Jesus and the Jubilee Kingdom: Seeking a Compassionate Coronavirus Economic Response

This is an essay I wrote late last year for uni. I am posting this in light of Western Australia entering into lockdown again, and how- though I am thankful for the government coordinating safe protocols- we nonetheless need to fill the economic gap caused by COVID19.

When COVID19 arrived in Australia, very few realised just what the economic implications would be. Nearly 9 months later and what do we have? Numerous loved one have lost work, lost a home, lost savings, in what has been a disaster of life and livelihood. Both federal and state governments have sought an economic recovery plan that included an increase in JobSeeker, yet now we face a fall again in that economic safety net. For some it might seem archaic to turn to scripture for economic support, and yet with those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, we see the words of Luke 4:17-21 as our support for the cries of those who long for jubilee. So, what did Jesus read out loud in the scroll of Isaiah when he spoke of what this good news kingdom would look like to those economically burdened? If certain gospel tracts are to be believed, one might think it would read that Isaiah’s good news would be that we are going to escape this world to go to another heavenly home called the Kingdom of God. However, this does not say much to our current struggles. To our surprise, we discover a very this-worldly depiction of a world of God’s liberating Kingdom and- in particular to this reading- we discover an economic reality to God’s Kingdom (Luke 4:19). In times of global economic strain in light of COVID19, followers of Jesus are forced to reckon with the questions of economics. With historic job losses and financial strain, economic hardships that were once swept into the dark and relegated corners of the Centrelink lines have now come into full view for many people. It is in times like these that Jesus’ reading of Isaiah might speak a fresh word to us. Luke 4:17-21 sets the tone of our theological exploration on the Kingdom of God and the intersection of economic political advocacy in light of the COVID19 crisis. In the pursuit of exploring this, this paper will set out to explain what the Kingdom of God, how we seek to explore the Kingdom of God contextually, and then finally generate a contextually driven economic response to COVID19 through the lens of the Kingdom of God.

What then is the Kingdom of God?

Broadly speaking, the Kingdom of God is God’s Jesus-shaped rule and reign on Earth as it is in Heaven. But what does this mean exactly? What has to be acknowledged first and foremost is that this Kingdom we are talking about primarily has to do with God. It is not someone else’s Kingdom that is being spoken about- it is God’s Kingdom and God’s alone. This seems obvious, however what has been less obvious in the discussion of God’s Kingdom is its location. Christians would generally agree that God’s will is to be done on Earth, yet what has happened is that the actual social location of God’s Kingdom is still seen as somewhere else. According to this view, God’s will is to be done on Earth insomuch that it eventually leads people to go somewhere else after they die- namely God’s Kingdom (or the Kingdom of Heaven). However, scripture itself does not support this view of God’s Kingdom. The Bible starts with God’s activity on Earth (Gen 1), The Bible ends with God’s rule and reign on Earth (Rev 21:1-5), and has Jesus announcing that God’s Kingdom had arrived with himself on Earth (Mark 1:15), with himself saying that this Kingdom would be “on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matt 6:9-13). Throughout the whole Bible, language around the future is very earthy- it depicts nations no longer fighting, the natural world being bountiful and beautiful, and suffering being done away with (Isaiah 2:4, 11:6-9). It appears then that the social location of God’s Kingdom is, ironically, less about one location and more about all locations longing to be ruled by God- with the hope being that all of creation be under the wise and loving rule of God.

Along with the location of the Kingdom of God comes a confusion of when the Kingdom of God will be. In the former view of God’s location, if the Kingdom of God was about going somewhere else after someone dies, then the time of the Kingdom of God would be after someone dies as well. One might say there are ‘glimpses’ of God’s Kingdom ‘down here’, or even some expressions of God’s Kingdom on Earth, yet, as with social location so with time, the Kingdom of God is ultimately about a future time. However, scripture appears to speak about the timing of God’s Kingdom in different ways depending on where one is along the entire scriptural story. You can see a future element to God’s Kingdom (1 Cor 15 24-26), however this future element is about God’s Kingdom being fully established on Earth (not somewhere else). There is a future to be had with God’s Kingdom, yet Jesus also depicts this Kingdom as having already arrived with Jesus himself (Mark 1:15). The tension of the Kingdom of God is that it is here, yet not fully implemted.

Once the location and times of the Kingdom has been considered, we have to take seriously the way of the Kingdom. What is meant by this? There was an expectation that when the Messiah comes to bring God’s Kingdom, that its establishment would bring about a violent end to the ruling empires that laud it over the people of God. When Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom, one could imagine there would have been an excitable expectation that Jesus would be this war-like messiah. Yet instead we have commands from Jesus saying things like “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44), and Jesus talking about power as serving each other (Matt 20:26). All in all, what we have is Jesus bringing a Kingdom, yet then showing us what it looks like for him to be King, and then what it would look like to be his Kingdom people. So not only is the Kingdom of God defined in terms of location and time, but also how it is practiced and implemented.

