The Liberation of the poor: the Vincentian Rule to Make the Gospel of Jesus Christ Effective (3)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

CREDITS
Author: Santiago Barquín, CM · Translator: Charles T. Plock, CM. · Year of first publication: 2002 · Source: Hacer efectivo el evangelio y mundo actual, XXVII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2002, p. 243-340..
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Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God

Jesus of Nazareth is the messenger of God’s good news. With him the era of God’s incarnation in the world becomes a reality. Therefore, Jesus’ life, his person, his words, his work, his death and his resurrection are the gospel of God. Saint Mark simply states: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). Jesus, in person, is the gospel; his word proclaims the gospel and his gestures, attitudes and work reveal the liberating presence of God. Jesus is the gospel of God … the gospel, but he does not preach himself.

Jesus did not preach himself but communicated God’s liberation

We can say that the following is Jesus’ essential message: After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel (Mark 1:14-15).

This is the central focus of Jesus’ message and activity. Mark was very precise in presenting the synthesis that we cited in the preceding paragraph. Matthew offers us a similar summary: Jesus went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people (Matthew 4:23). With great clarity the text states that Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom and cured people of every disease and illness. The good news of the kingdom is God’s saving presence … and this salvation is revealed through the healing of people from the various diseases and illnesses. Jesus speaks about the kingdom and restores people to health … bestows upon people the life that God desires for all people (their own life had become marred by death and injustice and desolation).

In another part of his gospel, Matthew restates the above idea and presents a summary of Jesus’ activity in Galilee. He says: Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness (Matthew 9:35). Jesus, moved with compassion, acted because the people were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). Now, like the days of enslavement in Egypt, God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, is once again moved at the sight of the oppression of people and decides to enter into this world to free them: I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry against their taskmasters, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them up from that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. Now indeed the outcry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them. Now, go! I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10).

God, through Moses, would restore life to the people … life that was robbed from them by the Egyptians. God would pass over this people and lead them from that evil land of slavery and oppression to another land, a land that offered abundance and fullness of life. In the same way, Jesus was moved at the sight of the people who were troubled and marginalized and abandoned and would restore life to these people … life that had been taken from them. This would constitute Jesus’ mission. Indeed this is what Jesus proclaimed and through his gestures and signs he made that proclamation a reality.

Luke offers us a summary of Jesus’ life and activity and his summary is similar to that of Mark and Matthew: At sunset, all who had people sick with various diseases brought them to him. He laid his hands on each of them and cured them. And demons also came out from many, shouting (Luke 4:40-41).

Jesus did all of that in Capernaum and accomplished those things through his teaching and healing. The people there were filled with enthusiasm and wanted to keep Jesus for themselves. But he told them: To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent (Luke 4:43). Luke makes a similar statement as he continued his narration: Afterward Jesus journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources (Luke 8:1-3).

In other words, Jesus communicated the meaning of the kingdom of God to the multitude of poor and hungry people who followed him and he did this not only with his words but primarily with his healing gestures and activity. For those persons marginalized from society, Jesus is life and Jesus communicates life … Jesus revived life in those people, life which is a precious gift that God gives to all people.

Thus Jesus’ central message is not himself, nor is it his words or his works (in themselves) … rather his central message is focused on what his words and works reveal, namely, the liberating glory and the saving love of God in is in the midst of humanity, is present in the world. Jesus clearly tells us that God becomes present when we build up the kingdom, when we communicate life to the poor and the oppressed, when we reestablish God’s justice. Therefore if God becomes present in the building up of his kingdom, then it is in that same activity and in the persons whom we help that we encounter God, that we contemplate God, and that we serve God.

Jesus’ preaching and activity are not focused on his person but on his mission. That mission is none other than that of offering life to those are lacking it; to give life to those who do not have it because others have taken it from them. Jesus offers life and communicates life to the world, to those who do not have it or who possess it in a deformed manner. There can be no doubt that Jesus’ signs and works are carried out in the midst of the world and on behalf of the world … but his signs and works also expand our horizon to the future. Thus Jesus’ mission has an eschatological significance. Nevertheless, the synoptic gospels emphasize the service that Jesus engaged in while on earth, service that he engaged in on behalf of men and who were alive in the world, service that he engaged in so that people might live better. In this regard José María Castillo points out: When we read the synoptic gospels and their teaching about the kingdom of God, we realize that even though the kingdom will achieve its definitive consummation in the fullness of time, at a time beyond our death, nevertheless, it is also very clear that the kingdom, as presented by Jesus, is a present reality, a reality that is operative in this life. In this sense, then, there can be no doubt that Jesus continually affirmed that the kingdom of God is present in the here and now. The explicit proclamations of the gospels affirm that the kingdom was a reality from the time that John the Baptist proclaimed the kingdom to be at hand (Mark 1:15), has come upon you (Matthew 12:28), is among you (Luke 17:20). There is no doubt about this … the kingdom of God is the most important reality and is above all else and is a present reality1.

