Jesus the Protestor: Thoughts on the Occupy movement

It is hard not to look at the news these days and see reports on the protestors across the globe taking a stand against a financial system they see as corrupt. In fact, in the heart of London there is one such group, camped out beneath the spires of St. Paul’s cathedral.

The one thing that strikes me is how the leaders of St. Paul’s are handling the situation. Earlier this week they shut the church entirely, citing health and safety reasons though all relevant authorities said there were none. Today I read an article stating that the church threatened legal action in the future if things do not change.

This got me thinking; were Jesus walking the earth today, how would he respond to this protest? Which side of the protests would he be on?

One of the blessings of my current incapacitation is that I have had enormous amounts of time to delve back into scripture and see Jesus with fresh eyes on this matter.

The first thing that struck me was just how poor Jesus was, throughout the entirety of his life. In Luke 2: 22-24 we find his parents coming to the temple to present Jesus, and giving a sacrifice of two turtledoves. This was a provision in Leviticus 12:8 for those who could not afford a lamb and a pigeon for the sacrifice.
Or, to put it plainly, it was a provision for the exceptionally poor.

Jesus was born into poverty.

Jesus – the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – also lived and worked in the shadow of one of the greatest, most opulent cities in all of Palestine. Just to the north of Nazareth lies the city of Sephhoris. The city was huge by ancient Palestinian standards; it was big enough to warrant its own theatre, was a commercial hub and a hotbed of political activism. It was the second city of Palestine, the largest of all cities save Jerusalem itself. It was supremely rich – courtesy of the patronage of the Herodian dynasty – and archeological evidence suggests that Jesus, working presumably as a carpenter, would have had to trade very frequently within its walls.

What Jesus thought of the city is evident by his teachings; Sepphoris is never mentioned in the gospels at all. Not once.
Ever.

In fact, the only traces of it that can be found in the gospels is possibly one the people of such a city would like to forget; Jesus took the word hypocrite – the word for the actors in the theatre that would use masks to impersonate a character – and transformed its meaning into the one we have today when he accused the pharisees and teachers of the law of being inwardly dead (Matthew 23 is a good example).

Jesus’ ministry likewise shows no traces of being a wealthy one. In Matthew 8, a scribe – a teacher of the law and a member of the religious establishment – was evidently impressed with Jesus’ message, scribe-bashing included. In verse 19, he declares to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go!’. Jesus response is…well, not exactly attuned to the statement. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’

We sometimes forget that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine; here, in this moment when he could have said something tremendous to the scribe, he instead lets out a heavy sigh and wishes he had a house of his own. Jesus was homeless, and too poor to own a house…and it seemed he would have liked one.

Some of you might be wondering what any of this has to do with the recent spate of protests; the answer is, it has a lot to do with it. Too often we forget that the words of Jesus in the gospels were uttered by a real man with a real history in a real place at a real time.
A man with real high points, real low points, and real frustrations and grievances at what he saw going on around him. He got passionate, joyful, sad, angry, tired, wearied, annoyed…Jesus was a man.

And that is the reason Jesus’ words have such power; they aren’t just the sayings of a wizened teacher – they were spoken by God become man. A God who did not bend or break the rules when he entered this world; he played by our rules, and the rules of this world screwed him over.
He was born to parents so poor they couldn’t afford a lamb, and went through his ministry being so poor he couldn’t afford a house. And that was after the decades he worked as a carpenter, trading regularly in Sepphoris, and sweating for his money.
The Jesus that spoke the words recorded in the gospels knew the financial systems of his day very well.

So where do we begin? Where will we find out what Jesus would have thought of the systems these protests are rising up against? In looking for an answer to this, I found myself staring at words so familiar to me, I nearly skimmed them over without paying them a second glance. But something in me drew me back, and in such a way that I was shocked at what I was reading.

I found myself reading the Sermon on the Mount.