One final observation to make in exploring what the Kingdom of God is, is in relation to the coming of God’s Kingdom. Once we consider that God’s Kingdom comes on Earth (and in differing stages), this begs the question as to who is doing all of this work. This is where we have to say that God brings God’s own Kingdom. If we are to understand the grace of God in any way, it is to see that God’s Kingdom is an act of extravagant and unearned grace. God’s Kingdom saving work is ultimately done in Jesus’s death, vindicated in his resurrection and his accession, implemented through the work of the Spirit, and will be fully implemented one day over the entire creation at Jesus appearing again. Of course, we can rightly ask where we fit in all of God’s own saving work, and the answer to that is that we- by the power of God’s Spirit- partner in the implementation of God’s Kingdom work (1 Cor 15:58).

In today’s world we can often be sceptical of any talk of “Kingdom”- and this is understandable given the very bloody 20st century. The ultimate power move of speaking of sovereign rule is by evoking Kingdom language and equating it to God. We can easily think of malevolent political leaders invoking God to justify their agendas and thus deluding the masses. Yet the rightful postmodern scepticism of such claims to power can be critiqued by a better understanding of this doctrine- for once we see that is it Jesus gives us the definition and shape to the Kingdom of God, then we shall see that any such power that looks like a malevolent force is indeed not the work of the humble servant King. As it relates to our task today, we must then consider how we form a faithful Kingdom response to the times we find ourselves in- a response that can survive the postmodern critique of malevolent power, critiques the current powers, and stay true to what we see the Kingdom of God is.

Generating a Faithful Kingdom Response

Once we understand that the sphere of God’s rule is all of creation, then God Kingdom does not just inform one area of existence, but all spheres of existence. Once we understand that God’s Kingdom has been inaugurated, then God Kingdom does not just inform the past or future, but also in the present. Once we understand that God’s Kingdom is defined by Jesus and his ways, then God’s Kingdom does not just incorporate or implement any way of living as long as it has a “Christian” label on it, but only ways of living that can faithfully align with what is revealed in Jesus. And once we understand that God’s Kingdom has its victory in and through God’s own sovereign work- supremely seen in Jesus’ death, resurrection, accession, and eventual appearing again- then we cannot suppose we are doing the work of bringing God’s Kingdom alone, but that God’s Spirit is implementing-by-partnering with us unto the eventual day of God’s fully implemented Kingdom victory across the cosmos. God’s Kingdom is for this time, in this location, seeking to be implemented and modelled after Jesus, and enacted by God’s spirit through us unto an eventual hopeful victory. If this is all true, then we are faced with the contextual question at hand: what does it look like for God to be king in advocating for a compassionate coronavirus economic response?

Taking seriously this contextual question of God’s rule and reign is paramount if we are to be faithful disciples of the Kingdom for such a time as this. In seeking details of such explorations, we have to turn to scripture to see if any of Jesus’ teachings- in their socio-political context- can either specifically inform similar issues at hand in the here and now, or if the broader Kingdom principals can inform issues in the here and now. Also, we have to explore the Kingdom shaping events of Jesus’ death, resurrection, accession, and appearing again. This will help us generate a faithful theological improvisation for such a time as this.

A Kingdom Economics

Looking at the current crisis we find ourselves in, one cannot help but one if there is a better economic response. Speaking personally, I work with at-risk young people as a school counsellor. In these therapeutic spaces, I have heard first-hand the stories of how the economic response by both state and federal government has not gone far enough in providing economic support. As a result of these times, I have begun thinking theologically about what a Kingdom-shaped economics is, and how such an economics can inform a response to the times we find ourselves in. After all, if Jesus is Lord of all creation, would this not include economics as well? A lot of sermons and seminars have been given around personal finances, yet such sermons and seminars rarely talk about the wider economic inequities that exist in society. If the Kingdom of God could shape the common good for other social inequities in the past- such as the ending of the slave trade- why could not the Kingdom of God shape the common good for economics? Of course, it would be beyond the scope of this paper to explore in depth a Kingdom-shaped economic practice however we can nonetheless glean more broadly as we seek to explore a Kingdom shaped economics.