Therefore, Jesus, through his words and gestures, inaugurates the presence of the kingdom of God in this world and wants his disciples and followers to continue to build up this kingdom.

We can see, then, that the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims and makes present signifies an offering of life to those who, for whatever reason, lack it or have it in some diminished manner. The kingdom of God is life, that is, living life with dignity: The gospel text begins by presenting the kingdom of God in such a way that we can see that basic human needs and basic human situations immediately impact the kingdom. In other words, according to the synoptics the kingdom is not the result of submitting to some burden nor does it demand that people experience some form of slavery (even in relation to God).

Quite the opposite! The kingdom of God comes to men and women as liberation from suffering, from all forms of indignity and from death. This is what the scribes and the Pharisees did not understand and yet this is precisely what is made manifest through the healing of the infirm and the possessed; this is what is also revealed in the message of the beatitudes. In this sense, then, it can be said that the gospels establish a fundamental relationship between the kingdom and life2.

Jesus not only offers and gives life to those who lack it but he also initiates the process of changing those social structures and situations that oppress and choke life: the kingdom of God becomes present not only when Jesus gives life to those who are infirm and marginalized but also when Jesus changes those hopeless social situations that create poverty and hunger and suffering3.

Jesus communicates life: I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly (John 10:10). To be free means that people have life and are able to enjoy life … this is what it means to be free. Therefore as Jesus gives life to people, he also gifts them with liberation. Indeed, the most important aspect about Jesus is the fact that he is the one sent by the Father to free humankind from all that enslaves them and prevents them from living with dignity and rejoicing in the gift of life … Jesus is the one sent by the Father to drive away all those who attack the life of men and women. By way of summary then: Jesus affirms that the distinctive sign of the arrival of the kingdom is the fact that he, with the power of God, drives out demons (Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20)4 … and Jesus expects his disciples to do the same: Jesus wants the community of disciples to defend life and alleviate the suffering of men and womeni5.

Today the poor are being damned

Jesus consumed his life in activity that enabled all people to live. Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God and made the kingdom a reality in his life and with his life, but especially, through his works, including among those works his death and resurrection. Jesus proclaimed the good news … and this proclamation of good news did not remain on the level of nice words but rather became a reality, became the gospel. According to Jesus, the kingdom of God is the most human and liberating reality that could be proclaimed to another person: This fundamental understanding of the kingdom of God is the most human and liberating reality that can be communicated to another person. For this reason the kingdom of God is “good news”, that is, the kingdom of God is identified with the gospel (Mark 1:15). But, at the same time, the kingdom, understood in this manner, is also more demanding and provokes people to resist and become fearful6.

The kingdom of God is human and liberating, but it is also demanding. It seems that when people are confronted by the kingdom they resist the invitation to accept it and build it up. This explains why the kingdom of God, initiated by Jesus and entrusted to his disciples, is far from becoming an irrefutable reality in the world. Therefore, in the words of Vincent de Paul, the poor are being damned7, that is, they are unable to live dignified lives and they are also unable to live full lives. The structures of injustice and sin, the structures of death and slavery still prevail. Why is this so?

