First, let me start by saying that I think that the gospel is not “you’re a sinner, damned to hell unless you ‘say the sinners prayer’, let Jesus in your heart and follow him” (whatever ‘follow him’ means). I do not think Jesus will return again riding on a white horse ready to smite all who oppose him – after all, this would subvert the very message he left us with.
I believe that the gospel is that Jesus ushered in the new kingdom of peace that the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures looked forward to and that we are now able to participate in this new kingdom!
See, when the Caesar would enter into an area, he would be preceded by messengers (or apostles – same word) who would proclaim whatever ‘good news’ Caesar was bringing. The gospel of Jesus is ‘ Repent (become pensive again or have a change of mind and heart), the Kingdom of God is at hand (God’s new benevolent society is already among us).’ This message is very much in contrast to the message of the empire about the kingdom of Rome. (It could also be considered very different from the message of the christian empire – Christendom.)
I believe that the gospel is not about what we believe (this is what became of our faith in the 300’s with creedal religion – though there has always been disputes about beliefs and truth). This is not to say right belief is not important, just that is not important in order to be in/out or christian/non-christian. Belief, rather, affects who we become.
So what do I believe it mean to further the gospel?
I believe furthering the gospel is manifesting God’s kingdom here on earth. Bringing peace, justice and mercy. I believe it has to do with
a) relieving poverty (this is the real prosperity message),
b) bringing equality(to slaves, women, minorities, human sexuality, …),
c) bringing true security to humanity through passivity and respecting others and creation (resist the fear mongering, doubt/resist power, not vilifying the other, education of the other/enemy, environmental issues, and living in harmony with the rest of the world’s religions)
I believe that Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom IS a social gospel. Ah, but you say, “Jesus urged us to go into the highways and byways and compel people to come in to the banquet.”
Jesus was attending a feast at a pharisee’s house and told the host he shouldn’t invite others with the expectation of being repaid; rather he should invite the poor and those who cannot repay. On hearing Jesus, someone proclaimed “Blessed is everyone who will feast in the kingdom of God!” Jesus then gives this parable:
“A man once gave a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time for the banquet he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, because everything is now ready.’ But one after another they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going out to examine them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, and I cannot come.’ So the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the master of the household was furious and said to his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ Then the slave said, ‘Sir, what you instructed has been done, and there is still room.’ So the master said to his slave, ‘Go out to the highways and country roads and urge people to come in, so that my house will be filled. For I tell you, not one of those individuals who were invited will taste my banquet!”
So often this is understood as teaching us ‘who will go to heaven’. Is this so?
More important, I think, is the emphasis that those who were invited did not get to attend. Rather it was the poor and lowly that ended up feasting at the banquet. The very people Jesus just finished telling the host whom he should be inviting; which turns out to be the very comment that started the ball rolling for this parable to be told in the first place.
And who is invited to the Banquet table in the Kingdom of God? In this context, I cannot help but think that Jesus was referring to the very people he was feasting with, the Pharisees, the religious people of his day. So who should take warning from this parable? I find it amazing that we the religious people of today are so good at putting these warnings aside. We put ourselves in the shoes of the poor (in spirit) or the slave rather than the invited.
So I see this parable as a warning about blessed assurance. Just because we are members of God’s family, even leaders of this family as were the pharisees, does not mean that we are walking in God’s will. Not only this, but Jesus threw in social justice. Or more accurately, Jesus’ lesson on social justice is interrupted and he takes this opportunity to expand his lesson on justice to jolt the children of God into a reality where yet again he proclaims that those who are first will be last and those who are last will be first. I can’t help but think that so often the point that Jesus proclaimed to the privileged, people of God was contrary to the promise of being the head and not the tail. Jesus was saying that the tail will be the head and the head will be the tail.
The idea of going out into the highways and byways is not the point of this parable. Do I think there is a place to call people to follow Jesus? To become his disciples? To enter into the ‘Kingdom of God’? Absolutely! But I’d be the first to admit that though I am a believer in Jesus, I have faith as it were, I do little following. I understand all too well that the gate and road is narrow, that I spend way too much time on the wide road that leads to destruction. I don’t think that this narrow/wide road has anything to do with life after death, but life and destruction here and now.
Advancing the kingdom has precious little to do with praying, fasting, giving money to an institution or any other religious practice, including, dare I say, evangelism. The prophets of old continually proclaimed God’s discuss with ‘his people’ following all the rules and practices he himself laid out for them to do. Rather blessings results from doing social justice. That is what pleases God. Jesus taught us that praying for God to forgive us is ineffective; God forgives us as we forgive others. So too, though praying for relief in Haiti may change my heart towards action, to often it just satisfies a guilty conscience and allows me to feel off the hook to really help by getting my hands dirty or at the very least funding someone else to get their hands dirty.
We need to stop interpreting Jesus’ message, his gospel, with our interpretation of Paul’s gospel. Instead we need to start interpreting Paul through Jesus. What we tend to see in Paul’s gospel – a personal relationship being restored to God – is not core in Jesus’ gospel. Sure Jesus emphasizes relationship with Daddy, but this is not his message of the Kingdom of God. If anything it is a side effect, or maybe it’s a requirement. Either way, Jesus’ message is for us to turn our back (repent) on earthly Kingdoms, Rome and Religion, and to reach out our hands and grasp the Kingdom of God. By doing so we enter into the New Creation. We begin to live out the poetic prophesies we love to read about. The ones about lions and sheep lying down together. Jesus’ Kingdom of God gospel was never meant to be the message of life after death. It is a message we are to enter into now, while there is time to be a blessing, to make a difference.