It has become common for leaders in the current social justice movement to claim that their mission is consistent with the ministry and teaching of Jesus. One such preacher quoted Luke 4:18 where Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach liberty to the captive, to set free those who are oppressed.” The pastor then proclaimed, “If that ain’t social justice, I don’t know what is.”
A careful examination of Luke 4:18 demonstrates the pastor’s interpretation to be exegetically unsound – as explained by Dr. Josh Buice. Furthermore, the interpretation is not consistent with the ministry of Jesus in the greater context of Luke’s Gospel. The mission for which Jesus came was not to deliver people from unjust earthly oppression, but from spiritual poverty, blindness and bondage. His mission was to “seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). There is no better example of this than the story in Luke 12:13-21 about a man who wanted Jesus to execute justice between him and his brother.
A Demand for Earthly Justice
As Jesus was teaching, a man stood and said, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Apparently a father had died, and his two sons were fighting over what he had left behind. While the situation of family members fighting over money is nothing astounding, the timing of this man’s interruption is astonishing.
Jesus had been warning the crowds about the dangers of being unprepared for the coming judgment of God. He declared if you do not rightly fear God, your fate is to be cast into hell (12:4-7); if you do not rightly confess the Son, you will find yourself to be denied by him on judgment day (12:8-9); and if you reject the testimony of the Holy Spirit, you will be left in an unforgiven state (12:10).
At the moment Jesus announced that he would be the final judge of everyone’s eternal state, this man rose to demand that Jesus play the role of Judge Judy to adjudicate his family’s earthly estate. Jesus refused to involve himself in this civil dispute and answered, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?”
Jesus’ response did not indicate an inability to execute justice in this matter. No one would have had better insight or been more competent to render true justice in this matter. However, Jesus had not been sent by God to resolve such judicial issues. There were judges appointed by God to fulfill that vital role, but the mission of Jesus was to seek and to save the lost. Therefore, his response was not an indifference to the man’s desire for legal justice, but a concern for him to realize the potential loss of something far greater than an earthly inheritance.
A Warning of Coming Judgment
Often, what we want and what we really need are two different things. Therefore, Jesus issued a sober warning: “Take care, and be on our guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
The man believed his greatest problem was obtaining his rightful inheritance. That would make life complete. However, he desperately needed to see that his sinful condition, left unresolved, would rob him of eternal life. His real poverty was not reflected in his bank balance. Rather, he suffered from a far greater spiritual impoverishment that was revealed by his covetous heart.
Jesus knew that giving this man his inheritance would not satisfy him. So he tells the story of a man who had an abundance of possessions – enough to last him the rest of his life. He had failed to realize that his life was on loan from God, and that very night it was being called. The moment he gained it all, he ended up losing it all, including his own soul.
Exposing the Root of the Problem
In this encounter, Jesus went after the root of the problem not the fruit of the problem. The battle between these two brothers appeared to be about justly dividing an inheritance. The one man was certain he had been shortchanged by his brother. But this conflict revealed a much deeper spiritual problem, which all conflicts do (James 4:1-3).
Jesus could have easily resolved the legal side of this matter between these two brothers and justice would have been served. However, the root of the problem would have been left unsolved. If their covetous hearts remained untransformed, it would not be long until more bad fruit surfaced between these brothers.
The fruit of coveting expresses itself in many forms. This is why God commanded in Exodus 20:17 not to covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animal, or “anything that is your neighbor’s.” Money is not the only thing that reveals our covetous hearts. We covet all types of things that belong to our neighbor: age, looks, brains, talents, social status, or situation in life. The list is endless. For those two brothers in the story, it just happened to be a fight on that day over who received the larger inheritance. On another day it could have been which one got the bigger matzo ball in their Passover soup.
Jesus exposed the root of the man’s problem so that he could see his need for real spiritual transformation. The man was viewing life in all the wrong ways, which would lead to a far greater and eternal loss.
The Mission of the Church
The mission that the church has been given is to take the message of the Gospel to a lost world. Therefore, Jesus commissioned his disciples in Luke 24:46-47 with these words:
Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
The gospel addresses the root of our problem, which is our need for heart transformation through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ’s church is the only institution in this world entrusted with this message. Its mission has never been to fix the world’s social problems. Jesus gave the church “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” not the keys to City Hall.
That is not to say that the bad fruit of injustice around us does not need to be confronted. If we as Christians witness sexual abuse or the evils of racism within the church or denominational structures, we must confront that sin and seek to care for those who are entangled in the web of injustice. Our calling to be faithful gospel ambassadors does not prevent us from confronting sin, in fact, it would demand us to do so.
However, when the Church raises social reform and political methods above the gospel we will find ourselves drifting from our mission. The greatest means by which to change this world is for the church to carry out its God-given task of confronting the root of our problem and offering the only real solution – authentic gospel transformation.
History has exposed the serious danger of the church allowing social reform to interrupt its calling. Churches drifting from the mission of addressing the root of the problem in this world to the fruit of the problem have always led to spiritual disaster. Over time, they began to view the fruit of the problem as the root of the problem and the biblical gospel was replaced with a social gospel – which is no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-7).
If the church wants to follow the example of Jesus and fulfill its mission, it must use every opportunity to faithfully preach the gospel to all nations. This only happens as the church remains faithful to preach Christ crucified and call all people to repentance and faith in him. Anything else is simply mission drift.