It is not easy to find a full response to this question. Nevertheless, we can describe some factors and events that have contributed to this situation (and continue to contribute to this same situation today). We have previously referred to the price that Christianity had to pay in order to inculturate itself to the Hellenistic world. Now we must say more about that situation. Here we will not talk about people who are culpable but rather we will refer to circumstances that, with the passing of time, led to a situation that Jesus did not want … a situation that was not envisioned by the synoptic gospels. With Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, we see the beginning of a shift in the focus of preaching. If we say that the synoptic gospels focused on the kingdom of God, then in Paul’s writings, this was not so. José María Castillo tells us: In the synoptic gospels, the center of Jesus’ gospel is the kingdom of God while the center of the gospel for Paul is not the kingdom of God …according to the synoptic writers (Mark 1:14-15) the gospel of the kingdom is a message that is translated into health, life, and happiness for the infirm and the possessed, for the poor and sinners and those who are considered to be “the least” in society. This is quite different from the situation that we find in Paul’s writings where the focus becomes the Christ event which is concretized and translated into a theology of justification (Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 1:11; 2:19-21). Speaking in more general terms, the proclamation of the gospel becomes the proclamation of universal salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. This is a fundamental truth of our faith, but it was this that caused the gospel to lose its immediate application to the life of those who find themselves in hopeless situations … Paul promoted a way of thinking that is far removed from the concrete situations of suffering that so many men and women must confront8.

To say this in another way … if Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, then now, Jesus himself is proclaimed … we speak about Jesus. Little by little the concern for the life and the well-being of the marginalized and the poor and those in need gave way to a discussion about Jesus and what constitutes Jesus as a person intimately united to God. Jesus was concerned about the life of people and this was the focus of his activity and teaching … now the focus is dogma and ethical questions.

The Hellenistic world and its culture have had great influence on all of this. Platonic dualism and Greek subjectivity became part of the teaching that was imparted to the first generations of Christians… and thus preaching was no longer focused on the plan of the kingdom of God which was a primary concern in the synoptic gospels: With Paul we find a new way of understanding and practicing Christianity. Indeed, we find a marked subjectivity when attempting to explain the relationship between humankind and God and when attempting to explain this encounter between human beings and God. This had important consequences because, according to the gospels, men and women encounter God to the degree that they encounter the kingdom of God, that is, to the degree that they align themselves with life. Therefore, people encounter God and encounter the kingdom to the degree that they attempt to alleviate the situation of those who find themselves in misery. Indeed, the kingdom of God is not the objective of history but rather the kingdom of God is the transformation of history9.

Thus individualism, subjectivity and eternal salvation become more important than the liberation of the community or the people, more important than struggling on behalf of a dignified life for all people. The kingdom proclaimed by Christ has an impact on the here and now situation and is meant to transform the world, but the new preaching is transcendent and future oriented and thus the kingdom also becomes a transcendent and future reality. In other words, we speak now about something beyond the beyond, beyond the here and now.

Furthermore, the gospel of the kingdom proclaimed by Jesus refers primarily to the various concrete, tangible realities of this life (well-being, suffering, oppression) while the gospel that Paul preached refers to transcendent realities (hardly something tangible). Nevertheless, in the view of both Jesus and Paul, faith is indispensable (Mark 1:14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2) in order to live according to the gospel. But the gospel of Jesus, according to the synoptics, has an immediate relationship with those tangible realities that occur in everyday life while the gospel of God (according to Paul) relates us to that which is subjective, with the profound convictions and the most intimate experiences of the subject 10.

In another place the same author states: When compared with the theology of the gospels, the problem that the theology of Paul places before us is not that he speaks about things that are not part of Jesus’ message … rather the problem is that Paul speaks from a subjective perspective and speaks to individuals who were not in the situation that Jesus had referred to. This became a theological method distinct from that of Jesus when he spoke about God and the kingdom of God. But this manner of speaking about God, which did not begin with the life of the people, but rather had its starting point in the experience and interior dimension of the subject, results therefore in subjectivism (ever far removed from reality) and today we continue to see that perspective expressed in different books on theology and spirituality. Those are instances in which theology and spirituality become disconnected from life … to be more specific, disconnected from the life of those who suffer. Thus, theology and spirituality run the risk of becoming focused solely on intellectual speculation [the great truths] and balancing subjectivity [asceticism]11.