Turning our attention again to Luke 4:17-21, we see language around the socio-political reality of the Kingdom of God when we read that Jesus has come to fulfil the text that speaks of jubilee. Whilst there are different theories around how to enact the practices of jubilee in our time and culture, we can nonetheless take seriously that jubilee was a type of economic liberating practice for the poor in ancient Israel that God desired for God’s people to enact. Far from being tossed aside, Jesus- in reading Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of God- recaptured the economics of the Kingdom of God. In his book Shalom and the Community of Creation, Indigenous theologian Randy Woodley contends that jubilee serves as the basis of a social safety net for those more economically dispossessed people to be taken care of. He goes on to say that his was a mandated economic principle precisely because the sinfulness of the world would err society to greed, and as so having a mandated safety net meant that would be offset. Such an economic response should not surprise us- throughout the entire bible there is an emphasis on making sure the poor are looked after, and this is emphasised in Jesus’ ministry, and the early church demonstrates an economic redistributive ethos to make sure the community is taken care of (Acts 2:44-45).

Generating a faithful theological take on COVID19 and our economic response

Turning towards these times we find ourselves in, it is true that our secular nation cannot be equated with ancient Israel, and thus we do not have a type of ancient theocratic mandate to implement this jubilee economic reality in the same manner that they did. That said, one could argue that part of the role of the church is to advocate and seek the common good, especially for the poor, and that we do so in recognising that Jesus is Lord of all creation- including the Powers.15 Psalm 2:10-11 reminds is that part of the vision of the Psalms would be that the nations would learn wisdom from the Messiah- so perhaps part of our vocation then can be showing the nations the jubilee economic wisdom that seeks the common good. Debate can rage on about how we do this and what this looks like in exact detail- however I am nonetheless haunted by the fact that Israel was commanded to have a type of social safety net. Taking that economic reality seriously in our context could mean taking seriously the need for there to be a social safety net in our times in order to make sure gross economic inequity does not remain the norm.

Whilst some readers of this paper might contend that seeking a safety net is merely a socialist agenda, it is perhaps worth to noting two things. Firstly, such thinking puts the political cart before the theological horse, as people get too caught up in games of political ideological purity over the wellbeing of real people. Yes, we can have a lively and legitimate debate as to how to enact this well politically, and both sides of the spectrum can have that debate. Yet, if scripture calls for seeking the wellbeing of the poor, then we have to reckon with this- to simply deny such a political debate because any such mumblings of economic concern raises ideological alarm bells for some means that we are missing the deeper politics at work in our faith, namely the politics of Jesus. Secondly, it is worth noting that a number of conservative economists believe in some sort of universal safety net because- within their economic philosophy- such a safety net will actually free people up to not give so much energy to survival, but energy into a type of economic and innovative empowerment.16 Therefore, the case can be made that this is not some sort of partisan for partisan sake economic case- rather, this is about seeking how to integrate jubilee into the here and now as part of the economic dimension to the Kingdom of God.

Conclusion

Whatever the more precise policies details look like, we are faced with the daunting question: are we going to be among the nations who forget about the Christ who is revealed amongst “the least of these” (Matt 25:32-46)? The Kingdom of God is, economically speaking, the Jubilee Kingdom, and demands of us a compassionate coronavirus response for such a time as this. We are to face the reality of Luke 4:17-21, whether we find it convenient or not. Yet- if Jesus is Lord of all- we too cannot escape the economic questions of our communities and our own personal budgets. As communities and as individuals, COVID19 has revealed to us the deeper virus of malevolent capitalism. So how might we go forward in these times in exorcising the presence of this malevolent invisible hand of the market? These questions too we must face. Whatever it may be, what can be said of these times is that we all deep down long for a better world- and what better world can there be other than one ruled by the servant King Jesus, who brings a servant-shaped Kingdom.

Bibliography

Gordon, Noah. “The Conservative Case for a Guaranteed Basic Income” The Atlantic, 06 August 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/08/why-arent-reformicons-pushing-a-guaranteed-basic-income/375600/.

Om, Jason. “JobSeeker made them ‘feel human again’, but now the payment is winding down” ABC News, 26 September 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-26/jobseeker-made-them-feel-human-again-but-payment-is-winding-down/12699230.

Vanhoozer , Kevin. “Improvising Theology according to the Scriptures: An Evangelical Account of the Development of Doctrine” in Building on the Foundations of Evangelical Theology, ed. Gregg R. Allison and Stephen J. Wellum, 15-50. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015.

Woodley, Randy. Shalom and the Community of Creation. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2012.

Wright, N.T. “Cross and kingdom: Putting the Christian story together again”. ABC Religion and Ethics, 16 April 2019, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/cross-and-kingdom-putting-the-christian-story-together-again/11021300

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Scripture. London, United Kingdom: SPCK, 2014.

Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope. New York, New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

Wright, N.T. “The New Testament Doesn’t Say What Most People Think It Does About Heaven”. Time, 16 December 2019, https://time.com/5743505/new-testament-heaven/

Wright, Tom. Simply Jesus. London, United Kingdom: SPCK, 2006.

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