-centeredness, hatefulness, viciousness, scheming, lying, deception, greediness, complete disregard for others—I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. It has consumed our entire society.
We had a good example of what I’m talking about just last week, when all those bombs were mailed to people. But it’s not really the bombs themselves that are so upsetting; it’s that it set off yet another round of hateful sniping and finger pointing among the politicians in Washington. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s all they do up in Washington—and right now going on up there is some of the most arrogant, spiteful, vicious, and downright deceptive stuff we’ve ever seen in the history of this county. But it’s not just from politicians. It comes from all aspects of society.
My first response to this stuff is to get mad, get mad at these people. But when I think more about it, I end up feeling sorry for them because this will follow them for all eternity. The kind of people they have become will follow them for all eternity.
In eternity, only one thing will matter—how you lived your personal life. How did you, personally, treat other people?
Did you love your neighbor as yourself? Did you love your enemies? Or did you hate your neighbor and curse your enemies?
Did you forgive others for what they did against you? Or did you hold a grudge and try to get even?
Did you help people in need, wherever they were and however you found them, or did you pass by on the other side of the road?
Were you like the Pharisee who looked up to God and said, “I thank you that I am not like other people”? Or were you like the man who said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner”?
Did you pick up a stone to stone the sinner? Or did you say, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone”?
Did you strive for the things of the world, or did you strive for the Kingdom of God?
Did you try to get the speck of dust out of your brother’s eye while ignoring the log in your own eye?
Did you take the scripture passage seriously that says, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”?
Those are the things that will determine our place in eternity.
But the good news of Christianity is that it’s not too late to turn around. It’s not too late to leave the past behind and become a new person, to turn from your old ways and follow a new way. And if you do, the past is wiped clean. What you did in the past is in the past. What concerns God is what you’re doing now.
And so now is the time to turn around.