The inculturation of the faith into a specific culture is necessary but also involves certain risks and dangers. Discovering those risks and dangers and overcoming them is a primary task. Faith has to be incarnated in the culture of people but cannot become so watered down that it is no longer visible in that culture. Yes, it must become incarnated so that it can transform the culture … thus faith must become the ferment that transforms the whole mass. Jesus became incarnated into humanity but he did not allow himself to become absorbed by the culture (not even the culture of his people, the people of God). He struggled to dignify the culture, that is, to make it more human. The problem that then had to be confronted was that the message of Jesus now had to become incarnated into a culture that was quite distinct from that of the Jewish culture, a culture that was nourished by a dualist philosophy and in which present day life and the problems of the marginalized and the exploited had no place. The only thing that was important was “true life” which was found beyond “this life” … in some distinct region. This “present life” was seen as something passing, passing among shadows and living in the shadows, but it was not seen as “real” … and the shadows were seen as unimportant. I repeat, therefore, that a very expensive price was paid, a price that resulted in disconnecting the good news from life, and more specifically disconnecting the good news from the life of those who most suffer in this life. As a result, theology and catechetics and preaching have become, on the one hand, more intellectual and on the other hand, have advocated for a life and a path that is more individualistic, more solitary and more ascetical. Each one must “win” and obtain a future life, a life beyond death where God, the only real reality, is found. In other words, people have to be inventive in order to save themselves. Have we not, then, put forth some form of let those who can, save themselves.

Since the kingdom of God was God’s kingdom, it was thought that the kingdom belonged to a world beyond this world and could only be attained through effort, perseverance and time. This manner of thinking radically changed the perspective of God’s kingdom and the effort that men and women had to exert in order to bring about this kingdom. The kingdom was no longer spoken about as a reality that had to be built up in this world, but was rather seen as a goal that had to be achieved in another life. We no longer exhorted people to make every effort so that the kingdom might take root and grow … rather we spoke about developing a personal ascetical life in order to become more rooted in the virtues that one day would enable us to obtain eternal life. Life in the here and now was no longer important and people became obsessed with life in the future, with eternal life. What now became most important was the search for one’s own perfection and, therefore, living a virtuous life. The kingdom that was proclaimed and initiated by Jesus of Nazareth remained behind the scene, hidden from view. Therefore, José María Castillo has stated: The problem here is that since it is practically impossible to achieve a perfect relationship with others and since relationships frequently present difficulties and complications (which we are not willing to confront), we, then, instinctively, without being aware of it, become trapped by subjectivity. This subjectivity becomes translated into a very simple, yet dramatic formula: the focus of life is neither to alleviate the suffering of our neighbor nor is it to make others happy (not even those who share life with us) … rather the focus of life is one’s own perfection. The objectivity of the kingdom, as lived and explained by Jesus, has been translated into the subjectivity of virtue as explained by the platonics and the stoics. In saying this we are putting our finger on the radical and practical perversion of Christianity.

This subjective focus in Christian preaching became more pronounced. We find this in some of the sermons of the Patristic Fathers, for example in a sermon given by Leo the Great on the beatitudes. In that sermon he states that the rich and poor, if they are virtuous, possess the same spiritual riches. I present this sermon simple as an example. Let us read those words of Leo the Great:

It cannot be doubted that the poor can more easily attain the blessing of humility than those who are rich. In the case of the poor, the lack of worldly goods is often accompanied by a quiet gentleness, whereas the rich are more prone to arrogance. Nevertheless, many wealthy people are disposed to use their abundance not to swell their own pride but to perform works of benevolence. They consider their greatest gain what they spend to alleviate the distress of others.

This virtue is open to all men, no matter what their class or condition because all can be equal in their willingness to give, however unequal they may be in earthly fortune. Indeed, their inequality in regard to worldly means is unimportant, provided they are found equal in spiritual possessions. Blessed, therefore, is that poverty which is not trapped by the love of temporal things and does not seek to be enriched by worldly wealth, but desires rather to grow rich in heavenly goods.

The apostles were the first after the Lord himself to provide us with an example of this generous poverty, when they all equally left their belongings at the call of the heavenly master. By an immediate conversion they were turned from the catching of fish to become fishers of men, and by their own example they won many others to the imitation of their own faith. In these first sons of the Church there was but one heart and one soul among all who believed. Abandoning all their worldly property and possessions in their dedicated poverty, they were enriched with eternal goods, and in accordance with the apostolic preaching, they rejoiced to have nothing of this world and to possess all things with Christ.

Therefore, when the apostle Peter was on his way up to the temple and was asked for alms by the lame man, he replied: Silver and gold I have not; but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk. What is more sublime than this humility? And what could be richer than this poverty? Though Peter cannot assist with money, he can confer gifts of nature. With a word Peter brought healing to the man who had been lame from birth; he who did not give a coin with the emperor’s image refashioned the image of Jesus in this man.

