In an essay titled “Centered Versus Bounded,” Paul Louis Metzger speaks of internal conflict amongst liberation communities: “Divisions easily result…because they emphasize what differentiates them to the detriment of what unites them.” Although Metzger is speaking about communities sharing a devotion to liberation theology, the same must be said regarding the Reformed and Liberation communities, which share a devotion to Jesus Christ.
Reformed and Liberation theology can sometimes seem like theological oil and water, incompatible and unmixable. However, Metzger’s solution to the intra-Liberation squabbles is the same for the perceived tension between Reformed and Liberation theology, namely to focus on the center, on Jesus and the Gospel. This series of articles is an attempt to do just that, to regard a classic Reformed understanding of the person and work of Jesus (specifically His threefold office) from the Liberationist perspective of God’s devotion to the poor. I want to demonstrate that scripture presents Jesus as the Mediator for the marginalized in His threefold office in the following ways: 1) In cleansing the outcast as priest, thus making them fit for life with God and His people, 2) in declaring good news and condemning oppression as prophet, and 3) in upholding the cause of the poor and organizing a beloved community as King. However, in this piece, I want to begin by clarifying what I am not saying or trying to prove.
I am not claiming that Jesus’s delivering the downtrodden is the sole or central focus of His mission. Paul tells us, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul only echoes what the angel told Mary, that the baby to be named Jesus would “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Here, scripture is clear. Instead, I am seeking to demonstrate that the saving work of Jesus delivers the poor in specific ways that meet them in their circumstances.
I am also not claiming that the socioeconomically poor are the only or primary beneficiaries of the work of Christ (although Luke 6:20-22 would like to have a word). I am saying that the benefits of Christ’s work land on the poor in a unique way. This is an attempt at a theological contextualization of a Reformed theological category on behalf of the poor. In speaking of the poor, I do not refer to them in an unqualified sense, as though merely being poor makes someone a beneficiary of Christ’s work. Rather, I am considering who Christ is for the poor person who would come to Him, and how His mediation meets them in their marginalization.
In order to see Jesus’s mediation for the marginalized, we must first clarify who the “marginalized” are. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “marginalize” as, “To render or treat as marginal; to remove from the center or mainstream; to force (an individual, minority group, etc.) to the periphery of a dominant social group; (gen.) to belittle, depreciate, discount, or dismiss.” The Old Testament spotlights, the poor, the widow, the sojourner, and the orphan as those who are especially vulnerable to marginalization (Ex. 22:21-27, Dt. 24:14-15, 19-22, Zec. 7:9-10). “The widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished were the bottom ones…the lowly…Given their position at the bottom of the social hierarchy, they were especially vulnerable to being treated with injustice,” says Nicholas Wolterstorff. This “quartet of the vulnerable” lacked the resources and influence to adequately protect themselves and promote their own flourishing. Though they may have had the personal agency to pursue their own flourishing, they lacked the social and civil power to secure it. For this reason, scripture also speaks of the vulnerable as the “weak” or “needy” (Ps. 82, 12:5).
Ruth is a clear example of one who is poor in Scripture and receives God’s salvation. She is both a widow and a sojourner and therefore vulnerable to exploitation. It is good that Boaz is a righteous man (Ru. 2:1), because if he had not been, he could have treated Ruth cruelly or exploited her sexually. For all her love and ingenuity, Ruth’s (and Naomi’s) flourishing depended on Boaz. That dependence is the essence of being marginalized, poor, and weak. In speaking of the “marginalized,” then, scripture refers to those who are socioeconomically poor and weak. Therefore, when Scripture describes the Messiah’s work in ways that benefit the vulnerable, it is not speaking merely in spiritual, non-earthly terms. It is, in part, using financial poverty and social weakness as a picture of man’s spiritual impotence in sin, but that does not exhaust Scripture’s use of those terms, as seen in the Old Testament theme of redemption.
The central story of Israel is the Exodus. There, God takes a people, His people, who are slaves in Egypt, and redeems them to live in covenant with Him. The Exodus is so central to Israel’s understanding of God that the prophets speak of their redemption from exile in terms of a new Exodus (Is. 11:15-16). In both cases, whether exodus from Egypt or from exile, God’s word of salvation comes to those who are socially vulnerable and oppressed. Even though Israel returns to the Promised Land, they are still in exile. The exile follows them back home. As a people, they know the fear of being vulnerable to Roman oppression (see Howard Thurman’s chapter on Fear in Jesus and the Disinherited). So, when God the Son incarnates to save His people, He inserts Himself and accomplishes His redemption in the context of political and economic marginalization. The stories of Ruth and Israel demonstrate that redemption not only carries an undertone of deliverance from poverty and weakness, but is often made manifest in those very social conditions in Scripture.
Granting these terms, we’ve effectively set the stage for reflection. Next time, we’ll begin thinking through how Christ’s priesthood offers belonging to the outcast.