There are many examples of the way that the modern cult of “victimhood” produces evils in today’s society. One very current instance is the trend, newly arrived in the UK from America, for black mobs to to rampage through shopping centres inspired by some idea that looting is OK if you’re in an oppressed minority group. A second is the inability of the State to deal with male gangsters with guns, newly arrived in the UK from Albania in small boats, on the basis that there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant. A third is the abject apology of the Pope for the murder and mass-graves of First Nation Canadian children in Catholic schools, for which there is not only no real evidence, but also no attempt to find it, under some vague notion that actually digging up the alleged bodies would be disrespectful to ancient traditions… whereas a witch-hunt of innocent Catholics is not. Oh, we must not forget the demonisation of women who do not want to be impregnated in prisons by “trans women with a penis,” and many other such examples.
It seems that Christians may be particularly susceptible to acquiescing in these things because of the Church’s historical, indeed apostolic, concern for the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that “Jesus favoured the marginalised,” (often with some hint that he shunned the religious or respectable). But I have a suspicion that the road from compassion to divisive Intersectionality in the churches originated from a distorted picture of Jesus (possibly even derived from Marxism, but that’s incidental) which endows him with a social partiality absent from the gospels.
For a starting point, let me cite an influential study from 1984, Bias to the Poor, whose message is summarised thus:
Christian theology provides a distinctive perspective on poverty, including an in-built ‘bias to the poor’ and a strong emphasis on a personal and collective responsibility to help those in poverty as an expression of God’s love for, and identification with, the ‘least of these’.
There could be discussion on whether this correctly identifies the referents for Jesus’s “the least of these [my brethren],” but one can immediately see how taking this seriously might eventually transmutate “the poor” into “the marginalised” and so lead to a whole raft of “affirmative action” including pushing for transsexual bishops, as well as justifying the instantiations of woke morality in my introduction. Preaching against immoral or anti-social acts might insensibly become unacceptable because seen as a violation of “Touch not my anointed,” the marginalised categories, of course, being romanticised as God’s specially favoured children.
My unease, at the time Bias to the Poor came out, about the desirability of such a “bias” came from my early years studying the Bible. Wading through the Mosaic law as a teenager, I was struck by a couple of counter-intuitive passages, given its undoubted concern for “the widow and the alien.”
You must not pervert justice; you must not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the rich; you are to judge your neighbor fairly. Leviticus 19:15
Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit. Exodus 23:2-3
I thought as a teenager that maybe I’d misread “partiality/favouritism to the poor,” and that it really meant, “against the poor.” But the translations are clear: the principle of the law is the impartiality of judgement for everybody, not a “bias to the poor.”
On reflection, it is this, rather than some white privilege or, in more traditional terms, middle-class complacency that makes me shuffle in my seat and stare at my Bible whenever a preacher tells me that Jesus preferred to spend his time with the marginalised and social outcasts. Don’t get me wrong – there is a very harsh critique of elites, both social and religious, throughout Jesus’s teaching, and he often makes it through unfavourable contrasts with the receptivity of the non-elite masses. But something very different is going on in his ministry than a “bias to the marginalised,” and I think it matters.
Such thoughts having recently impinged on my conscious mind, I decided to work through the gospels to see with exactly what kind of individuals Jesus is recorded as associating. It’s not necessarily straightforward. For example, since so many of the pericopes have to do with healing the sick or casting out demons, the sick are over-represented. But with exceptions (notably leprosy, where exclusion from the community was prescribed by God’s law) sickness has never been intrinsically stigmatic, since even kings get sick. And I’m not sure that even demonisation, of itself, led to ostracism in those days, since Jesus performed exorcisms on synagogue attenders. In any case, from modern examples I’ve heard of in Africa, demons can sometimes be considered just an irritating fact of life, like warts or migraines, in “respectable” tribal households.
The Pharisaic label of “sinner” is no more specific. In context, it does not seem to mean anything like “prostitute,” but something more general. As M. J. Wilkins writes:
From the standpoint of Jesus’s opponents a person was a sinner as long as he or she did not conform to the expectations of the sect. From the standpoint of Jesus, a person was a sinner as long as he or she remained opposed to the will of God.”