And by the riches of this treasure, not only did he help the man who recovered the power to walk, but also five thousand others who believed the preaching of the apostle because of this miraculous cure. Thus Peter, who in his poverty had no money to give to the beggar, bestowed such a bounty of divine grace that in restoring to health the feet of one man, he healed the hearts of many thousands of believers. He had found all of them lame; but he made them leap for joy in Christ12.

In my opinion the sermon of Saint Leo the Great is well thought out … it is pleasing to read and his arguments are convincing. Nevertheless, I believe it includes some psychological, social and cultural subtleness that is proper to the culture in which Christianity developed during the first centuries of its existence. It seems that subjectivity is given priority over objectivity, that is, salvation of the individual is presented as being more valuable, more important and preferable than the liberation of people, of the group, and of the majority of people who do not possess material goods or the means to obtain them. Material poverty is grounded on the virtue of humility and becomes spiritual richness. At the same time humility also transforms material wealth into spiritual poverty. In a few words, then, we are given the impression that the text projects human life into some eternal and happy future and ignores the crude, painful, discriminating and marginalizing realities. Using the words of José María Castillo, I find that in this sermon the objectivity of the kingdom, as lived and explained by Jesus, has been translated into the subjectivity of virtue as explained by the platonics and stoics. In fact, the sermon raises some questions. Is it sufficient to have simply a desire to create some equality between those who have an abundance and those who lack that which is indispensable and necessary for life? Is it not true that Christians give little importance to the material goods that people possess because it is presumed that there is equality with regard to spiritual wealth? Is it enough to renounce wealth and be poor materially or does such a renunciation of wealth demand sharing wealth with those who have less? Can a Christian have a clear conscience when he/she donates goods to the Church or some church institution while at the same time his/her employees and/or neighbors are hungry or suffer from some other affliction? Does Christianity seek to promote the well-being of the soul or the salvation of the person, that is, the salvation of the person which includes every dimension (the whole integral reality of the person)?

At the same time liberation theology raises similar questions and responds with realism and harshness to the subversion that has taken place with regard to Jesus’ gospel plan. Liberation theology proposes an image … a new (?) image of Jesus as liberator. Nevertheless that image is not new but is as old as Christianity: This image of Christ the liberator ought not to be new, since it is substantially the image of Jesus in the gospels, as is admitted in a sense even by the two Vatican instructions on liberation theology, “the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of liberty and a force for liberation” (Instruction on some aspects of liberation theology, 1984, Introduction). The gospel … is by its very nature, a message of freedom and liberation (Christian liberty and liberation, 1986, Introduction, #1). But this has not been the case, and the consequences are well-known and objectively scandalous13.

Jon Sobrino reminds us: this has not been the case, and the consequences are well-known and objectively scandalous. I believe that this is an evident truth and that nothing more has to be said about this situation. But it is good to mention the causes of this situation because if we know the causes we are then able to apply adequate solutions. Jon Sobrino, speaking about a theology focused on Christ as the “absolutely absolute” and on the consequences of such a theology then goes on to state: One consequence is to make possible a personalist reduction of the faith, which has led again to an abandoning of the historical world to its wretchedness. This is the image of Christ as the ultimate “thou,” in relation to whom Christian faith is decided and reaches it highest expression. The idea of being for Christ, loving Christ, is obviously a good thing, but if there is a move from this to loving Christ “alone,” and so regarding this as the only thing that really matters, it becomes something dangerous, as is shown by the life of perfection and the religious life, since in the name of the highest love for the “mediator” it is possible to undervalue love for one’s brothers and sisters and the oppressed — paradoxically, the love Christ demanded on earth for building the “mediation,” the kingdom14.

A personalist reduction of the faith, a purely personal ethical vision of Christianity and of the following of Jesus, priority given to saving oneself (less concern about others), neglect the problems of this world (they will be resolved in some eschatological future) … these have been constants as Christianity has evolved through the centuries. In fact we have not yet been freed from the aftermath of that theological approach which was initiated in the early days of the Christian era. Christ was concerned about the life of the poor and we became concerned about attaining perfection. Christ consumed his life on behalf of others and we have become most concerned about ourselves and we exert much effort for that which is least important. Since this attainment of perfection involves great effort and much time, we forget about others and use our time for our own concern thus erecting a wall between ourselves and others … we become insensitive to others. In other words, we flee from this world … and this is the reason why the poor continue to be damned to live a life that is really not life at all.

