Jesus, Revolutionary of the Poor – Review
Jesus, Revolutionary of the Poor: Matthew’s Subversive Messiah, by Mark Bredin, 2017. Cascade Books, ISBN 978 1 62564 137 3, 27 pages. RRP £23 (paperback)
This serious, challenging, complex yet very readable book begins with a quotation from Henri Nouwen, identifying Jesus’ preference for those who are marginal, acknowledging that he, like most of us, is “certainly not marginal” and asking “Have I already had my reward?”. Mark Bredin, like Nouwen himself, refuses to ignore the implications of this understanding. We are troubled and disturbed by reading Matthew’s Gospel in this light, and so we should be. The thesis of the book is that those who call themselves disciples of Jesus must measure that claim by the extent to which they “live and give unconditionally and sacrificially”. It is a deeply personal book, written primarily, he says, to himself “when I seek to align myself with God”.
From that powerful beginning, the book unfolds as a kind of map, offering new and renewed understandings of familiar themes. He writes, tellingly, of the “non-poor”, rather than of the rich, giving us no excuse to pretend the lessons do not apply to us. But the vision is a positive one, revealing a God of abundance, demonstrating goodness in a creation that contains enough for all. This contrasts with the tragically dominant view of the world as place of battle for limited resources. Our response to creation should not be greed or fear, but a recognition that poverty, in this context, is not just unfortunate but evil. Matthew’s Gospel reveals God’s wrath at the disparity between rich and poor, and the non-poor remove themselves from God by not practising justice.
A central conversation of the book explores what Matthew’s Jesus meant by “the poor”. The phrase “the poor in spirit” is understood as the poorest of the poor, those who lack not only financial resources but hope, without a helper and without a voice. Jesus does not identify himself or his disciples as being poor, but takes, as his example, a child, utterly excluded and voiceless. This was no sentimental gesture, but a revolutionary reversal. To romanticise the poor or to conflate voluntary poverty with destitution is, Bredin writes, to empty Jesus’ teaching of its vital content. The poor exist as victims of the non-poor, because the non-poor fail to recognize that what they have depends on God. Those who are weary and heavy-laden are not the poor but those who are foolishly trying to hang on to their status and possessions.
Each chapter in the book explores a theme, word or cluster of words related to the central thesis, analysing passages from Matthew’s Gospel illuminated by other biblical extracts. Each closes with a summary, a “food for thought” section, and a short prayer in traditional form. The themes include covenant, as the infrastructure and life force of creation; mercy, with healing as a practical demonstration of inclusion into society and the Torah as principles for service, with the ideal Temple as a microcosm of creation.
In conclusion, the book calls us to live with restraint and care for others. Cain’s question is answered: God indeed calls us to be our brother’s keeper.
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