If you think the Good News of Jesus, presented in the gospels, is about getting to heaven, your not only missing the point, your misreading the texts.– N.T. Wright
THE GOOD NEWS
The term Good News (evangelium) is practically ubiquitous and relates to the nature of Jesus’ teachings. Given the term’s centrality, it’s fair to ask what exactly the content of this good news is? Not surprisingly, there are multiple versions.
Atonement theology, especially the theory of substitutionary atonement, the Protestant Reformation’s focus on individual salvation, and the Evangelical reduction of Christianity to various formulations of the Four Spiritual Laws have rendered the meaning of the Good News along the following lines:
All humans are sinners. Sin separates us from God. Our sins merit Hell as our eternal destination according to God’s justice. God, in his goodness, sent Jesus, his divine son into the world to die on the cross to atone (pay for-make right) our sins. If we let Jesus into our heart and make him our personal Lord and savior, we’ll live forever in Heaven. None of our actions or works matter, we’re saved. by faith in Jesus, alone.
Oddly, the above understanding of the Good News doesn’t quite align with the gospels themselves. Yes, there are bits and pieces of the above in the texts, especially Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of John (John 3:16). But the dominant themes of the gospels are not about getting to heaven, but embodying the kingdom of God, now, in this life. The kingdom or reign of God, is portrayed as an Earthly reality.
Let’s examine Jesus’ own announcement of the Good News in Luke’s Gospel:
Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. As usual, he entered the synagogue on the Sabbath day and stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him, and unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written and read:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,– Luke, Chapter 4
because He has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me
to proclaim freedom to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
That Sabbath in the Synagogue, Jesus read from a portion of Isaiah. Luke likely trimmed the reading for the sake of narrative convenience. Here’s a fuller version that Jesus likely read:
The Spirit of the Lord God is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of our God’s vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair.
They will rebuild the ancient ruins; they will restore the former devastations; they will renew the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For I Yahweh love justice; I hate robbery and injustice; I will faithfully reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations, and their posterity among the peoples. All who see them will recognize that they are a people the Lord has blessed.
– Isaiah 61
While today’s common, evangelical rendering of the Good News isn’t a contradiction of Jesus’ application of Isaiah, it certainly seems off the mark. Even a cursory reading of the above shows that the main message isn’t individual salvation (going to heaven) because of substitutionary atonement (Jesus died for your sins.)
Reading the selection from Isaiah it’s hard not to notice the practical, social, economic, and relational concerns. The Good News seems to be about a more just, fair, loving world – this world – not some ethereal afterlife. Further, the gospels seem to confirm this interpretation given the practical nature of Jesus’ ministry of restoration, acceptance, inclusion, justice, food, and aid to the poor. Finally, it’s hard to imagine why early Christianity spread, if the message was about individual salvation – something neither Jews nor Pagans worried much about and which wasn’t much a part of their conceptual framework.
Jesus-centered communities spread and grew because of the alternative lifestyle that shaped their character – a practical character of provision, acceptance, love, mutual concern, affirmation, and generosity. The Good News certainly touches on spiritual aspects – but the content is eminently practical and focused on improving people’s lives and social-communal conditions here and now.
THE GOOD NEWS FOR TODAY
What are we to make of that teaching today? What’s the take-away in our current context?
Jesus taught a way of personal transformation through love and engaging the world with justice and compassion. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the power of kenotic love – the freeing ourselves from the conditioning that keeps us from being a blessing to all the families of the earth, human and otherwise.
Jesus did NOT teach very much about getting to heaven, being good boys and girls so Santa-god will give us gifts, moral perfectionism, controlling your neighbor, tribalism, anyone’s or any text’s infallibility. He didn’t teach a new religion, rather he seemed to teach the almost absence of religion. Other than the open table, he established no new rituals or rites, created no institutions or structures, promulgated no rules, liturgies, or offices.
The Good News was preached against the Empire. Today, we must ask ourselves what empires we struggle with. What are the forces of dehumanization facing us today? One need only reflect on our current cultures’ materialism, spirit of conformity, consumerism, militarism, greed, and selfishness to realize that we too contend with Imperial powers and must live in resistance to such, even if it costs us.
Those of us who belong to organized, structured religions should ask serious and hard questions about the role of ritual, law, rules – the legalisms, literalisms, and ceremonialism of our own communities. Jesus clearly teaches that holiness is primarily about wholeness and is not found in moralism, legalism, or literalism – that moral purity, theological finesse, or ceremonial perfection are not essential to a meaningful and valid spiritual life.
Those who claim to follow Jesus’ teachings must find ways of fostering alternative communities of love and inclusion – built on hospitality, love, and an open table – where people can find meaning and purpose for their lives, have their dignity affirmed, glean wisdom for how to live a good and full life, engage in mutual generous support, and embrace a way of life that subverts the dehumanizing cultural and social forces of the empire of our day.
The Good News is that meaning and wholeness can be found by living a life of love, mercy, and self generosity. The Good News is that we do not have to live by the rules of empire, or consumerism, or individualism, or any other ideology. The Good News is that embracing this path is a source of joy, freedom, and a real step towards personal wholeness and a better world.
All content copyrighted with all rights reserved. Gregory Gronbacher, 2021. (C)