Once again José María Castillo speaks about the consequences of this situation: The consequences, which result from not clarifying this decisive question, are more than some might imagine. First of all, the attempt to achieve the perfection of love terminates in the perfection of selfishness. This is quite logical … the degree to which one cultivates subjectivity, to that same degree one cultivates selfishness (without a doubt this is a very refined selfishness because it is disguised in love … love of God). Second, this approach reinforces (in an incredible manner) one’s own sense of self-assuredness. In other words if people are convinced about the search for the perfection of love (the perfection of the most-perfect love) then they are equally convinced that they have taken the best path and the most secure path to attain their objective. Third, the most devastating consequence of this approach is hypocrisy … here I am referring to the fact that people so connect spirituality and virtue that they begin to present themselves as something other than what they are … they become panicked if people should ever see them as they really are. Therefore they spend much time pretending rather than being15.

The result, then, of so much effort is selfishness, pride and hypocrisy … a perfect combination that prevents the transformation of the world and of life in the world; a combination that creates an even worse situation or at the very least, leaves things as they are. Of course those who suffer the most from this situation are the poor, the marginalized and those who are beaten down by life. Yet did not Jesus expressly proclaim that the poor and the marginalized and those who are beaten down by life would have life, life in abundance … did not Jesus proclaim that the kingdom of God had come for those men and women who are poor and marginalized?

Return to the sources in order to make the gospel effective

If God is found in the poor and in the building up of God’s kingdom, then why do we attempt to maintain at all cost that which disfigures God and distorts God’s plan? This is difficult to explain but it is good to point out that we engage in such behavior, mistakenly, but nevertheless, we act in this way because we want to. In order to break with this tendency and dynamic we have to return to the theology of the synoptics because only then can we continue to make real the plan of God for humanity, a plan to give dignity to those who are treated so harshly by life. In fact, our commitment must be directed toward those who are weary and burdened because God is found in the midst of life … life with no modifying adjective, life with all its magnificence and beauty, with all its ugliness and scars; life that is common to all human beings. Here life must be understood not from the perspective that one is simply alive and not dead, but rather from the perspective of all that is implied when speaking about human life: life in its fullness, with its dignity and guarantees for a relatively secure life … a life that one is able to enjoy. This is what the kingdom of God is all about. When we do not provide these guarantees to life, when we do not desire and struggle for this kind of life for all people (and not only for those who are viewed as privileged members of society), then we give meaning to the adjectives that we use to qualify “life”.16.

When all people are able to fully rejoice in life on this earth, then those who are damned, those who are the living-dead, those who are oppressed and exploited will disappear and the kingdom of God will encompass all humanity.

Presently, biblical exegesis and theology have taken up the theme of the kingdom of God as presented in the synoptic gospels. This has presented conflicts and even though these conflicts are unfortunate, nevertheless, they are a reality. The first is that, however strange this may now seem, the discovery of the Kingdom of God as Jesus’ central concern is relatively recent, dating from within the last hundred years. In my view, this discovery is the most important for the church and for theology in many hundreds of years, with consequences that have made themselves felt in all basic theological fields (theology itself, ecclesiology, morals, pastoral teaching), not only in Christology. To demonstrate the importance of this discovery, let us ask this purely hypothetical question: Would the church’s mission, and even faith in Christ and God, be the same if Jesus, even having been raised by the Father and been proclaimed dogmatically as true God and true man, had not proclaimed the Kingdom of God’? The answer is obviously No. And the recent history of the church confirms this. There can be no doubt that faith in Christ and the church’s mission are different now — at least in principle — from what they were in previous centuries, and that this change, revolving round the church’s new relation to the world, is seen as an improvement, as a faith and mission more in accordance with Christianity. The theological presuppositions of this change and improvement are based on Vatican II and Medellin, on the Kingdom of God moving the church to turn to the world.17

Theology, or at least serious, profound theology, theology that is committed to the human person and the world, recognizes that the proclamation of the kingdom and the building up of the kingdom (as an imminent reality) was central to Jesus’ message. Thus we come to understand that Jesus did not preach about himself but rather he proclaimed the presence of God … the saving presence of God and Jesus proclaimed this through his words and works. We are grateful for the fact that today this perspective is accepted by all, or almost all, theologians: it is generally recognized today in Christology that Jesus did not preach himself, but the Kingdom of God, and this point brings together theologians who differ on others: K. Rahner, W. Pannenberg, J. Moltmann, W. Kasper, H. Küng, J.I. González Faus, etc.18.

