I suspect that all Christians would affirm that the broad theme of the Bible is “the Gospel.” I also suspect that, once we drill down into the details, things will fragment substantially. Even so, I suspect that most Christians will affirm, as I would have thirty years ago, that the Gospel is about sin and salvation, heaven and hell, who’s in and who’s out. But I’ve read the Bible a lot in the last few years in seminary and ministry and I think some things have been missed. It is hard to turn a page of the Bible without being forced to consider poverty, empire, and creation. I suspect that, if we pay attention to these three things, we will learn something about the conditions for life, abundant life.
It is hard to read the Bible without being regularly confronted by poverty. The poor are represented in the law in the gleanings and the Jubilee. The prophets’ regular criticism is of how nations treat the poor. In the most significant mission statements offered by Jesus, he talks about the poor. “Blessed are the poor” says the Beatitudes. In Luke 4, Jesus says that he is there “to bring Good News to the poor.” In Matthew 25, he identifies himself with the poor. But who are the poor?
The poor are not just those who are economically disadvantaged. Instead, they are those who have been shut out of the privileges and benefits of the societies in which they live. It would be more appropriate to call them the impoverished, because it is something that has been done to them, not a function of character or culture. The reasons they have been impoverished are diverse. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the formula is usually “the widow, the orphan, and the alien.” In the Christian testament, it might include the sick – the blind, the lepers, the paralyzed – and the demon-possessed, as well as the prisoners, the political dissidents, the resistance. It would definitely include women and day-laborers. Thus, it is never a complete list, but a call to be on watch for who is marginalized now. In our time, it would certainly include all the above, but also those who are held suspect because of race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, or disability.
The second consistent theme of the Bible is empire. The national mythology of Israel begins under the thumb of the Egyptian Empire. Once the Hebrews are liberated from bondage and become an empire of their own based in Jerusalem, they are crushed and exiled by Babylon. In the time of Christ, the elite of Israel become client rulers of the Roman Empire.
The relationship between empire and the poor should be pretty clear: empire crushes the poor. Perhaps it does so in more ways than we typically recognize because to do so would expose our complicity. There is an outward movement of empire, conquering or converting everything in its path. But there is also an inward movement of empire that seeks to preserve the status quo. It establishes systems of control and polices the boundaries of identity to ensure that the poor stay poor.
Finally, the third theme of the Bible is creation – noun, not verb. We see this right at the beginning, in the creation of creation, but I fear that we don’t notice it much after that. However, the first few verses of the Garden of Eden narrative are a bonanza of elemental images: earth, water, and air. Creation is at various times the harbinger and the implementation of judgment; it convicts us and punishes us. The earth cries out with the blood of Abel. Famine rises up against those who practice injustice. The ten plagues that set the Hebrews free from Egyptian enslavement are a cascade of environmental disasters. And then creation is the celebrant when justice is restored. In Isaiah 14, the trees celebrate the destruction of Babylon and the land is rewilded, so that waterfowl and hedgehogs frolic in ponds. If you want to know how you are doing with social justice, just look at creation.
During Eastertide, we’ve been talking about resurrection, new life in the aftermath of desolation. It seems to me that, in the broad arc of the Bible, there are three conditions for new life to which we are called. First, we must fight poverty. The material conditions of people’s lives matter. Second, we must resist empire, both its outward and inward impulses. Third, we must care for creation so that creation can rejoice with us. This is the Gospel.