by Dexter Simpson
There is incredible suffering in Jesus’ day. Historians estimate that 95-97% of Israel lives in poverty. The people own and earn very little. They also bear the heavy cost of Jewish morality codes and Roman taxes. These institutions ask the poor to give even more. Jesus hears the cries of children going to bed without food. He sees the families who are separated when debts are not paid. Jesus understands the grief when a handicapped woman is not received in her house because the local priest deems her immoral so she languishes as a panhandler.
So what does he do about it? Suffering is all around him.
Does he give a portion of his own small wages to a family in need? No.
Does Jesus give ten percent of his earnings to his local faith community, hoping that it will make an impact in the world? No.
Does he help a local non-profit that is doing great work in the area? No.
Jesus goes even further. He wants to do the greatest good with his life. And in order to do the most good, Jesus works for systemic change. His life focus is on the bigger picture. Jesus simply does not give a portion of his wages to people in need. It will not make the change that the world requires. In order to make the biggest difference for good, Jesus’ work can be summarized into three actions:
One, Jesus lives among the poor and speaks out against it. He is born in abject poverty and grows up to be a construction worker, most likely a stonemason at the local quarry in Nazareth. He is not a Roman citizen. He does not grow up in a palace on a hill. Instead he suffers with those in need, seeing that it is not their, or his, fault. And he speaks out. He confronts the religious and political institutions that are the cause of the human suffering around him.
This leads to the second way that Jesus works for the greatest good. He claims his authority. In the ancient Jewish tradition, there are strong figures that speak out for those in need. They use their prophetic voice to challenge the system. They are seen as being the voice of God to help make the world right again. Jesus steps into this role. He allows his followers to call him, the Messiah (or the Christ in Greek). It is a term used in the Old Testament to identify certain individuals who speak on God’s behalf. And in the Gospels, the Jewish people who know the tradition begin to call Jesus by that title. He wants his words to have weight in his listener’s hearts. He wants them to follow his lead in addressing the needs of the poor. Jesus’ ultimate desire is for them/us to see that self-sacrifice is the answer to human suffering in the world.
Three, Jesus starts a worldwide revolution with this message. This is where Jesus is at his effective altruist best. Although a modern term, effective altruism centers on the ethical call to do the greatest good with our lives. It is based on the belief that we can help the disinherited in our world by loving others and sacrificing ourselves on their behalf. Is Jesus not doing the same? And because he teaches the importance of showing love to all people, this is the main focus of the early Church. They take Jesus’ message and apply it to their lives. They stand up against the systems that lead to human suffering. And they start an uprising in Jesus’ name.
Jesus wants to lighten the burdens of the world and he does it through those who follow his lead.
You can read an extended version of this article here.