The immediate consequence of this new position is the constant and urgent concern among Christians to contribute to the consolidation and the extension of the kingdom of God that was inaugurated in Christ, with Christ, and by Christ. This is, indeed, a recent concern, but not a new concern. As Vincentians we know that Vincent de Paul was convinced about this reality in the very depths of his being and acted in accord with this line of reasoning in order to make the gospel effective. Why have his children not continued to be pioneers in this mission?

Vincent expressed this mission with the well-known phrase: to make the gospel of Jesus Christ effective (CCD:XII:75). Therefore, to make the gospel of Jesus Christ effective means that we make real (in the same way as Jesus did) the plan of God for humanity, a plan that is expressed very clearly in the good news, namely, the kingdom of God is among us. The kingdom of God consists of the transformation of history from the perspective of love, love that is translated into service; love that is translated into solidarity with those most in need. This solidarity with those in need is one of the challenges for humankind and one of the most challenging demands for every follower of Jesus of Nazareth. This is a truth that today is wholly accepted. Today it is generally accepted that the kingdom of God cannot be interpreted as the termination of history (an eschatological event) but rather it must be viewed as the transformation of history19.

This transformation will be brought about not by providing some form of help but by a love that is incarnated and expressed by solidarity, a love that is liberating, a love that commits us to people. The real difference that exists between a love that saves and assistance that humiliates is explained by José María Castillo: Some time ago a person asked me: Do you want to help me or do you want to love me? I did not know how to respond. In everyday life many people are will “to help” but there are few people willing “to love”. We must remember that the helping relationship is asymmetrical, that is, the one who helps is on a superior level to the one who is being helped … and that is a problem. How difficult and humiliating for those persons who have to say that they depend on “the help” that is extended to them, on “the help” that they receive. To depend on the help of another is to live in a situation of constant humiliation. The majority of people (those who are not depraved or cruel), if they are sincere, will say that they do not need “help” but they do need affection. An affectionate relationship is one of equals. Furthermore, such a relationship is also reciprocal: when two people care for one another, they both give and they both receive. Thus we see that in the helping relationship the one who provides the help is dominant (I can help to the degree that I want to help), while in an affectionate relationship, we never know where we will be led. It was this affectionate relationship that led Jesus to his death. From the moment that Jesus established this profound relationship with people (a relationship that welled up from Jesus’ interior), there were many ways in which this relationship could have ended. We know, however, how all of this did end … and that is why so many people are afraid to love … afraid to allow themselves to be loved20.

Love-affection will transform history and it is love-affection that will bring us to a situation of friendship in which we commit ourselves to others, to the disinherited and those who are treated unjustly by life.

It was this same love, Jesus’ profound love for people, that led him to proclaim the arrival of the kingdom of God and to reveal that reality through his activity. We can find proof of this fact on every page of the gospel. If we look at the gospel of Mark, for example, we see that at the beginning of the gospel we are presented with a series of events that clarify the intention of the writer, the intention of the evangelist and they also highlight the primary and the most important activity of Jesus. In the beginning of Mark’s gospel Jesus cures a demoniac in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-27; 6:12-13; 16:17-18); cures Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:3-310 and many other people (Mark 1:34); Jesus cleanses a leper (Mark 1:40-45), heals a paralytic (Mark 2:1-12), calls the tax collector Levi and eats with publicans and sinners (Mark 2:13-17), enters into a discussion on fasting (Mark 2:18-22) and finally presents the problem of Sabbath observance (Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6). All of these events have a common thread, namely, the defense of life and the dignity of life, which became a primary task that enabled Jesus to fulfill his mission. There is a common thread, a common denominator in the eight events that Mark narrates after introducing and summarizing Jesus’ task as the proclamation of the kingdom of God. The common thread and/or denominator is life … the defense of life and the enjoyment of life are truly decisive for Jesus. With the narration of these events Mark wants to express that which is also affirmed by Matthew and Luke: the kingdom becomes present and is realized when life is defended and life’s potential is actualized21.