This text – one that could easily be described as Jesus’ manifesto of life on earth in the light of the Kingdom of God – spans Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7 as a unity, whilst existing in the other synoptic gospels as separate teachings. And it is quite possibly one of the most polarising set of teachings ever known to man. The way of living Jesus teaches here is so antithetical to all we know, so opposed to so many things we have grown to accept, the first instinct (you know, the one we get before we force the ‘correct Christian’ response to kick in, if we are being truly honest) on reading it is to be offended.

In these teachings the poor, the mourning, the humble, the meek, the peacemakers…suddenly all of these become the blessed [1], greater than the rich, intelligent and powerful. Being angry at someone is now a sin [2]. The oath takers sin [3], the wandering eyes searching for beautiful flesh ought be gouged out [4], and no one can retaliate if struck down [5]. Enemies who would happily see you destroyed should be loved and prayed for [6], nothing beyond the day at hand should be fretted over [7], and you are a hypocrite if you judge anyone, no matter how slightly [8].

No matter how you look at it, if you take the Sermon on the Mount at face value, it is just downright offensive; “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [9]
Be perfect? Everyone knows perfection is unattainable, and to simply command humanity to do so is…well, insulting.

And that is why I strongly feel something truly right is locked into these passages; it affronts everything we hold to be inevitable, and thus affronts ourselves. When taken at face value, this section of scripture really hits virtually every nerve that could be hit.

And one of those nerves is money.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. [10]

And there we have it. Jesus gives us no other way of interpreting his words; he did not intend to give us any way for us to water it down. We either serve God, or we serve money. But Jesus’ words are much deeper than an either/or scenario, because these two positions represents two completely different and incompatible ways of doing things.

Decades after Jesus gave this sermon, Paul wrote to a young leader of the Church, warning him that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils [11]’. I cannot help but see in this the explanation of what Jesus was warning of in the middle of the quoted passage above. On the surface of it, it doesn’t make much sense; good eyes equals body filled with light, bad eyes equals greatly dark light.
Doesn’t make much sense is, of course, being polite; on the surface, it makes no sense.

Paul’s words, however, reveal the reality behind the darkness and the light in Jesus’ words; if we love money more than God, then it goes to follow that we will follow in money’s footsteps more than God’s, eventually finding ourselves serving money with all our heart, all our soul and all our mind.

So let us assume for now that we love money more than God. Since we love money, it goes to argue that we will instinctively want more of it. The more we want, the more we will find ways of procuring it. As we do that, we start to push aside those who want access to that money and deprive them of access to it; it does not matter what cause or project or need it is for because we want it for ourselves. We wind up not caring about equal justice, because equal justice would inevitably mean we would have less money to hand, since some of it would have to be given to the poor; we would have to give more away, be taxed more, settle for less and – if we love money – that just would not do. So we hate the poor and conjure up arguments that all of them are poor because they did not work hard enough or are not looking hard enough for a new job after losing their last one. In time we argue for cuts to anything that might help them, and lo! we now oppress those who seek some of that money, and turn a blind eye to any suffering which might need money to go towards solving it.
Our hearts grow cold, our eyes grow dim to the suffering around us.
Great is the darkness indeed.

It is an extreme rendition I know, but it needed to be done to expose a deep, dark truth about our world, one which we all can sense but which we dare not critique. Our world – including…maybe even especially…Christians – love money, and we have willingly allowed a world to come to be that means that those who are rich remain so, even if others have to pay. Even today thousands who need help are being deprived of it even as bonuses numbering in the millions are doled out.

And we, who are beginning to complain and grumble about rising costs, are just as guilty as those at the top are; we grumble because we are losing more of the money we love to have, thus depriving us of chances to be more successful in this life, playing by the rules of the world.

When reading that passage I knew I stood convicted by Jesus’ words; my love of money had turned my heart cold, my ears deaf to pleas and begging and my eyes dim to the suffering around me.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that the verses that immediately follow this ringing condemnation of greed and love of money are verses that tell us, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.” and, “Judge not, that you be not judged…why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”. Possessions, Jesus points out, are temporary, money included. The work of God, however, is eternal.