And so when Matthew is called, Jesus is invited to a house full of “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax-collectors were self-employed quislings of the Romans and reasonably well-to-do, and so unlikely to socialise with tramps or whores. “Sinners” here must mean something else. Despised by the populace publicans may have been, but then so are politicians, and they are scarcely “the marginalised.”
And so I’ve divided my list of approximately 68 personal encounters of Jesus in the gospels into three broad categories:
- Those of high, or at least respectable, status with trades, houses, inheritances and so on.
- Those of clearly low or marginalised status.
- Those whose status is impossible to determine from the text.
By my estimation, 39 of the encounters mentioned are with high status individuals, including meals with Pharisees to meetings with governors and kings.
17 of the meetings are of the “uncertain” type: for example, the healing of a blind man in the crowd might involve a beggar, or a retired merchant. The Samaritan woman at the well may have been sexually immoral, but she had sufficient social status to mobilise the townspeople to hear Jesus.
Only 12 of my cases could be definitely attributed to outcasts, and many of these are because of severe demonisation, or leprosy leading to begging, rather than to culturally unacceptable lifestyles. In some cases the context only offers indirect clues: the woman taken in adultery must surely have been of low status in order to be made a test-case whilst the man was not. Rich and well-connected women also commit adultery, but where possible it is hushed up if only to save the reputation of the family.
And so in numerical terms, if anything the gospels suggest a bias to the rich, but I’m certain that that is as much an artifact as the emphasis on the sick. What we see instead, I’m certain, is that Jesus in his public ministry was utterly indifferent to the status of his hearers, like the Mosaic law, but only cared about their response to his gospel. The key point is that he saw them all – rich, poor, sinning basely or with theological subtlety – as children of Adam. Or to be more exact, in most cases they were children of Abraham directly included in the promises and the covenant, and needing to be called back to their God from their sin.
And so when, in Luke 7, a “sinner” wipes Jesus’s feet with her hair at a meal with a Pharisee, the episode is a commentary on the contrast Luke has just drawn between “all the people,” including tax collectors, who had been baptized by John and welcomed Jesus, and the self-righteous Pharisees who had refused baptism. It seems the woman was one of these ordinary people baptized for their sins, or else had been converted as she heard Jesus speak publicly, and she sought out Jesus personally from her devotion.
If John 12 and Mark 14 are parallel passages to Luke 7, she may even have been Mary the daughter of Lazarus – the formerly wayward daughter of a respectable householder, perhaps. The Pharisee and host could be Simon the leper, who invited the resurrected local man and unexpectedly got the daughter as well. If so, the categories of “socially accepted” and “marginalised” truly would break down, Jesus’s sole criterion being the response to himself.
Jesus criticised Simon’s attitude, but spoke to his need (his words being subtly ambiguous about whether Simon was ungrateful because he hadn’t needed much forgiveness, or because he hadn’t repented at all). The woman’s need was met by her self-abasing action – Jesus said less to her than he did to Simon.
What’s the lesson in this? Not that there should not be ministries to “the poor and marginalised,” because they are all children of Adam. My career was orientated to the sick, as a doctor, not because the sick are uniquely deserving of ministry, but simply because that was my vocation. Those who minister Christ patiently to the true “flotsam and jetson” of our society are to be both commended and supported by the churches. And the churches, and all of us therein, should welcome and love as brehren all those who come to worship with us, regardless of social status, former lifestyle, or trivialities like clothes and social graces. We are all redeemed children of Adam. And we may well need to apply Jesus’s critique of the religious for their false judgements to ourselves.
Yet even so, the story of the woman who washed Jesus’s feet reminds me of what I heard from a missionary not long ago (and mentioned here). After decades of “friendship evangelism” the mission team had many friends but few disciples, until they changed strategy and preached a more challenging message to those they met, calling for people to respond to Christ and pass on the word. It seems that the woman was actually saved by hearing either John the Baptist of Jesus preaching to the crowds: the personal interaction with Jesus was a fruit, not a means.
She loved much because she had (already) been forgiven much through faith – she was not forgiven because she made friends with Jesus.