Does Jesus Smash the Hierarchies?

Jeffrey Hoffman offered up a challenge recently on something that I had said on my FB page. It seemed that his argument was based on the notion that the Christian message is essentially anti-hierarchical and he referenced Jesus' use of Isaiah in his Luke four Nazareth sermon to help make his point. 

There's a lot to be unpacked in Jeffery's argument (assuming I've understood him correctly), so instead of responding to him on FB, I thought I'd break open a few of the books on my shelves, do some homework, and attempt to give him a more worth reply. 

Warning: this post be longer and more academic in tone than much of the shorter slapstick you normally find flying around Sanity's Cove. 


When we ask the general question, ‘Is Christianity anti-hierarchical?’, we have a multitude of opinions that present themselves.

Marcia Bailey, believes that Christians should oppose the existence human hierarchies, stating that, ‘Hierarchy, with structures that prescribe, restricts the movement of power and Spirit… Dismantling hierarchy opens up opportunities for God’s Spirit to work within and among us.’  Ashley Purpura writes ‘For some, the term “hierarchy” has developed negative associations… some scholars of Christianity reject the term saying it is no longer reflective of an authentic Christian ideal.’

But not everyone agrees that the Christian faith is necessarily antagonistic towards human hierarchies. Croix, a Marxist author and class historian, takes the opposite view in his landmark The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, critically stating that ‘Jesus accepted slavery as a fact of his environment’. He faults Christianity for leaving class structures fully in place and that, if there is an egalitarianism within Christianity, it ‘exists “in the sight of God” and has no relation whatever to temporal affairs.’  Catholic author and professor Prior lands not too far from Croix, writing, ‘Jesus was a great prophet, but a social reformer of very modest achievement. 

While Croix critiques Christianity for, what he sees as, failing to dismantle human hierarchy, Governor John Winthrop, in his well-known sermon in the early Seventeenth Century, ‘A Model of Christian Charity’, said that ‘God Almighty in His most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.’  He argued that social hierarchies were created for the glory of God and the good of mankind.

Purpura believes the human hierarchies can glorify God. She points out that ‘Dionysius the Aeropagite is generally recognized as having first coined the term “hierarchy” and subsequently developed it in a Christian context.  Though human hierarchies existed long before Christ, Purpura believes the Christian theology helps demonstrate that ‘power’s authoritative execution and legitimate presence should reveal divine likeness.’  She is not blind to the abuse that can happen within a human hierarchy, but argues that this happens ‘if it is held in an unchecked position that can be dangerous to its subordinates without recourse to means of mediation.’  In other words, it’s the abuse of hierarchy, not hierarchy itself, that’s to be repented of.

Luke Four

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoner
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. -Luke 4

Jeff cited Jesus’ sermon in Luke four (and his use of Isaiah’s quote) as proof that the gospel is anti-hierarchical. SO that’s what I want to look at closely.  Apologies if the tone of all this is more drawn out and academic than my useful stuff.

To be sure, some modern scholars would probably agree with Jeff and see Jesus’ initial sermon in Nazareth as anti-hierarchical. Yoder argues for a material and socio-political reading of this passage. Referring to Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah about ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ he argues that ‘for the listeners of Jesus it most likely meant… the Jubilee year, the time when the inequities accumulated through the years are to be crossed off and all God’s people will begin again at the same point.’  

Yoder seems to be interpreting this passage to go beyond merely eliminating hunger for the poor and towards an actual socio-political equality as symbolised by the Jubilee year. He believes that the Nazarene audience would have understood Jesus to be delivering an egalitarian call to the effect of ‘there is to come into Palestine the equalising impact of the sabbath year.

Rodriguez would also concur with Jeff about the sermon’s intent. He writes, ‘On that occasion, before an exclusively Jewish audience, he proclaimed a message of integral liberation with clear social and political consequences.  He believes that the location of this sermon was important, noting that Galilee was an area looked down upon in terms of religious purity. He writes that it was ‘an area populated by a mixed race that the pious of Jerusalem despised…it was precisely in a synagogue in marginal Galilee where Jesus expounded his messianic program.’ In order to launch a movement of social revolution, he argues, Jesus gives his initial address among those who would benefit most from it.

Prior points out that, ‘If we were guided only by Greek usage, the word ptōchos, which we translate ‘poor’ (pauperes), should be translated by ‘destitute’, or ‘beggar’.’  In other words, wider, Greek usage alone might lead us to think that Jesus is referring, not just to the poor, but to the poorest of the poor. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a central father of the Liberation Theology movement, understood that this is what Jesus meant by the word. He writes that ‘The term poverty designates in the first place material poverty, that is, the lack of economic goods necessary for human life worthy of the name.’  If we hold to that understanding of the term, we might sympathise with Jeff’s interpretation that this is evidence of Jesus’ call to social and material egalitariansim.