We have dwelt long on what serving money looks like, but what is the alternative? What, when Jesus speaks of serving God, does he mean? In the gospel of Luke, just as Jesus was beginning his public ministry, he stood up in the synagogue to read out a passage of scripture and speak on the subject,

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” [12]

This was Jesus’ statement of intent, his proclamation of what he was going to do. Throughout scripture, God shows he cares deeply for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the lonely, the broken, the desperate. He thrashed out against any government, people or system that would dare oppress those beneath them. That is what serving God looks like; taking notice of the oppression and misery around us, giving freely and heartily of anything we have to help them, caring for those with nowhere to turn to. Jesus’ commands leave us in no doubt; God sides with the desperate. Does this mean we get rid of money altogether? No! But we need to see it in its rightful place; money, possessions, status…all the things the world holds dear…mean nothing in the end of the day. We must give them freely, with a joyful and glad heart [13], because in doing so we do the will of our Father in heaven.

Back to the steps of St. Paul’s cathedral, and the hundreds of protesters speaking out against an unjust financial system. Which side would Jesus be on?
I truly, deeply believe that Jesus would be pitching a tent on the steps of St. Paul’s and identifying with these people who long to see a more just system develop.

And my hope and prayer is that the leaders of St. Paul’s – and all of us who call ourselves Christians – will join with them in spirit. Our world is broken and unjust, but it need not be so; we can make the world a fairer place. So the question you, I, and everyone must ask themselves is whether we will stand with those who want the love of money to be rooted out, or those who want the status quo to remain.

When push comes to shove, which side are you on?

Footnotes:
[1] – Matthew 5:1-10
[2] – Ibid. 5:21-26
[3] – Ibid. 5:33-37
[4] – Ibid. 5:27-30
[5] – Ibid. 5:38-42
[6] – Ibid. 5:43-48
[7] – Ibid. 6:25-34
[8] – Ibid. 7:1-6
[9] – Ibid. 5:48
[10] – Ibid. 6:19-24
[11] – 1 Timothy 6:10
[12] – Luke 4:16-21
[13] – 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

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About trevfrancis

It always seems an odd position to be in; how do you distill yourself into a mere box? The short is, you can't, but I will give it a good go all the same; 23 years I've been on this earth, and 9 of them as a Christian. Books and learning are a passion of mine, as is spending time in good company. The pub is my preferred place for study, and all the wonderful insights I find there from people who I see eye to eye with, even if we agree on precious little. True friends are synonymous with family to me, and I love my family very much. Love walking to clear my head, will walk for miles upon miles if I could. At the end of the day, the best I can think of to sum me up is a pilgrim, far from home, seeking to understand the world he's passing through, and the God behind it all.
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6 Responses to Jesus the Protestor: Thoughts on the Occupy movement

  1. This is a beautiful post and I’ve enjoyed it very much. You have written in depth and at length about things that surely should come to mind for the sincere follower of Jesus Christ. Being a Christian really is about more than just attending church one day of the week; it’s a lifestyle and a way of thinking about human behavior. There really is no place for the greedy within this lifestyle.

  2. pstok says:

    I am somewhat torn by your thinking. Yes, Jesus was against greed and selfishness, however the occupy movement (around the world) doesn’t seem to have clear proposals for change. They are simply telling us what they don’t like – implying they want a larger slice of the pie. However, Jesus was about complete transformation – not just economic change. The sermon the mount confronts us all to the very core of our being – not just the bankers. If Jesus had been there he would have been painting a positive picture of a totally transformed people of which economics was only a part. Thanks again for your thoughts – they made me reflect.

    • trevfrancis says:

      Thank you for your comment, I appreciate you discussing this with me!

      I agree totally with what you are saying; the sermon on the mount is definitely aimed at us all, and I will freely admit that I looked at it from a very particular – economic – angle when writing the article. But the fact that it made you pause and reflect on Jesus made it worthwhile for me; at the end of the day, all I am doing is trying to understand Jesus Christ, and hopefully tell others about him.

      God bless you sir, and I wish you well!

  3. Bit late to the party on this one but it was a good and interesting read. Supprised it hasn’t already been descussed in this way in all the coverage i’ve heard.

  4. Pingback: Jesus The Occupier? Now They’re Getting Desperate. « American Parser

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