The dignity of the lowest as a goal

Jesus lived in a society in deep crisis. Everyone expected a decisive event, even God’s intervention, that would reverse the situation. The Essenes of Qumran, the various groups of Pharisees, the radical “haberim”, the resistance movements against Rome, the apocalyptic seers, all proposed various alternatives. Jesus, on his part, was developing in his mind a completely original project: he called it “the Kingdom of God”, and he conceived it as the emergence of his compassion in the world.

God is goodness without limits, incredible compassion towards those who suffer. The important thing is to accept, bring into and propagate compassion in society. It is not necessary to look for a new order of things that is more just according to the understanding each group has of its own vision and interests. It is necessary to introduce a new dynamic and a new direction into life. Compassion must direct and impel everything towards a more honorable life for the lowest in society.

This message was a challenge for all. According to Jesus the nation has to learn to live by looking at life from a different angle. It has to free itself from traditional wisdom which for centuries has molded the traditions of Israel, the religion of the Temple, and the spirituality of different groups. The values deeply internalized in the social conscience have to be critically assessed. They have very concrete labels: “the election of Israel”, “the destruction of the pagans”, “control over enemy towns”, “the curse of sinners”.

Jesus now calls the people to accept the kingdom of God which wants a better and happier life for all, beginning with the lowest of all. They must learn to live with a different set of values: compassion for those who suffer, protection of the weakest, unconditional acceptance of all, struggle for the dignity of every human being.

The people of Galilee were well aware of what a kingdom built on violence and oppression was like. They lived for many years suffering from the cruelty of Roman rule, and the exploitation of the ruling classes. It had always been that way. It didn’t matter whether it was the Empire of Augustus or of Tiberius, the kingdom of Herod or the government of his son Antipas. The result was always the same: luxurious buildings in the cities, misery in the villages; wealth and ostentation among the urban elites, and debt, loss of lands and hunger for the peasants; enrichment of the large landowners, increase of the malnourished, beggars, vagrants, prostitutes, slaves escaped from their masters, and bandits. They could expect nothing from Tiberius or from Antipas.

We have to place the work of Jesus in this context. His aim was not to organize a more perfect religion. He did not set himself to develop a more precise theology about God or a more dignified liturgy in the Temple. The passion he fostered all his life was different. He wanted to see the project of God realized as soon as possible: a happier and more dignified life for all. And for that he had to introduce into society a new attitude towards the lowest, the most needy and vulnerable. What would the world be like if God and not Tiberius were in fact reigning over the nations? What would happen if everything would be as God wanted it?

For the conventional religion of Israel it was all very clear: God would intervene in order to destroy the enemies of Israel and annihilate the impious who do not observe the Torah. Jesus surprises them all. He does not take the side of the chosen people against the pagan people: the kingdom of God will not involve the destruction of the gentiles. He does not take the side of the just either against the impious: the kingdom of God will not involve a victory of the holy in order to punish the evil for their sins. Jesus is on the side of those who suffer and against evil and injustice which prevent everyone enjoying a more just and dignified life.

The compassion of God demands that justice be done to the poorest and the most oppressed. The Kingdom of God is for them. Jesus can see with his own eyes those people who are oppressed in the villages, without being able to protect themselves against the big landowners; he knows well the hunger those malnourished women and children suffer; he has seen those peasants mourn, angry and helpless, at the loss of their lands and at seeing the tax collectors walk away with most of their harvest. They are the ones who need to hear before anyone else his message: “Blessed are you who possess nothing because God is your king. Blessed are you who hunger now for you will be filled. Blessed are you who mourn now for you will laugh”.

How could Jesus say that? Isn’t it a joke? Is it not cynicism? Jesus says it with total conviction. This saying is central to his message: those who are of no use to anyone, God has a stake in; those who are “surplus” in the empires built up by men have a place of privilege in his heart; those who have no one to protect them, have God as Father. If the kingdom of God is welcomed, everything will change for the lowest. This was the faith of Jesus, his passion and his struggle.

But Jesus is realistic. All this does not mean the end of hunger and misery just now, but a dignity for all victims of abuse and outrage that cannot be touched. The whole world has to know that they are the favored children of God. This bestows on them an absolutely unquestionable dignity. Never anywhere will we set up life the way God wants it if we do not free these men and women from their misery and oppression. Never will any religion be blessed by God if it does not establish justice for all. This is what it means to welcome the kingdom of God: to have religions, nations, and politics caring for the dignity of the weakest sections of society.

José Antonio Pagola

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