This is an excerpt from Richard Bauckham’s new Jesus: A Very Short Introduction in the well-known Oxford series of little books on big subjects:
“Jesus’ most socially radical statements concern slaves, children, and the poor. He made a sharp contrast between the oppressive regime of the Gentiles (he did not have to instance Rome in particular) and the way things should happen in God’s kingdom. In the latter, he said ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all’ (Mark 10:42-45). Jesus endorsed this statement with his own, shocking example, when he insisted, against their protests, on washing his disciples’ feet. Washing feet, an everyday menial task, was, more exclusively than any other task, the role of the slave. It was what every free person regarded as unthinkably beneath their dignity. Jesus enjoined his disciples to follow his example by washing one another’s feet, and he was proposing, not a mere symbol of humility, but an actual concrete instance, the most telling possible, of how the disciples should relate to each other. The ordinary everyday requirement of washing feet they are to do for each other. If this is not beneath their dignity, nothing is.
Jesus thus took the unparalled step of abolishing social status, not by giving all the disciples the status of master (then there would always be others, outside the community, to set themselves above), but by reducing all to the lowest social status: that of slave. In a society of slaves, no one many think him–or herself more important than others.
Also strikingly original is Jesus’ choice of small children to illustrate what God’s rule requires. Only by becoming like a child is it possible to enter the kingdom. The point is probably not so much the unquestioning trust that children display, but the fact that they had no social status. To become like a child is to renounce any claim to status above others. Just as Jesus said that the one who wants to be foremost must be the slave of all, so he also says that ‘whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom’, where ‘humble’ is an attitude relating to social status. At first sight, it looks as though Jesus was creating a new form of hierarchy, a sort of inverted one, in which the most slave-like or the most childlike is top, but really these sayings serve to subvert all notions of status or rank. The same is true of his aphorism: ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ The kingdom is a topsy-turvy world that inverts all claims to personal importance in order to do away with all self-importance.
The kingdom belongs to the likes of children, just as it also belongs to the likes of the poor. This is the essence of what it means that Jesus preaches ‘good news to the poor’: he tells them that the kingdom of God belongs to them. These poor, as we have noticed, are not the ordinary people, but the destitute, the people at the bottom of the social and economic heap. Jesus does not suppose that the kingdom belongs exclusively to them, but that they are the model citizens to which everyone else must conform. The least radical implication is the advice Jesus gives to ordinarily prosperous people, when they give dinner parties, not to invite their relatives, friends, and neighbors, but ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind’. This is more than generous charity, which was a well-recognized duty. It means treating the destitute as one’s social equals. On these terms, but only on these terms, Jesus did not confine the kingdom to the destitute, any more than he confined it to the children. He did very seriously privilege the destitute and the children, in order to deprive all others of privilege.
The poor require a little more attention. We have the series of ‘beatitudes’, with which Jesus characterized the model citizens of the kingdom, in two versions. In Luke’s version, the first beatitude is ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’. In Matthew’s version, it is ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Matthew’s expansion of ‘the poor’ to ‘the poor in spirit’ does not imply that he removes the socio-economic meaning, transforming poverty into simply an attitude. Rather, in the background, is the Jewish tradition of linking poverty with the right attitude to God, just as wealth was linked with the wrong attitude to God. The poor, having nowhere else to turn, are aware of their utter dependence on God, whereas the rich, feeling self-sufficient, epitomize arrogant independence of God. These are, of course, stereotypes, but, at least in a society that took a religious worldview for granted, not without correspondence to reality. Matthew’s phrase ‘poor in spirit’ merely makes explicit the link between material circumstances and religious attitude that is implicit in Luke’s simple ‘poor’.
Thus the poor model citizenship in God’s kingdom not only in their lack of socio-economic status and resources but also in the kind of relationship with God that typified that status. Jesus, we are reminded again, never thinks of relationships between humans without reference to God. What transforms society in Jesus’ ideal is knowing God as the utterly reliable and endlessly generous provider of all good, on whom all creatures are completely dependent. Trusting this God is what enables the generous sharing among people that makes God’s generosity credible. The kind of trust in God’s provision that Jesus envisaged is enshrined in one petition of the Lord’s prayer: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Adequate provision for material needs, not luxury, and day-by-day provision, not wealth stored up, are all that is asked. It puts every disciple of Jesus in the position of the beggars, who depend day-by-day on charity, or the day laborers, those agricultural workers who had least security, employed only a day at a time, never earning more than the next day’s meal requires. Jesus requires of all disciples the radical trust that for the destitute is the only sort available.” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 76-79)