The defense of life, the actualization of life’s potential, restoring dignity to life … this was the activity that Jesus engaged in as he revealed the arrival of the kingdom of God. If this was Jesus’ task and primary mission, then this must be the same task and mission for his followers. Jesus’ followers must be the primary defenders of life as well as the defenders of the dignity of life because it is in this way that they will be able to restore life to those persons who have been robbed of life. To do this is to make the gospel effective. To learn from Jesus through the synoptic accounts is to return to the true sources where one can imbibe the newness of the message of the kingdom of God. An undignified life, as well as the slavery and oppression in which so many people find themselves are realities that cry out for a solution. In light of this, what are the synoptic accounts telling us about Jesus’ activity? The gospel writers are telling us that Jesus’ teaching and activity, which alleviated human suffering, responded to the felt needs of those who listened to him and of those who benefited from what he did on behalf of those less fortunate members of society. That is very clear22.

Those people understood this … they understood this because Jesus “spoke” through his actions and those actions responded to the felt needs of people. Are our words and actions understood with the same precision and do they respond to the problems that people must confront?

Jesus not only went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38) but he also freed people from the chains that prevented them from living a dignified life (Mark 1:40-45). Jesus restored many people to health and also restored dignity to those people who had been robbed of this dignity by society and/or religion and/or unjust social situations23. Jesus, from the very beginning of his public ministry, spoke about the kingdom of God and making the kingdom effective. In other words, Jesus dedicated his life to giving life to others, to healing those who were infirm and afflicted with various ailments … Jesus restored dignity to peoples life and he also called together some other people to follow him and learn from him … these individuals were then sent forth to continue to build up the kingdom of God (Mark 3:13-15), to give life to other (from the perspective of love) and to hand over and sacrifice their own life. Therefore, the following of Jesus can only be understood when it is interpreted from the perspective of the kingdom of God and interpreted as a response to the demands and the meaning of the kingdom of God24. Since the kingdom of God involves giving life to people and healing people of their infirmities and afflictions and restoring dignity to people, we must dedicate ourselves whole-heartedly to this task because this will enable us to make the gospel effective.

  1. José María Castillo, op.cit., p. 63-64. In order to corroborate his affirmations the author makes reference to G. Vermes and his work La religion de Jesús el judío, Madrid, 1995, pp. 171 and 178.
  2. Ibid., p. 65.
  3. Ibid., pp. 70-71
  4. Ibid., p. 67-68
  5. Ibid., p. 67.
  6. Ibid., p. 472.
  7. CCD:I:112; cf., CCD:XI:164; XII:71-82. Vincent expressed this idea about people being damned in the context of Christianity as it was being lived at that time. We read: You must make it understood that the poor are being damned for want of knowing the things necessary for salvation, and for lack of confession. With those words Vincent began a letter addressed to Francois du Coudray, a priest of the Mission who was ministering in Rome. According to Vincent, this negative situation in which the poor, living in the countryside, found themselves … this situation was caused by priests who did not provide these people with either spiritual or material assistance. As a result one of Vincent’s great concerns (and a concern of many of his contemporaries) was the reform of the clergy and providing future priests with an adequate formation. In the present day context could we not understand this phrase, the poor are being damned, to mean that the poor have not been freed from their situation of enslavement and as a result are not able to live with dignity? I am inclined to think that yes, we ought to understand Vincent’s words in that manner.
  8. Ibid., p. 324
  9. Ibid., p. 325.
  10. Ibid., p. 329.
  11. Ibid., p. 337-338.
  12. Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, Friday, Twenty-Second Week in Ordinary Time, Catholic Book Publishing Co., New York, 1975, Volume IV, p. 210-212.
  13. J. Sobrino, op.cit., p.14.
  14. Ibid., p. 16-17.
  15. J.M. Castillo, op.cit., 367-368.
  16. Ibid., p. 469-470
  17. Sobrino, op.cit., p. 105.
  18. Ibid, note #10, p. 280.
  19. J.M. Castillo, op.cit., p. 148
  20. Ibid., p. 242-243.
  21. Ibid., p. 81-87
  22. Ibid., p. 196-197.
  23. Ibid., p. 90.
  24. Ibid. P. 218.

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