Historical Interpretation
Historically, there has been much, but not uniform, agreement that the reference to ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ is necessarily about the year of Jubilee as prescribed in the Pentateuch―one of the foundational understandings important to establishing Yoder’s interpretation of the text as a call for socio-economic egalitarianism. John Wesley believed it was ‘Plainly alluding to the year of jubilee, when all, both debtors and servants, were set free.’  The German Reformer Johannes Brez agrees that ‘The prophet alludes to the year of Jubilee, of which mention is made by Moses.’

Calvin, however, seems non-committal. Of the idea that it refers to the Jubilee he merely comments that ‘I have no objection to that view. But it is proper to observe that…[He] makes the time of redemption to depend on the purpose, or good pleasure, of God.  Cyril of Alexandria, a 5th Century Church Father, was one who rather understood that ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’s Favour’ to be so called because it represents our new relationship before God.’ He writes that ‘It signifies the joyful tidings of his own advent…For that was the acceptable year in which Christ was crucified on our behalf, because we were then made acceptable to God the Father.’ 

It is worth noting, even when the connection with Jubilee has been made, that it has not always been understood that this meant that Christ’s sermon was about a mission of socio-economic levelling. Brenz (cited above) who did see Luke 4.19 (and therefore Isaiah 61.2) as a reference to Jubilee goes on to write ‘as to the external observation of the year of Jubilee according to the law of Moses, we have nothing to do with that, but only with the matter which is signified by the year of Jubilee. This “spiritual” Jubilee began first when Christ started preaching the gospel and continued not for a year but forever. 

Brenz’s position seems to be that the Mosaic Jubilee as something akin to a type, foreshadowing the true Jubilee that came into the world through Christ. Wesley, who also saw in Luke four a reference to the historical Jubilee, like Brenz also understood it to have spiritual fulfilment in Christ. He writes, ‘in comparing the spiritual state of men to the miserable state of those captives, who are not only cast into prison, but, like Zedekiah, had their eyes put out, and were laden and bruised with chains of iron.’

And it is not just Brenz and Wesley. Calvin also sees these descriptions of oppression, blindness, and poverty to refer to all those outside of Christ. But inside of Christ he comments that ‘God cheers us by his life-giving light, to rescue us from the deep abyss of death, and to restore us…we cannot enjoy those benefits which Christ bestows, in any other manner, then by being humbled under a deep conviction of our distresses, and by coming, as hungry souls.’ 

Such thinking has broad support in the ancient church’s hermeneutical history. Origen, who would’ve been well aware of the common Greek usage of ptōchos, believed that ‘the poor’ that Jesus refers to in Luke four were the spiritual poor, namely the Gentiles. He writes that this term stands, ‘for the Gentiles, for they are indeed poor. They possess nothing at all: neither God, nor the Law, nor the prophets, nor justice and the rest of the virtues.’  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cyril takes a near identical view of what Jesus means by ‘the poor’ also seeing in it a reference to those outside of Israel. He writes that Jesus ‘preached the kingdom of heaven to the heathen. They were poor, having nothing… he preached it to those who were without spiritual riches.’ 

Basil also implies a spiritual reading when he comments on another description of those to whom Jesus proclaims as the beneficiaries of his ministry, commenting, ‘He came to heal the broken hearted, i.e. to afford a remedy to those that have their heart broken by Satan through sin, because beyond all other things sin lays prostrate the human hears.  John Chrysostom, who spoke about and worked on issues of material poverty in and around Constantinople, also sees the description of the releasing of captives as spiritual deliverance in Christ writing, ‘the worst captivity is that of the mind, of which he here speaks. For sin exercises the worst of all tyrannies, commanding to do evil, and destroying them that obey it. From this prison of the soul Christ lets us free.’ 

Historically, though many teachers have seen an allusion to Jubilee, there seems to be little evidence to support the interpretation that Jeff suggests and that some Egalitarian and all Liberation Theologians propose. There seems little historic affirmation to support the interpretation of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth to be a proclamation that he was going to immediately work to dismantle socio-political or economic hierarchies.

Also, as I know this blog post is getting long, it would seem that if we look at Jesus’ sermon as a whole and the people’s violent reaction to it, we are left wondering how that could be consistent with and anti-hierarchical reading, unless the social hierarchy in question is religious racial purity. His audience gets mad at Jesus that for announcing that he will bring blessing to the Romansthat class of people that is richer and more politically powerful than they are. Apparently Jesus wasn’t going to topple those who were above these poor Nazarene Jews on the political, economic hierarchy; he was going to bless them. That idea infuriated their sense of justice and they tried to kill him for it.

There’s more to say, but this is long enough. My understanding of the gospel is that it transcends social hierarchies, it doesn't smash them. But developing that further would take more space than my blog or time will allow for right now. 



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