Okay, I lied. I gave Columbus the benefit of the doubt in my last post saying it was more likely that Columbus was simply bad at math and not a swindler. Having now read more of the Columbus story, I need to retract that statement. Plain and simple, it is far more likely that Columbus was a crook. If that is too strong, then let me just say, he was a horrible human being. Consider the evidence. He was a terrible sea captain (half of his voyages ended in dismal failure). He was notoriously cruel (natives who did not bring in a sufficient amount of gold would have their hands cut off). He trafficked in slaves. He and his crew spread disease which almost eradicated the entire Taino population (how do you spell “genocide”?). As governor, he was both utterly corrupt and tyrannical (as a result of his thieving and oppressive ways, he was arrested and sent back to Spain in chains). And on top of all of that, he was a liar and a cheat. Here’s proof. On his inaugural voyage to find the western sea route to Asia, things weren’t going so well. After ten weeks at sea, his crew was on the verge of revolt. To mollify the impending mutiny, Columbus manipulated the men. He offered a reward of gold to the first man who spotted land. One moon-lit night not long afterwards, Rodrigo de Triana looked out over the horizon and saw a strange reflection in the distance. It could only mean one thing – land! It was true. Rodrigo had spotted the new world (not true; it was the same old world that people had lived on for millennia). Rodrigo called it out, “land-ho!” (or whatever they said back then), thinking all the while he was soon to be a rich man! But Columbus said, “no”! He said he saw that very same shoreline the night before; and since the reward was for the first person to see land, not for whoever shouted “land ho,” he ought to get the reward! And so, Columbus kept the gold and gave Rodrigo de Triana the shaft. Rodrigo did, however, get a statue made of him in Spain. Big whoop. Bottom line: Christopher Columbus was not just a liar and a cheat; he was unjust in all his ways.
One of Jesus’ kingdom dreams was a dream for justice. He preached about it. He told parables about it. He healed people so that there would be justice. He denounced the abuses of the rich and powerful. He identified with the poor. He elevated the status of women. He accepted the outcast. He proclaimed freedom. In short, Jesus incarnated God’s justice.
We see that in Jesus’ first sermon. But it was more than a sermon. Jesus was answering the question why he had come to earth, and his answer is all wrapped up in justice (Luke 4:16-21).
“He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
“Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Jesus understood he was anointed by God to proclaim good news to the poor and to proclaim freedom for prisoners and to set the oppressed free. I don’t deny that Jesus came to bring salvation to his people, but interestingly, he doesn’t mention it here. Instead, he says he came to bring justice to the oppressed. And Jesus calls us to follow him.
We also see this emphasis in Matthew 16 (and its parallels). Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds (Mt. 16:16): “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus accepts Peter’s words. But those words were loaded with Old Testament expectations. Time and time again, when the Old Testament spoke of the coming of the Messiah and what he would do, we see justice as a main theme. For example, look at Isaiah 9 (6-7):
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.”
And take a glance at Isaiah 42 (1-4):
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
And just in case you are not yet convinced, Isaiah 11(1-4):
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
“He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.”
When Jesus agrees with Peter that he is the Messiah, Jesus was doing more than acknowledging that he had come to save his people. He was also accepting the job description of the Messiah, namely, to bring justice to the poor and needy. And now Jesus calls us to follow him.
We also see this emphasis in the Sermon on the Mount. It is there in Matthew’s version, but it is THERE in Luke’s. There, we read (Luke 6:20-21, 24-26):
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh. . . .
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”
Jesus’ astounding words here turn everything on their heads. The rich and powerful believed they were God’s kingdom people, but according to Jesus it was the poor and the hungry and the oppressed. But the question that comes to the forefront is this: With whom does Jesus side? I don’t think there is any doubt. Jesus sides with the poor and against the rich and powerful. And now he calls us to follow him.
We also see this emphasis on justice in Jesus’ response to John’s disciples. When John is in Herod’s prison, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the Messiah or if they should expect someone else. Jesus gives them this answer (Luke 7:22-23):
“Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed,the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Justice is at the heart of Jesus’ kingdom dream. Of all the things Jesus could have used to prove that he was the one who was to come, he chose to show how he was aligning himself with the poor and disfranchised. Apparently, in John’s mind at least, only the Messiah would show such mercy and compassion to the poor. And now, Jesus calls us to follow him.
If there is any doubt about Jesus’ commitment to justice, all we need to do is look at the early church because there we see Jesus’ disciples following Jesus. One passage will do (Acts 4:32-35):
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”
What can account for this emphasis in the early church? Only one thing. They decided to follow Jesus.
What is a Christian? A Christian is someone who follows Jesus in the way of justice and who actively promotes God’s justice through a society shaped by Jesus’ kingdom ideals. Scot McKnight writes (and remember this whole series is response to Scot’s book, One Life): “Any vision of Jesus that doesn’t land squarely on the word kingdom isn’t the vision of Jesus, and the word justice is inside the word kingdom.”
Supposedly, although I have my doubts, Christopher Columbus said, “You’ll never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Following Jesus in the way of justice takes a lot of courage, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of money, and a lot of heart. It is, in fact, losing sight of everything the world believes about riches and power and “the good life” and pursuing Jesus’ dream, heart and soul, for a just and righteous kingdom. Now that’s a new world I want to discover!